Alfred Hitchcock
Dick Cavett Show interview


date: June 8, 1972

interviewer: Dick Cavett

main topics: Jack the Ripper, fears, violence, actors

link to video: 1 2 3 4 5

Dick Cavett: Greetings, Mr. Hitchcock.

Alfred Hitchcock: How do you do? I thought that would make a very pleasant murder weapon [in the introductory sequence, Hitch took a mower out of his pocket as a joke that he just killed the host].

The mower. You think we've given you an idea?

No, you get the victim to lie on his back and then mow the hair off his chest first. Then stomp on him.

How did you acquire this turn of mind? You look like such a pussycat.

I think my mother scared me when I was 3 months old. You see, she said boo!. It gave me the hiccups and she apparently was very satisfied. All mothers do it, you know. That's how fear starts in everyone.

That's an interesting insight into psychology. I didn't realize it.

Weren't you ever booed at by your mother?

Ummm... I've been booed at ever since, not necessarily that way. You know, just looking at the incredible list of your films: 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes and Notorious, Paradine Case, Spellbound, Saboteur and Rebecca... there are many that I didn't know about. Most of us know of a Strangers on a Train, Rear Window and Trouble with Harry, Psycho, Vertigo and The Wrong Man and all of those. But you've made some very early films that are seldom ever seen. Do you have one way back there that would be a favorite?

Oh yeah. There was one called The Lodger, it was all about Jack the Ripper. You know why he... [member of the audience starts clapping and ends abruptly] somebody wants to be ripped!

In this neighbourhood, they may be but...

Well, that was the case in London in the 1890 when Jack the Ripper roamed around and he just took that knife out and slit.

There were several films made about Jack the Ripper. But yours was in...

They were all copies of the first one. I made one in 1926 when I was the boy director. Which of course I still am one.

Yes. And one of the best boy directors we have. Are you still afraid of the police?

Terrified of the police. Terrified.

Can you explain when did that begin?

I think it was when I was a child of five. My father sent me with a note to the chief of police. For a minor I must admit, a minor misdemeanor, and I was placed in a cell for five minutes. Now, psychiatrists say that if you can trace the origin of your fear, it will disappear. The whole thing is a confounded lie, because I still have it.

And it's never left you?

Never left me.

What sensation do you get when you see a police car? Do you get frightened?

I would say mild apprehension.

There are a couple of words that people need to know to understand all about you and your films, and one of them is McGuffin. Can you explain what a McGuffin is?

McGuffin you see in most films about spies. It is a thing that the spies are after. In the days of Rudyard Kipling, it would be the plans of the fort on a Khyber Pass, it could be the plan of an airplane engine and the plans of an atom bomb, anything you like! It's always called the thing that the characters on the screen worry about, but the audience don't care. And someone asks what is a McGuffin? It's described in the scene in an English train going to Scotland, and one man says to the other, opposite of him: "what's that package above your head there"? He answers "it's a McGuffin". And the other man says: "what is a McGuffin?" He says: "well, it's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish highlands". And the other man says "but there are no lions in the Scottish highlands". He says: "well, then that's not McGuffin!"

Thank you for clearing that out for us.

It's the thing that the spies are always after. [pause for a commercial break] May I say, I was very confused by that last commercial.

Well, what was it?

Well, it was a commercial for a laxative and I wonder why all those people doing sports and all that sort of thing, well they wouldn't need a laxative after such vigorous movement all over the place.

I can imagine. Does that give you an idea for another film?

Well, I may have and it's rather astonishing.

Let me ask you something that ties in a bit with that. You did a movie that would have seemed impossible because some of the actors had to be birds, in fact a great deal of them. I've always wondered if you had to spread newspapers everywhere when making that film. It seems like such an enormous problem to take on, to do a film where you needed birds. Did you ever think that you should turn back, that it's always gonna be too hard?

No, no, no, because I purposely didn't advice technical department what would be necessary. Otherwise, they would have said: "impossible!" But I think about 3200 birds were trained and the ravens were the cleverest.

They're very smart.

Very smart, indeed.

What was the hardest thing to get the birds to do in that film?

I don't think anything was really difficult, you know? The seagulls were the most vicious. The hardest thing was trying to persuade them not to be so vicious!

What psychology did you use with the seagulls?

Bird seed.

There was one scene where the birds swooped down and took a piece of a forehead out of one of your actresses.

Out of a girl? Well, if I can give away a trade secret...

Please do.

That's what we call a double-printing job. The girl was sat in a boat with the tube of compressed air. It ran up her back into her hair and then at crucial point a jet of air was blown, which blew her hair up. Then, on a separate film, we took a picture of a seagull sweeping down. And then the two were put together.

