interviewer: Tom Snyder
main topics: world view, sense of humor, modern media, rhyming slang
link to video: Youtube
Tom Snyder: I would like to begin by asking you a question that pertains to your films. I'd like not to talk with you this morning about movies, but rather about ideas. I may not be successful at that, but I'm going to attend. All the pictures that you do scare people. What frightens you? What are you afraid of?
Alfred Hitchcock: Most things. I'm scared of policemen, I never drive a car on the theory that if you never drive a car, you can't get a ticket. I'm scared of anything that has to do with the law, although I'm fascinating by it, but I would hate to be involved myself. And I think I'm more scared of that kind of thing.
I'm a coward, I suppose.
But what is it about policemen that frightens Alfred Hitchcock who has made so many films about what policemen do?
Well that's the thing, you see? Most people think that I am, because of the material in which I indulge, shall we say, professionally, that I must be a monster. But I'm just the opposite of that. I'm a very placid, calm individual. And I'm scared of getting into any difficulties. Somebody once said to me:
what is your idea of happiness? I said
clear horizon, not even the horizon with a tiny cloud no bigger than the man's fist. It has to be absolutely clear. Ingrid Bergman once said of me:
the trouble with Hitch is that he won't have a fight. Because I walked out on her when she was bickering about something on the set. I just walked away.
May I bring you back to the policemen for just a moment? What could a policeman do to you that would frighten you?
He could charge me with some offence and I would get a ticket and that would scare me! I'm like the man in that old legend, I think it's called... it was a man who was supposed to pay two dollars. It was an old musical sketch. Well, apparently he quarreled with the policeman. He got fined for two dollars. During the quarrel, he hit the policeman. And now it was an assault. And then from that he was moved to the jail and there he got into trouble with another policeman and he attacked him and there was a fight. Eventually, this prisoner was killed. And he was arrested for murder, tried and was on his way to the electric chair. And then somebody said: why didn't you pay the two dollars?
And the policeman is probably the only man who can come to you and for no reason at all say: won't you come with me? And you really don't have much choice, do you?
Well, my stomach would turn over. A joke was played with me, and I'm not kidding, it did scare me. I did an interview with a man many years ago in New York and I sat in the little studio and there was an empty chair opposite of me, and suddenly a policeman came in and sat in the chair! It scared the hell out of me. He said: may I see your license? I didn't have one. He did it as a gag, but it worked!
Well, you best behave tonight, or we're going to call the cops. You and I are very uncommon, but we have one thing: a Jesuit training in our background.
You have that stigma?
Do you consider it to be a stigma?
Let's call it a stigmata.
Why do you say that?
You know, I saw a terrible thing once, I'm not kidding, in a French magazine. It was one of those satirical French magazines. And it was a picture of God sitting on a cloud, a bearded old gentleman, and just slowly coming out through the cloud was the figure of Christ, with hands held out, with holes in each hand. He's looking up to his father and God says: "there, you see? I told you not to go down there!"
The only reason I brought the thing about the Jesuit was that I've never heard you talk about religion, what part it's played in your life, what part it's played in your producing, or directing motion pictures. Has it played any?
I wouldn't say so, no. But I would say that the Jesuit training, I believe, gives you a sort of clarity of mind, a reasoning power. You don't realize it while you're being taught as a young boy, but that's what they're doing to you.
Did you have to take latin?
Me too. Eight years of it and I could never understand why. (...) Enough with the Jesuits, as John J. Schmidt, a candidate for presidency, said in 1972: there is nothing wrong with the Jesuits that a good inquisition would not cure.
Come rack! Come rope! That's what they used to say in the days of the inquisition.
In the making of motion pictures, a director is often portrayed as a violent man who screams and yells on actors and says 'ready!' on stage and waves his arms around a lot. By your own admission, you are a placid man. Are you as placid when you are at work?
Well, first of all I'll tell you an interesting thing. I've only been on another set once in my whole career. And that's when I first came to Hollywood to sign on with Selznick, and I was given a lunch and was shown around the studios. But I've never been on another set, never seen another director at work. Just saw this one director. I was astonished to find he was addressing everyone to a public address system. Now, I've heard about directors and how they behaved in a manner in which you described, you see? And the only thing I could say about it is that it seems to me all the drama is on the set and none on the screen. Now, people keep telling me that they don't know when I'm directing when I don't do directing. I discuss it with the actors in the dressing room.
What makes you angry? Not so much about your work, but about life, things that people do...
Stupidity makes me angry. And certain things in one's work. I hate to see a scene when they're pouring wine out of the wrong bottle. It's the details that bother me.
How about life? You live in the world, you read the papers, I'm certain, and you listen to the television news programs. You're in your seventies now. What do you think about the world around you, what's going on...
