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ALFRED HITCHCOCK: THE MAN WHO KNEW HOW TO TREAT A NAKED CORPSE

By 1972, the master of suspense was already widely considered to be one of the cinema's greatest directors. He certainly did a great job of directing me in this interview for The New York Times. The portrait below is by the incomparable Jack Mitchell, who worked with me on numerous Times assignments.

Click here for my one-on-one interviews with other major directors including Scorsese, Pasolini, Nichols, Allen, Wilder, Eastwood, Truffaut, Godard, Arzner, Capra, Walsh, Bertolucci, Anderson, Perry, Losey, De Sica, Antonioni, De Palma, Lumet, Malle, Vidor, Sembene, Visconti, Hopper, Von Trier and Zinnemann. --Guy Flatley

 

"I'm not personally offended by sex and violence," says the inflated-looking man with the short legs, the flushed face and the pouting lips. "But I always take care in my own films to use the best possible taste."

Plumped down in the humid hotel room, his hands folded primly on his lap and his eyes casting an occasional furtive glance toward the door, he reminds you of a pudgy British schoolboy attempting to conceal the fact that he has just pinched the chocolates from the headmaster’s study.

But he’s no schoolboy; he’s Alfred Hitchcock, the master himself, and he’s in town to play what’s-it-all-about-Alfie with reporters and to fan some promotional flames for "Frenzy," his London-lensed thriller that has blitzed the British box-office record set by "Love Story" and has had Manhattan preview audiences buzzing about the veteran director’s triumphant return –- after several slumpish seasons –- to the classic Hitchcock style of "The 39 Steps," "The Lady Vanishes," "Shadow of a Doubt," "Strangers on a Train" and "Rear Window." A style marked by a devilish blend of horror and humor and a vigorously visual technique that keeps audiences guessing and gasping right up to the nerve-shattering climax.

More than a few "Frenzy" viewers have also gasped at the bold cinematic zeal with which Hitchcock depicts the dastardly doings of a mad rapist on a murderous rampage in London. "I’ve only shown nudity when it was vital to the story," Hitchcock insists. "If you noticed, I tried to be as discreet as possible with that nude corpse in the potato truck."

True, but how about that other scene –- the one in which a trembling woman is trapped in her office by the panting psychopath? Doesn’t it count as nudity when he rips away her blouse and abuses her exposed breasts? And when he savagely rapes and strangles her, and we are shown a close-up of her death-distorted features –- her bulging eyes and her twisted tongue –- doesn’t that qualify as violence?

"Well, yes, but you have to have one scene like that to set your example, don’t you?"

Fretful students of anti-social behavior contend that cinematic examples of sex and sadism spawn real-life examples of sex and sadism. One such example being the man who confessed that he had committed an especially sticky murder after sitting spellbound through Hitchcock’s "Psycho."

"That man murdered three women," says the puffy-jowled director, a mite defensively. "When the local paper called up to ask for my comment, I replied by putting another question to them. 'What film did that man see before he murdered the second woman? And am I to assume he murdered the first woman after drinking a glass of milk?'

"As you know, Sir James Barrie wrote ‘Peter Pan,’ " Hitchcock continues, waving a finger in the air for school-masterish effect. "But, as you may not know, soon after Barrie had put ‘Peter Pan’ on the stage for the first time, he received a letter from a woman who said, ‘You fiend! My 5-year-old boy is dead. He jumped out of the window trying to fly like Peter Pan.’ Barrie, poor chap, was extremely distressed."

The message, then, would seem to be that if you’re the sort of bloke to go dashing about stabbing blondes in the shower, you’re not going to wait for "psycho" Tony Perkins to show you how it’s done on the silver screen. Still, there are certain bits of depravity that Hitchcock would prefer leaving to the moviegoer’s imagination.

"I haven’t seen ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ but I know I wouldn’t go for that kind of violence. I made ‘Psycho’ in black and white for one purpose and one purpose only –- because, in color, the blood going down the bathtub drain would have been repulsive."

Some films that serve up lavish portions of sex and violence, such as ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ have been rated X by the Motion Picture Association of America, the frustrating result being that many leading newspapers refuse to carry ads for them. Does Hitchcock feel this is unfair?

"But ‘Frenzy’ has an R rating," is his cautious contribution to the controversy. In his expert opinion, some sex has less cinematic appeal than other sex. "I don’t see any particular point in showing the sex act, itself, do you?" he asks, with a puritanical purse of the lips. "I believe we’ve all seen enough of those wrestling-in-bed scenes. When I was asked recently how long the nudity phase would last, I said, ‘All breasts sag eventually.’ "


Perhaps Hitchcock’s steamiest love scene was in the 1946 film "Notorious," a scene in which an impassioned but fully-clothed Ingrid Bergman kissed, cuddled and just plain necked with Cary Grant while he made a super-human effort to concentrate on a crucial telephone conversation. Hitchcock smiles, recalling the torrid team’s discomfort. "'We feel very awkward in this position,’ they said to me. ‘Don’t worry,’ I told them, ‘it’ll look all right on the screen.’ "

It looked better than all right on the screen, as does every scene in a Hitchcock movie. In fact, Hitchcock’s sense of the cinematic –- his total mastery of pictorial nuance and montage –- is as legendary as his merry mania for murder.

"Hitch doesn’t care for the spoken word," James Stewart recently told me. "I remember a movie we made called ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much.’ It was a mystery, kidnapping, spy sort of thing, and the climax was in Albert Hall in London, during a performance by the London Symphony. The signal for the assassination to take place was the clashing of the cymbals, and all during the symphony I was supposed to be chasing Doris Day backstage, explaining the whole picture to her as I ran –- and, at the same time, sort of solving the mystery for the audience.

