Alfred Hitchcock
CBC Telescope inteview


date: 1964

interviewer: Fletcher Markle

main topics: filmmaking philosophy, ideas, cameos, happiness

Alfred Hitchcock: Art is emotion, therefore the use of film, I say, putting it together and making it have an effect on the audience is, I think, the main function of film. Certainly, if you take dialog in a film, truly you are only borrowing from the theater, which is, like I often say: most films are just photographs of people talking.

TV host: Tonight's Telescope, quite frankly, is an occasion for photographs of people talking. Happily, however, the man who does most of the talking, is a man who long ago learned virtually everything there is about making motion pictures, silent and talking, and totally terrifying. In place of the introduction mr Hitchcock does not need, here's this message. (tape beings playing and Fletcher Markle asks his first question) Mr Hitchcock, most Anglo-American film critics have always thought of you principally as an entertainer. For the French, however, you are considered a Catholic-moralist. Do you think of your recent films as melodramas and thrillers, or as fables, or even allegories?

Alfred Hitchcock: Well, if you look at it from the point of view of melodrama, we know traditionally that right must win over wrong. In other words, evil must lose, so that you can apply that to the basic melodrama, or you can apply it to a, how should you say, religious precept.

Fletcher Markle: And you say that you're more interested in the technique of storytelling than in the content of the film itself. Could you explain that a little more?

That's true. Yes, I can clarify. Please don't think me presumptuous if I give you the analogy of a painter who paints a tree, a landscape, or even a bowl of fruit. I'm sure that the painter is not a bit interested in the apples for themselves alone, but in the technique of his work, which stimulate the emotion of the viewer of his picture. After all, all art is experienced. People look at an abstract and say: "I hate it". Well, the mere fact that they're using the word hate means that they're going through an experience, you see, or they like it. Therefore, if you apply these principles to a film, as I see it, it is not the pure manner of the content, in other words it's not the story, it's what you do with it.

Not what, but how.

How. And therefore, I find that with many people, they look at the film and they look at its content only and never seem to study, I'm talking about the critical faculty, what was in the film to make an audience go through these emotions that you put. Especially in my field, which is thrill or suspense, or what have you. Sometimes one can almost say that the man who builds a roller coaster is an artist, because all the turns create crudest and broadest emotions in the rider.

Let's go back down the years to the silent films of the early 20s. Since you were born in 1899, that period finds you in your early 20s also. Were you particularly interested in films before you actually became involved with them?

Yes, deeply.

They've been a passion from your boyhood?

Oh, no question.

Well, as a writer and designer of titles for silent films, which was your first job in the film world, did you hope to become director one day, or did that happen by chance?

Happened by chance. My earliest job, after being in the editorial department designing the titles, was being the assistant director, and then I practiced my hand at writing the script. I did it on my own. I took a story, a novel, and eventually a job came out when I was going to be the assistant director, and they said, well, we gotta find someone to write a script. So I said: I'll do it. They read it, were impressed and then I got the job. I was 23 then. And then my friend, who was going to be the art director in the same picture, found he couldn't come on this particular picture, it was a big important picture, it wasn't a small picture, so I said: I'll do the art direction, design the sets and so forth, which I did. And therefore, about two or three years after that, I carried out the same routine, and then finally, I'm not sure, but I was told that the director of all these pictures, was very jealous because I was getting credit for all this amount of work, and then he said that he didn't want me anymore. It didn't occur to me. I was very happy doing what I was doing.

What was your first film you yourself chose to do?

My first choice was The Lodger. This was based on a book about Jack the Ripper. The lodger actually was the story in almost one interior. The landlady was asking herself the question: is the man who is my lodger Jack the Ripper, or not?

And I remember in that film one of your first uses of staircases for dramatic effect. The lodger's hand coming down the staircase.

Well, you see, those were substitutes for sound. Today, we wouldn't do that. I took the first ten minutes of the film to show piece of news that a body has been dragged of the river, and how the reporter picked up the information. And then I show what happened to that piece of news in all forms: broadcasting, wire service, running signs, the newspaper office and so forth. But each time I added a piece of information about Jack the Ripper, then I followed one blonde into her house, and down in the basement they're talking about it and the light begins to go down slowly and slowly. And the mother says: dad, put the shilling in the meter, the gas is going down. The dad goes with his shilling to put in the meter, by this time, the place is in darkness, there's a rat-tat-tat at the front door. Mother goes up to open the door, that puts the shilling in the meter. You can imagine how this thing was quickly cross-cut. As the door open, the lights came up and there was a man standing with a cloak and a black bag and obviously the Ripper standing there. And then later on in the film, I showed how he paced up and down the room. And I showed the faces of the people looking up to the ceiling to this agitated man. And I dissolve this ceiling away. I had a glass floor made so his feet go up and down. Then, when he went out at night, you saw, as he described, four flights of stairs and only the hand going down. Well, today, we would do sound. These were the resources one had to use as a substitute for the sound in the silent picture days.

