Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchock

Alfred Hitchock was interviewed at the National Film Theatre in 1967 by Bryan Forbes.

In this interview he discusses the medium of film, theatre and television, violence, and biting the heads off rats.

Interview © BFI 2002

Black and white or colour

Bryan Forbes: It is a great privilege and honour to introduce to you, in the flesh, the director that most other directors would like to emulate, that most actors would like to emulate and that most actors who fancy themselves as directors would like to emulate - Mr Alfred Hitchcock.

[Applause]

I don't want to ask you any of the questions that I'm sure have bored you over the years - well I'll try to avoid them anyway. I am fascinated by writers' diaries and notebooks and therefore I am fascinated, as a fellow director, by the point at which you feel yourself to be committed. Is it in the script, is it on the first day, is it long before the script? Where do you think it all starts for you?

Alfred Hitchcock: Well, for me, it all starts with the basic material first. Now, the question of when you have the basic material... you may have a novel, a play, an original idea, a couple of sentences and from that the film begins. I work very closely with the writer and begin to construct the film on paper, from the very beginning. We roughly sketch in the whole shape of the film and then begin from the beginning. You end up with around 100 pages, or perhaps even more, of narrative, which is very bad reading for a litterateur. There are no descriptions of any kind - no 'he wondered', because you can't photograph 'he wondered.'

BF: No 'camera pans right', for example

AH: Not at that stage, no. It's as though you were looking at the film on the screen and the sound was turned off. And therefore, to me, this is the first stage. The reason for it is this - it is to urge one to, to drive one, to make one work purely in the visual and not rely upon words at all. I am still a purist and I do believe that film is a series of images projected on a screen. This succession of images create ideas, which in turn create emotion, just as much as in literature words put together form sentences.

BF: Do you think in black and white or is your preference for colour? Do you think in black and white images?

AH: Not at all. The colour is part of the structure. In other words, you restrain colour and bring it in when it's necessary. Don't orchestrate it so loudly so that later on you may use it and, to mix metaphors a moment, you've exploded your gunpowder.

BF: There was a thought behind that question. If I may be so bold, there is only one of your films that may have been better in black and white - The Birds. It was a personal preference, I don't know why, but I would have preferred to see that film in black and white.

AH: It's strange that you should ask that. I opted for colour because the birds were black and white ...

[Laughter and applause]

... so that the faces of the people involved would be separate from the birds.

BF: My question was more technical. For me, the technique of the phoney birds would have been less obvious if you had used black-and-white.

AH: Well, we actually used real birds. There were no mechanical ones used at all.

[Laughter]

BF: There were one or two wooden, stationery ones weren't there?

AH: Well, we hoped that we'd deceived the eye.

[Laughter]

That was purely a matter of quantity rather than quality.

BF: Do you think that thrillers, which you are associated with, benefit from colour or are they better in black-and-white? Film is better in black-and-white for me. I confess that I have never been satisfied with the films I have made in colour.

AH: I think that colour should be reduced and desaturated down so that the only colour left

on screen is the flesh colour of the face.

BF: The sad thing is that you or I might aim for that on the studio floor but when we see the films on general release we wonder what they are shot in because they appear to be shot in some nameless process once they leave our hands.

AH: That is true up to a point but, on the other hand, that what you give the camera, so it will record. I think attention has to be paid to set decoration, costume and all those things that defy the efforts of Technicolor.

[Laughter]

Actors and stars

BF: How many times in your career have you started out with something you thought was going to excite you only to have to abandon it?

AH: Many times. In the last two years I have abandoned two projects. You get so far but you realise it's not going to work. It's better to lose $150,000 or $200,000 than $2 million. Just dump it. Let it go.

BF: I have often found that, although we dump things, part of the egg remains and starts to gestate. We pull them out of our subconscious years later and use them again in a different project. Does that happen to you?

AH: That doesn't happen to me. The only thing that I pigeon-hole is certain ideas that belong to a certain genre - the adventure film, for example. You store up an idea and you put it away and one day it will come out. In a picture like North by Northwest I waited around 15 years to put Mount Rushmore on the screen. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work out. For example, the Department of Interiors step in and say, "You mustn't have any character climbing over the faces of the presidents." You say, "Why not?" They say, "Because this is the shrine of democracy. You must only have your characters climbing between the heads." I was defeated because I had a lovely image of Cary Grant sliding down Lincoln's nose and then hiding in the nostril, reduced to having a sneezing fit.

