My periods of active association with Alfred Hitchcock were two: briefly at the start of his career, around 1926-27, and rather later for a little longer, when he was already a master craftsman, from 1934 to 1936.
By 1926 I had said goodbye to Cambridge and, for a time, zoology. The Film Society had been founded, to a generally frosty welcome from the film trade, which saw in its Sunday gatherings an implied criticism – which was not intended – of their own standards and choice of product for public presentation. I had myself infiltrated into the film industry, or the edge of it, through Adrian Brunel, than whom there was no better teacher. Adrian had some tiny rooms where he and his cronies ran a sort of film knacker’s business – repair and rebeautifying of ravaged pictures – off a narrow staircase in Dansey Yard, behind Shaftesbury Avenue. He helped us to title-translate and get ready the Film Society imports, and I crept in, like many other luminaries of British filmmaking before and after, by sitting and watching and passing, on demand, out of reach paper clips, elastic bands, and even film cuts that dangled precariously over waste bins/ Sooner or later Adrian would take pity on us and put us on the payroll; which was, of course, not quite the same as finding us a regular salary.
After a few months I became a partner in this very happy, if slightly happy-go-lucky enterprise, with more responsibilities. Adrian was often away. He was under contract to Mick (later Sir Michael) Balcon at Gainsborough studios, and this meant a constant striving not to be neglected in the queue for production space within that dingy warehouse.
Suddenly a phone call from Mick. Would I lunch in Piccadilly with him and Adrian? I said yes, of course, and over my fried onions and mashed potatoes Mick explained. He was in a difficulty. Hitchcock – a shadowy figure at that time, whom I vaguely knew by name – had just finished a picture and Mick could not get the distributor to show it. He had taken a risk in promoting Hitch from floor assistant actually to direct. (Mick, all his life, loved recruiting fresh talent to direction, and this was not the least of his blessings to British film production.) But this was now not Hitch’s first picture for the company but his third, and the distributor would have none of any of them. The mounting unused investment was becoming impossible for Balcon to defend.
At this juncture Adrian had had an idea. What was the distributor’s chief grudge against the latest Hitchcock – The Lodger by name? It was supposed to be highbrow, the most scarlet epithet in the film trade vocabulary. Hitch, indeed, was deeply suspected by the distributors of this damning fault. Had he not even been trained in an art school, and entered the film world drawing the lettering and little decorative pictures on titles? I had been to a university and was mixed up with the Film Society, so I must be a highbrow too. What about getting me to re-edit The Lodger, on the obvious analogy of setting a thief to catch a thief? Mick from the start had been one of the rare film bigwigs who backed the Film Society. Adrian’s proposal struck a chord.
They ran the film, with which at once I fell enthusiastically in love. Now, the hackneyed treatment of the plot and a weakness in characterisation makes it look primitive. Then, by contrast with the work of his seniors and contemporaries, all Hitch’s special qualities stood out raw: the narrative skill, the ability to tell the story and create the tension in graphic combination, and the feeling for London scenes and characters. At first I felt a certain embarrassment. Hitchcock, five years older than I, had three pictures already tucked under his belt, if as yet unshown. I, a novice, was set up to sit in judgment. But Hitch was ungrudgingly warm to the newcomer, eager to hear of anything that, even by chance, might make his work more acceptable.
It was at once obvious that what the film needed was editing toward, not away from, its exceptional qualities. Hitchcock’s two unseen pictures had been made in Munich, and he was clearly influenced by the photography of the German silent thrillers, which made much more use than British run-of-the-mill productions of arbitrary light and shade to heighten tensions.
My suggestions were quickly and generously adopted. The two most important were rank plagiarisins. The first point: as finished in its first-cut version The Lodger was cluttered with titles – mostly unnecessary but, according to the fashion for a silent feature at that time, numbering in the region of 350 to 500. 1 remembered the German Warning Shadows, which had so recently impressed us all without one single title, and I got The Lodger’s titles down to 80.