And the Lodger was the first film that you made in which you made a personal appearance.

I was in the Lodger, yes.

And that was simply because there wasn't an actor available at the time?

Oh yes. You used to hop in and do a bit if necessary.

Well, after the Lodger, was there then a consistency of personal appearances?

The first big appearance again occurred in Blackmail.

And since Blackmail in 1929, which was the first film with sound that you directed, audiences enjoyed seeing you pop up briefly and unexpectedly somewhere in all your films. Except for Marnie, the current Hitchcock production, the most recent example is in The Birds. In Shadow of a Doubt, as in all Hitchcock films, your use of the camera has always been unique. The whole technical side of filmmaking, especially the editing has been a principal concern of yours. Would you be kind enough to explain some of the basic methods and the cinematic approach to storytelling?

Well, you have two kinds of what we might call montage. We call it cutting. It isn't exactly that. Cutting implies severing something. It really should be called assembly. Assembling something to create a whole. Montage means the assembly of pieces of film, which, moved in rapid succession before the eye, create an idea. Of course, the most elementary form is the juxtaposition of imagery in various sizes. You know, a lot of people think that cutting is taking the man from one place to another and jump into a close up of him, which Griffith invented, it's true. But to me it goes much deeper. And as I say, the picture Psycho contained quite an amount of cinematic approach to its basic content. In the first place, we had in it the murder of a woman in a shower, the nude woman. Now, as you know you couldn't just take a camera and just show a nude woman being stabbed to death. It had to be done impressionistically, so it was done with little pieces of film. The head, the feet, the hand, part of a torso...

Shadow on a curtain...

Everything was used, you see. The shower itself... I think in that scene was 78 pieces of film in about 45 seconds. Now we'll take another kind, which I would prefer to call the orchestration. Loud notes, soft notes and so forth. The second murder in Psycho was treated quite differently. It showed the detective coming up the stairs, the audience already aware that the monster was around. So they were apprehensive for him, but they didn't know when it was going to happen. So I have this man mounting the stair in, what we would call a waste shot, and he gets to the top of the stairs. Then I take the camera and put it very very high. Way way high, above the ceiling almost, as though we're looking down on the whole thing. And a little figured rounded out with the raised knife, and the hand goes up with the knife into the air and starts to bring it down. Now remember, those are two tiny figures. Then the next cut is a big head of the man as the knife goes across his face. Now, this is size of image put together to create shock. In other words, if it were music, it would be tremolos on the violin, and suddenly the brass instrument, which is the big close-up. And from that, he fell and went back. So there's an illustration of using the size of the image to create shock, or what if you will. Now, the third way is what one might call pure cinematics. The assembly of film, and how it can be changed to create a different idea. Now we're having a close up and then we show what he sees. Let's assume you saw a woman holding a baby in her arms. Now we cut back to his reaction to what he sees. And he smiles. And what is he as a character? He's a kindly man. He's sympathetic. Now, let's take the middle piece of film away - the woman with the child, but leave his two pieces of film as they were. Now we'll put in a piece of film of a girl in the bikini. He looks, girl in the bikini, he smiles. What is he now? The dirty old man. He's no longer the benign gentleman who loves babies. That's what film can do for you.

Or you for it, as it were. Now, let's talk about some of the writers who worked with you on the screenplays of your films. Among them, Thornton Wilder, Arthur Lawrence, Dorothy Parker, Robert Sherwood. Which kind of writer do you find best-suited for creating a film script, the playwright, or the novelist?

I would say the playwright rather than the novelist is more important, because you need scenes, playing scenes. As people who are from the theater, who can write playing scenes for you.

They've learned that compression...

Compression is very very important. After all, who was it that once said that drama is life with the dull parts cut out. So compression and the economy belongs to the playwright. It doesn't belong to the novelist. He can go on for thousand pages.

Quite so. Well, let us go on to further pictorial aspects of filmmaking. You first used colors in Rope, I believe, and 10 of the 15 films you've made since then have been in color. Though many producers seem to believe that a thriller should always be made in black and white. Which do you prefer?

I prefer color, because there's plenty to dramatize in the color by not using color until you need it dramatically.

In the same way, music is often valuable.

Sure, I think music is very good, especially when it's needed for silence.

The absence of it.

Of course.

Obviously, you think very highly of the work of Bernard Herrmann. He's been involved as composer and conductor of music in so many of your recent films. How do you and mr Herrmann go about and examine the contribution of music to your film?