[Laughter]

I was never allowed to do it. Actually, while we are on the subject. If I have an adventure film of this nature and I have a background, I have it as an absolute must that the background must be incorporated in the drama. For example, in North by Northwest again, Cary Grant was trapped in an auction room. The question was 'How could he get out?' The only way for him to get out would be as a crazy bidder. It isn't just a background - it is the use of it that you must make. I was therefore rather defeated with Mount Rushmore.

BF: We share a dislike of directing method actors, don't we?

AH: The method actor is OK in the theatre because he has a free space to move about. But when it comes to cutting the face and what he sees and so forth, there must be some discipline. I remember discussing with a method actor how he was taught and so forth. He said, "We're taught using improvisation. We are given an idea and then we are turned loose to develop in any way we want to." I said "That's not acting. That's writing." And that is why method actors today always turn up on set with a new script.

BF: It's a very selfish way to act though, isn't it? It doesn't really include the other actor because they are off in their little world ...

AH: That happened to me once. I was doing a film with Montgomery Clift. He turned up with the scene completely rewritten. I said to him "Has it occurred to you that there is another actress in the scene?" I wouldn't let him do it.

BF: Shall we invite some questions from the audience ...

Q: Do you have any rules you apply when you are making a film?

AH: The point is that pure film is montage, which is the assembly of pieces of film, which in their turn must create an emotion in the audience. That is the whole art of the cinema - the montage of the pieces. It is merely a matter of design, subject matter and so forth. You can't generalise about it. You can only hope to produce ideas, expressed in montage terms that create an emotion in an audience.

Q: You often create characters who one can easily identify with, and that you are involved with up to a point. I am thinking of Psycho.

AH: Well, you are involved up to a point. I don't think it applies to Psycho. It applies much more to a picture like North by Northwest, where you are involved in the adventures of the hero. That's why sometimes the star in that type of picture is much more helpful. You worry about him. But with an unknown you wouldn't worry about him so much. If you walk through the streets and see an unknown man lying there waiting for an ambulance after a car accident and you think 'poor fellow.' If you take a double-look and he's your brother it's a very different emotion, you see. So the identification boils down to 'Are you 100% anxious about that particular star?' The lesser known the person, the lesser your interest is.

BF: I think the genius is the way you squandered Martin Balsam in Psycho. I think that was a supreme stroke. I was intensely involved with that character. I thought he was going to go on throughout the whole movie then 'bang' you killed him off in that marvellous sequence.

AH: That's the whole point. We killed off a leading lady as well.

Q: In some of your early films, such as Suspicion, the star could dictate the way a film developed. Do you find you have more freedom making your films now that your name is the selling point?

AH: I have complete freedom but that is, in itself, a handicap. One enters the world of financial ethics. One can do whatever one wants but you become restrained by a kind of responsibility. In the case of Suspicion, one of the early films you mention with Cary Grant, he should never have been in the picture in the first place. You run into this problem. You cast a man who is suspected of murder and then you have to compromise. I remember the head of RKO returned from New York and said, with a big grin on his face, "Oh, you should see what's been done to your film Suspicion." I said, "What?" He said, "Wait and see."

It was now only 55 minutes long. They had gone through the film in my absence and taken out every scene that indicated the possibility that Cary Grant was a murderer. So there was no film existing at all. That was ridiculous. Nevertheless, I had to compromise on the end. What I wanted to do was that the wife was aware that she was going to be murdered by her husband, so she wrote a letter to her mother saying that she was very much in love with him, she didn't want live anymore, she was going to be killed but society should be protected. She therefore brings up this fatal glass of milk, drinks it and before she does she says, "Will you mail this letter to mother?" Then she drinks the milk and dies. You then have just one final scene of a cheerful Cary Grant going to the mailbox and posting the letter.

[Laughter]

But this was never permitted because of the basic error in casting.

Locations

BF: There's no chance of you coming back to England and making a picture, preferably for me, is there?

AH: If it's the right story. I have always said that when one goes inside the studio, one could be anywhere, so it would have to be a story that relates to the atmosphere and background of England.

BF: I think it would be marvellous if you did. You would see so-called 'swinging London' with new eyes.

AH: I'd be back in the studio. I started a contract in 1927.

BF: With ABC?

AH: Yes. It was called The Ring, with Carl Brisson.

BF: Oh, was that an Edgar Wallace story.

AH: No, it was an original. A boxing picture.

BF: I'm thinking of The Ringer.

AH: Yes, you are. You are all tied up with washing machines.

[Laughter]

Q: Why did you remake The Man Who Knew Too Much?

