Sidney Gottlieb not only presents some of Hitchcock's most important pieces, but also places them in their historical context and in the context of Hitchcock's development as a director. He reflects on Hitchcock's complicated, often troubled, and continually evolving relationships with women, both on and off the set. Some of the topics Hitchcock touches upon are the differences between English and American attitudes toward murder, the importance of comedy in film, and the uses and techniques of lighting. There are also many anecdotes of life among the stars, reminiscences from the sets of some of the most successful and innovative films of this century, and incisive insights into working method, film history, and the role of film in society.
Unlike some of the complex critical commentary that has emerged on his life and work, the director's own writing style is refreshingly straightforward and accessible. Throughout the collection, Hitchcock reveals a delight and curiosity about his medium that bring all his subjects to life.
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Hitchcock on Hitchcock
Selected Writings and Interviews
By Sidney Gottlieb
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 1995 Sidney Gottlieb
All rights reserved.
A Life in Films
Hitchcock began to reminisce about his life in films at a fairly young age. "My Screen Memories" and "Life Among the Stars" were published while he was only in his late thirties, but by this time he had already spent more than seventeen years in the rather new industry, which qualified him to speak as one of the veterans. And in any event, at the time of these first reminiscences, Hitchcock was called on not so much as one of the old lions but as one of the bright stars among directors. In the late 1930s, Hitchcock's reputation was at a peak, as was the British film industry in general, and there was a great demand for publicity information, behind-the-scenes tales of film personalities, and firsthand reports of how films were made. Hitchcock was a regular contributor to a variety of periodicals, especially Film Weekly, which seemed to take a kind of proprietary interest in him, perhaps because, as the introductory blurb to "My Screen Memories" explains, "his career ... is, in its way, also the story of British films."
Taken together, "My Screen Memories" and "Life Among the Stars" constitute Hitchcock's most extensive commentary on the first phases of his career, ranging from his first directorial assignment to nearly the end of his "British" period and his move to the United States in 1939. There is some overlapping of material, but various stories become transformed as they are retold, and it is interesting to hear slightly (and sometimes markedly) different versions, for example, of Miles Mander trying to catch a train and, more significantly, how Blackmail was shot. Conspicuous by its absence is any detailed treatment of The Lodger, which most modern critics feel is his greatest early achievement. But he describes his apprenticeship as, in his own words, a "cub director" by lengthy (and often hilarious) recollections of the making of his first two films, The Pleasure Garden, rarely screened these days, and The Mountain Eagle, unfortunately perhaps lost forever.
These pieces add considerably to the already substantial storehouse of Hitchcock's droll tales about, as he says, "the queer ways in which filmland sometimes works," and we hear much of such assorted and amusing topics as John Galsworthy's snooty pretentiousness, the essential contributions of a prop man to Juno and the Paycock and a slingshot artist to The Man Who Knew Too Much, Nita Naldi's nails and underwear, and Hitchcock's own penny-pinching. But alongside such entertaining stories he also gives a great deal of information that fleshes out and sometimes even revises our sense of his development as a filmmaker and his approach to filmmaking. For example, his later "biographical legend" often follows up on his simple assertion in "Life Among the Stars" that he became a director almost by accident: "Quite seriously, I had never thought of being a director," he says, untilMichael Balcon urged him on. In "My Screen Memories," though, he notes that when Balcon approached him, "I was already toying with the idea of directing a film myself," and he had in fact directed a film financed by some relatives. His description of the failure of this film introduces a recurrent theme in this memoir: his many insecurities as a beginning director, expressed in melodramatic images of filmmaking as causing "some of the nastiest shocks in my whole life," "terrors" that haunt him constantly.
We may need to revise not only our understanding of Hitchcock's "vocation" as a director but also our sense of his characteristic working method. Some of the descriptions in these essays are not entirely consistent with his later, often-repeated claims that meticulous preplanning was the essence of his art. "Life Among the Stars" begins by contrasting the "disciplined, departmentalized, efficient" production routines of the late 1930s with the much more hectic, exciting, and serendipitous methods of the 1920s, which he recalls nostalgically. And "My Screen Memories" highlights several examples of the kind of improvisation we do not normally associate with Hitchcock: Madeleine Carroll's role in The 39 Steps was largely "built up" on the set, for which Hitchcock gives her a great deal of credit, a scene in Secret Agent that he praises highly originates not in inventive directing but spontaneous "bandying" by Carroll and Robert Young; and the appearance of the distinguished actor Michel Saint-Denis as the coachmen in Secret Agent was not the result of careful planning but sudden inspiration as Hitchcock chatted on the set with Saint-Denis, who was visiting with his friend John Gielgud.