I don't know, as far as I'm concerned, he does as he likes. What I've always found with musicians is that you're in their hands anyway. What can you do? So very often, I've been... not necessarily by mr Herrmann, but other musicians, they say: "come down, I want to know what you think of this". And you go down and say: "well, I don't care, we can't change it, it's all scored. So the next time can you play me some, let me hear some before you go to the expense of hiring the orchestra." You hear that you can't play it on the piano and that it's not possible. So there's no way to find out, so you are in the hands of a musician.

There's been a lot of comment over the years about the social impact of films on audiences, their influence for good and evil. Do you think they have much real influence, or is it really a momentary thing?

I think it's a momentary thing. I suppose if one stood outside any movie house, most of the faces are rather giggling or smiling, even if they come out of the horror picture. We don't see them coming out pondering deeply. I think the immediate reaction to a film is quite different from a later reaction. I'm sure there are certain things in the films which affect fashion. You know, the famous occasion when Clark Gable left a t-shirt off, or something, and the sales fell off enormously.

It happened one night. So you don't really feel that sociologists have much of a foundation, really, to say that films that record the criminal impulse, or television shows that concentrate on crime, have a lasting influence on the viewer?

I would say it has an influence on sick minds, but not on healthy minds. It reminds me of when I made Psycho, a man was arrested in Los Angeles for murdering three women. And he later said that he murdered the third woman after seeing Psycho. So I was called by the newspaper for a comment and my only question was: what film did he see before murdering of the second woman? And perhaps before he murdered the first woman, maybe he just drank a little glass of milk? And a little boy came up to me once in the street, about the 7-year old boy, and said: mr Hitchcock, in that murder scene in Psycho, what did you use for the blood? Chicken blood?I said: no, chocolate sauce. Ah, ok. And he went on his way. See, the operative phrase was: "what did you use". He didn't believe it.

And yet, even though audiences are increasingly familiar with the machinery of filmmaking: special effects, processed photography and so forth, they're still completely entrenched by the finished film.

Oh, I'm sure they are.

Well, you often employ a technical stance in your films that audiences never notice.

Just like in Marnie, you know, where the girl is a compulsive thief, but after every job she does, she always goes down to the farm in Maryland, and, I suppose using some of the stolen money, goes riding on a horse, and the open air which makes her hair blow free, almost as if she was cleansing herself of the crime she's just committed.

And though most of those riding sequences were shot on location, it was still necessary to use rear projection screen on a soundstage to capture certain details of action and reaction. Now let's turn to the subject of actors. I imagine that you sometimes have problems when you're working with an important star and that he or she mustn't turn out to be a real villain of the story. Audiences don't like that sort of thing.

They won't be the villain for the sake of their own career, and very often the idol, which you put out there, must do no wrong.

I was thinking of the ending of Suspicion.

Yes, well that was a complete mistake, you see? To make that story with Cary Grant, unless you could have a cynical ending. Suspicion deals with the subject of a man whose wife thinks he's a murderer. And finally, even to the extent when he brings her up a glass of milk at the end of the picture, she knows he's going to murder her where in our film we had to make it that this was just an ordinary glass of milk. In truth, the ending of a picture should be: yes, this is it and this is the murder. And I had the idea for an ending in which she knows it all and she writes a letter to her mother and says: "dear mother, I'm gonna die, it's gonna kill me but I love him so much that I can't live anymore. But I think society should be protected from him. And she seals the letter. And when she drinks that fatal glass of milk, she says: "would you mind mailing that one for me? She drinks the meal, literally committing suicide. And you fade out on her death. And you had one shot, a cheerful whistling of Cary Grant popping a letter into the mailbox. That's the way I wanted to end the picture!

Speaking of endings, let's turn out to the subject of The Birds, one of your recent pictures with a somewhat controversial ending. Did you intend it to be fantasy?

Well, most of films I make are fantasies. They're not slices of life, they're all larger than life. North by Northwest was a nightmare. If I'd have my own way and was not considering the global audience, I would have moved him around all over America. Like a nightmare, from one dreadful experience to another. But I had to smoothen it out for audiences. So that was a real fantasy.

But it had a tremendous aura of reality to it. What was it that appealed to you in the Daphne du Maurier stories that the film was based on?

Well, I think it was an example of extremely unusual occurrence. I think the unusual nature of the occurrence appealed to me.

And how did you go about casting a writer for the script? I presume you cast writers to work with you as you would cast actors.

I remember one writer I had, only he was an English writer, who said to me: I see this film done only one way, you should never see a bird.

At what stage did you finally take into consideration the technical challenges?

From the beginning of the picture, but the actors were so involved that we were way on the way of our shooting that we had to face those enormous technical problems. In the film, there was about 28.000 birds used, 3.000 of them trained, 30 of them special and about 4 leading actors. Connery was a very good actor. He never missed a take, was on cue every time. In fact, in some of the films when we have the crows chasing children down the schoolhouse street, they were superimposed on the original film, so they were shot against the plain background of the studio, from one part to another across the street. And they got so used to the commands that they were anticipating them. When the cameraman said: rolling!, they flew before they should have done. They were very smart.

