interviewer: Huw Weldon
main topics: fear, surprising the audience, adventure stories, crime literature
link to video: Youtube
Let's start by discussing this whole business of frightening audiences. Do you find that audiences are frightened by different things now than they were frightened by when you started, what, 30, 35 years ago?
No, I wouldn't say so, because after all, they were frightened as children. You have to remember it's all based on Red Riding Hood. Nothing has changed since Red Riding Hood. So what they're frightened of today are exactly the same things that they were frightened of yesterday. Because this, should we call it this fright complex, is rooted in every individual.
Do you think, when making films, that women are frightened by different things from the things that frighten men?
I would say so, yes. I would definitely say that... women are frightened by a mouse. You don't see men jumping on chairs and screaming. So there are definitely different things.
So when you're making a film, are you setting up to frighten men, or women?
Women. Because 80% of the audience in the cinema are women. Because, you see, even if the house is 50/50 half-men/half-women, a good percentage of men ask their women: "what do you want to see, dear?" So that's where her influence comes as well. Men have very little to do with choice of the film.
When it comes to audiences in different parts of the world, take American audiences as against British audiences instead of men and women for a moment, bearing in mind your comment of Red Riding Hood, that they were all frightened by the same simple things, are American audiences frightened by different things from European audiences?
I would say no. You see, we've got to remember the American audience is the global audience. I once reminded to an Englishman, I said:
you don't understand America, because you think they are Americans, but they're not. America is full of foreigners. They're all foreigners since 1776. So therefore, whatever frightens the Americans, frightens the Italians, the Romanians, the Danes and everyone else from Europe.
Do you think that it does an injustice to you simply to think of you as a man who, above else, has frightened the wits out of audiences?
Yes, but you have to remember that this process of frightening is done by means of a given medium, the medium of pure cinema, it's what I believe in, the assembly of pieces of film. To create fright is the essential part of my job just as much as a painter, by putting certain colors together, creates evil on canvas.
Now, you would go as far as to say that creating fright is the essential part of your job?
Only in terms of the audience expected from me.
Let me put it another way: you're a master, aren't you, of the unexpected.
That's only because one's challenged by the audience. They're saying to me: "show us!" and I know what's coming next!. And I say: "do you?" And therefore, that's the avoidence of the cliche, automatically. They're expecting the cliche, and I have to say: you cannot have a cliche.
When you're talking about putting the film together and then creating in terms of what you call pure cinema, the sequence that you're going for, I can imagine that it must have been a bit of a shock to you personally when talkies came, because in a sense, you're talking almost about a classical technique, aren't you?
The only thing wrong with the silent picture was that mouths opened and no sound came out. Unfortunately, when talk came in, the vulgarians, the money changers of the industry immediately commenced a cash in by photographic stage plays. So that took the whole thing away from cinema completely. It's like a lot of film one sees today, not that I see very many, but to me they're what I call photographs of people talking, and bare no relation to the art of the cinema. And the point is that the power of cinema in its purest form is so vast, because it can go over the whole world. On a given night, a film can play in Tokyo, West Berlin, London, New York, and the same audience is responding emotionally to the same things. No other mediums can't do this. Theater doesn't do it, because you've got different sets of people. But remember: in a film, they're the same actors! A book is translated. How well, do we know? I don't know. The risk is in translating even a film, what they call 'dubbing'. And therefore, when one's thinking about a film globally, the talk is reduced to a minimum and if possible, tell the story visually and let the talk be part of the atmosphere.
I imagine it's because of this point of view, which we've now articulated, and which is very very definitely known about you, that your reputation is so high with the great avantgarde film critics, in France particularly, where you've been practically canonized by them, haven't you? Really, 'Hitchcock' is the last word! Your response to that elevation, has that been one of gratification? Are you pleased?
I think so. I think one should be flattered for that. Of course, there are constant divisions of opinion among the devotees.
Have you ever been tempted to do what is nowadays called "a horror film", which is different from Hitchcock film?
No, because it's too easy. Are you talking about visual horror like Frankenstein, that kind of thing?
No, they're props. I believe in putting the horror in the mind of the audience, and not necessarily on the screen. I once made a movie, rather tongue-in-cheek, called Psycho and of course a lot of people looked to this thing and said: "what a dreadful thing to do!", "how awful!" and so forth. But of course to me it had great elements of the cinema in it. The content as such, was I think rather amusing, and it was a big joke. And I was horrified to find that some people took it seriously. It was intended to cause people to scream and yell and so forth, but no more than the screaming and yelling on a switchback railways. Now, this film had a horrible scene at the beginning when the girl was murdered in the shower. Well, I deliberately made that pretty rough. But as the film developed, I put less and less physical horror into it, because I was leaving that in the mind of the audience. So, as the film went on, there was less and less violence, but the tension in the mind of the viewer was increased considerably. It was transferring from film into their minds. So towards the end I had no violence at all, but the audience by this time was screaming in agony, thank goodness!
