Alfred Hitchcock
Masters of Cinema interview 2


date: 1972

interviewer: William Everson

main topics: early movies, filming techniques, directing for audience

link to video: Youtube

William Everson: Mr. Hitchcock, before we get on to serious business, I'd like to just sort of for personally thank you for 40 years, for me, for marvellous movie-going. It has been a great pleasure. Seeing a man being here today... most of the interviews I've seen or I've read tended to, understandably, to concentrate on the bigger films, later films: Spellbound, The Rear Window. And today, with you permission, initially I'd like to go to the beginning and discuss some of the earlier films that may not be quite so familiar today. Particularly, since you worked in the German silent film. Could I ask you how much your earlier German films, particularly films like Number 17 really drew on the pictorial style you picked up from the German films made in German studios?

Alfred Hitchcock: Well in those days, this would be about 1924, when the UFA merged. Those days, I used to write the script and then become the art director. I wasn't directing then, but I went to work at (?) and of course they were making some of the most famous German films. Jannings was a tremendously important figure. Murnau, Lang, Lubitsch - in those days. And I remember, when I was working there, our picture was called The Blackguard, but they were making The Last Laugh. And in those days, it's just the opposite of what happens today. Everything was down on the lot. And it didn't matter what the set was, they'd build it. And I remember in The Last Laugh, Jannings... it was the story about the reverence that the Germans have to the uniform. And it's the only film ever made that told the story truly pictorially. Without titles, without a word. Of course it was silent films in those days anyway. And they even built a hotel with the lobby, with all the streets outside and all the traffic and everything and they even built a railroad station with a great glass roof and the locomotive and passengers moving backwards and forwards. And they were to me prodigious job of production.

Of course the late British silents and the early talkers were pretty much dominated by borrowed German talent. Cameramen, directors and so on. I think a film like your own Number 17 is very very German in its pictorial style. Do you remember that film?

Yes, but more than that, I think The Lodger which was the third film... the first two films I made as a director were made in Munich and I had to direct them in German. But of course there were English stories played with German actors, character people. But it made no difference because it was no sound, just titles. When I got back to England to do number 3 film, it was Mrs Belloc Lowndes' famous book The Lodger. This is a story about The Bunting family living in a house in London where [male female character] wondered and the rest of the family wondered whether the man upstairs is Jack the Ripper, or not.

At one of your other early British films, the 1934's The Man Who Knew Too Much, which I love because of the way it gets into the basic plot on the initial murders so very quickly and so very simply, you seem to be very unhappy about it. You refer to it as the work of a talented amateur whereas your later film you consider that of a professional. I'm just wondering where you have put the distinction, when have you stopped being amateur and became a professional.

I think actually the difference would be that in the original The Man Who Knew Too Much I wasn't audience-conscious, whereas in the second one I was.

But I must admit many still feel that your British films were by no means a work of an amateur and may represent some of your best work.

The best thing... I can't remember to this day, I think it was to involve the father more. You see, having had Stewart in the role, you had to change your story because in the original, Leslie Banks - an English actor was in the lead. And he was caught and spent the end of the film locked up in the room. You couldn't do that to a man of a statue of James Stewart. So your story had to be manipulated to give him more active part at the end. And in such a way I lost the original story's climax, which was the famou Sidney Street Siege, which was a time about 1910 (edit: Jan, 1911 - Wiki), when three anarchists held up the whole of the British police force, the soldiers from the Tower of London - just three of them! And Churchill went down there and was directing an operation from the doorway. When I went to Scotland Yard researching for the second version, a rather fiscious public relations man answered me in an extremely unfriendly way... I said: how would you handle the Sidney Street Siege today? And he said: oh, we would just send two men with a dog.

There are no anarchists today anyway in England.

Well, there are different kind of anarchists.

One other point I wanted to get into was the technique you developed and exploited through the years. A sort of past through your actors and literally directing the audience so that you get the emotions you want. Not by the players on screen but by the people sitting in the audience. And of course it wasn't what any good director should do, but of course you've made a specialty of it.

Well, the audience is what it is all about.

When did you sort of become conscious of the fact that this was the way that you would really specialize in directing?

I think that during my American period. I became very conscious of audience.

There are hints in the beginning, because the close up of the glass of drugged wine in The Lady Vanishes was a very good example of directing the audience without engaging the players.

That is true. Well, you see that comes under the heading of avoiding the cliche. You see, the poisoned wine situation, or the drugged wine, the character literally picks it up and says: Oh, by the way... and he almost drinks it about half a dozen times, which is such a cliche. So I decided to avoid this cliche and merely leave the wine there and untouched until the last minute. In order to keep the audience reminded of it, I photographed part of the scene through the two glasses, so that would keep the audience asking: when are they going to pick up the drugged wine?