The Birds may have been a fantasy, but it had a tremendous aura of reality to it nevertheless.

Don't you see, a nightmare is very vivid. And I've always taken great care to be accurate in all detail, no matter how fantastic the situation might be. Now, people have said to me, and this is where the actorship bothers me, people said to me: "mr Hitchcock, why don't you make more costume pictures?" I say: for very simple reason: nobody in the costume picture ever goes to the toilet! Now that means that it's not possible to get any detail into it. Just as much as people say: "why don't you make a Western?" And my answer is: well, I don't know how much a loaf of bread costs in a Western. I've never seen anybody buying a 10-gallon hat. This is sometimes where the drama comes from to me.

A moment of melodrama happening suddenly in a commonplace setting.

And that is the most important moment, when the man is buying a hat, when the gun is thrusted into his ribs. You see, it's the juxtaposition of the norm of the accurate average against the fantasy. And it is fantasy.

The ordinary and the extraordinary, side by each.

Yes, of course! That's the point, that's what makes the thing interesting.

Tell us, mr Hitchcock, how do you envision the theater in the future?

I see the possibility maybe in the 3000 or something, that people are going to be entertained, if entertainment is still needed then, and they'll go into a big darkened auditorium. And they are mass-hypnotized, and instead of identifying themselves with somebody on the screen, they are that person. And when they buy their ticket, they choose which character they want to be. And under hypnosis, they go through the story and it's injected into them by some kind of telepathy, and they suffer the agonies and so forth, or enjoy the romance with a woman. And then the lights go up and it's all over. Maybe it's Hitchcock's new conception of how to dispense with actors! Or, because of what I said on one occasion: Walt Disney has the right answer where actors are concerned: if he doesn't like them, he tears them up.

Well, supposing mass-hypnotism did come as logical, or illogical progression in entertainment, would you be interested with it as a director?

Yes, you have to have a director. You have to have a writer, because you have to write the story. The director, I suppose, would be the hypnotist, because it would be his manner of directing the minds of these people into the right direction and approach. The whole idea is very hard too...

I'm not so sure about that. I have a very strong feeling that that's the kind of thing you're doing today.

Yes, it is in a way, yes it is.

About television. What was your reason for becoming involved in television in 1945?

Well, I guess those who were tied to my commercial interests at the time thought it would be a good thing to do.

And in many ways of course they were absolutely right. Naturally, your wide array of activities doesn't allow you the time to direct in a great number of television shows, but I presume you select and approve all the stories?

Oh, I definitely go into the stories very thoroughly and give indications to how they should be treated, and so forth. And then of course I go through the finished product.

And miss Joan Harrison, who's your associate in the making of the television series, has a pretty good idea what you like and don't like anyway.

Mr Norman Lloyd, producer who is also an associate, he's been with me long time. And shall we say, they know what I'm talking about. You must have a basic sense of humor about it, because that's what you're doing. You're doing it deliberately to scare people. And after all, there's no difference between my making Psycho to scare people with tongue-in-cheek, than a mother who says boo! to scare a 3-month old baby! What's the difference?

You've said that you're a very shy person, mr Hitchcock, which is not at all the public impression of you. Would you care to comment on that?

Well, I am shy, I don't mix with a lot of people. I'm not very good in the company of a lot of men. I don't know what it would be like around a lot of women, I wouldn't know. But no, we live a very quiet life, my wife and I. I come to the studio, I do my chores and go home.

And what do you do for relaxation?

Make pictures.

You read a great deal, I suppose?

Yes, but I don't read fiction. I read biographical material, or historical, or travel, but I don't ever read fiction.

You have also done a great deal of travel yourself, you and mrs Hitchcock.

Yes, we go around.

Tell me, if you were not a filmmaker by trade, whose films would you most likely admire and enjoy as a moviegoer?

I'm not a moviegoer, so I wouldn't know. Sorry to say.

If you haven't become a filmmaker, what would you like to have been?

I don't know, but it might have been amusing to be a criminal lawyer.

Mr Hitchcock, what is your definition of happiness?

A clear horizon, nothing to worry about on your plate. Only things that are creative and not destructive. That's within yourself. Within me, I can't bear quarreling, I can't bear feelings between people, I think hatred is wasted energy. And it's all non-productive. I'm very sensitive, a sharp word, said perhaps by person who has a temper, if they're close to me, hurts me for days. I know we're only human, we do go for these various emotions, we call them negative emotions. But when all these are removed and you can move forward and the road is clear ahead, and now you're going to create something. And that's as happy as I ever want to be.