It's fine to know how these things work. It's amazing, you've accomplished... I hope we can get to talk more about them during the evening. Mr Hitchcock, let me ask you a little bit about your thoughts about the violence on the screen and all that. It's interesting because that clip we showed from Psycho was from the from a film that was edited quite a bit when it was shown on Prime-time television. Some moments of scenes were considered too awful to show. How do you feel about that?

Well, there's more permissiveness today, but don't forget that was ten years ago. Things were quite different then.

You think if they show Psycho now, they would be able to show every scene?

Oh, I think so without a question, sure.

Really? I doubt that, because they were quite worried that we were showing tonight from that...

Well, it is a different approach for the television than there is for the movies.

Oh yes, I meant on television.

For television, the same conditions apply today. But I'm surprised that in English television when I was there, they allowed a certain amount of nudity.

Complete nudity?

Yes. Considering the weather over there, I'm surprised. Somebody asked me the other day how long I think the nudity would last on the screen. And I... if you wouldn't think me too vulgar in saying, I said: all breasts sag eventually.

Do you ever search to prove that?

No, I'm afraid I don't.

In that scene from Psycho, you had a curious effect that seemed like that ball was almost floating back, which added to the horror of it a bit. It was like a dream and it seemed to be almost in slow motion a bit as it fell backwards. I realized the second time I saw it that that was where part of a fright came from.

Well, the point is, if a person falls, they are fighting the fall. They don't just drop back, you know? When you're falling back, there is an effort to prevent it, and I think you get that effect there.

But didn't you do something special in the shooting of that?

Oh, it was a double-printed thing. He didn't fall down a single stair - he sat in a very comfortable chair and just laid back. We made the background first to move him down.

I'd love to know how you did all those things.

That's why I ask how actors earn their money, you see? By not having to do the things they're supposed to do.

You called actors cattle once in your career and it offended a few of them.

I think at the time... I was accused of calling actors cattle and I said that I would never say such an unfeeling, rude thing about actors at all. What I probably said was that all actors should be treated like cattle.

I see, and you went on to do that.

In a nice way, of course.

Yes. Fed them at the right hours and brush them occasionally. One actress got you for that somehow, when she once had some cattle brought to the set.

That was the famous Carole Lombard, yes. And she was a woman with a great sense of humor. And I arrived on the set the first day of shooting and she had a (?) built, and in it were three live cows with the names of the actors on big discs around their necks.

In finding out some of the things you've done, reading about them at all, it's amazing how much is the director's work and how little the actors are needed. In a way... there is a devastating example you gave of a Russian filmmaker [Vsevolod] Pudovkin...

To interrupt you for a moment, Walt Disney had the right idea: if he didn't like the actors, he tore them up! The power of film, how strong film can be... well, I did the production section for Encyclopedia Britannica, for the last edition. And in it, I described a scene such as in a picture Rear Window, where you had James Stewart, a close-up of him, and he looks, you see, and you cut... let's say for example, a woman nursing a baby. Now you go back to mr Stewart and he smiles. So what have you demonstrated? That he is a nice, benevolent gentleman. Now, take the middle piece of film away, he looks and sees, now cut to a girl in a bikini. And he smiles. Now he is a dirty old man!

And it's the exact same smile!

Exact same smile, the same look, the subject has changed.

And you said, there's an even more dramatic example, that was the Russian filmmaker who shot an actor's face and then a dead baby, then the actor's face and then a ball of soup, then the actor's face, and in each case it was the same shot of the actors face, but then in one there seemed to be sorrow, then the other seemed to be hunger...

Quite true, yes.

So you can get an Academy Award performance for an actor with only one shot.

Well, I did it years ago with an actress and I found her very difficult, and I did all the close-ups and said: look here, look there, look down, look across, move around.

...then go home!

And... then you may go home! Well, I brought in another actress and I used her hands, and she was cutting meat and it was prelude to a murder scene.

And you just put everything around it.

I used her hands only, yes.

Is there a scene you wouldn't do over again, are you sorry you did some? I think of one specifically, the boy with the bomb.

Well, that was because I made a terrible mistake of having the boy carry a bomb across the city. The audience knew it was a bomb, and I built it up and up and up until the various clogs and all the hold-ups. And you knew it's gonna go off at one o'clock, but I let the clock go one minute past one, two minutes, and worked the audience up. And then I let the bomb go off. And it was on a bus and it blew the whole thing completely. I remember I was at the press when a woman critic came up with both clenched fists, and she said: how dare you do a thing like that? Even a hard-boiled critic was taken away by the whole thing. I made the mistake of not relieving them at the end of the suspense. In other words, if you put an audience through a series of events like that, you must relieve it, the bomb must be found and quickly thrown out of the window. It goes off right there and the audience are relieved.