The Film Weekly description of Hitchcock's early recollections is not altogether inaccurate: "He tells of small beginnings and great achievements, of colorful people, humor and plenty of thrills." But perhaps Hitchcock's own words are more evocative: his focus is on "the emotional drama that was being enacted on the other side of the camera." His writings, like his films, frequently have bright surfaces but somewhat darker depths, as is especially evident in the next two selections in this section. "The Woman Who Knows Too Much" is at first glance a characteristically rambling, light, anecdotal sketch of his wife, Alma, and their relationship, but even without overscrutinizing it we quickly realize that this relationship is complex, troubled, and troubling. Hitchcock both romanticizes and deromanticizes his attraction to Alma and in a remarkably honest fashion sets their relationship in the context of his deepest worries and fears, some of them obvious and familiar-of policemen and being alone, for example-but others somewhat more subtle and concealed, like his fear of being analyzed and thereby "demolished" by his wife. The silent or silenced woman is a recurrent theme in his films, and this essay is worth reading in the context of, among others, The Man Who Knew Too Much, especially the second version, a subtle battle-of-the-sexes film alluded to of course in the title here, and Psycho, a not-so-subtle battle-of-the-sexes film in which a silent woman speaks through a man, with pathological consequences. (Alma gets a chance to speak for herself in "My Husband Hates Suspense," Family Circle 52, no. 6 [June 1958]: 36-37, 69-70, 72; and Joseph McBride, "Mr. and Mrs. Hitchcock," Sight & Sound 45, no. 4 [Autumn 1976]: 224-225.)
The "After-Dinner Speech at the Screen Producers Guild Dinner" was most likely ghost-written for him and used on a variety of occasions. Still, much of the wit and charm are Hitchcock's own, as are the somewhat deeper concerns about the relationship between his self and his image. From the very beginning of his career he not only carefully crafted his public image but also felt and complained about the strain of this self-creation. In this speech, he characteristically projects and pokes fun at his own image, relating a fascinating series of fables of unstable personae, wandering simulations, and masks that will not come off, fables that link Hitchcock's world with that of Pirandello,Ionesco, and Borges. Here as elsewhere, he confirms that he will tease his audience and never give a straightforward answer to "Who is the real Alfred Hitchcock?" But there is also some intimation that he cannot answer that question and that he is worried about the deeper question of whether or not there is a "real" Alfred Hitchcock. Find the director, to use Thomas Leitch's wonderful phrase, is a game played by Hitchcock's audience and by Hitchcock himself.
The end of Hitchcock's life and career has been described in detail by David Freeman, in The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock, and also by Spoto, who paints a particularly grim picture of his final project, The Short Night, as the unfilmable culmination of Hitchcock's obsessive fantasies about inescapable entrapment, murder, and sexual violence (574-583). All the more reason, then, to conclude this section with what may be taken as Hitchcock's own valedictory statement. In perhaps the last important interview of his life, aptly titled "Surviving," Hitchcock talks less about his pacemaker or his problems than his patience—"First and foremost, it's a case of the cobbler sticking to his last—"and even his buoyancy as he continues to face up to the challenges of filmmaking. His brief self-analysis is candid and insightful: one could go a long way toward understanding his life and work by following up on his observations that he is characteristically "devious" (by which he means creatively indirect and adaptive rather than manipulative and confrontational) with others and "tough" with himself. And his last words are courageous and prophetic: "I warn you, I mean to go on for ever," he warns us, and indeed, via his perennially engaging films, he continues to haunt us, as a master artist and, in the words of John Russell Taylor, a "champion survivor."
My Screen Memories
I Begin with a Nightmare
Looking back is sometimes amusing—and sometimes humiliating. It is not a thing I care to do as a rule.
I prefer to look forward. I am usually more interested in the immediate future than in the past. But there is, I suppose, a certain advantage in contemplating things that have gone by, for a while, in preference to things to come. It helps one to realize one's mistakes—gives one a sense of proportion.
