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Hitchcock on the Tricks of His Trade

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Though his supporters and friends say Alfred Hitchcock is a “shy man,” he is nonetheless familiar to the public through his movie walk-ons and his hosting of the popular Hitchcock TV shows. Since 1922 he has made 55 features, including such classics as The Lady Vanishes, Notorious and Rear Window. Two weeks ago the celebrated director was in New York to become the third film master—after Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire—honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Jim Watters of PEOPLE talked with him in his hotel suite.

How many times do you think a person should see a movie to catch everything in it, your film or anyone’s?

Three times, at least, to pick out all the details and the intention behind them.

Do you go to movies a lot?

I’m not all that much of a moviegoer. I see them in the studio, yes. I’ve been at moviemaking long enough to know the temper of the audience. You know, don’t let them remain in suspense too long or they’ll start to giggle as a release. It’s like the situation of the bomb—let them know there’s a bomb but never let it go off. If you let the bomb go off, they’ll get mad.

You once let a bomb go off?

I’ll never make the same mistake twice. The sophisticated critic of the London Observer—when I had a little boy blown up by a bomb in Sabotage—literally came at me with raised fists, saying, “How dare you do a thing like that! I’ve got a 5-year-old son at home!” She was furious at me.

Have you made other mistakes that brought a reaction that you didn’t anticipate or want?

I think some mistakes are unavoidable—miscasting, putting people in who are not fitted to the role but who suit the front office because they are big box office.

Do you take the responsibility for casting unknown Tippi Hedren in The Birds and Marnie, one of your least successful films?

H’m, h’m.

And how do you personally feel about her performances?

Well, they were guided performances, but it takes more than two films to get a person really established. Stars have to appear in a lot of pictures—but successful ones, not just pictures. At one time a star in a picture was a kind of insurance. But a star in an indifferent picture will make absolutely no difference in box-office results. People today go for the story. If the film isn’t good, nothing will help. After all, one of the biggest box-office stars we have had is Julie Andrews—The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins. Then she makes Star!, the life of Gertrude Lawrence, and it all goes down the drain.

Did her film for you, Torn Curtain, make money?

I think it had a very big first two weeks, but people found that she didn’t sing and there was disappointment. I was persuaded to play her on account of her tremendous so-called popularity at the time.

You would not have personally selected Julie Andrews for the role?

I might have made that mistake, certainly.

How do you react to your critics?

Don’t read ’em.

Do your critical successes always make money?

The Trouble with Harry was one of my favorite films and still is, and yet it lost money because I was doing something that pleased me. There are many other subjects I would like to do which I know would be commercial failures.

Would you give me some examples?

There are certain English novels, crime stories that one might do. But actually it’s no good starting, because I know they’re too downbeat—and unfortunately ours is a very, very expensive medium. Even the theater is cheaper than making films. You have the playwrights writing plays for off-and off-off-Broadway. We don’t have any off-off-films. Why do they call it a film industry? I used to see lines of men clocking out at a big studio, all carrying their dinner pails, and I would look at them and say, “Is this an art form?”

Is there no true art of the film?

The true art of the film is not photographs of people talking. It is little pieces of film glued together which are run through a projection machine onto a screen, and the succession of images creates an illusion for the audience. That’s what true film is all about, but it’s rarely practiced.

Are any young filmmakers practicing what you’re talking about?

Truffaut’s had a go at it. He’s very keen on the approach that I have. The first thought is the visual. The worst thing a writer can say to me is, “We’ll cover that in a line of dialogue,” and I say, “Yes, but at that moment a woman might drop her handbag on the floor. She bends down to pick it up and the line of dialogue’s gone. She’s missed the vital point.”

But wouldn’t she miss the same vital point if it were visual?

The visual point would be simpler and take longer. Plot points in fast-spoken lines are dangerous.

Since you have a low regard for words in film, why have you worked with some of the best writers—Thornton Wilder, Ben Hecht, Raymond Chandler?

Because you’ve got to have the words, so they’ve got to be good. But I insist on doing as much as I can visually. And I don’t mean just objectivity like car chases—which I’m bored stiff with. Car chases in San Francisco—if I see any more cars bumping over that rise on the hill, I’ll go crazy.