And if you had to do it all over again...

I'd never let the bomb go off.

What would you do with the rest of the movie?

Well, that wouldn't be the last scene in the movie.

No, that's true. But was it also because a child was killed in the film, because they thought it was too brutal?

No, I don't think that's the reason. I think the reason is that an audience gets worked up and they need relief. For example, if anybody goes on a roller coaster, they scream, it goes down a big dig and up and around and they scream all the time, but all get off giggling. Or you go to the midway and you pay money to go into the haunted house. Skeletons jump up, floor does all kinds of things, but they always come off giggling. Now, the question: why do people pay money to be scared?

Do you know the answer?

Of course not. I earn my living doing this. What would my starving wife and child do without this?

Or your starving self. By the way, I should explain, there is always somebody who misunderstands - the child was not killed in the making of the movie, it was the scene itself. You always have appeared in your films somewhere. I know that became a problem for you, because you've found that people watched for it, so you had to do it early in the film to get out of the way after it became known. In Lifeboat, the whole cast was out at sea in a lifeboat and there was no way, unless you pedaled past on one of those machines, you could do it.

Or swam pass as a whale, you mean, spouting. No, in that film I had to appear in an ad and it was during the time I was taking some weight off. I know it sounds like some kind of a lie, but I was... but it always gets back on. And I appeared on an ad called 'Reduco'. And it was read by William Bendix and the ad showed me before and after.

So you got into the film that way?

I got into the film.

Were those actors miserable in that lifeboat?

Some of them were. Of course, we had the famous Tallulah Bankhead and one of the young ladies in the boat had great ambitions to become a film star and I discovered that she was stuffing Cleanex into her brassiere to build herself up. And one day, she said to me: oh, mr Hitchcock, which do you think is my best side? And I said: you're sitting on it, my dear!

And that girl today, well... I guess we won't ask.

Probably still sitting on it.

They say that, some people who are offended by the shocking things in your films, or the scary things. And yet lately, they've began to say that what seemed depraved to some of the earlier critics has become a commonplace today and that you were really ahead of your time. Does that mean anything to you? Do you believe that?

No, it means I gotta get more ahead than ever. In other words, avoid the cliche.

Where will you go?

I don't know.

Where's the fun in it for you?

What is funny? Making a picture like Psycho. That's hilarious to me. It has to be. If we're designing the film, I'm sitting with the writer and you say: "wouldn't it be fun to kill them this way?" and later you say: ""well, this scene will make them scream. So you do it with sort of... lushness of enjoyment. And no different to the man who's making the roller coaster. He knows he'll get them scream eventually. And there's that fine line between fear and what is comic. You see, the audience have this tremendous fear when they go on the roller coaster and when they get off. they're laughing, they've recovered. And there is a fine line between tragedy and comedy. For example, how often have you seen years ago an old fashion scene of the man walking toward the open manhole cover. And of course he has to wear a top hat because that's dignity, you see? That's the symbol of dignity. And you watch him and he walks, he's reading a paper and suddenly disappears down the hole! And everybody rolls with laughter! But suppose you'd take a second look and look down the hole. His head is cut, he's bleeding, and you sent for an ambulance, his wife rushes to the hospital. Think how ashamed that audience is that they laughed in the first place. And yet they do. Slipping on the banana skin is very painful.

We have one weirdo who's still laughing.

So there's a streak of cruelty among everyone.

Sure. And you get yours out by making movies.

Well... it's not exactly cruelty, it's a kind of enjoyment in knowing that they will enjoy themselves in that peculiar way at that time.

That's right. People will submit themselves to a good scare.

Oh, no question. I call it dipping their toe in the cold waters of fear.

I can't think of anyone who could say it better. What I was wondering earlier is what part you look forward most when you're making a film. Is it the actual shooting of a film, is it the writing...

Not the shooting. The working it out and getting it all down and finished. And the creative thing is done. And I wish I hadn't got to go any further. I'd rather not make a film.

Then having to go into the studio is not the fun part for you, seeing it work out...

No, because you then start to deal with the actors then!

Oh, it's those actors.

That necessary evil.

I know that you're pretty serious about that. In an interview Truffaut did with you, on several times you looked back on your films and said: I just wasn't satisfied with her and so and so, I wish I could have gotten him for the part. Have you heard from any of those people, or did they know when they were working for you that you weren't quite satisfied with them?

Well, they have to be when you say to them: "that will be all for today" and they go and see another man playing their part.