Having made up my mind to take the plunge, I'll do the job properly by going right back to the very beginning of my association with films.
My first film work was done—after brief experience as a draughtsman in an engineer's office, and as a clerk with an insurance company—when I became a title-writer for the old Famous Players Company at Islington.
I was still at Islington when Michael Balcon, to whom I owe more than I can say, formed the Gainsborough Company and took over the studios. I gained a pretty comprehensive knowledge of filmmaking in all its phases in various jobs there. I was alternately writer, art director, assistant director, production manager, and sometimes all at the same time.
Birth of an Idea
I was already toying with the idea of directing a film myself. And, in this connection, I'll let you into a secret. I directed one picture, in my early days, of which you have almost certainly never heard. It was not made for any company. Some relatives, carried away by my enthusiasm, put up the money for me to make a film on my own. Out of kindness of heart to the players who appeared in it I won't mention their names. I am afraid the picture never reached the screen.
That was a somewhat chastening experience. But my first real directing effort had much worse terrors in store for me. It gave me some of the nastiest shocks in my whole life. Although it was made over ten years ago, the details of the trials and tribulations I went through are still vivid in my mind. I can smile about them today, but at the time they were ghastly.
The film was The Pleasure Garden, and it was made in conjunction with a German company. Michael Balcon, who had conceived the idea of "importing" American stars long before anybody else, had engagedVirginia Valli for the leading role. She was at the height of her career then-glamorous, famous, and very popular. That she was coming to Europe to make a picture at all was something of an event.
But the actual production of the film bristled with difficulties and mishaps from beginning to end, partly because I had to direct it abroad, and in German. Although the company's studios were in Munich most of the scenes were shot around Lake Como.
Trouble with the Customs
I set off from Munich to Genoa while Alma Reville—now my wife; at that time my assistant director—went over to Cherbourg to meet Virginia Valli on the liner. She was to bring her on to Lake Como, where I would meet them. Things went wrong even before my journey had started. We went to Munich station by taxi. I was accompanied by Miles Mander, the leading man, and a couple of cameramen.
We got to the station with five minutes to spare before the train was due out; and just as we were boarding it Miles realized that he had left his makeup box in the taxi. We hurriedly made plans for him to go and get it while the rest of us went on. He would have to catch the next train and meet us at Genoa. Then we had a bit of luck. The train was half an hour late in going out and Miles recovered the makeup box in time to catch it after all.
The next spot of trouble came when we reached the Brenner Pass and had to get through the Customs into Italy. We airily said: "Nothing to declare," without realizing that we had. A keen-eyed official came across the film negative and confiscated the lot. It represented the whole of our stock. Without it we were as helpless as a cinema without a screen.
We had to negotiate for the return of the stock—on the payment of a suitable fine—and went on to Genoa, praying that it would be returned all right. But time went by and still it was not delivered. Eventually, we had to send into Milan for a fresh, and expensive, supply. Our man got back with it just as the confiscated stock turned up.
The next day we went down to the harbor to shoot scenes. It was while I was down there that I received the worst blow to date. I discovered that the whole of the money to cover our expenses on location, 10,000 lire, had been stolen. Apart from the little I had of my own I was penniless. I frantically borrowed money all around, but it was just sufficient to meet current expenses and to take us, after a delay, to Alassio.
Here I had to film crowd scenes with the local people. There were 5,000 of them, and every one of them treated it as a huge joke. They were supposed to be watching Miles Mander dragging a dead body from the sea, but, from the way they carried on one would have imagined they were watching a pierrot show. The best "take" of all was utterly ruined at the critical moment by an Italian woman walking right in front of the camera. I would have liked to tell her what I thought of her-but I couldn't speak Italian. We got those scenes finished at last.
I wired to London for £50 of my own money. Then we went back to the most luxurious and expensive hotel on Lake Como with hardly enough in our pockets to buy a drink.
Meanwhile, Miss Reville was meeting Virginia Valli on the ship at Cherbourg. Tom Mix had paid a visit to Europe just previously and there had been an enormous turn-out to greet him. Virginia Valli, not unnaturally, expected a similar welcome. Instead, there was only my wife. And I might mention that she is only 4 feet 11 inches in height, and slim with it.
