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
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
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 headmasters study.
But hes no schoolboy; hes Alfred Hitchcock, the master
himself, and hes in town to play whats-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 directors 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
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. "Ive
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."
but how about that other scene - the one in which a trembling
woman is trapped in her office by the panting psychopath? Doesnt
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 - doesnt that qualify as
"Well, yes, but you have to have one scene like that to set
your example, dont 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 Hitchcocks
"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 youre the sort
of bloke to go dashing about stabbing blondes in the shower, youre
not going to wait for "psycho" Tony
Perkins to show you how its done on the silver screen.
Still, there are certain bits of depravity that Hitchcock would
prefer leaving to the moviegoers imagination.
seen A Clockwork Orange, but I know I wouldnt
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
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 dont see
any particular point in showing the sex act, itself, do you?"
he asks, with a puritanical purse of the lips. "I believe weve
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. "
Hitchcocks 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 teams discomfort. "'We feel very awkward in this
position, they said to me. Dont worry, I
told them, itll 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, Hitchcocks sense of the cinematic
- his total mastery of pictorial nuance and montage -
is as legendary as his merry mania for murder.
"Hitch doesnt 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, Youre talking so much that
Im not able to hear the music. Ill tell you what well
do: well cut the dialogue. Dont 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 dont give them some inkling? Yes,
he said, I think they will. Besides, Im terribly fond
of this symphony. "
And hes 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 didnt 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 didnt
turn up one morning. He was two hours late, and everyone on the
set - especially the other actors - was watching to
see how Id 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, Thats all right, dont give it another
thought. You see, I reacted very differently from the way
"Actors really are like children, you know. Thats 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 oclock in the dressing room. Such children!"
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, Ive always said to the cameraman, Make
it as short as you can, so I dont 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, Its in the script.
If he says, 'But what is my motivation? I say, Your
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."
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?
Im sure I dont know, I said. Its
really none of my business. I only work here. Youd better
ask the people in charge of the studio.
"So the poor fellow talked to the front-office people at Fox
and they said, 'Youve 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, Its either the make-up
mans department or the hairdressers.
"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. Id love to make another film
with her, but the Monegasques wont 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."
Hitchcocks 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?
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
"I save all that for the screen."
Have you ever imagined yourself committing some clever crime and
getting away with it?
"I couldnt 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?
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
"Not at all," says the indomitable director, a trifle
peeved. "If I can still put as much vitality into a movie as
Ive put into Frenzy, whats the point of
retiring? I used to be called the boy director, and I still am."