Guillermo del Toro Studio Q interview
about Alfred Hitchcock and his works


date: 2012

interviewer: Jian

main topics: importance, women in Hitchcock movies, categorizing

link to video: Youtube

I understand that these Hitchcock lectures are something you've wanted to do for a long time. Why is it so important that you want to share it in such a public way?

He was a very formative filmmaker for me when I was very very young. I wrote a book on him when I was 23. It was published by the University of Guadalajara. I used to teach film language for 5 years and I constantly referred to Hitchcock, because he is not only very accessible and is somebody that you can easily see the emotional effect his movies and scenes have in people, but also he is somebody that you are not intimidated by as a young filmmaker. He seems to be accessible. The more you know about him, actually, the more you realize how absolutely insurmountable it would be to master the technique, as he did. But at first, it seems approachable, because he was very popular.

Not as intimidating in terms of the filmwork, or in terms of the man?

Both. Hitchcock was in TV, in magazines, in books, he seemed to be approachable. And then, his work was eminently popular. A lot of people made the mistake of thinking that if it's a popular work, it seems more approachable. But the more you delve into his work, the more you realize how precise and intricate his work is.

I want to delve into that work, and the precise nature of it that you deconstruct. But first, in sort of a blanket way: where do you think Hitchcock ranks in the history of cinema? Where do you put his significance?

I think he belongs to the generation of incredibly important filmmakers. Carol Reed, Jack Clayton, David Lean - these are masters of work. But Hitchcock was without a doubt one of the ten, or three, or the most influential filmmaker of all times, because Hitchcock, again, influenced everybody that uses the film language in one form, or the other. Especially those that approach film in a popular way, like they try to reach an audience. You can speak about Spielberg, Dario Argento, Brian de Palma, or you can go to (?), or Truffaut. He encompasses a lot of type of filmmakers that were influenced by his work.

You mentioned David Lean. When you say those words, I think of epics. Do you think Hitchcock made epics?

No, not at all. Hitchcock belongs to that generation, but not necessarily shares the same concerns. I think that Lean did both epics and more intimate stories, "Brief Encounter" and so forth. But also, at some point Lean can become really gothic. Those are the moments I really cherish, like in "Great Expectations" - or particularly creepy passages of that movie. One of the things I'm going to talk about is about the parallels between Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Dickens, which is a curious thing.

Alright, give us a preview.

They share a lot of characteristics. They are guys that led very secluded lives, but were able to create entire fictional worlds. They were socially introverts, but they were also great creators of the female characters - not necessary keeping with today's female standards of what a great female character is, but nevertheless at least very preoccupied by that. They were eminently popular, deceitfully acceptable, and there were many many darker traits of their personalities that they shared. I think that when you think, for example, the first film we're gonna analyze is Notorious. It is equal part spice story and graphic romance. Once Ingrid Bergman enters that mansion, it becomes almost as gothic as Rebecca. Hitchcock was very successful in creating that gothic romance feel.

The 4 films you selected to highlight in your masterclasses: Notorious, Frenzy, Shadow of a Doubt and North by Northwest. Hitchcock is often credited with inventing the modern suspense genre. Do you believe that, and where do you see his influence today?

I think that thriller is a genre. Suspense is very hard to pinpoint. Suspense is a device, an emotional device. Hitchcock is the master of it. I think that without a doubt, he cemented a spy genre, the thriller genre. But Hitchcock is... one of his peculiarities, one of the reasons I chose these 4 films is because they are incredibly dissimilar, and yet they all bear the imprint of one man. If you think of North by Northwest, which essentially predates James Bond movies - and the best James Bond ever is Cary Grant. Or you think about Notorious, which is an incredibly elegant, beautiful, constrained picture, completely controlled. And then you think about Frenzy, which is an incredibly brutal movie for its time, frontal, raw. And this is the same filmmaker.

Are you saying that Hitchcock is, in retrospect, sometimes unfairly pigeonholed as the horror/thriller guy?

Yes, for one thing, but for example he was incredibly good at comedy. Mr and Mrs Smith, which was completely undervalued, is an amazing film.

Even North by Northwest.

His movies contain a lot of comedy. He was a man with an incredible sense of humor. Dark, but incredible sense of humor. But there's not only that. It's the fact that within, what is wonderful about an author like Hitchcock is that you think you know the man, but the flavors that reside in the repertoire of this guy vary a lot. He's not a guy that repeats himself movie by movie, and yet he's one of the filmmakers that if you know 40, or 45 of his movies, you start seeing him cannibalize himself, like repeat moments exactly almost. To give you an example: in the 39 Steps, which I think is the predecessor to North by Northwest, there is exactly a moment in which an airplane chases them through a field, that is very modest. But you can see him trying it again in North by Northwest. You have a poison glass of wine in a foreground in a scene of The Lady Vanishes, and then later you see much better executed, very polished scene in Notorious, with a poisoned cup of coffee. If you watch attentively, you can see him go: "oh, I'm gonna try this again".

And what do you make of him doing that?