Second. Of these titles many were just the one-word repetition of the heroine’s name, ‘Daisy’. We had all seen and been enchanted by Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush. Here he achieves a romantic effect by repeating a one-word title, the name of his dream sweetheart, the dance hall hostess ‘Gloria’. The Lodger is a Jack the Ripper story of an assassin – never seen in the film – who murders fair-haired girls, and Daisy is threatened. In her case a menacing effect is contrived by the repetition of her name. I have always been astonished that, so far as I am aware, no one has ever remarked this obvious pinch in print.
Third, Ted McKnight Kauffer, the American poster artist who revolutionised British poster design, was another Film Society stalwart. We persuaded him to draw us sinister title backgrounds. Fourth was just an ordinary matter of reshooting scenes where it seemed the intended effect had not quite come off. Hitch accepted all without the slightest demur. So did Mick.
I have gone into this detail to make sure that the limits of my interference are clear. This was a critical film in Hitch’s career, maybe in British film history. I enjoyed the opportunity to contribute so much that I might have been tempted to overestimate my contribution. Not so. The picture was good and the extent of my abilities is not and never has been in that league. My contribution was in the nature of that which a gallery director makes to a painting in suggesting how it should be framed, where hung and in what light. Much the most important consequence was that the changes renewed Mick’s confidence. The press show ate up the picture, so did the trade show, and later the public. The Lodger, as Mick had hoped, opened the door to the two delayed predecessors waiting in the wings, and from then on Hitch was unstoppable.
The fairy-tale result for me was that I was instantly engaged by Gainsborough to supervise scripts all day and editing all night. (At £40 a week for both.) I did other things besides. I wrote a story on a half sheet of paper that Adrian directed with Godfrey Winn and the Houston Sisters. I repaired wrecks. On one of these I too clashed with Hitch’s distributor-ogre. During the argument he said to Mick: ‘Of course Montagu does not understand, he is a gentleman.’ This slander I considered the ultimate insult.
Anyway I expect I did too much and became irritable. I disagreed with Hitch. I see from records that I am credited with ‘editing’ his next two pictures, Downhill and Easy Virtue, but I remember very little about them except that I argued with him about a shot in Easy Virtue that I did not like at all. It was a matter of what the press had already learned to call ‘the Hitchcock touch’.
Before explaining this I should mention a significant incident. A little group of kindred spirits used to meet in Adrian’s flat, often after premieres, let our hair down and take apart what we had just seen, and anything and anybody else we could think of, in what we called ‘Hate Parties’. We would descant on everything we didn’t like – or even did – in cinema.
At one such the question came up: ‘For whom, primarily, do we make films? Whom is it most important to please?’ ‘The public’ as an answer was far too simple. Equally obvious and unsatisfying was the alternative, ‘the boss’. Hitch would have none of either answer. Others, knowing of Hitch’s troubles with The Lodger and before, suggested ‘the distributors’, acknowledging the validity of what they thought was Hitch’s point: that, unless the distributor liked and would push the picture, the public might never have a chance to give it a fair box-office reaction, even if you had your own boss’s support. Hitch’s deeper answer, however, was that you must make pictures for the press. This, he explained quite frankly, was the reason for ‘the Hitchcock touches’ – novel shots that the critics would pick out and comment upon – as well as the trademark he later made his own (picked up admittedly from Chaplin’s porter shouldering the trunk in A Woman of Paris) of a momentary flash appearance in every film he directed. If we had thought there was charlatanry about this we would have found it odious. But we were all friends, who understood him and knew exactly what he meant.
He went on to explain that, if you made yourself publicly known as a director – and this you could only do by getting mention in the press in connection with your directing – this would be the only way you became free to do what you wanted. If your name were known to the public you would not he the prisoner of where you happened to be working – you could move on. Any newly founded company (there were many in the UK in those days) would be glad to have the cachet of your name as an asset in its prospectus. Any established company would like to sign you in order to score over its rivals.
