He's not as fat as he used to be . . . but Hitchcock the Magnificent Is still Hollywood's master of melodrama
MY FIRST interview with Alfred Hitchcock took place less than 48 hours after I had arrived in Hollywood. My agent, who had never laid eyes on me before, but who was familiar with the script of “Shadow of a Doubt,” shook his head when he saw me. We drove to the studios where Hitchcock was working. The man from the casting office shook his head and the secretary shook hers in sympathetic agreement. My neck began to ache. The atmosphere was one of preparatory condolence.
I began to wonder apprehensively what I was in for from this man whose fame as an actor-baiter had gone before him through the profession. After a time I was ushered into The Presence. Mr. Hitchcock was then in the full glory of his 300 pounds; rotund, genial, softspoken. To my relief he nodded brightly and asked me to sit down.
“How would you like to play a small-town American Joxer?” he started. I said I would.
He told me the story briefly and amusingly. He explained that the part of “Herbie Hawkins,” which he wanted me to play, was that of a man of nearly 50. I was 30. I began to understand the disapproval of the casting office. This was my first introduction to
one of Hitchcock’s methods of working. His casting is never conventional. He knows what he wants and, having once decided, no amount of headshaking will dissuade him.
In everything I have read concerning Alfred Hitchcock he appears as a cherubic model of near propriety—a touching but somewhat inaccurate portrait. Actually the man’s personality is reflected in every film he has turned out. “Thirty-Nine Steps,” “The Lady Vanishes,” “Rebecca,” “Foreign Correspondent,” “Shadow of a Doubt,” and “Lifeboat,” to mention only a few, represent a pretty diversified list and on the part of their director equally diversified personal qualities. Among them, great understanding of people and dramatic composition; emotion, humor, and, above all, a well-developed sense of villainy.
A tendency toward falling asleep in the middle of a dinner, a conversation, or one of his own pictures; a weakness for practical joking, which once led him to put a dray horse in the late Sir Gerald du Maurier’s dressing room; or a wholly fictitious reputation for gourmandizing can hardly be considered as villainous. But over and above these things there is in Mr. H.’s make-up a nice blend of Borgia, Medici and Dr. Crippen. These talents may be latent, but they do exist and on occasion I have even fancied that I saw them bubble to the surface.
After my first interview I didn’t see Mr. Hitchcock again until I reached Santa Rosa, where the company was on location. They were working outside the house where the character played by Teresa Wright was supposed to live. I had to push through a crowd of
hundreds of people lining the sidewalks to catch sight of the director. He sat beside the camera in a straining canvas-back chair, his hands clasped across his well-filled double-breasted blue coat; imperturbable in the face of a great deal of curiosity, absolute authority of the whole proceeding. The police had detoured traffic for blocks around so that the delicate sound apparatus would not be disturbed, and the actual shooting area was roped off to prevent people from interfering with the work of the technicians.
FOR the citizens of Santa Rosa it was a Roman holiday, with Hitchcock cast as Caesar. The scene he was directing was one in which Teresa and Joe Gotten talked together as they strolled across the lawn. It presented considerable difficulty to the cameraman because the action moved from sunlight to shadow, and constantly changing light values Continued on page 23
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cannot be controlled out of doors as they can in a studio.
The scene was shot again and again without success. Time went on. The light began to turn yellow and the actors started to behave mechanically and grow stiff. The camera crew was on edge. At moments like this, tension spreads through a company and the hazard of human failure increases enormously. The technicians may become overanxious and fumble, actors muff lines, and if in the middle of it all the director blows up, rhatters can go from bad to worse, postponing the shot indefinitely and adding thousands of dollars to the film’s cost. The 16th take was going satisfactorily until a child in the crowd started to cry. The sound was quickly smothered by some embarrassed parent, but the damage was done. “Destroy that child,” boomed Mr. Hitchcock with imperial relish. He then stopped shooting and took precious time to act out for the actors and camera crew an amusing though ghoulish little burlesque called “Killing Babies.” Everyone laughed and relaxed. The 17th take was a success and a rehearsal of the next day’s work got under way.
In reconsidering any Hitchcock film you have seen, the chances are you will remember individual scenes and situations more vividly than you do the plot. This, I think, comes from the manner of the picture’s conception. Before any word has been put on paper or any writer engaged, Hitch iij liable to be visited by a series of visions, each of which will represent a wonderfully effective moment on the screen. For instance, “Foreign Correspondent” came into being largely as the result of Hitchcock’s desire to do a spy melodrama with a European background, an American hero, and a scene
in which a windmill turning against the wind prompted the hero to unhealthy i curiosity. These items are liable to be quite unrelated, and in the period of | story development one or more ¡ harassed writers and a dyspeptic producer will attempt to string them ! onto a logical thread of plot.