Hitchcock said: repetition in an author is a style. And I agree with him. Renoir (edit: Pierre-Auguste Renoir) said it differently, he said: a man paints the same tree all his life, until he gets it right. And I think that when you think about it, you can see Woody Allen trying a gentler version of The Purple Rose of Cairo, where he tries to approach the same dark themes and crimes and misdemeanors later in Match Point.

But where is the line between that type of repetition and workshopping one's own style to get it right, as you just said, and being a one-trick pony?

It depends on the appreciation of the receiver. Art knows no arguments, it's just a matter of connection. If you connect with your work, you appreciate it, you can see that refinement. What is sad is if it's actually something devolving, when you see a person using the same thing for the far less successful result. Then it's a one-trick pony.

Could it be lazy?

It could be if you're not trying to improve it. I think that he is definitely saying... the sequence in the airplane in 39 Steps is definitely inferior to the sequence in North by Northwest, but that being said, when you see Hitchcock, I think that some of his best work is in his early period, the less known period, the English period, before he emigrates to America.

To what extent do you identify with Alfred Hitchcock personally?

Well, we have the same pant size. He was shorter, but [laughs]. Look, I'm fat, Catholic and repressed. Number one. And I dress in black. I identify with him a lot. I don't pretend to say that I'm deciphering, or remastering his style. I have a completely different sensibility, but I love how articulate he is, and when you read his interview with Truffaut, the most famous film book, I think, it's gratifying to see a filmmaker articulate about what he does. In a way, that frankly is incredibly educational. We have the old masters, like Ford, being almost willingly inarticulate, not willing to talk about it. But Welles is very articulate about his work, Hitchcock is very articulate about his work...

Can you articulate what it was that Hitchcock did that was so masterful? He's known for his great technical skill too as a filmmaker. That crop dusting sequence you talked about a couple of minutes ago in North by Northwest, where Cary Grant is being attacked by the airplane. It's harrowing and I think it's still masterful, if you watch it on Youtube. Why is a scene like that so timeless and effective?

There are filmmakers that create sequences that become text. Several scenes of Hitchcock can be used as textbook for montage, you know? For editing, for tempo, for film language. Hitchcock was advocating something which can be seen as pure cinema. He used to say that there is a power to cinema that goes beyond the screenplay, the story and the dramaturgy. And O believe, absolutely, like he did, that the great change in the advent of sound made many people start filming, essentially, plays. When the sound came, you had the silent cinema, which was almost reaching perfection. You have great films by Murnau, Dreyer, Chaplin, von Stroheim, reaching absolute perfection. And then sound comes and a lot of the talkies essentially become theater plays. And Hitchcock resented and mourned that. Even today you see a lot of... I sometime analyze one great sequence in a really bad movie more than I ever rewatch a great story in a good movie... as a filmmaker, I mean. And I think that that is important... when he's articulate and you can see it and come to conclusion: he's talking about exactly what I like.

Pure cinema... interesting. There's more to you and Hitchcock that seems similar, at least from the outside, than your pant size. Alfred Hitchcock was known for exploring the darkest reaches of the human psyche - something you're also known as a filmmaker. What is it about generating those emotions of fear and dread that appeals to you as an artist?

I think that when you grow up as an observer... you can be a child that is in the corner of the playground watching other kids play and understand the human condition at a very early age and to understand that the world is absolutely out of your control. And then you find a medium in which you can sit down amidst 500 people and elicit their reactions at the same time, there is a thrill that is, without a doubt, socially impertinent and needs somebody that is barely functional in his social life to articulate, but Hitchcock did this. I think that he derived a great pleasure out of the illusion of control that happened in the cinema. He was an incredibly shy boy, I would imagine, and he was awkward, to say the least, as a young guy.

But are there ever social costs to the fear and dread. Violent films, horror films are often criticized for exploiting human suffering for entertainment. One critic called Hitchcock's work "the cinema of cruelty".

Yeah, André Bazin. But he almost meant it as a compliment. I think that if you check out medieval Europe, way before everybody invented cinema, brutality was at least as rampant, as today.

As entertainment?

As entertainment! An even more so, in everyday life. We are not going to the gallows anymore with our kids to watch somebody hang.

But that's a good thing, isn't it?

I believe so, but we have it in our genes. We do have impulses of procreation, for hunting, gathering, territoriality, and once they are squeezed into a social environment, you get roadrage, which is an odd normality, somebody willing to kill somebody in another car that they've never met. He doesn't know his values, he doesn't know if he's a good person. Or, you get, in narrative terms, cinema or literature, and they need to articulate these primary things. They need to articulate falling in love, they need to articulate power trip, they need to articulate the essence of the human melodrama, or in the case of fear: terrifying moments. Because we need them, almost to function.

You said a moment ago that you and Hitchcock are both Catholic. You suggested that might be what drew you to horrow. How so?

Mexican Catholicism is particularly dark and gory and filled with guilt. When I was a kid, I was informed that no matter how good I was, I would go to purgatory. I was like 6, or 7. And my mother explained it in great detail. And you're gonna be there for a long long time. And you get the idea of doom and gloom. When you imagine a Catholicism in England, you get the idea, you became instantly segregated as a Catholic, growing up in London. And I think that Hitchcock experienced a very cramping feelings of guilt, whose roots were in Catholicism.

