Book Interview: The First True Hitchcock — The Making of a Filmmaker

TFTH - Book Cover

Publisher: University of California Press

Release Date: January11, 2022

A Conversation with Henry K. Miller

Alfred Hitchcock called The Lodger “the first true Hitchcock movie,” and yet the story of how The Lodger came to be made is shrouded in myth, often repeated and much embellished (especially by Hitchcock himself). “The First True Hitchcock: The Making of a Filmmaker” focuses on the twelve-month period that encompassed The Lodger’s production in 1926 and release in 1927 while presenting a new picture of this pivotal year in Hitchcock’s life. Using fresh archival discoveries, Henry K. Miller situates Hitchcock’s formation as a director against the backdrop of a continent shattered by war and confronted with the looming presence of a new superpower, the United States, and its most visible export — film. The previously untold story of The Lodger’s making in the London fog (and attempted remaking in the Los Angeles sun) is the story of how Hitchcock became Hitchcock.

Henry K. Miller is a Sight and Sound critic and the editor of “The Essential Raymond Durgnat. His research has been published in journals including the Hitchcock Annual and Screen. Needless to say, Alfred Hitchcock Master feels honored to have the opportunity to discuss his new book with him.

AHP: When did you first become interested in Alfred Hitchcock’s work, and what instigated the interest?

HKM: In a sense, everyone becomes interested in Hitchcock whether they like it or not when I was growing up in the 1990s, anyway, he exerted a gravitational pull that led me to watch his films on television, without having read a word of criticism. I imagine that I was guided towards The 39 Steps and Vertigo, the first two that I can remember seeing, by a capsule review in a listings guide. But there was a particular upsurge of Hitchcockiana at the time of his centenary in 1999, and that led me to start reading, as well as to watch more; and in particular I remember visiting an exhibition that summer, Notorious – Alfred Hitchcock and Contemporary Art, at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford.

AHP: What gave you the idea to write a book focusing on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger?

HKM: It did not come directly out of my interest in Hitchcock. In 2005 I started researching a PhD thesis on the development of British film culture between the wars, and from an early stage the story of The Lodger was going to be part of it. The conventional wisdom was that Hitchcock had been exposed to his seminal influences German and Russian films at the Film Society, and that the Film Society’s chairman Ivor Montagu had saved Hitchcock’s career by re-editing The Lodger. My hypothesis was that the role of the Film Society had been overstated for example the idea that it had been responsible for bringing German films into circulation in Britain. Some of my initial research was about the distribution, exhibition, and reception of German films in Britain before the Film Society came into being. And in 2006 – 2007 I began to piece together, from a variety of sources, a different version of The Lodger story. This was enough for a short book, which I first proposed in 2008. But over time my idea of what the book could be expanded.

AHP: How would you describe The First True Hitchcock: The Making of a Filmmaker? How is it different from other books that focus on specific films in the director’s oeuvre?

HKM: From my point of view, it both is and is not about a specific film. Over time, the book became the story of how Hitchcock became Hitchcock, and to tell that meant expanding the scope of the narrative beyond The Lodger, to encompass Hitchcock’s move to Hollywood; or rather, to cover Hitchcock’s integration into the Hollywood system, which is a process that began well before The Lodger, since Hitchcock’s first job in film was for Famous Players-Lasky, i.e. Paramount. Having said that, for much of its length it is indeed a making-of book about The Lodger, though the idea of The Lodger as ‘the first true Hitchcock’ is a kind of conceit I’m not debunking it, but using that phrase for the title is not intended as a strong endorsement either. There are so many books about Hitchcock that I worry that I’m missing one, but I don’t think there is another book focusing on a single one of the silents, and there aren’t that many on the silent films in general. It’s not really for me to say, but it aims to evoke the historical context of Hitchcock’s early career in a way that I don’t think has been done before.

AHP: There are so few books available that focus specifically on Alfred Hitchcock’s early career in the British Film industry. Why do feel like this particular period has been largely skimmed over by scholars in the past?

HKM: This will sound a bit basic, but a lot of the energy behind Hitchcock Studies has been American, whereas the necessary sources for this kind of study are in England. My book is the product of a lot of trawling through microfilm (some of it was inter-library-loaned, come to think of it, from the US). That’s one possible reason. Another possibility is that the legacy of auteurism includes a preference for the American films, including among influential British writers like Robin Wood. Without wishing to be cynical, there is also going to be more of a market for books about the well-known American films, or even the better-known British ones, than for books about the silent era. Still, considering how many books have been written about Hitchcock, it is still a bit surprising that his formative years have been neglected.

AHP: What challenges does writing about his early career present that scholars researching his American efforts aren’t as likely to face, and how were you able to overcome these challenges?

HKM: The main challenge is the lack of archive material. There are pretty substantial holdings for the Hollywood films; it would be interesting to know more about their survival. The two principal companies that Hitchcock worked for in Britain were not fly-by-night operations, and the company he made The Lodger for, Gainsborough, was merged into one of them, Gaumont-British; it would be interesting to know why so little survived. There are also fewer first-hand accounts by those involved writers, actors, crew, etc. There has been quite a lot of interest in The Lodger’s screenwriter, Eliot Stannard, and more is being discovered about him, but we still lack even the rudiments of a biography.

I was able to use material in the BFI’s archive that I don’t believe had been cited before; namely in the collections of Ivor Montagu, who did provide a first-hand account of the film’s re-editing; Montagu’s friend Angus MacPhail; and Adrian Brunel, who ran what we would now call the post-production house where the re-editing was done. But my main resource was newspapers, some digitized, most not well, they became digitized over the fifteen years I was working on it. Hitchcock knew some of the important critics and The Lodger got plenty of coverage.