We all knew this was right. We all knew him well enough to know that while the fame and money of success might be to him a pleasant side-effect, it was not, could not he his primary motive, he lived to make pictures. To make them better was his use for freedom. But we also knew he would never have admitted this, and so he spoke after his manner, drily, sarcastically, cynically, teasingly, and we did not mind. He was the only one of us who might succeed in reaching his objective. We might envy him but we respected him and wished him well.
Anyway he did follow out this path, as his career record testifies. And another thing. Not many years later Sidney Bernstein put out a questionnaire to the patrons in all his theatres: ‘What do you like? Not like? Why?’ That sort of thing. The only American director his audiences had heard of, and therefore about the only one that cropped up in the answers besides blanks and ‘Disney’ was Lubitsch. And the only British one was Hitchcock.
Back to our disagreement. Easy Virtue – the Coward play – is a triangle story, and the scene was a car bringing husband, wife and lover back from the theatre. Husband and wife sat on the back seat, the lover on one of a pair of folding seats facing them. So the lover could play ‘knees-touch’ with the lady, unbeknownst to the husband and illuminated only by the irregular passage of street lamps and headlights. Hitch shot it from above, of course. An excellent ‘touch’. Only... Only this time he had used the wrong lens and the knees were too far away.
Of all shots, I hate worst anything that in reality would he impossible to see. A pan that goes through a wall, for example, or the cliché shot of the romantic pair in front of the hearth, shot from straight through the flames. I am convinced that shots like these are liable to jolt the spectator out of identifying with the scene.
We could not re-shoot. The car and set had been dismantled. I wanted to cut it. I said it was obvious that the shot as it was showed an impossible view, which was bound to have been obstructed at that distance by the roof of the car. Hitch wanted to keep it in. He argued that if anybody did notice, nobody would mind. I have no idea which of us Mick would have supported. I preferred not to ask. I have always preferred to walk out rather than quarrel with a friend; rather, that is, than risk winning the quarrel and losing the friendship.
In the intervening years I of course met Hitch, but not for work. He travelled the path that he had planned. 1929 I spent in Hollywood with Paramount, the latter part working with Eisenstein on the two famous scripts that were eventually published but never shot. Back in Europe fascism was rising, and when I returned to Britain politics kept me too busy to go back to film. I was at a desk at the Daily Worker when the phone rang. There was Mick again, once more in a spot of bother and thinking of his former troubleshooter. It was to be a one-off proposition – ‘just a few weeks’.
’To start when?’ ‘Now or yesterday.’ Mick was in charge of the new Gaumont-British studios at Shepherd’s Bush, with more pictures cramming its floors than could be accommodated in Lime Grove. In addition, the English-language remake of an Italian singing picture was scheduled for immediate production outside at Beaconsfield. Its only just costed script had turned out far over budget. It was to start next Monday. Would I take over as Associate Producer and make it cheaper? It may seem odd that I was to be entrusted with so responsible a task, but in those days the aura of Hollywood was so elevated that any Britisher who had visited the place and came back alive found some of it rub off on him.
An AP was (still is?) someone who deputises for the producer-in-chief and exercises his authority in relation to a fraction of the projects undertaken by the chief. When the scale of production is as large as it was at Gaumont-British, no one man could give adequate attention to all the details on every item. He would therefore allot care of two or three pictures a year to lesser beings, charged with acting as parent substitute at every stage from conception to delivery. In Hollywood, where use of this grade was a general practice, it was reputed to include the lowest forms of animal life, because the most numerous owed their jobs to nepotism and the most unpleasant spent their time intriguing to replace their boss. I had known human ones, however, and as this job, a remake, could only be routine, even the facts that I am tone-deaf and that it was a musical did not make me blench. I postponed the starting date for a week and cut the film on paper as I would have cut it on celluloid after it had been shot. The net saving was in the region of £10,000, and what was left when we had finished production was smooth enough to get an Academy Award nomination in that year. White-headed boy stuff again. And, to my surprise and delight, reunion with Hitch. The moment just happened to be lucky.
