Alfred Hitchcock’s Fade to Black: The Great Director’s Final Days
The scriptwriter on Hitchcock's last, unfinished film, David Freeman had a front row seat as the aging, pain-wracked director raged against the dying of the light.
It's hard to imagine that in his lifetime Alfred Hitchcock was often dismissed as a commercial director instead of one of the great filmmakers of his time. Sure, his reputation was bolstered by the adoration of certain French critics in the '50s, but in America he never won an Oscar for Best Director, even though he was nominated five times.
I say it's hard to figure because Hitchcock's work has endured. Is there a more celebrated--and recognizable— 20th century movie director? Maybe Steven Spielberg. Otherwise, when it comes to mass appeal, Hitch is in a higher league.
All of which makes David Freeman's portrait of Hitchcock in his final days all the more poignant. Freeman, whose screenwriting credits include the overlooked Jack Nicholson film The Border and Street Smart, which features perhaps Morgan Freeman's finest performance, spent months with Hitch working on a script that would never be filmed. He wrote about their time together for the April 1982 issue of Esquire (and the piece appears here with the author's permission). Freeman's account, which was later expanded into a terrific book, The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock, is a fascinating insider's look at the master's process. It offers keen insights into Hitch's craft while painting an intimate and unsentimental picture of the man behind the camera.
“To make great films, that's one thing,” Freeman writes, “to make yourself happy, that's quite another.”
— Alex Belth
He was a bit like the Eiffel Tower. You hear about it all your life, and when you finally see the damn thing, it looks so much like the postcards, it's difficult to see it fresh. Hitchcock's public self was so distinct that it was often impossible to know if I was dealing with the corporeal man or the invented persona. I think he sometimes got it confused, particularly in his storytelling. He was a well-known raconteur, and some of his stories were widely known and repeated--often by him. There were times when he seemed to feel obliged to tell Alfred Hitchcock stories. Sometimes he was at the top of his form and told them well; other times less so. I was aware of this and, as I came to see, so was he. With his high-waisted black suits--with trousers that rested above his enormous belly, leaving just a few inches of white shirt exposed and with a black tie tucked into his pants--he looked positively fictional, out of Dickens, perhaps, or a banker by Evelyn Waugh.
When I was working with him, he was seventy-nine years old and was sometimes lost in the solitude of great physical pain, arthritis mostly. He moved in and out of senility and yet, for all that, he seemed in no hurry to finish his work, even though his life was clearly limited. There was always time in our work sessions for stories and anecdotes. One minute the script, the next a story about Ivor Novello's tailor or the Tahiti steamer schedule in the Thirties. Sometimes the talk was without apparent purpose, but at other times some shred of casual chatter would turn out useful to our work. He was obsessed with detail and had a slow, meandering style.
Hitchcock had the historical good fortune to have worked from silent films through television. At his best, he was an inventor of part of the modern cinema's grammar. But unlike any other director, he was an identifiable public figure, as recognizable as any president or movie star. Television did that for him--but long before his television show he was popping up in all his own movies, those tiny cameo appearances that audiences loved. He exploited a physique that most would try desperately to diminish. He wasn't crazy about being fat, but he saw his body as a tool to use in the making of his career. He always claimed that “in England everyone looks as I do, and no one would remark on it.” Maybe--but he exploited his profile as effectively as any pinup.
Those of us who grew up during the late '50s and early '60s, and who now peer down the long corridor toward middle age, cannot remember a time when these films didn't exist. They seemed like a permanent part of the mindscape, the way mountains or rivers are part of the physical world. They were beyond criticism. That they had a creator was not a surprise. After all, he was on television every week, telling macabre stories, frightening us. And even though an older generation had grown up on Hitchcock's films, those pictures--the English movies and the early Hollywood one --were scary but decorous. Then came Psycho and The Birds. They were a private teenage preserve. There was nothing polite about them and nobody's parents approved. When, in succession, he made Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963). Hitchcock was our mountains and our rivers, curled permanently into our brainpans.