The problem of how best to illustrate a story with the camera is a complex one. It requires a fine sense of selectivity and an absolute knowledge of just how much or how little must be recorded on film to inform an audience. To be able to say something fully, yet with etfonomy, has always been a mark of artistry in any medium and in this matter Hitchcock is most expert. Perhaps this pronounced talent was fostered in some way by his first motion picture job; that of designing ; “Art-Titles”—the symbolic little drawings appearing in the same frame as the printed caption which accompanied silent pictures. If, for example, the caption read, “John’s Wife Was Worried About the Kind of Life He Was Leading,” Hitch would draw beneath it a candle burning at both ends. This sort of thing had to be succinct and to the point.
Such a gift saves a great deal of time and film. Hitchcock proceeds from shot to shot with absolute sureness, never having to shoot round the scene, rarely taking “cover shots” against the j possibility that the scene as he has ! photographed it will be inadequate, j The widely practiced method of shootj ing a difficult scene from every possible angle and then letting the film editor worry about assembling the pieces is anathema to him. Besides, the deftness of his technique and the thoroughness of his preparation make such fumbling unnecessary.
Mr. Hitchcock’s insistence on putting first things first and his capacity for taking infinite pains are two of his better-known professional attributes. They have their personal counterparts 1
as well. Anyone who can reduce his weight from 300 to just a shade over 200 pounds in 10 months deserves a citation for endurance and will power. It was not easily done.
For the first few weeks Hitch was constantly hungry, and I think he found the business of no cocktails, and no wine with dinner particularly trying. His constant companion during the days of the great famine was a miniature notebook entitled, “A Pocket Guide For Calorie Counters.” It was not long before he had memorized its content. This made him an authority on the subject and something of a lightning calculator as well. He was able to lean across the dinner table and announce rather grimly that the sum total of calories on your plate was such and such. It always had the effect of throwing me a little off stride, as if I’d suddenly discovered a worm in my salad.
The Hitchcock legend having to do with his prowess as a sleeper in public places will suffer sharply as a result of his weight reduction. When he was in the full bloom of his excess poundage, Hitch used to refuse lunch as it made him feel soporific afterward. Consequently, dinner was a substantial though by no means exaggerated meal for a man of his size. After a hard day’s work and a big dinner, with two glasses of wine, sleep was beyond resisting. No one expected him to stay awake and the conversation would continue around him uninterrupted, lapping gently at his edges, like the waves about ' Gibraltar.
Hitch is a very refined public sleeper; none of your head back, mouth open, snoring, sort of thing. He sleeps almost attentively, arms crossed, head slightly inclined in your direction as though to catch every last syllable. I rather rej gret the passing of this performance, because of its grace and individuality, but with the burden of 100 pounds removed he no longer finds it necessary.
Another Hitchcock idiosyncrasy which has received widespread publicity is his “all actors are cattle” attitude. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I’ve never heard him use this famous line and if it has any special I significance outside of rude banter, i at which Hitchcock has no peer, its Í meaning escapes me. Before going to work for him I was warned that he treated actors shockingly. Actually the reverse is true, and the only I startling moments which I have experii enced on his sets have been provided i by either the temperamental outbursts of an actor or by one of Hitchcock’s sudden Rabelaisian turns of wit.
After working for months on a stage such as the one that held “Lifeboat,”
I dispositions are liable to become frayed. Making a motion picture requires expenditure of a great deal of nervous energy. So when the scene calls for the actors to wear wet clothing Í and a thick layer of crude oil, and the camera crew encounter extraordinary and continuous technical difficulty, it’s not surprising that people’s tempers wear thin or that the atmosphere becomes oppressive.
Despite this hazard I’ve seen Hitchcock get really angry only once. It was as a result of stupidity and incompetence, and he said nothing at all about it at the moment, though he looked murderous. He just sat, waiting for the situation to be remedied; rather red in the face, with his already prominent lip thrust even farther forward than usual, and giving off vibrations similar to those caused by the ticking mechanism of a delayed action bomb. Someone once described Hitchcock as looking like an “ambitious choir boy.” This is a good description, because at times there is something so distinctly juvenile about his face and coloring. And I
think this quality becomes even more marked when he is annoyed.