I heard you saying in the past, which is surprising for a director who makes so many thrillers and suspense films, that you don't like the device of the chase that is part of your films. Is that because you are sort of limited to being on location? That you can't pre-plan on the storyboard?

No, I think the chase is very good, but I've never gone in for the purely physical chase. I know it's very effective, you had it in many many films. I think what I changed is the change to rescue someone. I've never cross-cut (explanation of cross-cutting: Wiki). You see, in the early Griffith days, you used to cross-cut with the man either going to the (?) with the rescue on the way. Well, I tended to avoid this kind of cross-cutting in the chase sequence and stayed either with one, or the other, which makes the audience sweat more, because you don't show the progress of the rescue. Now, in The Birds, I did that once or twice, I had a girl seated in front of the school house smoking, and when she sits down there is one bird on it. And I just put the camera on her and never showed what was going on behind her, until eventually she follows one bird through the sky, when she turns around, there's a mass of them. With the old technique, you would have cross-cut with the girl - little is she knowing, but the birds are gathered inside. But when she saw them, she sprinted into the school, took the teacher to the window and indicated them. Then, the teacher said to the children: now you all go home, go down the street quietly and when I tell you to run, run. From that moment, the children are herded toward the door to school house and I went straight to the birds and stayed with them and never moved them, until suddenly all the birds went up. And somebody later said to me: what happened to the shot of the children when they went down the steps after the school? I said: there was none. He said: there must have been. So it was making the audience carry the thing in their mind.

In terms of the traditional, sort of all-time Griffith cross-cutting, I think the chase you did in Number 17 still holds up superbly. Perhaps because it was made in miniature...

It did, it was all made up in miniature.

It was fantastic traveling shots of the car going under the bridge and the train moving forward at the same time, it was incredible.

Yes! That was done by... you saw on the screen the rails and the roadway and both train and Green Line bus are coming toward you. And they both come toward you and suddenly you see the bus go across the front to the train. The camera whips back and the train goes under the bridge and the bus goes over the bridge.

What made you finally move to Hollywood? Did you always want to be the big Hollywood director, or was it because you've done as much as you could in the British film in that time?

I was the number one director, but on the other hand I noticed that directors from all over Europe were going to Hollywood. It was a challenge, actually, because there were no other British directors there, except James Whale, I think. He was the only one, but then he came from the theater, you see.

Did you intend to make the first American films like Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent that big and pretentious?

Well, the first picture intended was to be the Titanic. And I researched that considerably. In fact, the producer intended at the time to buy the Leviathan and he was gonna have it turned around through the canal and sink it off Santa Monica, which was a prodigious job. I often think he would say: well go on there, make the most of it. What do you do? Do a close up of a rivet and dolly back? Or put eight cameras on it and then... this ship is sunk. And the white face electrician says: electricity was none. No camera got it!.

And it's kind of derivation perhaps from that wonderful climactic dolly shot in The Young and Innocent which is the most elaborate shot you've ever done.

Oh yes, it is. It arose from a dialogue statement of an old man that says to a young girl: listen, isn't it ridiculous sitting here, among all these people, looking for a man whose eyes blink?.

Have you often felt that individual films of yours would be improved by you going back and working on them?

I don't think I would care to do that. In fact, I'd go further: I wish I didn't have to make them. You see, having worked with the writer on the design of the film, really, the whole creative work is finished. All you have now is wait and see it diminish. And finally you only arrive with the 60% of the original conception on the screen.

Have you ever thought the work is spoilt on occasion by preparing the film yourself, a film like Desire, or Royal Scandal, literally making the film by yourself on paper, on the storyboard, and then handing it over to another director, like Otto Preminger who would carry out orders for you?

I wouldn't want to do that.

So there is some fun for you in making the film?

Well, there is some fun and the need to get it right. You know, there's tempo involved, the size of image. Of course storyboard would take care of that, providing that the other director adhered to the storyboard.

It may not be of much concern for you... all your films are shown in the theaters and in TV and make a lot of money for you, I'm sure, but I don't think it was any one director whose films were used more in film schools to teach film technique. You've literally built a whole course on Hitchcock films whereas the obvious people like Eisenstein and Griffith, I think maybe with one or two films. But I do know that whole courses have been built just around your films and students have made tremendous amount of knowledge from. And they're entertained at the same time!

Yes, the most important thing is that I am a puritan, I am a believer in the visual, and that's what I think that schools should teach. So often you hear of schools who send a pupil out with an 8mm camera and see what he comes back with. How he observes. That's only a part of the whole process. That's like being in the art school and when you're sent out to sketch people sitting in the railroad terminal. That's a whole course, which it isn't of course. It's only a tiny segment of the course. And I think that film schools should teach the history as much as anything from the beginning.

It's interesting most of the first-year students come back with films that look like Ingmar Bergman films. But by the second year, when they really absorb technique and style of history, they come back with Hitchcock films, which is a rather nice ending.

Yes, it is.