Isn’t it surprising that more people do not approach filmmaking as you have?

It is surprising. They have relied too much on the oral. They pay $400,000 for a stage play. They say, “It’s a two-character play, but we’re going to open it up.” So what do they do. They take this play which has been set in one room and has run for 18 months. And how do they open it up? The opening shot is down Fifth Avenue. A Yellow Cab pulls up, in the foreground. A passenger gets out, pays the fare, walks across the sidewalk, goes through the doors, goes, into the lobby, presses the button for the elevator, gets in the elevator, goes up the elevator, gets out of the elevator, walks along a corridor, presses a button, the door opens to an apartment, he walks in. Where is he? He’s on the stage where the play was.

What other directors work in the way you do—visually?

Of all of them, the director’s work that I like to see is Buñuel, the Spanish director. Because he does things that are effective, that are simple. What’s the old expression? With the minimum effort and the maximum effect.

What about directors who have “followed” you?

Truffaut tried to follow my work when he made The Bride Wore Black, you see, and he misunderstood my dictum that logic is dull when you use too much footage trying to explain a point. He should have done it more subtly. You mustn’t raise awkward questions—like little boys asking their fathers why does thunder turn the milk sour. You know, “Get out of the way, don’t bother me.” Awkward question. I remember a story I heard about a little boy being taken by his parents. They were friends of Lady Churchill and they were going to the Churchills’ country home, and they told him he was going to see the greatest living man in the world. When they got there, Churchill wasn’t well enough; he was staying in bed for the day. They had lunch without him and took the little boy around the grounds. He slipped away, went into the house, up the broad staircase along the corridor and there was a great big door slightly open. He pushed his way in and there’s Churchill sitting in bed smoking a big cigar. The little boy says, “Are you the greatest living man in the world?” and Churchill says, “Yes. And now buck off!”

Was your humor unappreciated until you became a TV personality?

Well, if you go as far back, say, as a picture like The 39 Steps—that was done with a complete sense of humor—the whole element of the chase. Even when [Robert] Donat unwittingly encounters the villain, he says about the chap who’s after him, “I think he had the finger of his right hand missing,” and the heavy replies, “I think you mean this hand.” Well, you can’t do those things without a laugh to yourself. Of course, it shocks the audience.

Aren’t you supposed to be a great practical joker?

I used to be, yes. But I think that in a sense people are not as sophisticated today as they were, say, in the ’20s and ’30s—sophisticated enough to appreciate practical jokes. I don’t believe in practical jokes that hurt anyone, only bewilder them. To give you an example, many years ago in London I gave a dinner party in a private room and all the food was blue. Everything was blue, the soup, the trout, the chicken were blue. The bread looked brown on the outside but when you broke it open it was blue on the inside. Every cigarette on the table exploded when you lit it. This was in a very famous restaurant in London and when the dessert was served, which was blue ice cream, it was served by a hundred waiters in a room half the size of this hotel room. You never saw such a mass of waiters in your life. People today would say, “Uhh, I don’t think that’s very funny.” That’s a feeling I have about people, they wouldn’t appreciate it.

You have done very nicely by your movies financially. What do you spend your money on?

I don’t know. It reminds me of the little girl brought up before a London magistrate. In one week she stole £5,000 and it was all gone. “And what have you spent the money on?” she was asked. She said, “Chocolates and movies.” For me it was paintings, a modest collection of paintings.

If you could save, say, just a handful of your films, which ones would they be?

A picture called Shadow of a Doubt, which I wrote with Thornton Wilder, The Trouble with Harry, The 39 Steps; for a fantasy, which is pure nonsense, North By Northwest. The point is that for audiences, the wilder the story line is, the more realistically it must be told. It’s like a nightmare. When you have a nightmare, you use the word vivid. That’s what the film must be. You are glad when you wake up on your way to the guillotine.

Are you upset that your peers in Hollywood have never given you an Oscar as best director?

That I haven’t got a doorstop?

Is that all it means to you?

Certainly. The studios run those things.