Publisher: Rowman and Littlefield
Release Date: June 09, 2016
A Conversation with Stephen Whitty
Several decades after his last motion picture was produced, Alfred Hitchcock is still regarded by critics and fans alike as one of the masters of cinema. To study the life and films of Alfred Hitchcock is to study the history of cinema. From the silent films of the 1920s to his final feature in 1976, the director’s many films continue to entertain audiences and inspire filmmakers. In The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia, Stephen Whitty provides a detailed overview of the director’s work. This reference volume features in-depth critical entries on each of his major films as well as biographical essays on his most frequent collaborators and discussions of significant themes in his work. For this book, Whitty doesn’t merely draw from the overwhelming pool of scholarship that already exists (though this does seem to be the basis of much of his work). He supplements the already existing information with his own source materials such as interviews he conducted with associates of the director—including screenwriter Jay Presson Allen (Marnie), actresses Eva Marie Saint (North by Northwest) and Kim Novak (Vertigo), actor Farley Granger (Rope; Strangers on a Train), actor and producer Norman Lloyd (Saboteur; Spellbound), and Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia (Stage Fright; Strangers on a Train; Psycho)—among others. Encompassing the entire range of the director’s career, this is a comprehensive overview of cinema’s ultimate showman. A detailed and lively look at the master of suspense, The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia will be of interest to professors, students, and the many fans of the director’s work.
Alfred Hitchcock Master is proud to have secured this exclusive interview with Stephen Whitty, wherein he discusses his excellent book in candid detail.
AHM: Could you describe The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia for our readers? What makes this book stand out amongst the others in your opinion?
SW: The book is pretty much exactly as its title describes it – an A to Z (well, Y, anyway) of hundreds of topics, spread out over 500 illustrated, hardcover pages. Entries range from discussions of Hitchcock themes and obsessions (blondes, voyeurism, and guilt) to analyses of his films and television shows, to biographical essays on his most frequent stars and collaborators.
Unlike most other Hitchcock books, it’s arranged in a way that you can dip in and out at any time – you don’t have to wade through an entire chapter on Hitchcock in the ‘30s, for example, to find out about the making of The 39 Steps. But while you’re reading that entry, you’ll find keywords that point you to other, stand-alone entries you might want to turn to – on Robert Donat, say, or images of bondage in Hitchcock’s work. So I think it’s a book that’s helpful to both students doing research on a particular film, and film buffs who just want a quick, browsable, entertaining source of information.
After I began writing my book, I did see that there had been another encyclopedia on Hitchcock about a decade ago. I looked at it quickly to see what its approach had been – which seemed to be less personal, more academic than mine – and then put it aside so it wouldn’t influence me in any way. “The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia” is a reference book too, but I wanted it to be very much based on my own experiences – my analysis of his work, my opinions of his stars, and especially my interviews with many of the people he’d worked with over the years. So there’s traditional scholarship here, yes, but also backstage stories of the making of the movies, and insights from and about the people he made them with.
AHM: What gave you the idea to write a Hitchcock themed encyclopedia, and what were the biggest challenges in writing the book?
SW: I had just gotten the latest catalogue from Rowman & Littlefield and saw that they had two similar volumes – encyclopedias on Tim Burton, and the Coen brothers – but nothing on Hitchcock, who I think remains perhaps Hollywood’s most influential, and certainly famous, director. I queried them and they were interested and I went to work.
I was lucky in that I’ve been writing about entertainment for more than 20 years and still had my notes on many Hitchcock colleagues I’ve interviewed over that time, from Kim Novak and Eva Marie Saint to Bruce Dern and Norman Lloyd. And, of course, I have all the major critical studies and biographies that have come out on him. Tracking down copies of some of the films, such as Under Capricorn and Waltzes from Vienna, was a little harder.
The hardest thing was just finding the time to write what’s basically a one-person encyclopedia – I think the final manuscript was over 250,000 words. And then, of course, giving everything a second and third read, and fact-checking everything. My wife was a huge help there.
AHM: Was there any pressure (personal or otherwise) to refrain from including any overt analysis or opinion based information in the book?
SW: No, my experience is as a movie critic and essayist, not a strict historian, so I actually wanted this to be a book that included my own analysis and opinion along with factual information; although I might indicate what other critics have said about a film or performance, and any facts I employ are footnoted, the feelings in this book about Hitchcock and his work are mine. Hopefully, that personal approach will make it more valuable and entertaining to readers.
I suppose the only pressure I put on myself was to be fair. Hitchcock had several contentious and controversial professional relationships during his decades in Hollywood, first with his producer, David O. Selznick, and then with a few of his female stars, particularly Tippi Hedren. Having read a lot of material on the subject, and talked to some of the people involved, personally I’m convinced that Selznick’s involvement actually made several Hitchcock pictures worse, and that Hitchcock’s treatment of Hedren (and some of his other actresses) was harassment, pure and simple. Still, there are people who defend Selznick, and who disbelieve Hedren. I don’t have any doubts about how I feel, but I still tried to present all the known facts as fairly as I could.