[Laughter] Yeah, I guess that would... but I mean some of the ones that have stayed... well, nevermind. But there were some cases where now you could have gotten actors that wouldn't do it then. Was it... Gary Cooper that you wanted for a part and scary films were considered sort of third rate in those days.

Yes, I wanted him for Foreign Correspondent, yes.

And later he said: I wish I had made that. But it was sort of beneath the dignity of certain stars.

I don't think they could visualize what the film was gonna be about, you see?

I think it's in Foreign Correspondent where you have a thing you said you were surprised that noone ever asked you how you did it, or technical people didn't, because...

Oh, that was a scene where an airplane... a passenger clipper, do you remember the clippers? It was being shot at during the war, and was diving towards the ocean. We were in the cockpit with a pilot and copilot, and without any cuts at all, the plane dives right to the ocean, hits the water and the water comes in from the ocean over the pilot and copilot, and possibly the camera! And not a soul questioned it and didn't ask what happened to the camera crew, or anything. Did they all drown and we'll never see them again? They just took it for granted.

Maybe knowing you they thought they probably did.

Maybe, yeah.

Mr Hitchcock, how did you manage to get a shot where the view inside the cockpit went all the way down to the ocean and water came in.

Very simple. You heard of a rear projection.

Yeah, when they show a picture on the back of a screen.

Yeah, they show a picture on the back and you play the scene in front of the screen. Well, I had a test pilot go out of Santa Monica and dive with the camera in the front of the plane toward the ocean and pull out at the last minute. Then I had six screens made, eight feet wide, six feet high, built the cockpit, put the pilots in, and then the screen made of rice paper. Behind the screen were two, what we call dump tanks. These tanks are filled with 27 thousand gallons of water each. And all I had to do was press a button. And as I looked at the screen, the moment we touched the water, I pressed the button and the water shot right through the screen and all the water came in over the pilots. Very simple.

You get a hand for solving that problem. The screen that was being projected on of the ocean coming up then actually was the screen that burst and the water came up. You've done a lot of things like this and I think that would be part of the fun, would be solving those undoable problems. Can you give away any secrets of your theory of scaring people? The Psycho shower scene made many women afraid to take a shower in a house they were alone for years, even some to this day.

Oh, I had a letter from the man who said: my daughter, after she saw the French film Diabolique would never take a tub anymore, because it had a scene of a man coming out of a tub and taking his eyes out. And after seeing that, she'd never take a tub. Now, having seen Psycho, she won't take a shower! As a result, she's very unpleasant to be around! I relied: send her to the dry cleaners.

I was wondering what's your theory, how to make a scene as scary as you did there. Without getting too technical, but a lot of film students are watching, because there are a lot of them around the country and colleges... the average movie, I think is made up of about 600 separate shots...

Well, the shower scene in Psycho, the knife never touched the body at all. It was just this fast cutting from one thing to another, the night coming at the camera and so forth. Actually, the property people of the studio made me a lovely torso with pink rubber, and it was all tubed inside with blood. So if you took a knife and stabbed this rubber torso, blood would spurt out immediately. But I never used it. It was all unnecessary because the cutting of a knife, of a girl's face, feet and everything was so rapid that it was 78 separate pieces of film in 45 seconds.

So this fear came from the putting together... and not anything...

Yes, sure. Anything that you can involve an audience so close is much better than seeing it from a distance. I think there's nothing more boring than a bar brawl in a western. What do they do? Break up a lot of furniture and a lot of bottles on the shelf. But if you took the audience right in and got an impression of a face, a hand, an arm, a feet and everything, you'd involve an audience much closer with it.

I've read somewhere, you've made a remark that romantic man and romantic lady leading roles, people who play those inevitably get very much in love with each other by the time the film gets done.

That's because one hears of so many multiple marriages, you know, women who had four husbands and vice versa, and I think it's really because they meet in a love scene in a picture and they bring it to life after six o'clock, in the dressing room preferably.

Have you ever caught them doing this?

No, not myself, because I like to be home at six o'clock. But they apparently don't! That's one of the reasons why you find multiple marriages in Hollywood. You know, every man has been married two, or three times. That's because he meets a different woman every time a film comes along!

Are you suggesting that Grace Kelly was in love with James Stewart, and then with Cary Grant, and then with... who else was there... Ray Milland...

Well, I wouldn't particularise on it because I'm generalising, and he's not an army man either.


General Ising.

You like all kinds of hard, don't you? Bad puns and...

No, not bad puns. Puns are the highest forms of literature.

There are those who would agree with you. I think I'm one of those, actually. Puns are good.