AH: It was remade because I was short of a subject and I felt that, of all the pictures I had made, this would suit the American public. It had a certain amount of human emotion in it, a kidnapped child and so forth. The version is different. The first version was more spontaneous and contained less logic, less reason. There is a thing that the public which doesn't always please one. It is what I call 'moronic logic.'

[Laughter]

I feel that, with certain stories, logic is dull.

BF: There is usually an illogical nature to your logic, I feel. That is what separates it from the herd.

AH: If everything is explained and ironed out, you lose the bizarre and the spontaneous.

Q: What is it that attracts you to thrillers? Why don't you try other genres?

AH: It's not for me. It's the public. If I did a musical, for example, the public would wonder, "When is the moment when one of the chorus girls drops dead?"

[Laughter]

"And what from?"

[Laughter]

Q: What is your basic motive for making films?

AH: Basic motive? Money.

[Laughter]

There's an old expression which says, "All work and no play, makes Jack."

[Laughter]

Q: What is the location that you most want to make use of but have not yet had the opportunity?

AH: I once had an idea that I would like to open a film, say, at the Covent Garden Opera, or the Metropolitan, or the Scala in Milan. Maria Callas is on the stage singing an aria. Her head is tilted upwards. She sees in a box way up, a man approaching another man and stabbing him. She is approaching a high note and the high note turns to a scream. And it's the highest note that she has ever sounded in her life.

[Laughter]

The result of which, she gets a huge round of applause. She is then horrified to see the body falling out of the box and into the auditorium. Panic ensues. The curtain is lowered. Callas is in a state of hysteria. She is helped off the staging into her dressing room. She cries to be left alone. The people leave her. She immediately locks the door and dials a number on the phone. I don't know the rest.

[Laughter]

Music and comedy

Q: Have your concepts of horror changed with the changing times, such as the advent of moon travel and the nuclear bomb. And what frightens you?

AH: Policemen frighten me.

[Laughter]

BF: Not English policemen surely?

AH: Oh, they are the worst.

[Laughter]

AH: Because they are so polite.

[Laughter]

I don't think you can bring the element of nuclear bombs into it because you have to know the people who would be involved in it. When you bring in elements like that, they are external from the story. Unless it is about a scientist involved in it or what have you.

Q: To what extent do you collaborate with the soundtrack composers on your films?

AH: The musician always has it his own way. I've been invited very often by the musician to come down and listen to the score. When one expresses some dissatisfaction, the musician says, "It can't be changed now. It's all been orchestrated." That always happens with a musician. The only time I've ever heard some themes played before the picture was Spellbound, by Rozsa, and on my latest picture, Topaz, by Maurice Jarre. You are quite helpless. You say, "Well, can't I hear some of the music?" And they say, "Well, you can't just play it on the piano. You have to hear it with a full orchestra." So, really, they always have it their own way.

BF: It's funny you say that. My experience has been rather happier. I have been lucky working with John Barry. He gets involved very early and is very flexible. He will change. Otherwise, a composer can take a hard picture and make it sentimental with his score. He can completely corrupt your intentions.

AH: Oh yes. I found on one picture that I heard the first day's work on a picture and had to wash out the whole thing. Cut it out. It was no good. Because of this particular reason - one did not have a chance to hear it before.

BF: That's the economics of the film industry, isn't it? It is fantastically expensive to record music. It all has to be done to the fine cut, to the last frame of film.

Q: Why have you never made a comedy?

AH: But every film I make is a comedy.

[Laughter and applause]

BF: You never worked with Laurel and Hardy did you?

AH: No, not at all.

BF: Would you have liked to?

AH: I don't think I could have done because I was already Hardy inside.

[Laughter]

BF: Does that type of humour attract you?

AH: Oh yes, it does.

BF: What makes you laugh?

AH: I think one of the funniest films I have ever seen is Laurel and Hardy in a film called Bonnie Scotland. The longest take I have ever seen on the screen comes when the two of them are standing on a Scottish bridge and Laurel is taking snuff. And he sneezes right into the snuff box. And all the snuff goes into Hardy's face.

[Laughter]

It was then the longest take I have ever seen before anything happens. And finally, this long sneeze comes. The sneeze is so big that he tilts backwards into the river below. Laurel is left on the bridge and nothing came up but water and fish every few seconds.

BF: A marvellous scene.

Theatre and television

Q: There's a great deal written about your cinema films, but little about your television films. I think they are excellent. Which ones do you remember with affection?