Well, it's in a great difficulty because of communication. See, communication is the reason why people get disturbed. Years and years ago, there wasn't any television, there wasn't any radio. And there were only newspapers, and they were very dull looking newspapers. They weren't... I had a friend, the editor in the London Daily Express, who invented the new front page layout with headlines all over it, pictures... but the main thing was to give a big headline to every piece. In those days, years ago, if you look at the paper, like let's say Kansas City Star, it had a little headline on top and a long column of print. There wasn't communication, you see. But today, people have it thrown at them from all sides.
Do you not like that? Do you think the world would be better without this instant katharsis?
Well, you got the situation of people copying what they see. We hear about the influence of crime being copied. Now, although I deal with the same thing myself, I only regret one thing that I ever did in a film that was copied. And that was Foreign Correspondence, a picture I made at the Goldwyn Studios here. A very elaborate film, very big film. And in it, I had a big scene laid in Amsterdam, with an important politician on the top step. And the whole thing was massive umbrellas, trolley cars - it was the center of the city. And the cameraman came along and said:
picture please! In the camera, there was a hidden gun. And he kept it in his right hand and as he was about to supposedly take the picture, he fired a gun. An assassin killed this politician. And I heard it was done in Teheran two years later.
And you regret it?
Yes, I think that was one of those things.
I wonder why it is, and I've said this before. People always copy the bad things that they see in media.
The same is with news. Bad news is news, good news is not interesting! You find that in all newspapers, only bad news. All about bad men.
It's interesting, but it also becomes more appealing.
Appealing, because it's like audiences watching one of my picture. They're scared, but they feel comfortable because it's there for the grace of God...
What I meant to say was when people see something in media that is violent and that is criminal, it is said that certain individuals will go out and copy that. What I have difficulty comprehending is, if media shows something good, why don't as many people go out and emulate that.
Because that doesn't give them any satisfaction. As I said a moment ago, they look at the man in bad situation and they say: "my God! Thank God it's not me! I feel safe. That's what they feel.
The image that you have contrived, and I'm certain you've done this carefully over the years, is one of dowerness, of seriousness, of conveying an impression of mystery. Does Alfred Hitchcock ever tell jokes? Do you have a little sense of humor?
That's the thing I talked to you about earlier, I was saying that people think that one is a monster. And they relate me to my material.
Well, you're a rather imposing gentleman.
I wouldn't look at it that way.
Well, you look pretty imposing to me.
No, I used to, and strangely enough, I used to indulge very much in practical jokes. They were of very hard order and I took great pleasure from them. I remember once at Chasen's, when Dave Chasen's restaurant had a garden in the back. I gave a birthday party for my wife. And just to liven it up I engaged from central casting an aristocratic old lady. I had her dressed by the studio, hair beautifully done, and she sat with me at the end of the table. Guests arrived and said:
who's that?. I said
I don't know! The only person who knew the secret was my wife and Dave Chasen. One person came to her and talked to her for a moment and then came to me and said that he asked her who's she with and she said that she's with the Hitchcock party. I said that it's nonsense, and that I've never seen her in my life! So she sat there the whole evening and bewildered everyone! It's that sort of joke that amuses me. I once gave a dinner in London and I had two or three important guests: Gertrude Lawrence, sir Gerald du Maurier - that's the father of Daphne du Maurier, a leading actress from the London stage at the time, two or three other people. And all the dinner was blue. Everything you ate was blue. The soup was blue, chicken was blue, really. And we told Gerald du Maurier that we're gonna be fancy-dressed, so he came as a Scotsman, and nobody else was you know. Well, we got him into different clothes later. Those kinds of jokes I used to enjoy. You know, talking about bringing someone in and telling him to get in a fancy dress and it ends up the opposite, it reminds me of the man invited to the nudist party. And he arrives and the moment he arrives and you show him into the room with the whole pile of people's clothes, and then he entered the living room and everybody was dressed! Ain't that a horrible joke? I wouldn't perpetrate that one on anyone.
You don't do that sort of thing?
No, no, not that way.
I want you to introduce America, for those people who haven't heard of it yet... to something that we've talked on one occasion some time ago. Rhyming slang (Wiki). Remember when you asked me if I knew how the rasberry got its name?
Well, yes. That's a vile one, so we won't go into that. Rhyming slang really almost goes back to the Elizabethan days. It goes back very very early. It's a jibe used by traders, so they can communicate with each other without the customer understanding. Now, to give you some example, 'stairs'. One famous one is 'stairs'. You don't say 'stairs', you say 'apples and pears'! And then with the usage, the rhyme is lost. 'Going up to bed' - 'uncle Ned'. The rhyme gets lost. 'The wife' is called 'the trouble and the strife'. 'Sister' is 'skin and blister'. 'I suppose', that's 'the nose'. 'Mince pies' are 'the eyes', 'north and south' - 'the mouth'. I had an actress once say to me in London, she said:
half a (?) while I lemon squash my German bands. She wanted to go to the toilet, which in polite language was: "I'm going to wash my hands".