"Well, there was a lot of quite complicated dialogue, and finally Hitch came to me and said, ‘You’re talking so much that I’m not able to hear the music. I’ll tell you what we’ll do: we’ll cut the dialogue. Don’t say anything, just wave your arms and chase Doris Day.’ ‘But, Hitch,’ I said, ‘do you think the audience will understand how the picture turns out if I don’t give them some inkling?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I think they will. Besides, I’m terribly fond of this symphony.’ "

And he’s terribly fond of Stewart, a fondness that clearly does not extend to every performer he has put through the suspense wringer. "Most actors are children," Hitchcock maintains. "Look at Dean Martin –- he just recently walked off the set in the middle of a picture because he didn’t like the location. But, of course, when the studio threatened to sue him for $6-million, he changed his mind.

"And one of the principal actors in ‘Frenzy’ didn’t turn up one morning. He was two hours late, and everyone on the set –- especially the other actors –- was watching to see how I’d react when the fellow finally did come in. When he arrived, he came up to me and apologized. I patted him on the arm and said, ‘That’s all right, don’t give it another thought.’ You see, I reacted very differently from the way they expected.

"Actors really are like children, you know. That’s why you get such a tremendous number of divorces in Hollywood. The participants in a love scene take their roles so seriously that they continue the scene after 6 o’clock in the dressing room. Such children!"

Athough he is no child, Hitchcock does have the endearingly childlike habit of popping up unannounced in his own movies. (At left, he steals a scene from Henry Fonda in "The Wrong Man.") Could it be that he is a frustrated ham at heart? "On the contrary, I’ve always said to the cameraman, ‘Make it as short as you can, so I don’t suffer the indignity of being an actor too long.’ "

There are times when a director is absolutely no help to the actor in his pursuit of dignity. "When an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, ‘It’s in the script.’ If he says, 'But what is my motivation?’ I say, ‘Your salary.’ "

Nevertheless, Hitchcock knows how it feels to be starstruck. "I adored Carole Lombard –- so much, in fact, that she was able to persuade me to do something outside my type, a bedroom farce called ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith.’ She had a tremendous sense of humor, but there was nothing for me to do with that film except to take the script and direct it. I had nothing to contribute."

And there was the mixed blessing of steering Tallulah Bankhead through the choppy waters of "Lifeboat." "Tallulah was a real pro, but I must say she was tremendously extroverted. There were complaints that she was climbing in and out of the bright lights with nothing under her skirt. This proved particularly upsetting to the women on the set, and they demanded that the production manager do something about it. He came to me and said, ‘What do I do?’ ‘I’m sure I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It’s really none of my business. I only work here. You’d better ask the people in charge of the studio.’

"So the poor fellow talked to the front-office people at Fox and they said, 'You’ve got to tell Miss Bankhead to stop it.’ When he told me this, I said, ‘If you do that, Tallulah will tear you to pieces!’ ‘Well, somebody has to tell her,’ he said. ‘Whose department is it, anyhow?’ I thought about that for a moment and then I said, ‘It’s either the make-up man’s department or the hairdresser’s.’

"I enjoyed working with Grace Kelly very much. ‘Rear Window’ was her launching-out, you know. I discovered her potential when I was directing her in ‘Dial M for Murder,’ so for ‘Rear Window’ I brought in all the big guns. . .Edith Head to costume her, and the top hairdresser. I’d love to make another film with her, but the Monegasques won’t hear of it. She came with us to see ‘Frenzy’ at Cannes, and she is as charming as ever. Completely unaffected."

Julie Andrews was also a sweet kid, but "she was not right for ‘Torn Curtain.’ She was a musical comedy star, and it was not fair to her to call her a scientist. But she was what they call ‘hot,’ and the commercial aspect seemed more important than anything else at the time. In those days, we thought we needed stars, but today we know better.

"Today, we take a young girl from the theater, test her and put her into the leading role in a movie. I prefer to use a fresh face and, above all, to avoid the cliché. Take the role of the barmaid in ‘Frenzy,’ for instance. Every girl they sent up to me was blonde with big bosoms, so I said, ‘Oh, no, here we go with the cliché again.’ On the other hand, Anna Massey, who ended up playing the barmaid, is a personality."

Hitchcock’s all-time favorite personality now quietly enters the hotel room. Alma Hitchcock is a pleasant, rather frail woman who apologizes for interrupting and then briefly confers with her husband about the matter of whether or not the dinner they are to attend that evening is black-tie. Once the question is resolved, she excuses herself and returns to the other room.

Since the 72-year-old director must surely be drooping from all the frenzy over "Frenzy," it seems only fair to keep the rest of the questions short. Hitchcock does his share by keeping the answers even shorter.

As a former Briton, would you like to make a statement about the situation in Ireland?

"No."

Are you a political activist? If so, are you of the Jane Fonda or the Duke Wayne persuasion?

"Politics is none of my business."

Are you still a Catholic?

"Yes and no."

Are you easily frightened? Do you hear footsteps on the stairs at night?

"I save all that for the screen."

Have you ever imagined yourself committing some clever crime and getting away with it?

"I couldn’t stand the suspense."

Is it difficult to make the audience root for a criminal?

"I do it all the time."

Have you ever been psychoanalyzed?

"What for?"

Do you think any film of yours has been overrated?

"I find that very hard to believe."

Most people your age have already retired. Do you ever think about winding down?

"Not at all," says the indomitable director, a trifle peeved. "If I can still put as much vitality into a movie as I’ve put into ‘Frenzy,’ what’s the point of retiring? I used to be called the boy director, and I still am."