Alfred Hitchcock
Masters of Cinema interview 1


date: 1972

interviewer: Pia Lindstrom (Ingrid Bergman's daughter)

main topics: scaring the audience, workflow, sexual aberrations, psychopaths, fame

link to video: Youtube

Pia Lindstrom: You once said that you like to make an audience scream through technical means. What is it about an audience screaming that you like?

Alfred Hitchcock: How many times have you heard the woman say: Oh, I went to see the movie and had a good cry.

That's true.

They do, you see? And what is a good cry? She never says I had a bad cry. Otherwise she wouldn't have paid the money to go in the first place. So these people are paying money to be scared just as much as they go to Disneyland, or go on to the rollercoaster, or a haunted house. They pay to be scared.

Do you like to be scared yourself?

No, I'm not keen about it. I have been on other occasions.

Like when?

Oh, I think... I was driving my wife through Dubrovnik in the middle of the night, and we were on a mountain ledge 8-thousand feet up. We came head-to-head with a bus so it was a question of who is going by first. I remember having to get out (of a car) and backend her off and the wheel was within 18 inches of the drop! I said: "This may be good enough for the movies, but it isn't good enough for me now".

I know that you plot out your scenarios very carefully and work out your films very carefully. Does it ever happen then that the actors get in the way of this? That you have trouble with them?

Method actors do. Well, method actors are like children. They are all right for the theater, but their little problem with films, especially when cutting is involved... if you remember a film made years ago called Rear Window, which was all from the point of view of one man - James Stewart sitting in the window where he had to look, then I had to cut what he saw and then cut back to his reaction. Now, what I was really doing was showing a mental process of the man by means of pictures, by what he saw. And suppose that he says: well, I don't really look that way. Then how can the film be constructed on those lines? I have had it with that actor who is now dead called Montgomery Clift, he was a method actor.

And you had difficulty with him?

Well, yes. I was shooting a scene in Quebec and he was playing a part of a priest who has just been acquitted of a murder, but was being stoned outside the courthouse. And the action of the film was to go across the street into the front of the hotel. I wanted him to look up to the crowd and up to the people leaning out of the window. But I also have put on a fasade on the building - the big gold letters of the word 'hotel' so the audience would know where they are going - into the hotel. And he said: I don't think I would look up. Well you better look up, or else...

What about somebody like Orson Wells, or Charles Laughton?

Well, Charlie has always been a problem. When I made that film Jamaica Inn, it took a whole morning to get one close-up. He was a nice man, a charming man, he really was. But oh he suffered so much, because he felt he couldn't get it out. And we were working a whole morning on that one close-up until he got up and he was crying in the corner. And I went over and sort of patted him on the shoulder. He looked at me and said: Aren't you and I a couple of babies?. But then he came back and did it, you see? He said: All right?. I said: yes, Charles. Fine!. It wasn't all that different from the other close-ups. Then he got me aside and put his arm around my shoulder and said: You know how I got it, don't you?. I said: No, Charles and he said I thought of myself as a small boy of 10 wetting my nickers. Absolutely true, really.

Do you think there is something like a Hitchcockian actor, if that is a word? A type that is perfect for your films?

I don't really think so. There are many many types, all kinds of leading people from the London theater. I used to say years ago, I don't today... he's gone, Charles is gone... but I used to say The hardest things to photograph are dogs, babies, motorboats and Charlie Laughton. Motorboats, because they never come back for take 2! Everybody is gesticulating and so forth and the boat is just calmly going on at the sea somewhere.

You've used those series of, I guess what could be described as cool blondes - Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren...

That wasn't really by design. It was really to avoid the obvious voluptuous sexy blondes.

Speaking of sexiness, you deal a lot with sexual aberrations and fetishes as subject matter. Do you feel this is a good subject matter for suspense?

Well, suspense doesn't relate to that, really. It relates entirely to causing an audience to go through emotions and can only be arrived at by giving them knowledge. Most people get confused between the mystery story and the thriller and the suspense story and the whodunit.

So where is the difference?

Oh, it's a big difference. Whodunit, you see, is an intellectual exercise like a crossword puzzle. You're terribly tempted to look on that last page and you don't because you'd feel you've wasted your money, or be disappointed. But the suspense story is giving the audience full information before you start. In other words, there is a bomb under these seats. Tell the audience that and they will scream it out and say: Get out of there!.

How about in Notorious? Could you describe the build up of suspense there.