Is this used anymore in England?
All the time, yes! I remember walking on the set one day, and the chief electrician said to me:
hi governor! Nice pair of (?) you got there! There is a sweet meat in England called (?), just a lot of it stuck together. It is for socks! So he said to me: "nice pair of socks you got on!"
What would you not do in a movie that you were making. Today, they put everything on the screen. There's x-rated pictures, there's nothing left to the imagination, and so far as morality is concerned, there are very violent pictures made, horrible things are done to the human body. What wouldn't you do? What turns you off?
What turns me off are what I call rolling wrestling matches in bed. It's a cliche, they shoot past the man's shoulder, leaning over the girl in bed, you know, it's unnecessary. I think it's cheap and vulgar.
But you're not against the use of nudity in motion pictures. You used some in Frenzy.
No, no. I used it in the last picture, but very sparingly. I had to show nudity a couple of times, but it was very important to the scene to show these couple cuts anyway. But normally, just showing them for the sake of showing is bad taste and unnecessary.
Is there anything else? Anything violent that you wouldn't put in a picture?
I've never made a picture about professional criminals, or cops. If you'd look back over the films that I've made, generally speaking they are about ordinary people in bizarre situations. That's my essence. The movie like North by Northwest, Cary Grant - he's an ordinary businessman! He gets mistaken for a spy and he goes through the most bizarre experiences. It enables the audience to identify themselves much more closer to the individual. They can't identify themselves with a cop, they look at it objectively. They can't identify themselves with a criminal, unless there's intense interest, such as it was in the mafia, like with Godfather. That's a different thing, a thing they always look at objectively. But I've always gone for average man, an ordinary individual, going through the extraordinary experience.
Is that the basic thing that you're looking for?
Yes. Whether I want it or not, I seem to gravitate towards that. As a matter of fact, I'm preparing a script now with mr Ernie Lehman. We're working on a story which shows an innocent couple getting involved in very important abductions of people, kidnapping. They know nothing about it.
What is the name of that?
I haven't yet made up a title.
I don't mean to interrupt you, but when you're doing this, like putting together a scene, the one that everybody likes to talk about: the shower scene in Psycho, that one especially. Can you feel what you think the audience will feel when they're watching that, when you're putting it together?
I hope so, except a scene like that took me seven days to shoot. Because although it was only on the screen for 45 seconds, there was 78 separate pieces of film joined together to get that stabbing and that effect. One hopes they will. You can't predict, but I've been aiming to... can I say something vulgar? That there's not a dry sit at the house. That's the aim.
If you don't know how to do that, nobody knows how to do that. (...) In the last segment, you said you were in preparation of the picture now. Again, how long will you keep making movies? There are fellows who retire from your craft at 45, 50 years old, figuring that they've made all the pictures that they wanted make, or they've said what they wanted to say. But you're still going!
I still will go. I have no reason to stop. Many more pictures, to me. But talking of those stories, we were talking about it earlier while the commercial was amusing our audience...
Well you've left them without dry seats so they had to.
Yeah. One of the stories I wanted to do for our television show was famous story by an English poet. It's a classic story. A man and his wife moved into a village, I think it was laid in England, moved into the village and they rented a house and the garden. And the man asked the landlord if he could cut down twelve large trees which were surrounding the house. And he got permission to do that. They lived there for a year or two, and at some point the wife went missing. And people were asking him where was his wife, and he was saying that she had gone away, or something. But gossip, as it does in all villages, increased to a point where he wasn't really believed. He wasn't giving satisfactory answers to whereabouts of his wife. So, the police moved in and they began to ask question. Eventually, the search for the wife got so intense that the police practically accused him of murder. But they had no evidence, no body, they were digging up his garden in search of this woman and finally gave it all up and the case was closed! And it so happened that university professor took an interest in the case and he visited this village and made some enquiries around. And finally, in the inn he found a travelling salesman, who travelled selling ketchup. And the travelling salesman said:
curious thing happened the other day. I was visiting the general store and the lady who runs it told that something struck her as being rather peculiar.. The salesman said
what was that?. Well, she said that this man, who was accused of disposing his wife, came and bought two bottles of this within a space of a week. And she said that it's totally unusual, because one bottle would usually last a person two/three weeks. So the professor said:
that's the end of the story! Somebody said:
why would he want to cut down the twelve large trees? And he said:
that was to give himself the appetite!
What a horrible story!
I told you it was a horrible story!
Boy, you did one on television. I remember watching where they came to the club to have dinner and there was lamb, and the lady... you tell that story in case somebody has not seen that.