I'm to be at his Universal bungalow at twelve-thirty for lunch, to meet him for the first time, going to see a man about a job. Are we going somewhere else? Do we eat in his office? I don't recall ever seeing him in the commissary, and who would forget? I remember that he's a food-and-wine maven and rather formal. Should I wear a tie? Oh, stop it, I've been to script meetings beyond count, so just put on regulation screenwriter's drag and go to lunch with the man. I settle for a sweater and jacket and throw a tie in my briefcase just in case it turns out to be the prom. I arrive at twelve-twenty-five and the secretaries are in a tizzy. It seems that Mr. H. is expecting not only me, he's expecting Thom Mount, the head of production at the studio. Mount has not been informed of this. After much frantic buzzing about the lot, he's located and changes his plans at the last minute. Mount is on his way. I'm ushered in. The office is standard Universal issue, sort of a pseudo English manor house. It's a studio bungalow the way Newport summer houses are “cottages.” This bungalow has two levels, a screening room, a dining room, many offices, an art department, and cutting rooms.
He appears in the doorway. He's short, five feet five inches or less, with unwrinkled skin. He's very fat. We shake hands and he immediately begins a monologue about prison breaks and South America. It makes very little sense. If anyone else were telling it, I'd be looking for the door.
Mercifully, Mount arrives and lunch is announced. We move down several steps to the dining room. Hitchcock remarks that he fell on these steps a few days ago. Now there are rails. He needs them. The table is set with three commissary steaks and coffee. As we sit he continues to deliver various monologues, all interesting, but the sort of stuff you read or hear if you spend any time in Hollywood. The truth is, I'm starting to get uncomfortable. I begin to think he doesn't know why I'm here. Does he think I've come to interview him? As the steaks are eaten, Mount, who has some skill in these things, brings up the movie. He allows the subject to float over to Hitchcock with a calm directness that I admire. But there is no response. Hitchcock's going on about English pork butchers and how best to prepare pork cracklings. It's clear that if we're going to talk about the script at hand, I'm going to have to lead. So I just plunge in and, sure enough, things turn around. He stops the monologues and we begin to chat about the script. The story's about love and spies. He has ideas, I have ideas. We agree here and disagree there. His face lights up and he sounds a hell of a lot better. A minute ago I was convinced this wasn't going to work, and now I can feel a script forming. We plan to meet again on Monday. A deal is made by the end of the next business day. Things don't usually move that quickly at Universal, or anywhere else. We're rolling.
For about ten years, Hitchcock had been interested in the case of George Blake, the English spy who escaped from Wormwood Scrubs Prison in London in 1966 and disappeared into the Soviet Union. Hitchcock acquired the film rights to two books: a novel, The Short Night, by Ronald Kirkbride, based on the Blake case, and The Springing of George Blake, by Sean Bourke, a fellow prisoner who'd helped in the escape.
The screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who wrote North by Northwest among other films, did several drafts of a script, based mainly on the novel. For reasons Lehman may someday wish to enumerate, he and Hitchcock had a falling out. So Hitchcock asked Universal to find him “a younger man.” That must have galled Lehman, who is twenty years younger than Hitchcock. At the time, I had been doing a lot of script rewriting, some of it for Universal. I was asked to dance.
The general agenda of our working sessions was similar in form to those I was used to with other directors, producers, or writers. That is, we discussed character motivation, situation, and story continuity. But with Hitchcock it was different in one important way: “First you decide what the characters are going to do. Then you provide them with enough characteristics to make it seem plausible that they should do it.” This is a heretical view and if it were left at that, I don't think much good would come of it. The traditional wisdom is “action is character,” and their evolution is one, with a slight edge to character. But when Hitchcock did get around to the characters, he discussed and analyzed their motives and their goals in depth. He might talk about the “what” first, but it was the “who” that was on his mind.
The opening of the picture is to be the prison escape. The central thrust of the sequence derives from historical fact. Blake escapes from the Scrubs, hides out near the prison, and then makes his way across Europe to Moscow. Lehman's script began after the jailbreak, focusing on the hero of the picture, an American who pursues Blake. My script will start with the escape. Hitchcock and I make this decision together. The idea is to show how determined the hero's adversary is and to take advantage of a narrative device Hitchcock had used to good effect in the past: a story begins one way, proceeds, then stops abruptly--allowing the main story to begin. We discuss the escape in physical terms--how high is the wall, what is the geography of the prison yard, what sort of uniforms do the convicts wear? Hitchcock has a few preliminary ideas for camera moves, and I make a few proposals about characterization and dialogue.