There wasn't really... the suspense there was how soon will Claude Rains find out that the woman who is a daughter of an old friend is an American agent. We all know it! We were told at the beginning that she was working with Cary Grant. Then you had the added fact that Cary Grant was in love with her. And then in the course of his job he literally had to put this woman in the arms of another man. Now that was your emotional story, but your suspense story which built up to its climax in the process of which you come to the moment when he says: Mother, I'm married to an American agent". Now they know they got to get rid of her. But they got to get rid of her surreptitiously. Can't just bump her off because all the rest of her colleagues will know. So you get a case of arsenic poisoning.

Who is your idea of an ideal villain. I've heard you say that Claude Rains kind of personified that idea.

He was a nice man in his way, you know. I think any man, as you know when you've seen the film Frenzy - a cheerful, lively man who is a psychotic. You see, unless they're pleasant and acceptable, their victims will never go near them. Most people don't understand what a villain is. He's a charming man who kills women. If he didn't have the charm, they'd run a mile from him.

That brings us back maybe to sexual aberrations again. There seems to be a lot of Jack the Ripper types in your various films.

Awkwardly, they are acceptable members of society. And in the picture Frenzy in the scene between the doctor and the lawyer I explained that fact. Awkwardly, they're normal, apparently decent human beings. And then it comes over them.

You do use humor. Do you think that plays a kind of relief from the building up of suspense?

You always need it. It's like the bomb situation. If you have the bomb, you must never let it go off, because if you create suspense with the audience then you must relieve it.

For instance, I think that in The 39 Steps when Madeleine Carroll is in the train compartment and she gives the hero away after you feel she's not going to.

Oh well, but that's true. Wouldn't you? A man bursting to the apartment. In the movies of course she'd return the embrace, you see? But then I don't believe what they do in the movies is always correct. I'm a believer in humor. I mean, who wants to make a film always with the heavy going? It's like the poor housewife and those heavy-handed pictures I call sink-to-sink pictures. Because here's a poor housewife washing dishes in the sink. The houseman returns from work, looks at this figure and says: Look dear, why don't you dry your hands, go out and put on a nice, clean dress, we'll get a sitter and we'll go out and have a dinner and take you to the movie?. And she says: that would be wonderful". She goes upstairs, they get a babysitter, they go out, have dinner, he parks a car, they go in the movie and she looks at the screen and what does she see? A woman washing dishes at the sink. Yeah, they make those movies, you know? It symbolizes the kind of heavy-handed movies that are made. Sometimes I make them myself under special circumstances, but...

And what about North by Northwest...

Well, that's a fantasy, you know.

And what about the humor that's in North by Northwest? Can you describe a little bit the various things that you used there?

There's a humor of Cary Grant being made drunk and goes on a wild ride in a car. And there's certain amount of wit on the part of him and the girl and so forth.

What about Strangers on a Train? The cutting back and forth between the lighter that's lost.

That was when he threatens. He threatens eventually because the nice man won't carry out his part of the so called bargain - it was a bargain that he never made. The hero was a tennis player, so the villain, the weird guy was on the way to the scene of the crime and was going to plant the piece of evidence which would make the hero the murderer of his wife. But unfortunately, the hero was occupied with the tennis match. And I always remember when we shot the long shots at Forest Hills and there were Davis Cup matches. And I said: would you mind having that thing removed please? It's in the way, the Davis Cup. So they took it away for me and then we did this whole tennis match. And of course the moment the match was over, he dashed off to the other man.

Through the years, you've achieved a great deal of fame and success. Do you like your fame? Does it give you a certain amount of pride?

Well, it enables me to sleep at night!

You're making a joke of the question...

No, I'm not making a joke. It's a hard question to answer, because...

Does it ever make you feel happy, or proud arriving on airport and then having cameramen and reporters and people there to greet you?

Some of them, they're nice. I remember once arriving at Tel Aviv and coming down the steps and having the whole airport applaud. That was very nice. And once I was standing in the middle of this square in Copenhagen and it's a very large square and on the road there, there is an intersection. And suddenly I hear the sound of an ambulance - the sirens screaaaaaming! It came from the far corner of the square. I was just standing there, no camera or anything, with an assistance. And suddenly an ambulance stops at the intersection, the man jumps out, comes rushing toward me and says Autograph, please! I gave him the autograph, he rushed back to the ambulance, they started the siren and went on their way. I don't even know whether the autograph was for the patient, or the driver!