Well, it was a famous club and the whole idea of the story was that it was sort of a suicide club. When they went there to have lamb, it turned out to be human flesh. Let me tell you one more interesting story. I think we have time, I'll tell it quickly. A man was writing across the Australian desert with his car. South Australia, loaded up, and the back axle goes. He sees in a distance an oasis, and there he drudges and finds a beautifully kept... rings a bell, man answers the door, saying
come in, sir!, the owner of the house comes in and he explains his problem and the owner, a very dapper, well-dressed man, says:
well, the only problem is that the nearest place is 100 miles back from where you've come. If you stay here for a night, I'll have my men take your car back there and get it repaired. So he answered
it's a wonderful idea, thank you very much! So he goes up to a room, changes, comes down for cocktail and is introduced to the man's wife and daughter. He's struck by two attractive women. In fact, his wife attracts him very much, because they can almost be sisters - mother and daughter. And after dinner, everything is very polite, he goes to bed. In the night, he hears a tap at the door. He switches the bedside lamp and the door half-opens and the voice of a woman says:
please, no lights. He says:
all right, turns the lights off. The door clicks and she comes over to the bed. She says:
you know, we've lived a very lonely life here, as you can see. And gradually, in conversation she begins to caress him, his hands first, and finally of course to the inevitable. About 4AM, she says:
I'm gonna go, it's getting light. He says:
but tell me, which are you? Mother, or daughter? I gotta know! She says:
I don't want you to know, let it be that way. She goes off. At morning, coffee and breakfast by the pool, he looks from mother to daughter, gets no sign at all. And he's baffled and says:
I didn't sleep at night. Well, it's probably a strange bed and so forth. Second night, the same thing happens again. He said:
all day, I tried to get some sign from you. She said:
I'm not gonna give you the sign, no. Same thing in bed, 4AM she goes, they had a wonderful night together. The following night, same thing again. Third night, he said:
you know, my car is repaired, I'm leaving tomorrow, why don't you come to Melbourne. Meet me there! She says:
no, no. Let this be our last night. He feels her tears and so forth. And she goes. In the morning, the car is ready. He looks at mother, he looks at daughter, shakes each one by the hand and presses it hard. No response. And the owner of the house escorts him to his car. He said:
I dare say you wonder why we live in such a remote place. You see, we have another daughter and she was never wed. She's the reason why we live here, because she's a leper.
I know from reading about the Alfred Hitchcock that he is a man who loves grand food and good wines and he's now on a diet, he's lost 14 pounds in the last two weeks.
I would say yes, 14 in the last 10 days. I would say that in my lifetime, I must have lost altogether 500 pounds. Truly!
You ever wondered where it goes?
I've lost a 100 pounds when I was making a movie with Tallulah Bankhead, Lifeboat, 1943. I lost 100 pounds.
What is the reason for this newest diet?
I've reached a plateau. That was the decision one must make. I am too heavy. I was having great difficulty in getting up and down the stairs.
How do you lose 14 pounds in 10 days. There are all kinds of diets...
You keep to 750 calories per day. No bread, no butter, nothing in the way of deserts, just meat, string beans, that's it.
Do you drink a lot of water, like some people do?
No, I don't believe in water because that's the very thing I'm trying to get rid off!
Exactly, but they say if you drink 8 to 10 glasses of it a day, that will...
No, no, I don't believe in that. I think in dieting, you should keep yourself dry.
It's a terrible time to go on a diet, with a holiday season coming on, all of those Christmas goodies
You have to turn your back on it.
Yes. Did you ever think many many years ago, when you were first starting to do this, that it would come to this, where they would be writing books about you and doing retrospectives on television of your films, that you will be worshipped by other filmmakers as a master of your craft? Did you foresee all this back in 1915, or 1920?
No, not at all. I think the most gratifying thing that I enjoyed about one's job is being able to appeal to world audiences, the Japanese. See, I can walk down the Ginza in Tokyo and be recognized! In Japan, they know me. And that's the most gratifying thing when it comes to one's work. Same in Germany. I'll never forget when we crossed the frontier once at Metz, entering France. And the officer in the window says:
aaah, Hitchcock! And then we had to wait and he went inside and brought out all the officers and they wanted autographs. Listen, I'm not an actor, this is very flattering.
All directors are actors.
I am not.
You appear in your movies.
I'd never think so low!
But on the television series that's still running, you come on and say
No, that's just dignified introductions. To be an actor... you know I've called them cattle for years, For 30 years I've called them cattle.
And they still keep coming back to the barn, don't they?
I remember (?) when he was alive. She said:
why do you call my husband cattle? I said:
he's nice cattle!
I trust you have some word of reassurance (edit: as the show is about to end)...
Leprosy, I want to assure you, is not contagious, although I think leprosy would be a nice name for a girl.