Hitch himself, after completing ten films for British International Pictures, some super, others not quite so, had struck out on his own with an independent, choosing as subject for some reason unknown his first (and I think only) musical, hiring the Bush accommodation for the purpose, and turning out an almighty flop.
Suffering from the trauma of this experience, he therefore rushed eagerly back to the arms of Mick Balcon, especially as he had prospects of a thriller he knew he would be able to do well with. In this set-up my accidental presence could only add to the atmosphere of home-coming, and before the fatted calves were fully consumed all round, there was I, a regular Gaumont-British AP, with the assignment to supervise all Hitch’s pictures as my priority and leave to pursue my own private (e.g. political) matters in my ‘spare time’. Hitch welcomed me as easily as if we had never been apart. There followed the four totally different pictures in the genre he made his own: The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Thirty Nine Steps, The Secret Agent, Sabotage.
Hitch was now at the height of his powers. It was a joy to work with him. He was a master craftsman in four fields – not only the original three: as a narrator, the telling of a story so as to engage and rivet the attention of the audience; as a graphic artist, the imagination to render the story’s essence, its timing and intensification, in pictorial images heightened by carefully selected sound; as an observer, the ability to weave into the most improbable plots elements of reality, familiar settings (especially those of London) and people, which could by their very ordinariness fortify credibility (a trick almost Shakespearian).
This, or its germ at least, was there before. The fourth faculty, now added, was technical mastery and assurance. Every AP is familiar with the nightmare director who is incapable of visualising or deciding anything beforehand; who requires his sets to be built with four sides, and then stands in the middle waiting for inspiration to suggest the action to him before he can move out one wall and position the camera so that the crew can set the lights. Or the one who cannot visualise the cutting afterwards and wants two or three cameras to work simultaneously, so that all lighting becomes a compromise and all takes overlap. Hitch knew so well what he was going to do that he could draw the exact tiny fraction of background which was all he would need built, because he knew what would be in the shot and how far away to back the precise action, already laid down clearly in the script. And in Dickie Bevill, his devoted unit manager of those days, he had someone who could convey this exactly to the unit and be sure it would be there.
He was as popular with his casts as with his crews, for the same reason: knowing his own mind. Hitch has often been quoted as saying that actors are cattle. That, when the script was finished, for him the picture was finished. Yet I have heard stars say he was their favourite director. A paradox? No. He was essentially an extremely shy man, who would have died rather than give anyone a clue to the heart he hid under his sleeve. So he adopted a tactic of brusque exaggeration, slow sarcasm accentuated by deliberate articulation, so outrageous that no one could take offence because they had to pretend he must be joking. Women stars, especially, would at first be taken aback. Soon they would accept it as a sort of compliment of intimacy, which of course it was. What he said could not be ignored, but the victim, attention won, would roll it round his mind and ponder it to extract its invariable grain of sense.
I never saw Hitch impatient; I never saw him lose his temper. There was once a terrible day when we needed a two-shot love scene between an experienced woman star and her beau, a handsome gallant but a novice. She was word perfect, excellent and spontaneous from the very first take. He could not get near remembering his lines until the twenty-fourth. In the end we had to print all the takes and pick out one from about the middle, when he was nearing intelligibility and she, though tired, not yet objectionably stale. Hitch was more polite and gentle at the end than at the beginning.
The story conferences were a feast of fancy and of dialectic, a mixture of composing crosswords and solving them, both laced with humour. We would sit around in his flat. Sometimes Alma Hitchcock would be there; sometimes the scenario editor Angus MacPhail, my old schoolmate. It was Angus who established the term ‘MacGuffin’ for the unknown plot objective which you did not need to choose until the story planning was complete. (This convenient word Hitch gleefully adopted and used to the end of his career.) Hitch had also received from an admirer a marvellous Hollywood book, Plotto, which contained some 3,000 plot variations, all carefully indexed.