AH: When the TV series started, it was based on the English short story. The short story inspired the series. We had lots to draw upon and we used most of them that were ever written. In the early days, in the twenties, most writers went in for the short story. There were a tremendous lot of them. I did one once, it took a few days to do. It was a Roald Dahl story called Lambs to the Slaughter. It was the story of a young woman, played by Barbara Bel Geddes. She was preparing dinner. Of course, in America you can take food straight out of the freezer and put it in the oven. Anyway, she's preparing food and her husband, the chief of police, comes home and tells her that they are all washed up because there's another woman. She is rather stunned by this and therefore goes out to the garage and takes a leg of lamb, which is frozen. She come back and finds her husband rummaging through the desk draw.

Q: What do you think of making films in two parts?

AH: I think it's very hard to expect an audience to look at a film, take a pause then look at it again. That is why the motion picture is very similar to the short story. In both cases, we expect an audience to sit down and watch a thing continuously without a break. I don't really think there have been many films made successfully in that way.

Q: You took bigger parts in some of you earlier films. Can we expect you to take more substantial roles now?

AH: No. In those days, we ran out of actors.

[Laugher]

BF: Have you ever bothered to join Equity?

AH: I think they pay a stand-in for me.

BF: Are they after you?

AH: Oh yes.

[Laughter]

Influences

Q: Would you agree that your films have been influenced by German cinema?

AH: Very much. I worked as a writer and an art director in the UFA studio at the time when Murnau, Lang and Jannings were working there. I was working on the UFA lot at the same time as The Last Laugh was being made. The first film I made in England. The Lodger, had a very Germanic influence, both in lighting and setting and everything else.

Q: What film are you most proud of?

AH: Two films. The first was called Shadow of a Doubt, which I wrote with Thornton Wilder. This was one of those rare occasions when suspense and melodrama combined well with character. It was shot in the original town and it had a freshness. The other film is Rear Window, which is the most cinematic film I have made. Most people don't realise this because the man is in one room, in one position. But, nevertheless, it's the montage and the cutting of what he sees and its effect on him that creates the whole atmosphere and drama of the film. In other words, the visual transforms itself to emotional ideas. That film lent itself to that.

BF: Would you say it would be fair comment that your films have never been concerned with social consciousness? You have ploughed your own furrow, as it were.

AH: That's true. Samuel Goldwyn once said, "Messages are for Western Union."

BF: An American subject came my way recently, which seemed to be ideally suited to you. It's a true-life thing called Witness to a Killing based on the New York murder where 56 people saw a girl stabbed in the street and did nothing about it. Would that attract you at all?

AH: Yes, except that it is an objective approach and it would be very hard to get an audience involved in that. They would be examining the behaviour pattern of the people who witnessed it. The comment would therefore be, "Can you imagine how irresponsible people are when it comes to being involved?" They would rather not be involved. But the comment would come from the onlooker, rather than provide them with any particular emotion.

BF: Do you get any of your stories from headlines?

AH: I made a picture called The Wrong Man once, which was a recount of an actual case of wrongful arrest. I shot it in the actual places where everything occurred. I was even able to photograph the trial in the same courtroom. The judge was sitting beside me as technical adviser. People kept coming up to me, whispering, "The judge is wrong."

[Laughter]

We had to wait until the judge went out of the court to put things right.

Q: What do you think of the increasing trend of nudity in films? Can we expect to see some in your films?

BF: Perhaps in one of your appearances?

[Laughter]

AH: You mean in the nude?

BF: Yes. When can we expect your first nude appearance?

AH: Never.

[Laughter]

I think it's a passing phase. How far can you go with nudity and sexual relations? It seems that we are all waiting for a zoom-in to a close-up of a sexual act. How close can we get to it? Once you've reached that point then where do you go? After all, it makes no difference to me because I have already done that scene. I did it in the end of North by Northwest, where I showed Cary Grant pull a girl into an upper berth and then I cut to the phallic train entering the tunnel.

[Laughter and applause]

Q: How do you control colour in some of your films?

AH: You can always control colour by desaturation. Technicolor have a very wide range and they can desaturate colour, washing it out almost like you can on a TV set.

Q: There seem to be less stars nowadays, men like Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. Why do you think that is?

AH: There are no stars any more. They are diminishing all the time. The reason we don't get stars is because there are not enough films being made. You have to remember that the men you are talking about were made stars by a tremendous amount of films they made. We always had the saying that a star is made by appearing in a quantity of hit pictures. That quantity is no longer with us. Instead of a company making 52 pictures a year, the average company now only makes 20. The opportunity of getting sufficient talent going is no longer with us so that we are getting fewer and fewer stars. But you are getting better films, just without the stars.