You mentioned a switchback railway. You do see yourself as a switchback railway operator?
I'm possibly in some respects the man who says in constructing it: "how steep can we make the first dip?" and "this will make them scream". If you make the dip too deep, the screams will continue as the whole car goes over the edge and destroys everyone. But therefore you mustn't go too far, because you do want them to get off the switchback railway giggling with pleasure, like the woman who comes out of the movie, a very sentimental movie, and says: "boy, I had a good cry!". Now what is a good cry, as opposed to a bad cry? I don't know, but she says that. Or, with tears rolling down her cheeks, she says: "oh, it was lovely. I cried my eyes out."
So what is a good cry, as opposed to a bad cry?
I think it's the satisfaction of temporary pain, and that's the same thing when people endure the agonies of the suspense film. When it's all over, they're relieved. That's why I once committed a grave error in having a bomb, from which I had extracted a great deal of suspense, and I had the thing go off, which I should never have done. Because they needed the relief from their suspense. Clock going, the time for the bomb to go off, and I drew this thing out and tended to the whole business. Then somebody should say: "oh, my goodness, there's a bomb!", pick it up and throw it out of the window. Bang! But everybody's relieved. I made the mistake, I let the bomb go off and kill someone. Bad technique, never repeated it.
Bad technique, yes, mind you, perhaps it came out of reality, because bombs do go off.
That's probably true. After all, what is reality? I don't think many people want reality. In theater and films, I think it must look real, but it never must be.
Would it be accurate to say that the tradition of your films as a whole is a tradition of English adventure stories, which takes us back to... John Buchan...
Very definitely. Of course, John Buchan was a very big influence on me. But I think more than that, I think that the attack on the whole of this subject matter, is strictly English. And where sometimes one gets little difficulties with American people is that they want everything spelled out exactly and they worry about content. I don't worry about content at all, a film can be about anything you like, so long as I'm making that audience react in certain way to whatever I put on the screen. If you begin to worry about the details, what are the papers about, what the spies are trying to steal, I can't be bother with what the papers are what the spies are after. I often run afoul of critics who criticize content instead of the technique.
And the technique is the same technique as John Buchan, Arthur Conan Doyle...
It comes into that area, but you see, the English have always had a fascination with crime as such.
Is it true that you are yourself a great expert at crime?
Well... do you mean committing it?
I wasn't suggesting that.
As a detective, you mean? On that side?
I'm interested in the famous cases of the past and I've often used examples, pieces of them in films. For example, in the film Read Window, there are two passages in it which come from English crime. Crippen case, I used a bit of that, and the Patrick Mann case. Mann, he was a man who killed a girl and then cut her out into pieces and threw the flesh out of the window from the train between Eastbourne and London. But his great problem was what to do with the head. And that was what I put in the Rear Window, with the dog sniffing in the garden. I remember when I was making a movie years ago, and I was employed as a technical advisor. A man who was one of the big four at Scotland Yard, and he was on this case. And this man Mann didn't know what to do with the head, so he put it into the fire crate and put a fire under it. And there was a big storm going on outside on the Eastbourne beach. And while this thunder was going on, it was awfully melodramatic, the heat under the head caused the eyes to open. And this poor man ran out into the storm and came down in the morning when the fire has done his job. And this particular ex-superintendent of the Scotland Yard told me that he went to the butcher's and got a sheep's head and put it in the crate to test the time it would go to burn. So this head business went into this picture.
Can I ask you about the films which you've made in this country and films that you did in America. Do you yourself see any distinction between these two? One's thinking of The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps and so on.
As the French say, the early English period is quite different from the American period. There's much more spontaneity, I suppose more instinct at work in the English period and more calculation in the American period. That's the main difference.
Have you ever made a film without regard to any audience?
Yes, I made one called The Trouble with Harry. It was a big loss. The film has lost, I suppose, about $500.000. So that was expensive self-indulgence. And there we come to the question of ethics with other people's money.
Let's take the ethics from the film itself. Why do you think the film lost money?
I think it was outside the usual run of pictures. It was a little comedy, it was based on an English book, although I laid it in Vermont. It was the comedy of the macabre, typically English, the approach to it was English. I'm sure had it been presented to a wider audience...
It was the film about a man who was killed and kept on being buried over and over again by different people.
It was a story about a dead body. A little man, played by Edmund Gwenn thought, while shooting rabbits, that he was responsible for the man's death. And then he found out that he wasn't responsible, so he dug it up again and then somebody else came along and they had a reason why the man should have been buried, so he's buried again. So, the whole thing was about burying and digging up this poor body. It was rather amusing, but I'm afraid the exhibitors, the people who run cinemas, the people who distribute films, my natural enemies, couldn't see it.
You thought well of it yourself.
I enjoyed it, yes.
What frightens you personally, mr Hitchcock, if anything?
Any trouble frightens me.