When you think about Hitchcock, and how incredibly frightening some of his scenes can be, for example The Birds, when I was seeing it in TV as a kid, it traumatized me... a lot of the most chilling and most frightening aspects of it is what's not shown by Hitchcock. You, as a filmmaker, do show a lot. Tell me about why you didn't follow in his footsteps in this regard?

I actually think that Hitchcock has a perfect balance between suggesting, but in a very graphic way. You watch The Birds and there is a very very graphic moment where he shows farmer's face without eyes, or the very graphic pecking of Tippi Hedren in the attic.

But only for a slight moment.

It is, but The Birds is one of those movies which tell you: what you see is as horrific as what you don't see. What you need is control. I think a badly suggested horror is as poor as a badly shown horror. A shown moment of horror - if it's powerful, it's as powerful as something suggested. The difference for me is in the control exercise. Hitchcock was in control. The famous Psycho shower scene, where there was no knife and body penetration, but he suggested it constantly. It has been suggested to the point of it being a very tiring exercise to go through it again, but it's without a doubt a moment of restraint. Then again, you have the murder in Torn Curtain, where it takes several minutes to kill a Russian agent. They stab him in the back, the knife breaks, they try to suffocate him... and you have a very graphic Frenzy. One of the most amusing, and at the same time horrifying scenes in Hitchcock's filmography. Villain, the murderer, tries to recuperate his cufflink and he breaks the frozen fingers of the victim one-by-one in a potato truck. He goes in, he grabs the naked body of the victim, and breaks them one by one.

You've sold me on the balancing act, it wasn't just not showing things.

There are filmmakers that do specialize in that. Hitchcock showed when he needed to show.

Let me return to something else that you said earlier. You said that his ability to depict women, which is a little more controversial than that. He's famous for casting similar actresses in his movies. So, Janet Leigh, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, the so-called icy blondes. And he's often been criticized, as you know, even by those who admire his movies, that he portrayed women either as manipulators of men, or as victims of sexually-charged violence. Some go so far as to say that Hitchcock's films are misogynist. Would you say that?

There is that school of thought, and I think that in modern times without a doubt a lot of those concerns that were valid in the 50s and 60s seem antiquated... the archetypes and the types of both heroes and female characters. When you think about it, he also portrays icy cold male characters. When you think about the movie as absolutely passionate as Notorious, one of the things that is incredibly compelling is that Cary Grant is very removed from the first hour of the film. Incredibly so, to the point when Hitchcock introduces him without showing his face, as a shadow. And I think it's very important to know that Hitchcock can be two things: a controlled master of narrative, and the other one is a man of compulsion. When Hitchcock's own impulses, when those impulses have misogynistic streak, it becomes very evident. He benefits enormously from the performers. For example, one of his least favorite actresses was Kim Novak in Vertigo. And I actually think Vertigo was much better with Novak, because she brought accessibility, warmth and that sort of tragic air to that movie that wouldn't have existed had he gone with a more controlled icy blonde that he wanted. And when you think about it, think about Ingrid Bergman who brings yes, vulnerability for sure, but incredible intelligence and complexity to the part that she plays. So, he does benefit a lot from performers that are warmer and more complex than some of the parts of the men.

I've been told that you're very passionate about Hitchcock. I think you've made that very clear in this interview. You clearly know your stuff and you are that fanboy. How do you feel about how Hitchcock is seen now? It's still a required watching for film studies, but it seems like his films aren't shown in television as much as they once were? Do you see any danger that Hitchcock's legacy may be forgotten?

I very much doubt it, and it's almost like complaining that opera is not often played in pop channels. Hitchcock now belongs to the repertoire cinemas. It needs to be seeked to be found, because of modernity and the next movie every week, the next masterpiece of 2013 needs to be promoted and talked about, but I think that his legacy is incredibly vital and I think that other filmmakers are much more endangered. I love Lubitsch, I love Buster Keaton, I love so many that seem to not be as popular as required studies in film schools. Preston Sturges, Carol Reed... Reed for me is one of the most precise and exciting filmmakers of the era, and he's talked about in lesser terms as Lean and Hitchcock.

When I think of myself as a fanboy, it's David Bowie and I talk about him on the air a lot. So, sometimes people say: "I missed the whole Bowie thing. What album should I start with?" If there were people listening, or watching right now, who don't have the Hitchcock experience down, and you are the fanboy that you are, where do you say to start with Hitchcock?

It's very hard. What is funny is that Hitchcock will eventually find you. If you are a lover of cinema, sooner or later you will encounter Alfred Hitchcock. The first movie that I saw of Hitchcock, a one which almost made me realize what director did was one of his lesser known films, I Confess. I saw it on TV, on a bright red Philco in my parents' house and it spoke so deeply about Catholic faith and controlled emotions. It really hooked me up. That's an instance, I think, where Hitchcock benefitted from a performance that he didn't like, of Montgomery Clift, who was completely method (edit: a method actor) and Hitchcock resented that. But Clift brings incredible complexity. That and The Birds were the first two Hitchcock films that I saw on TV.