At Universal it was a mild, flat, sunny afternoon. The sort of day a crop-duster might suddenly come at you out of the empty sky. I recognised immediately the stocky white figure of Sarah, the Hitchcocks’ pet Scottie, being ceremonially walked by a secretary, signifying that the master was in residence and Mrs. H. too, as it transpired. Regular as clockwork, whether he has some immediate project on hand or not, Hitchcock puts in a 9 to 5 day at the studio, reading properties, screening movies to check on the work of actors or technicians he might possibly be interested in using, and generally keeping a fatherly eye on the regulation of his little empire. And in any case, he has just announced a new project in the works, The Short Night, based on Ronald Kirkbride’s novel suggested by the escape of George Blake, plus Sean Bourke’s non-fiction account of the same happenings, The Springing of George Blake. The champion survivor, evidently, is in fine shape: the only major director of the silent cinema who is still an unshakeable part of the film-making scene today.
In the last 50 years you have made some 53 films. What has driven you?
First and foremost, it’s a case of the cobbler sticking to his last. I think you have a sort of instinct which pushes you towards what you can do best, and once you have found it, it becomes a habit to keep on doing it. And it’s too late to start at the other thing I would really have liked to do, being a criminal lawyer. I’d have really liked that – not, you know, the histrionic type like Marshall Hall or the smooth, charming type like Curtis-Bennett. But I’ve spent so much of my life fascinated by crime and the administration of justice. That was never really a choice, though: I left school at the age of 14, went into engineering drawing and from there by a succession of logical steps into the cinema. I was reading Buchan and Chesterton then (even as a child I never cared much for Sexton Blake and the lower orders), and all the real-life crime stories I could get hold of, but it never occurred to me as a practical possibility that my professional life might take that turn.
Why not the theatre?
When people ask me why I don’t direct a play, I always answer that I wouldn’t know where to begin. Until recently I’ve gone to the theatre constantly, but I’ve managed to keep my innocence. I don’t know how an actor projects, I don’t know when he should have his back to the audience, and there’s something boring to me about the idea of working within that constant fourth wall of the proscenium arch. Also, in the theatre the writer is paramount, he is always there in the stalls, he is the final arbiter. In films the director has the last word.
Nearing 78, you are as busy as ever and obviously have no thought of retiring. What drives you now?
I have a contract with Universal that has to be fulfilled: two more movies. But basically, I can’t help it. I need to go on. I could never retire. That seems to me the most horrible idea. What would I do? Sit at home in a corner and read? I have no outside interests, I’ve done all the travelling I want to do. Also, you have to remember that as well as being a creative person I am a very technical person. The actual exercise of technique is very important to me, the practical solution of technical problems. I have always needed to do things, never had much taste for philosophising about what I do.
Has there ever been anything specific you wanted to say in your films?
Now we’re back to Sam Goldwyn, aren’t we? – messages are for Western Union. Of course in each specific subject there is something I want to say, in the sense that there is something which attracts my interest and I want to bring that out in my treatment of the subject. It may be something technical, as in Family Plot, where it was the structural image of those two separate plots and separate groups of characters coming gradually, inevitably together, and how to do that and to make it seem completely natural. In The Short Night it’s a situation that fascinates me: the man falls in love with the wife of a man he’s waiting to kill. It’s like a French farce turned inside-out. If he sees a boat coming across the bay with the husband on it, he can’t hop out of the back window, he has to wait and do what he has to do. And of course he can’t take the wife, who loves him, into his confidence. And so the whole romance is overshadowed by this secret, which gives it a special flavour and atmosphere. That’s what I want to convey.
Tell me more about The Short Night.
I read a review of the novel somewhere, and was struck by this idea. The central action takes place on an island off the coast of Finland, near where Sibelius was born. It’s where Blake’s wife with their two children waited for him to come and collect them once he’d got out of England, and take them into Russia with him. That’s where the man who is stalking him comes also in Ronald Kirkbride’s novel, and where he and the wife fall in love while they are waiting. The end of the film is a big traditional chase: the wife won’t go with the spy, so he kidnaps his children and gets on the train for Russia from Helsinki, and the other man has to pursue the train, get on it somehow and get the children away from him as well as killing him if he can before they reach the border.
The beginning comes from the non-fiction book by Sean Bourke, who actually engineered Blake’s escape. The details of that are incredible: they sound as though they came straight out of a movie. Bourke and Blake communicated by a walkie-talkie that had been smuggled into the prison. Hammersmith hospital is right next to the prison, and Bourke used to stand outside it on visiting days with a bunch of flowers wired for sound, into which he would talk to Blake. They finally got him out over the wall one night when there was a film show in the prison, with all kinds of delays, and then hid him three minutes away until the fuss had died down. But the main thing is the love story. I went to look at the island. It has a few low scrubby trees, very bleak and windswept, but there are lots of reeds in shallow water all round. I thought what an interesting image it would be to shoot a chase there from slightly above, so that you can’t see the men at all, just the movements of the reeds as they almost converge, then get further apart, neither knowing where the other is...
Do you ever fear the competition of your own past?
Inevitably, sometimes. But probably less the longer you’re at it. Look at that young man Spielberg, making the biggest money-maker ever so early in his career. How was he going to top that? I find the thing to do is to concentrate entirely on the film in hand; and say to yourself, it’s only a movie.
Are there purely practical problems about continuing in Hollywood much after the age of 60 – insurance, for instance?
I suppose so, but luckily I haven’t encountered them. My health is pretty good, despite a few arthritic aches and pains. I have a heartpacer, but that works more reliably than nature. And my films are sufficiently successful for other people to want me to go on working, which is a lot of the battle.
Is there anything you regret not having done?
Being a criminal lawyer, maybe. And some movie ideas that I haven’t yet been able to incorporate into a workable screenplay. And Mary Rose, which I really wanted to do, but they didn’t want to let me. Do you know, it’s written specifically into my present contract that I cannot do Mary Rose?
To survive in the film business it would seem you have to be tough. Are you tough?
I don’t know. In a business sense, I don’t think so, particularly. Instead of being tough, I have usually been devious. Present people with a fait accompli, or if I want to turn down their ideas come up with a valid alternative right away, so that it is a not a head-on collision. I think the only area where I am tough is in the preparation stage of my films: I never give up until things are right. It takes so long, and so much work, to achieve simplicity. And I’ve always felt that if you’re tough with yourself, in the strictly professional sphere, the rest takes care of itself.
And after The Short Night, what?
Good heavens, I don’t know. I have lots of ideas that I’ve never yet managed to get on the screen, and something always comes up, some new story that excites me. I warn you, I mean to go on for ever!
John Russell Taylor
Sight & Sound, v46 n3 Summer 1977, pages 174-175