AHM: Were there any articles or subjects that couldn’t be included in the book? How did you make the decision as to what was and wasn’t important?
SW: I’m sure there were topics I missed, or that some people will think I didn’t pay enough attention to. For example, although I cover all the TV shows he directed, I didn’t find them as interesting as the films, and devoted only a few lines to most of them; although I cover major collaborators in depth, I don’t touch on every art designer or bit player. On the other hand, some entries I included because I found them personally interesting, even though their connection to Hitchcock was more tenuous (the writer Graham Greene, say, or the critic Pauline Kael). And others became fascinating to me as I looked into their careers, and the more research I did the more their entries expanded; the life of Canada Lee, for example, who is in Lifeboat, could be its own movie. But I don’t think that anyone who is looking for a major Hitchcock topic – whether it’s Rear Window or Cary Grant – will be disappointed.
AHM: Hitchcock scholars seem to fit into two very different categories. The first category seems to embrace the Donald Spoto version of Alfred Hitchcock’s history, and the other group tends to question his scholarship. It is clear that you fit into the first category, and I was hoping that you might want to discuss this.
SW: I remember when the Spoto biography came out in the ‘80s, and it was pretty strongly attacked by the Hitchcock loyalists; when the movie The Girl appeared recently, based partly on another one of Spoto’s books, those criticisms began again. And I can understand that; honestly, as someone who already admired Hitchcock’s films a great deal, I was put off by Spoto’s book at first, too, because I found these stories about the director to be so disappointing. And I think we’ve seen far too many of these posthumous biographies that rip a dead celebrity to shreds once he or she is no longer around to defend themselves.
But even as some of Spoto’s research has been questioned – for example, a story about Hitchcock tormenting a classmate, and one about him playing a mean joke on his daughter, have both pretty much been disproven – other things have been confirmed, or added to. For example, Patrick McGilligan’s biography stands in opposition to a lot of what Spoto asserted – yet McGilligan also turned up an ugly story Spoto didn’t have, of Hitchcock making a pass at Brigitte Auber, from To Catch a Thief. And other people – Joan Fontaine and Ann Todd, for example – have independently written about Hitchcock’s sometimes cruel or inappropriate behavior. (For example, Diane Baker told me that, on the Marnie set, not only was it clear that Hitchcock was acting oddly with Hedren, but that he’d come into her dressing room and suddenly kissed her.) So even putting Spoto’s book aside for a moment, there seems to be a pattern to Hitchcock’s behavior, particularly in his later years, even if many people didn’t experience or witness it themselves.
There are certainly plenty of things in the Spoto book which people can question – they happened years ago, we’re often only hearing one person’s side, memories can be faulty. (And, as a longtime journalist, I know that sometimes people are misquoted – and also that sometimes, seeing their quotes accurately repeated in print, some people suddenly have second thoughts and try to deny them.) You can never be sure you’re getting the whole story. But some of this is true of the McGilligan book too, I think, which talks about this vague, quasi-affair Alma Reville is supposed to have had with a screenwriter. It’s true of Patricia Hitchcock’s own book, which portrays an almost too-perfect family and home life (along with her mother’s favorite recipes!) And it’s certainly true of the movie Hitchcock which simply, blatantly made things up. But all in all I think the Spoto book is pretty solid. You can dispute individual things in it, but I feel it’s credible.
“I love the sheer audacity of it – the way he sets up, and then deliberately confounds the audience’s narrative expectations at every turn. You like this heroine? Well, she’s dead now…” -Stephen Whitty
AHM: When did you first become interested in Alfred Hitchcock’s work, and what instigated the interest?
SW: I was a movie fan from a very early age, but Hitchcock was perhaps the first director I was truly aware of – his show was still on TV when I was very small, and of course he introduced each episode. So I was aware of him as a person and the more I saw his films, the more I became aware of him as an artist – seeing movies like The Birds, and North by Northwest and Psycho and realizing it was the same director behind all of them. By the time I was 11 or 12, I was a real movie buff, and had caught up with his earlier films – and “Hitchcock/Truffaut” and, later, “Hitchcock’s Films” by Robin Wood were enormous influences which I read over and over. The Truffaut book was particularly crucial, because in it Hitchcock really explains why he did something – why he framed something a particular way, the importance of a certain juxtaposition of shots. It’s not just Hitchcock on Hitchcock – it’s Hitchcock on film itself.
AHM: What is your favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, and why is this film your favorite?
SW: For the longest time, my favorite film of his was Psycho. I love the sheer audacity of it – the way he sets up, and then deliberately confounds the audience’s narrative expectations at every turn. You like this heroine? Well, she’s dead now. Oh, you’re interested in this private detective? Yes, well we’re going to kill him off, too. Everything – the camera work, the editing, and the music – feels 20 years ahead of its time. Lately, though, I feel myself going back more and more to Vertigo. It’s such a melancholy movie, so wrapped up in disappointment and defeat – I hope it’s not a bad sign that that’s becoming my favorite!