BF: Do you find the current trend of taking so-called non-stars, such as John Voight in Midnight Cowboy. Have you seen it?

AH: Not yet, no.

BF: It's a remarkable performance. It was a remarkable achievement on Schlesinger's part to get that performance. Does that attract you, taking somebody totally unknown and ...

AH: Oh yes, of course. After all, the best casting man is the novelist. He can describe his character down to every facet of the mind. We don't have that opportunity in film... We have to compromise.

Rats

BF: Am I right in saying that you have never worked with Graham Greene?

AH: No. Never.

BF: Do you regret that?

AH: I don't know. It's very hard to say until you put the thing into practice. It's very difficult to tell.

BF: I think he has so many affinities with you that I'd love to see you two come together.

AH: Yes.

BF: I think he's such a superb craftsman.

AH: Oh yes, he is.

BF: And he writes on the page. He visualises so well. All his sentences just grip you. I'd love to bring you together. If you ever come to ABC, it's you and Graham Greene.

AH: Right. Good.

Q: Is there ever any improvisation in your films?

AH: I work with a tightly written script. It's not possible to improvise when you are spending 14 weeks of back projection. There's no chance to improvise there.

BF: 14 weeks? That's frightening.

AH: Yes, it is.

Q: There is a scene in Torn Curtain, which contains a lot of tasteless violence. It surpasses Psycho, even. I think it's a wonderful film, just very violent. Could you comment on this?

AH: I would say that one of the scenes shows how difficult it is to kill a man. It is a messy business. It is a horrible business. It should be a deterrent because it's not all that easy. They usually show killings on the screen that are very simple - a gun shot and, "Bang! You're dead." If you don't have a gun, it just shows you what a horrible, awful thing it is to kill someone. Especially, as you see at the end, at Auschwitz.

Q: Are you surprised that people laugh at that particular scene?

AH: That's the usual reaction.

Q: How can people laugh at something like that?

AH: Because that's a release of tension. People who want relief will find their own ways. In a scene like that, it wasn't possible to give them relief from tension all the way through because of the nature of the scene. There is a need to have to kill the man. Normally, when you are setting up a tense sequence you make sure you have moments of relief from the tension. Sometimes, you can do it. Sometimes, you can't.

BF: Do you think people in real life laugh when they are terrorised?

AH: Well, they always come out of the haunted house giggling. They pay money to be scared but always come out laughing. I think the prime example is when it all begins, when a three-month old child is held in its mother's arms and the mother says, "Boo!" The child is startled and gets hiccups but then laughs. Mother laughs too. All seem to be satisfied. Why mother says, "Boo!" to the child, I don't know. But they still do it. Laughter in frightening situations is very common. I remember years ago they used to have the world fair in Islington. It had merry-go-rounds, slides, what have you. In one of the tents, which you paid a penny to go into, there was a man biting the heads off live rats. People were petrified by this situation. But there were two char ladies at the back and one of them, to relieve the tension of the situation, called out, "Don't you want any bread with it?"

[Laughter]

BF: Have you ever witnessed regurgitation acts, where someone swallows something like a rat then regurgitates it?

AH: No, I haven't seen that. Why regurgitate it? Why not just let it stay down?

[Laughter]

Who wants the rat back?

[Laughter]

Q: How much do you consider the audience's possible reaction when you are making a film?

AH: I think it's very important. I think that comes in devising the film, to anticipate what the audience's reaction is going to be. The audience won't know it because they haven't seen the film. But in watching each scene you have to say to yourself, "What are the audience thinking now?" And one does that in the creation of a script. Somebody once said, years ago, that a play is not written or complete without an audience. You can have a play, you can rehearse it, you can have a complete run-through. But until an audience witnesses that play, it is incomplete. And, to some extent, the same thing applies to a film. In other words, there is no satisfaction in having a large auditorium but with only one seat. It is the collective audience and their reaction that gives interest to your endeavour.

What greater satisfaction can a film-maker have to know that a given scene that he's devised, on the same evening in Tokyo, West Berlin, New York and London, the audience are all reacting in the same way. That's the power of the cinema. Theatre doesn't have it. Literature doesn't get the chance to have it. But we are able, by the manner of copying films and placing them in movie-houses throughout the world to do that. That is the greatest satisfaction one can have.

BF: Well, Mr Hitchcock, on behalf of this collective audience I am sure they would like me to thank you for your usual inspired performance. I can't say that I have actually sat at the feet of the master but, in years to come, I can say that I shared a sofa with him. I am very privileged. Thank-you very much.

[Applause]

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