AHP: In the preface, you write that “in the year between the start of production on THE LODGER and its general release in early 1927, [the supremacy of the American film] was made to become mere advantage. In this respect, and in others, the making of THE LODGER straddled old and new worlds.” Could you elaborate on some of the specifics of this statement for our readers?

HKM: The main thing that happened, during the general release of The Lodger in early 1927, was a government Act to promote British film production at the expense of the American film companies. These had become almost totally dominant within the British market during the Great War, and by the mid-1920s there was a big push to protect the British film industry, eventually with a quota distributors had to carry a certain percentage of British films, and cinemas had to show a certain percentage. This completely transformed the industry, but The Lodger was product of the earlier moment. There were other ways in which it was, as I write, a ‘relic’, some of them related – simultaneously with the quota legislation, essentially in anticipation of it, the British film industry consolidated itself into two big combines, on the American pattern.

Another way in which The Lodger belonged to the ‘old world’ is that it was a silent film. The process of ‘conversion’ to sound took a few years to play out, but as a sign of the times, in some cinemas The Lodger’s supporting programme including short sound films. They were barely in circulation at the time it was shot and had not been shown outside London.

AHP: There’s a chapter in the book called “The Reputation and the Myth.” What are some of the enduring myths surrounding Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, and how has this impacted scholarship on the subject?

HKM: The main one is the thing about Ivor Montagu saving Hitchcock’s career by re-editing The Lodger. The story he told was that Hitchcock’s two earlier films were on the shelf, so that that when the distributor nixed The Lodger, he was really in trouble. The myth had been progressively embellished, so that in the most extensive version, Montagu brought to the film the influence of Battleship Potemkin. Essentially none of this is true, and it matters for a variety of reasons. For example, Peter Wollen wrote about ‘the artistic sophistication that Hitchcock acquired through his social superiors at the London Film Society’, contrasted with what we might call his own less elevated background. If we see Hitchcock as a significant artist and are interested in the relationship between art and society, the seemingly narrow question of how The Lodger was edited comes to seem much more consequential. On reflection, I began my research somewhat under the influence of the discourse around poptimism within that frame, the excessive emphasis on Hitchcock’s German and Russian influences was akin to ‘rockism’.

AHP: What aspects of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger do you feel can be seen throughout the duration of Alfred Hitchcock’s career?

HKM: Suspense and suspicion. The Wrong Man. Blondes. The titular lodger does have something in common with future Hitchcock male leads. I argue that he encompasses possibly too many archetypes to cohere as a character. There are plenty of individual scenes or shots that anticipate others from more famous films, but the biggest thing I discovered that I don’t believe has been identified before is a remarkable anticipation of Vertigo. It’s to do with a dress.

AHP: Do you have a preference for the director’s British films over his later American efforts?

HKM: I don’t, but that’s not quite how I would conceptualize it. Totting up the numbers, I like more American Hitchcocks than British Hitchcocks, or like them more, though I easily prefer the British Man Who Knew Too Much to the American version, for example. As a researcher, I am more interested in the British ones, in part because I think I have new things to say the ground is less well-trod. But one of those things is the extent to which the ‘British’ film marketplace was American, and the extent to which Hitchcock’s ‘British’ films were intended to earn in the US. In other words, I would challenge the sharp distinction into British and American were I being provocative, I would describe his progress as being from the periphery to the center of the American industry.

AHP: What is your favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, and why is this film your favorite?

HKM: Immensely hard question, or two hard questions, for all sorts of reasons. I’m not big on re-watching films, and it is almost always the first viewing that counts; and to be candid, I was more liable to be really transported by films as a younger person. Watching Vertigo, Rear Window, and Notorious, in my teens, was profoundly influential on me. These days, I could do without a lot of the dialogue in the 1950s films and wonder if they need to be so long. Notorious strikes me as the film that most authentically captures Hitchcock’s sense of the perverse within relationships, with the most style, and the best stars. But in another mood, I might easily go for North by Northwest, which has my favorite score.

AHP: Do you have a least favorite Hitchcock film?

HKM: This is a surprisingly hard question because there are plenty I am happy never to see again. I don’t think everything he touched turned to gold. My actual least favorite is probably Champagne, which I can barely remember, and which I imagine very few have seen. Among those people might have seen, it’s The Trouble with Harry for me, simply because it isn’t funny.

AHP: At the risk of cribbing a question from Robin Wood, I feel compelled to ask: Why should people take Hitchcock seriously?

HKM: I don’t believe they should at any rate they’re under no obligation. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for Robin Wood’s campaign to regard Hollywood films in a way that would have pleased F. R. Leavis. This book was written for an academic press, but not exclusively, or even primarily for an academic readership. I currently earn a living as an academic film researcher in Britain, but on a very insecure basis, and my experience in academia means that I can’t say that the modern university lives up to the Leavisite ideal of it as ‘a center of consciousness and human responsibility’. Whether there is such a center is outside my scope here, but if film culture is to thrive, it cannot rely on universities, which may, indeed, insist on forms of seriousness that actually inhibit people’s enjoyment and understanding. And to bring it back to Hitchcock, enjoyment matters: the films have to work as films, as entertainments, first.

Interview by: Devon Powell

3 thoughts on “Book Interview: The First True Hitchcock — The Making of a Filmmaker

  1. This: “[I]f film culture is to thrive, it cannot rely on universities, which may, indeed, insist on forms of seriousness that actually inhibit people’s enjoyment and understanding. And to bring it back to Hitchcock, enjoyment matters: the films have to work as films, as entertainments, first.”

    Amen!

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