AHM: Do you have a least favorite Hitchcock film? What is it and why don’t you enjoy the film?
SW: I was hoping when I started this book and began re-watching all his movies that I’d have an epiphany, and suddenly reclaim one of his films as a lost masterpiece but, unfortunately, I really can’t. I’d love to say the majority opinion is wrong, but, I’m sorry – Waltzes from Vienna is still a bad movie. So is Topaz. There are always moments, in any Hitchcock movie worth your time – there’s one gorgeous shot in Topaz, when the woman is killed — but I’d say those two are my least favorite of his.
AHM: If you could bring Alfred Hitchcock back to life in order to complete one of his unfinished projects, which of these projects would you have him complete? Why would you choose this particular project?
SW: He himself so yearned to do the J.M. Barrie play “Mary Rose” I’d love to see him do that, but mostly for his sake; the story doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, personally! But it was a film he wanted to do for decades, so clearly there was something in this story of a magical island that moved him. I’d love to see it and find out what.
AHM: There seems to be a rather unfortunate tendency among critics to assume that because Hitchcock’s films do not seem to have any overt political messages, that these films have nothing to say. I disagree. I think that his films hold a mirror up to mankind’s darker nature while asking some very pertinent questions about it. This can be every bit as important as some topical political theme. What are your thoughts on this?
SW: Well, first of all, I agree with you that his films do have a deeper, darker and perhaps more universal interest than topical concerns. Look at what Psycho is really sardonically saying about motherhood, and our duties to our parents. Or what Vertigo and Notorious reveal about unhealthy relationships. A “good” progressive movie like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? has dated. Shadow of a Doubt never will.
But you know, I also think Hitchcock is political. You examine his films, from at least The 39 Steps on, and you’ll see that the villain is almost always a wealthy, powerful authority figure; the heroes are usually ex-soldiers, teachers, reporters, middle-class professionals. The top spies and traitors in Saboteur are American millionaires who’ve embraced fascism; the hero is a factory worker. In Lifeboat, who are the survivors who are first taken in by the Nazi? The rich. Who are the ones who are suspicious of him? The working class. Who alone refuses to participate in their eventual mob justice? The black man.
And you know personally – quietly – when McCarthyism came, Hitchcock helped blacklisted people out with jobs. Norman Lloyd credited him with giving him back his career by asking him to help produce his TV show. Hitchcock went out of his way to hire other people for that show who’d been having trouble getting work, too, like Paul Henreid. So he wasn’t an obvious progressive in the way, say, Stanley Kramer was, but he was certainly conscious, and concerned.
That doesn’t mean I like Hitchcock because he’s political; I’d love his work even if it weren’t. But to assume that this filmmaker didn’t have a very strong feeling about class and power is a mistake. Just because he was “the Master of Suspense” doesn’t mean he wasn’t thinking about, and making stories about, a thousand other things.
AHM: At the risk of cribbing a question from Robin Wood, I feel compelled to ask: Why should people take Hitchcock seriously?
SW: First of all, I think, there’s the filmmaking itself. He really was the consummate director, and a visual genius; perhaps D.W. Griffith gave us film’s essential grammar, but Hitchcock turned it into an entire, sophisticated language. The clarity of his editing, the impact of his composition, and the amount of narrative and thematic detail he was able to pack into a single image – he’s influenced generations and if we’re lucky will influence generations more.
But also, I think his films deal with serious themes. I think there used to be a certain bias in the underestimation of Hitchcock; after all, his best movies were often romantic mysteries, with female leads. How could they possibly be as important as the war movies and Westerns with big male stars directed by Ford and Hawks and Huston?
I love those films too, of course. But I think the fact that Hitchcock’s films weren’t typically macho movies meant that Hollywood, and many male critics, undervalued them for a long time. And if you really look at his films, you’ll see that they’re about some extraordinarily big issues – guilt, sin, sexuality, trust.
And he himself is fascinating. I mean, I think the real question these days might not be “Why should we take Hitchcock seriously?” but “Which Hitchcock should we take seriously?” Is it the sexist who victimized women on screen, or the feminist who decried that victimization? Is it the showman who made commercial blockbusters, or the artist who made risky personal films? And the answer to both is – yes. He was a complicated man — and his films are at least as complex as he was.
“It’s such a melancholy movie, so wrapped up in disappointment and defeat – I hope it’s not a bad sign that that’s becoming my favorite!” -Stephen Whitty
Interview by: Devon Powell
[Note: Some of the opinions expressed in this interview are not necessarily shared by Alfred Hitchcock Master. Please be respectful to others in your comments if you wish to dispute any of these opinions. This is a friendly community.]