The unfolding story was elaborated with suggestions from all of us; everything was welcome, if not always agreed. Like anyone else, Hitch would sometimes reject an idea when it was put forward, sleep on it and return with it next morning as his own; which by then it undoubtedly was, since it could only be incorporated when adjusted in his own head to make it fit. We would search for ideas in books, in plays, in odd scenes in the street. Not straight copying, usually, but ideas to prompt ideas. At the Albert Hall one day, I heard the Appenzellers at an International Folk Festival produce a thrilling sound by rotating marbles in a big stone bowl. That we used in a Swiss scene in Secret Agent. In the end, the scripts were by consensus; the only special privilege their credited authors had was to write them down. The scenes of course were finalised by Hitch and his verbal texts then duplicated from the writers’ notes. Mick never interfered. He simply created the conditions and confidence for us to work.
This sounds a paradise compared to the conflicts that attend most filmmaking. Quite early, however, we had one down and up, a curious echo of the past. Film reality is always more incredible than fiction. Our first of the four, The Man Who Knew Too Much, had an enormous success, and in fact we learned later that it broke attendance records for almost every theatre it played. It was a cheap picture even for those days – about £40,000. And of course it played the whole GB circuit. By then we had finished the script of its successor, Thirty Nine Steps, and were feeling well pleased with ourselves.
Mick went off to New York for a brief visit to try to get American distribution, leaving in temporary charge of Lime Grove that same distributor hero-villain who figures in The Lodger episode of this memoir. On his first studio visit both Hitch and I were sent for. The great man informed us that The Man Who Knew Too Much had lost a lot of money. When we doubted this, he explained that he had booked the picture as a second feature. This meant, in those days, that on each showing there had been accounted to its credit only a derisory booking fee, say ten or twenty pounds, for that was the practice – the percentage of takings went always to the first feature. The real value of the film had been totally discarded, for the record attendances had not varied whatever routine Hollywood ‘first feature’ accompanied it.
’The company could not afford more of our highbrow stuff,’ we were told. We must consider ourselves sacked. ‘What about The Thirty Nine Steps?’ That the distributor had read. Another piece of rubbish. It would not be proceeded with. However, if we wished to work out our month’s notice we might stay in the studio and prepare a script on a musical called Lily of Laguna, based on the life of Leslie Stuart, a deceased composer of popular songs. The distributor assured us that this was just what the public wanted and was bound to be a great success. Fortunately Mick came back in time to save both us and the studio.
My opinions on some of the questions I have seen raised about Hitch? Was he a kind man? I should say: certainly, also a family man. Was he cruel? No. When I knew him, and doubtless later, he loved practical jokes, but I never knew him to play one except as part of a tit-for-tat series with a friend who would repay and surpass them in return. This attitude extended to work. When we cast Madeleine Carroll in The Thirty Nine Steps we chose her for her beauty, which Hitch, with his precise sarcasm, designated as ‘glossy’. We deliberately wrote the script to include her undignified handcuff scene on the bed, and being led out from under the waterfall looking like a drowned rat. But Madeleine was a trouper and turned the tables on us by appreciating this treatment and asking for more. Of course Hitch had divined that she would. This quality in her was what enabled her to play perfectly both the spiteful resentment and, credibly, the build-up to final reconciliation with the hero.
The psychopathology of Hitch? I didn’t believe a word of it, for all the analyses of French enthusiasts. I do not believe, and cannot believe, that any incidents in Hitch’s plots as we assembled them reflected any obsessions about particular fatal instruments or the like. When we compiled scripts in those days, the deaths, the weapons, the details, the incidents were generally as I have described, contributed by all hands, and accepted collectively with solely dramatic considerations in mind. The art, the construction finally chosen, that was Hitch – that was what made them truly creative works. The details might have come from anyone.