If Virginia Valli was surprised, so was Miss Reville. She had expected Miss Valli alone; but she had with her Carmelita Geraghty, one of Hollywood's current "baby" stars. The two were traveling together and intended to stick together.
By the time my wife had bought all the necessary film frocks for Miss Valli and had paid expenses for the two actresses she had spent all her money. When they arrived at Lake Como she had no more than I had.
It rained the first day. Then, when we started shooting Virginia Valli's scenes, I was in a cold sweat. I wanted to disguise the fact that this was my first directorial effort. I dreaded to think what she, an established Hollywood star, would say if she discovered that she had been brought all the way over to Europe to be directed by a beginner.
I was terrified at giving her instructions. I've no idea how many times I asked my future wife if I was doing the right thing. She, sweet soul, gave me courage by swearing I was doing marvelously. And Virginia Valli played her scenes sublimely unconscious of the emotional drama that was being enacted on the other side of the camera.
My £50 arrived from London all right, but it was only a drop in the ocean compared with the amount I needed. I wired to Munich for some more-but the only money they would send was sufficient merely to help me along with our current expenses.
The time drew near for the hotel bill to be paid, and most of my money had gone on production. The film went smoothly enough and we got everything we wanted "in the can." But, overshadowing it all, in my mind, was the thought of that impending hotel bill.
The critical day arrived. In desperation I hit upon the idea of using Carmelita Geraghty as a means to extort some money from Virginia Valli. The ethics of a director playing such a trick on a star didn't trouble me. But, like a man, I left Miss Reville to do all the dirty work. She went to Valli and explained that, owing to the unexpected presence of her friend, we had insufficient expenses money to meet our obligations. Could she possibly advance us some cash? I was not present at the interview. Women can do these things more discreetly than men. At any rate, Miss Reville came back to me in triumph bearing a couple of hundred dollars of Virginia Valli's money.
By the time I had paid the bill I had got the equivalent of ten English pounds left. I reckoned it all out carefully. There was just enough to pay for Valli to have a cabin on the train back to Munich-the rest of us would have to sleep in the ordinary carriages.
Excerpted from Hitchcock on Hitchcock by Sidney Gottlieb. Copyright © 1995 Sidney Gottlieb. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
A Life in Films,
My Screen Memories (1936),
Life Among the Stars (1937),
The Woman Who Knows Too Much (1956),
After-Dinner Speech at the Screen Producers Guild Dinner (1965),
Actors, Actresses, Stars,
How I Choose My Heroines (1931),
Are Stars Necessary? (1933),
Women Are a Nuisance (1935),
Nova Grows Up (1938),
Crime Doesn't Pay (1938),
What I'd Do to the Stars (1939),
Elegance Above Sex (1962),
Thrills, Suspense, the Audience,
Why "Thrillers" Thrive (1936),
Let 'Em Play God (1948),
The Enjoyment of Fear (1949),
Master of Suspense: Being a Self-Analysis by Alfred Hitchcock (1950),
Core of the Movie-The Chase (1950),
Murder-With English on It (1957),
Would You Like to Know Your Future? (1959),
Why I Am Afraid of the Dark (1960),
A Redbook Dialogue: Alfred Hitchcock and Dr. Fredric Wertham (1963),
Films We Could Make (1927),
"Stodgy" British Pictures (1934),
If I Were Head of a Production Company (1935),
More Cabbages, Fewer Kings: A Believer in the Little Man (1937),
Much Ado About Nothing? (1937),
Directors Are Dead (1937),
Director's Problems (1938),
The Censor and Sydney Street (1938),
The Censor Wouldn't Pass It (1938),
Old Ruts Are New Ruts (1939),
Production Methods Compared (1949),
Film Production (1965),
In the Hall of Mogul Kings (1969),
Technique, Style, and Hitchcock at Work,
On Music in Films (1933-1934),
Close Your Eyes and Visualize! (1936),
Search for the Sun (1937),
Some Aspects of Direction (1938),
Lecture at Columbia University (1939),
My Most Exciting Picture (1948),
On Style (1963),
Hitchcock Talks About Lights, Camera, Action (1967),
Hitchcock at Work (1976),
A BIBLIOGRAPHY OF THE WRITINGS OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK,