Publisher: Oxford University Press Release Date: September 01, 2020 A Conversation with Dan Callahan “Even when we know everything about a movie down to its shooting schedule and budget and … Continue reading Book Interview: The Camera Lies – Acting For Hitchcock
Publisher: Middlebrow Books Release Date: July 01, 2020 A Conversation with Robert Jones “Hitchcock’s California: Vista Visions from the Camera Eye” celebrates (and re-creates) images that evoke scenes from many … Continue reading Book Interview: Hitchcock’s California – Vista Visions from the Camera Eye
Publisher: The University Press of Kentucky
Release Date: June 14, 2019
A Conversation with John Billheimer
John Billheimer has written a book that seems long overdue. In Hitchcock and the Censors, he “traces the forces that led to the Production Code and describes Hitchcock’s interactions with code officials on a film-by-film basis as he fought to protect his creations, bargaining with code reviewers, and sidestepping censorship to produce a lifetime of memorable films. By examining Hitchcock’s priorities in dealing with the censors, this work highlights the director’s theories of suspense as well as his magician-like touch when negotiating with code officials.”
Billheimer has graciously agreed to discuss both his book and Alfred Hitchcock’s battle with censorship in this exclusive interview.
AHM: Would you tell us about your new book? How did you happen upon the idea for a book that focused on the director’s relationship with the censors, and what challenges did you face in order to make it a reality?
JB: The book traces the rise of movie censorship in Britain and the US and documents the demands made by the censors on Hitchcock and his reaction to those demands. I got the idea when I accompanied a writer friend to the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills and looked into their archives while she was doing research. I stumbled onto the reams of correspondence between the Production Code censors and Hitchcock and was fascinated by them. The biggest challenge in bringing the book to fruition was finding a publisher. Most of the agents and publishers I approached felt that there were already too many Hitchcock books on the market and that it wouldn’t be a money-making proposition.
AHM: It’s surprising to hear that publishers weren’t immediately interested. As a matter of fact, one would think that such a book would have already been written about this topic as it is obviously one that should hold great interest for both casual fans and scholars. Why do you think that this particular subject hadn’t been comprehensively dissected until now?
JB: Funny you should make that observation. The first review of the book, by Leonard Maltin, begins by saying, “Here is a book that should have (and could have) been written years ago.” He goes on to call it “…an important piece of work.” I can only guess at the reasons it hasn’t been comprehensively done until now. The existence and accessibility of the correspondence between Hitchcock and the censors isn’t generally known, and those researchers who have discovered the letters have generally been interested in a particular film rather than the complete archives.
AHM: What was your most surprising discovery while researching the various documents that form the basis for this text? Do you see Alfred Hitchcock’s work differently now than you did when you started the project?
JB: I think the most surprising thing was the sheer volume of the demands made on each of his films. Production Code censors averaged 22.5 comments on each film, ranging from the mundane to the mind-boggling, and each one had to be addressed in order to get a film released. In addition, there were other groups, like the Office of War Information and the Humane Society, whose concerns had to be accommodated as well. I definitely see his work differently now. I’m much more aware of his thought processes and tend to see why he emphasized certain elements. I’m also conscious of those elements that were removed from various sequences, like the overhead shot in Psycho and lines of dialogue in other films.
AHM: How did you first become interested in Alfred Hitchcock’s work, and why do his films appeal to you?
JB: While in high school, I worked as an usher in one of the three local theaters in my home town of Huntington, West Virginia, and my theater happened to be the one screening Hitchcock’s films. He was the only director whose name was generally recognized, and I had a chance to watch his films over and over. I was particularly impressed by the audience reaction to such set pieces as the attempted murder in Dial M For Murder, first as the murderer lifts and withdraws the scarf as Grace Kelly raises and lowers the phone from her ear, and then as the killer falls, plunging the scissors deeper into his back, which never failed to elicit an audible gasp from the audience.
AHM: Were there any major differences between the rules put into place by ‘The British Board of Film Censors’ and Hollywood’s production code? Was Alfred Hitchcock able to get away with things in Britain that he would get into trouble for in America? (Or visa-versa?)
JB: The British censors were far more interested in social issues, class distinctions, and keeping workers in their place. American censors were far more concerned with sex and violence. The differences are highlighted in the last group of thrillers Hitchcock made in England before departing for America. These were passed by the British censors, but had to be ‘Okayed’ by the Production Code office before they could be shown in the US. In The 39 Steps, the male and female leads are handcuffed together while fleeing from both the police and enemy agents and are forced to spend the night together in a double bed. In the British version, the couple are fully clothed, at odds with one another, and the man goes to sleep while the woman frees herself from the handcuffs. Before the movie could be imported, American censors insisted that the scene of the two in bed together be excised, even though the two were fully clothed and arguing. The producers argued that eliminating the scene would create a discontinuity (the two leads would be shown preparing for bed while handcuffed and waking up freed), but the American censors insisted on the deletion, observing that they never would have allowed the scene to be filmed in the first place.
AHM: Do you feel that it is possible for a film to “lower the moral standards of those who see it?”
JB: An interesting question. The quote, of course, comes from the opening of the Production Code. I suppose it depends on the strength of one’s moral standards to begin with. If someone has been brought up to believe that drinking alcohol is sinful and they watch Nick and Nora Charles having a fine time downing martinis and solving crimes, they might decide that drinking isn’t so bad after all. So their standards will have been changed. If they then become an alcoholic, do you blame Dashiell Hammett? I’m against the sort of censorship that sets itself up as the supreme authority on what is “acceptable” and has the authority to enforce their views and stifle creativity. There are, of course, limits (child pornography always rears its ugly head). I’d rather see the marketplace sort out what’s acceptable. There are two quotes on censorship that reflect my views and I wish I’d included in my book: “I dislike censorship. Like an appendix it is useless when inert and dangerous when active.” (Maurice Edelman); and “Censorship, like charity, should begin at home, but, unlike charity, it should end there.” (Clare Boothe Luce)
AHM: In the books second chapter, you state that “in a few instances, the censors’ suggestions actually improved the final films.” Which of his films were positively influenced, and how did the eventual changes improve them?
JB: Notorious is a good example of a film that was actually improved by the Code. The Breen office actually improved the film by demanding that Ingrid Bergman’s character be reformed (that she “live by her wits” rather than being a “loose woman”) and suggesting that she marry the lead spy, played by Claude Rains, who had once been in love with her. This made Rains a sympathetic villain, since his affection for Bergman was far more evident than that of the nominal lead, Cary Grant.
AHM: Which Hitchcock films were most negatively affected by the demands of the code?
JB: In my view, the Code rule that did the most damage to Hitchcock’s films was the admonition that evildoers must be punished. Blind adherence to this rule led to an implausible explanation for the death of the title character in Rebecca. It also led to the outlandish absolution of Cary Grant’s character in Suspicion, forced an improbable ending onto The Paradine Case, kept Farley Granger from completing the criss-cross murder in Strangers On A Train, and saved Montgomery Clift from the gallows in I Confess. It’s hard to argue that Rebecca was ruined by meddling, since it won the Best Picture Oscar. But the plot was implausible—not that implausibility ever bothered Hitchcock. The novel Rebecca tells the story of a man who kills his beautiful wife as she taunts him over an extramarital affair and claims to be pregnant with another man’s child. In the movie, the wife falls while taunting her husband, hits her head, and dies. The husband then convers up her accidental death just as he did her murder in the book, for no apparent reason, other than the need stick closely to the book’s plot.
I Confess was also harmed by the implausibility forced upon the plot by the Production Code. In the play on which the film is based, the priest played by Montgomery Clift goes to the gallows because he won’t reveal the identity of the real murderer, who has confessed his guilt and is protected by the seal of the confessional. Clift is accused of the murder because he was being blackmailed by the murdered man who, in the play, knew that the priest had fathered an illegitimate child before he was ordained. The Code caused the illegitimate child to vanish, and be replaced by an evening Clift spent with his girlfriend after being caught in a storm long before he decided to become a priest. As a source of blackmail, this rain-soaked evening was pretty thin, but, again, plausibility was never Hitchcock’s first concern. And the need to punish the actual murderer saved Clift from the gallows and a stronger ending.
AHM: In the book’s fifth chapter—which focuses on the symbiotic relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick—you mention that these two men had differing approaches in their dealings with the Breen office. You state that while Selznick entered into “open warfare,” Hitchcock preferred to avoid open confrontation and simply manipulated them to his benefit. Could you give us some examples of these two differing approaches? What do you think that this says about the differences in their personalities?
JB: Selznick met the censors head on, arguing openly for concessions in Gone with the Wind and publicly airing his disgust with the Production Code, calling it “insane, inane, and outmoded.” He was equally disgusted with the Production Code’s stance on Rebecca. “The whole story of ‘Rebecca’ is of a man who has murdered his wife,” Selznick complained, “and it now becomes the story of a man who buried a wife who was killed accidentally!” Hitchcock, on the other hand, took an accommodating and conciliatory stance with the Code officials. It was he who suggested the “accidental death” approach to Rebecca. And as his career progressed, Hitchcock bargained effectively with Code officials, getting his way through indirection and seeming accommodation.
The different approaches the two men took with the Code definitely reflected the differences in their personalities. As I wrote in the book, “Selznick was an extrovert, while Hitchcock was subdued and secretive; Selznick was explosive and overbearing, while Hitchcock hated conflict and disagreement…”
AHM: What various strategies Hitchcock use to manipulate the censor’s into allowing material that they would not usually allow?
JB: Hitchcock proceeded by indirection, stalling, sweet-talking, surrendering by degrees, and swapping off lesser elements to protect cherished images. Often, the material to be swapped included questionable elements inserted precisely for that purpose. In Rear Window, Hitchcock captured three separate views of the delectable Miss Torso, filming her once topless from behind, once in a white negligee, and once in black. The topless version was intended as bait for the censors, and he replaced it with the protective negligee footage when they objected, using his “capitulation” to buy concessions in other areas of the film. As his career progressed, Hitchcock would deliberately film elements of dialogue that the censors had flagged as objectionable in their script review, so that they were available as trading chips to protect scenes that raised the censors’ hackles during their review of the finished film.
AHM: Geoffrey Shurlock took over the Production Code Administration after Joseph Breen stepped down in 1954. What were the differences between these two men in terms of production code policy, and how did Alfred Hitchcock use these changes to his benefit?
JB: Joseph Breen was an ambitious anti-Semitic autocrat who enjoyed imposing his will on the studio heads, whom he characterized as “scum” and “lice” in private correspondence. His successor, Geoffrey Shurlock, was a more cultured man with an appreciation for the arts who allowed directors he liked (Hitchcock was one) some latitude in their moviemaking. By way of comparison, the number of comments on Hitchcock’s films under Breen’s supervision (26.7) was more than double the number (12.5) produced under Shurlock. The fireworks seduction scene in To Catch A Thief, which Breen condemned during his final months in office, passed almost intact after he had surrendered the baton to Shurlock.
AHM: How would Hitchcock’s filmmaking be different if he were making his movies today? Would they be better or worse without the code?
JB: Hitchcock’s final three films, Topaz, Frenzy, and Family Plot were made after the Code had been replaced by a version of the rating system we have today. In Frenzy, he took advantage of relaxed restrictions on nudity and violence, but there is little evidence that freedom from the Code affected the other two films. He would certainly have had a broader range of topics to choose from in the absence of the Code, and that could only have improved his output.
The Code had its greatest impact on Hitchcock at the start of his American career, when its influence was strongest. By the end of his career, he was able to manipulate the censors so that they had little real impact on his films. Still, he would have been freed from the need to interact with Code officials, which could only help his output. But the need to bend images to fit Code guidelines led to some of his most memorable scenes. The shower scene is Psycho, one of the most memorable in film history, was precisely constructed to subvert Code guidelines, as was the prolonged “kissing” scene in Notorious. On balance, though, Hitchcock’s films would have been better without the Code, particularly at the start of his American career.
AHM: What is it about Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work that makes it so ripe for scholarship? Why are people still fascinated with his filmmaking?
JB: Hitchcock was the first director whose work was generally recognized by the public, both because of his self-promotion and because of the genuine pleasure he provided in his work. He knew how to push the buttons of his audience systematically and effectively, and provided a lifetime of lasting images. The shower scene in Psycho is easily the most memorable montage ever put on film, and he created other images almost equally memorable, including the crop-dusting sequence in North by Northwest, the aborted strangling in Dial M For Murder, the avian attack in The Birds, and the excruciating murder in Torn Curtain. Four of his films were listed among the list of the 100 greatest films of all time compiled by the American Film Institute, and nine were among the AFI’s list of the 100 greatest thrillers. He was the cinema’s master technician, and his films are a pleasure to view and study.
[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.]
Interview by: Devon Powell
Publisher: McFarland Release Date: April 23, 2019 A Conversation with Wes D. Gehring An analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s methodical use of comedy in his films is past due, and Hitchcock … Continue reading Book Interview: Hitchcock and Humor
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Release Date: September 15, 2018 A Conversation with Constantine Santas It doesn’t matter what you’ve read or what you may have heard about the importance of Alfred … Continue reading Book Interview: The Essential Films of Ingrid Bergman
Publisher: Insight Editions
Release Date: May 01, 2018
A Conversation with Caroline Young
From his early days as a director in the 1920s to his heyday as the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock had a complicated and controversial relationship with his leading ladies. He supervised their hair, their makeup, their wardrobe, and pushed them to create his perfect vision onscreen. These women were often style icons in their own right, and the clothes that they wore imbued the films with contemporary glamor.
Quite a lot has been written over the past few decades regarding Alfred Hitchcock’s use of women in his films—some of it from a scholarly or theoretical standpoint and some of it from a sensationalized tabloid angle that only serves to muddy the waters of responsible scholarship. However, it must be said that this new Insight Editions release of Caroline Young’s Hitchcock’s Heroines doesn’t quite fall into either category. She chronicles six decades of glamorous style while exploring the fashion legacy of these amazing women and their experiences working with Hitchcock. It is informative without being pushy but still manages to have a point of view. What’s more, Young’s text is well researched and beautifully illustrated with studio pictures, film stills, and original drawings of the costume designs. Anyone with a fondness for attractive coffee table books should consider adding this volume to their collection.
Caroline Young is based in Edinburgh Scotland. Her love of film and fashion led to her writing Classic Hollywood Style, Style Tribes: The Fashion of Subcultures, and Tartan and Tweed. Young recently consented to this exclusive interview with Alfred Hitchcock Master, and we hope that you enjoy it as much as we did!
AHM: When did you first become interested in Alfred Hitchcock’s work and what instigated the interest?
CY: I have been a Hitchcock fan since my early teens. I would read Empire magazine, which would often do lists of the best films ever made, and Hitchcock was frequently on the list. So I would rent as many videotapes as I could, and I think the first one I saw was Rear Window. I just loved the visuals and the way it felt like I was in this tenement in a sweltering summer in New York. I did film studies at university so my appreciation was further built, studying the shower scene and applying various film theories to his work.
AHM: Could you describe Hitchcock’s Heroines for our readers? What makes this book stand out amongst the others in your opinion?
CY: Hitchcock’s Heroines is the first book to visually explore the costumes and image of the women in Hitchcock’s films. It has great images and costume sketches, including one from Frenzy that has never been published, but it offers a lot more than this. I wanted to take a balanced approach to Hitchcock’s relationship to his leading ladies, weave in details on the making of the films, and celebrate these amazing actresses and their stories. I also researched and found further detail on the designers behind the different films, such as Adrian for Shadow of a Doubt, and how it was David O Selznick who shaped the character’s image in Rebecca and Spellbound.
AHM: What gave you the initial idea to write a book that centers on the heroines in Hitchcock’s canon and what were the biggest challenges in making it a reality?
CY: The idea came from my first book, ‘Classic Hollywood Style,’ which explore the story behind the costumes in classic movies. As a follow up I wanted to do another film costume book that focused entirely on Hitchcock, as I had only featured To Catch a Thief, but I had found out so much more information on the costumes in his films that I would’ve liked to have included. This was in 2012, and there was also a lot of interest in the relationship between Tippi and Hitchcock at this time, and his obsession over blondes, particularly on the release of The Girl. But rather than look at him through this misogynistic filter, I was interested in seeing how the women in his films were sympathetic and inspiring, how their image was constructed, and what the actresses thought of Hitchcock and how they got on with them.
The main challenge was the topic, as firstly, Hitchcock was considered controversial, and also that books on film fashion are not always considered popular. I was also conscious of being respectful to Tippi and that a balanced approach didn’t diminish what she was saying.
AHM: Do you have a favorite Hitchcock heroine? If so, who would that be and why is she your favorite?
CY: Difficult to choose, but I adore Nova Pilbeam as she’s really fresh and plucky in Young and Innocent (you wonder how did she learn skills from being in a boxer’s dressing room), but Ingrid Bergman in Notorious is another favorite. I like the character arc from self-destructive to showing complete guts in sacrificing herself for duty, the way the ‘female gaze’ is reversed in the party scene, and those Edith Head costumes which use stark black and white to make her stand out. Also, Ingrid Bergman does being drunk really well.
AHM: Now, the reverse of the last question: Which of Hitchcock’s leading ladies is your least favorite and why did she not appeal to you?
CY: Maureen O’Hara in Jamaica Inn, probably because the film doesn’t really feel like a Hitchcock work, and it doesn’t leave a memorable impression.
AHM: How did you decide upon which films and actresses to include in the book?
CY: It was a tough call as there was a limit to how much I could include—so I went for the most notable films in terms of visuals around the female character, along with ones I felt illustrated the journey. Nova Pilbeam is not that well known but had been an early protégée of Hitchcock’s, which is why I included Young and Innocent. I would have liked to have explored Vera Miles in The Wrong Man but her image is secondary in that film. However, that could have been interesting in itself.
AHM: How do you think his British films—and the heroines that feature in these films—differ from those he made as a Hollywood director? Did his heroines change once he moved to America? If so, what are these differences? What do you feel the reasons for this might be?
CY: The British period was when he was finding his own style, developing new techniques and narratives, and in the British period, apart from Anny Ondra, who he enjoyed working with, and Madeleine Carroll who was the first glacial blonde prototype, it wasn’t until Grace Kelly that he found his muse. There are articles in the early 1930s where he talks about what makes the ideal heroine—and he notes that above all they must be appealing to a female audience, so that’s really what he had in mind when casting his British heroines. In later interviews with Hitchcock in the 1950s, when the ideal of the Hitchcock blonde had been established, he pushed a PR line about the Nordic blonde, the ‘snow covered volcano’, and I feel that this was really shaped by Grace Kelly, whose magic he was striving to recreate.
One of the main factors in the differences is that it was in the late 1940s American period where he finally found autonomy in his work as both director and producer, and this allowed him to have complete control, rather than having to answer to other producers. That’s why Notorious is interesting as the first Edith Head collaboration, and the first where he really takes control of the heroine’s image.
Some of the differences are also down to the period they were made. Women in 1930s films often followed the screwball comedy mold, and they were designed to appeal to female audiences who liked plucky, fashionable heroines on screen. Then in the early 1940s, there was a trend for gothic romantic films that delved into the heroine’s anxieties, and this was all shaped by the Second World War. Priscilla Lane in Saboteur was another example of the archetype he would later develop more fully, but I feel he was disappointed a little in her performance. The period of the Hitchcock blonde was predominant in the 1950s, once he had his dream team, and with Edith Head shaping the costumes, and perhaps it could also be argued that the Hitchcock heroine that we think of is very much a 1950s woman.
AHM: As you well know, Hitchcock had originally intended to pull Princess Grace out of retirement so that she could star in MARNIE before later deciding to make the film with Tippi Hedren. How do you think the casting of Grace Kelly would have changed the final film? How do Hedren’s qualities differ from Grace Kelly’s?
CY: I imagine the making of the film would have been a happier experience for all involved if Grace Kelly had played Marnie, and this could, in turn, have had a significant effect on the final work.
Grace Kelly was also a more experienced actress, requiring less guidance than Tippi, and while Tippi has this real vulnerability and emotional quality, I wonder if Grace Kelly would have made the character seem more manipulative and less frightened. Maybe she would have had the ability to convince him of character changes, to cut the rape scene etc, which many people believe he kept in to demonstrate complete control of Tippi.
It’s often said that Hitchcock was never the same after the making of Marnie, it was an upsetting time for Tippi (as she has recounted). If Grace Kelly had done the role, his later films may have been different. He may have been allowed to make Mary Rose… It’s an interesting question as it could potentially have had a big effect on how we judge him now.
AHM: Alfred Hitchcock’s films are still enormously popular all around the globe. Why are his films still relevant while so many others have long been forgotten?
CY: They were highly innovative, combining humor, suspense, and similar themes throughout which have provoked countless theories and examinations around his fetishes and obsessions. He was a great PR man who knew how to publicize himself, evident from some of the early interviews in the 1930s, and so he became a fascinating, intriguing figure in himself. One of the appealing aspects of Hitchcock is also that he captures a particular time and place in his visuals, and Hitchcock, as a British director, captures America through the eyes of a Brit. So he explores Americana in Psycho, with the highways and motel, and uses huge American landmarks for the climax of many of his films (Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, and etc). He was also always looking to be innovative [and] to push boundaries, but he also changed the way we view films with Psycho. [It’s] hard to believe people would just wander into the cinema to see a film at any time, but Hitchcock insisted audiences not be permitted once the film started. So all these factors have contributed to the longevity of his films, and that we are still discussing him in detail along with recent controversies which have continued to keep him in the news.
[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. Remember that this is a friendly community.]
Interview by: Devon Powell
Publisher: Dey Street Books Release Date: October 24, 2017 A Conversation with Manoah Bowman & Jay Jorgensen “Mr. Hitchcock taught me everything about cinema. It was thanks to him that I understood … Continue reading Book Interview: Grace Kelly: Hollywood Dream Girl
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.
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.
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.]