Was Hitch a cautious man? Very. His interests were far from limited to films. Art, literature, life and what was going on in the world, travel – he had a passion for working out complicated imaginary trips with timetables, and real journeys as well. His appetite was for everything because everything might one day come in useful in a film. But his highest ambition was the film and this he would not risk. Did he then have no principles, no humane or ethical or religious ideas which he accounted more important? I would not draw that conclusion. His repeated insistence that for him a film was only entertainment was, I am sure, a defence mechanism, camouflage against impertinent enquiry. He hid his inner self and would not let even an edge of it peep out in his work, lest this should militate against his freedom as a filmmaker.
I always had two maxims about the proper conduct of an AP’s job. One was that the better you did it the less you had to do. Prepare the film properly, make up the unit and cast wisely, and you could put your feet up in your office and let everything unroll. Partly, it worked. I had time enough during the Hitchcock adventure to AP other productions, co-direct one, and for much extracurricular activity as well.
Only on the last of our subjects, Sabotage, did we meet crisis. For this film we got probably the most accomplished actress we ever had, a star quality at the top of the Hollywood tree: Sylvia Sidney. The trouble was that she was originally a stage actress, who came to the screen from triumph in the New York fringe theatre. She could not piece together in her mind what Hitchcock was after, the meaning of separate shots and how the scene could be constructed from them. She had always acted a scene right through, and she badly needed words, a single sentence or even a phrase, to start a mood off for her, as a singer needs a note to find the key. In Hitch she met possibly the only director whose methods did not fit at all. We were happy with her work. She felt uncertain and would not be reassured. As befits a great star, she had, in Hollywood fashion, been built a little tent on the Bush studio floor so that she could rest between shots hidden from inquisitive eyes. Many were the times I was called up from my office to find her weeping, in which emergency of course it is the AP’s duty to embrace and comfort her as best he can. She was not to be consoled. She wanted to go home.
I persuaded her to stay at least for the big scene. Here, over a meal she has prepared, she learns that her husband has been the cause of the death of her small brother and, half by accident, she kills him. Try this one, I coaxed. Afterwards we would see. The scene contained, alas, barely a word. A real Hitch scene, made up of close-ups and inserts, eyes, expressions, forks, potatoes, cabbages. After playing it as directed, in total unhappiness, she broke down.
’Would you give us,’ I begged, ‘a few hours more?’ I promised she should be the first to see the rough-cut. That night we projected it for her. Hitch, herself, cutter Charles Frend and I were present. The scene is one of the strongest ever contrived by Hitch. Duse could not have played it better. Our star was dazed. As she came out of the projection room she looked at Hitch: ‘Hollywood must hear of this,’ she said.
The second part of my theory was fatal to me. I held it was the duty of the good AP to act as cushion between company and creator. He must be the defender of the director’s needs to the company and likewise the defender of the company’s cash to the director. Winding up this picture, Hitch and I once more disagreed. The scene concerned the boy held up in a traffic jam which delays him so that the bomb he is unwittingly carrying goes off. For this Hitch wanted a tram. The shots involved would last about thirty seconds. To make them, we would have to build a concrete base to carry the lines that would carry the tram from the nearest point in the street where it normally passed to the nearest point on the lot where it would have to be filmed. Cost £3,000. For thirty seconds! I did not think it worth it.
Hitch refused to agree. He thought the tram would imply London to an American audience in a way that a bus could not. Of course he was right. But so may I have been right, in arguing that this scene was so tense it would hardly matter what the background was. Again, I would not quarrel. I asked the appropriate Ostrer brother to release me from the unit. Soon afterwards I was filming the war in Spain with Norman McLaren.
I only saw Hitch once again. He came to London briefly soon after the 39-45 war and entertained Angus MacPhail and myself to supper in his rooms at Claridges. He was as humorous, amiable and affable as ever. A splendid evening. But I never wrote to him in America after the McCarthy days. I was afraid that it might do him harm if I did.
Sight & Sound, v49 n3 Summer 1980, pages 189-193