“Shoots In Sequence”
As an actor it is only natural that I should be particularly aware of the advantages of working in a Hitchcock picture. In the first place, Hitchcock always attempts to shoot in sequence. If, for example, you are doing a story in which a man meets, makes love to, marries and eventually shoots the girl of his dreams, it’s much easier to play the episodes in that order rather than to start with the shooting, follow it with the love-making (because these episodes happen to take place in the same setting) then go on to the church sequence (for the marriage and the funeral) and finally end up by playing the scene in which you meet the lady. A great deal of picture work is organized in just this manner. As a result the matter of getting a logical progression into the performance is very difficult for the actor.
Hitchcock also believes in rehearsals. In “Lifeboat,” for instance, he had a duplicate rehearsal boat built in which he was able to work with the cast while the actual boat was being lit and lined up for the next shot. Perhaps only those people with some understanding of the theatre or motion pictures will fully appreciate how much this preliminary work means to the actor.
During rehearsals Hitch insists on and gets absolute silence on the set. No simple matter, with hundreds of people on a sound stage the size of an airplane hangar. Once things are quiet he is able to talk in almost an undertone to his actors and they in turn are more easily able to concentrate on their work. This is one of those seemingly small but vitally important points which make for a company’s efficiency in performance.
In the actual direction of the actor, Hitchcock is understanding, very stimulating and very patient. He welcomes the actor’s contribution, and having a fine sense of character, and how to express it himself, is always able to add to it.
It’s a wonderful feeling to be directed by someone you trust. It is more essential in motion pictures than in the theatre, where to some extent your audience will act as a monitor. No actor is capable of playing a scene and watching himself play it at the same time. The question of degree—is it too much; is it too little—must always haunt him, and when he can relax, knowing absolutely that the director will bring him to exact pitch, it leaves him free to concentrate on the character’s interest rather than his own. The matter of degree or exact pitch is another Hitchcock specialty. When discussing the subtleties of a scene he is apt to lean forward, talk like a conspirator in little more than a whisper, and gesture with the thumb and index finger of his right hand.
After getting a shot Hitchcock will take a pad of paper from the canvas pocket of his directorial chair and in a small square frame representing the screen will sketch the composition of the next shot. He does this very rapidly, explaining it to the cameraman as he goes along. Once completed he tears the slip of paper from the pad, hands it to the cameraman as a guide for his next setup, and then marches off to the office followed by his retinue.
I have watched this manoeuvre so often it is engraved on my memory. There is something triumphant, something regal, about Hitchcock’s march to the office. He moves with considerable agility for a man of his figure. He has a very straight back, a very round front, and with the addition of a beard would Continued on page 29
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look rather like a model for Soglow’s “Little King” of cartoon fame. The retinue, consisting usually of an assistant director, the script girl, a secretary, and perhaps his daughter Patricia, have to step lively to keep up with him. The assistant will want to know what shot Mr. Hitchcock is going to do next. The script girl will ask whether or not she should consult the writer about certain changes. The secretary will find out where he plans to have lunch and his daughter Patricia will enquire as to whether or not he can get her an autographed photograph of Bob Hope.
Certainly there is something in Hitchcock’s manner which prompts comparison with the imperial. Caesar, Borgia and the Little King are all names which I have used to describe him in part, but whatever this quality may be, it is charming, warm and unaffected. There have been occasions when I have seen him discomfited by
both shyness and embarrassment and he can be extremely reserved. After the last day’s work on the “Lifeboat” set, the cast presented him with a case of flat Danish silver. Upon opening the present Hitch found only four words with which to express himself. They were, “Oh—knives and forks.”
Hitchcock has an instinctive dislike of Hollywood chi-chi. He and his most attractive wife and daughter live simply in their small house in Bel Air, which is hung with good paintings and usually filled with flowers. Besides the Bel Air house the Hitchcocks have a country house at Santa Cruz, an overnight’s journey north from Los Angeles. All in all, they lead a life free from that kind of window dressing which is one of the more frequent but less reliable signs of success in this business.
Currently, Hitchcock is working on “The House of Dr. Edwards.” Ingrid Bergman is to appear in it—I would say she is to star in it if it weren’t for the obvious fact that the star of any such production is that master of melodrama, that amalgam of Caesar, Borgia and Old King Cole—Hitchcock, the Magnificent.