Once Blake (to be called Brand in the film) is over the wall, Hitchcock asks to see London Street maps, which are obtained, enlarged, and mounted on cardboard. He holds them on his belly and looks at them with a magnifying glass, studying possible escape routes. He's obsessed with the topography, demanding to know where the stoplights are, if there are any roundabouts, and just what the traffic patterns are in the evening. He wants to know every external detail, even if the escape is ultimately to be shot on a sound stage. It's like Stanislavski's dictum about stage sets: all the audience might see is the living room, but the director and actors must know what's in the offstage rooms, right down to what's in the linen closets. If Blake is to make his escape at dusk, what time does the sun set? When do the streetlights go on? Hitchcock enunciates these questions slowly, as if each one is the key to unlocking the mysteries of the script.
“Tell me, Da-vid. If it's a rope ladder Bourke uses in effecting Blake's escape, do you feel he made it himself?”
“Well, we know he 's a resourceful fellow and we've seen he can keep a secret. Buying a ladder would leave a trail, so maybe he did build it in private.”
“Umm. Then when we arrive at his flat in Shepherd's Bush following the escape, perhaps there ought to be remnants of the ladder. Bits of jute lying about.”
“Umm. Da-vid, where do you suppose he got the jute?” I, of course, have no idea where he got the jute. I'm not even exactly certain what jute is. Rope, I guess. But Hitchcock likes the sound of the word. I figure if he just says jute enough times, it will all pass and we'll get back to the scene.
“Would he have been careful enough to destroy the odd pieces of jute you've left so messily about?”
“Maybe so, Hitch. But he's not without faults--we've seen him forget detail and just improvise solutions.”
“Hmm. Then the question is, jute or no jute,” Hitchcock finally wonders.
A question more germane to the scene, at least to me, is whether the prison break coincides with the change of shift at the Hammersmith Hospital. The two institutions, prison and hospital, sit side by side in the best English manner. I suggest we have the hospital change its shift to suit our convenience, that is, it should almost, but not quite, botch the prison break. We can give Blake just a few minutes between the two, then have things go wrong. This does not seem like a profound bit of dramaturgy on my part, and he agrees with it. When he doesn't like an idea about a character or a story point, he says, “No, no. That's the way they do it in the movies. Let's do it the way it is in life.” Of course, he'd do it the way it's done in the movies anyway--only better.) The problem with most movie directors isn't their ability to move the camera--the real problem is stale observation of human behavior. Hitchcock saw human behavior fresh, even in a tired form like melodrama.
His detail seeking in our meetings is compulsive and a little nuts. Part of it, at least, is to avoid actual script writing. But he's immersing himself, creating the density of felt detail from which fine performances emerge. Hitchcock moves from the general to the particular in his script preparation exactly as he does in the celebrated sequences of his films. The party sequence in Notorious begins with a wide shot from high above the top of the stairs, all glittering expanse below. Ingrid Bergman stands talking with Claude Rains. The camera descends closer, agonizingly closer to Bergman, until it's tight on her fist, which we know contains the key to the wine cellar and which Cary Grant must have in order to …
Hitchcock sometimes called this “from the farthest to the nearest” as in the opening of Psycho. First a wide shot of the city, then one building. Then one window in the building. Then inside.
After several days of looking at photographs of the Scrubs prison, more map studying, and a lot of Telexes back and forth to London, we talk about Blake's character and the nature of English spies, Kim Philby in particular. Hitchcock's method is becoming clearer. First the place (if it's unusual), then the people--much of the discussion speculative--then the details about the people that will drive our story forward. Sure enough, the general to the particular, the farthest to the nearest.
Our schedule has grown routine: Eleven o'clock till twelve-thirty, story conference; twelve-thirty till one-forty-five or so, lunch in his dining room. Then, after lunch, another story meeting, a film, or my own work session, alone. Hitchcock arrives about ten o'clock, reads his mail, and answers the few phone calls he gets. Few have the nerve to call him and he's usually pleased when an old friend does. Occasionally Lew Wasserman, the chairman of MCA and one of Hitchcock's oldest friends, rings up just to see how he is. Lord Bernstein, another old chum, rings from London from time to time.
One morning I arrive about nine to prepare for our morning meeting. I stay in my office working and don't hear him arrive. When I do walk down the hall to see what he is up to, he's closeted with Peggy Robertson, his longtime assistant and my interpreter of mysterious Hitchcockian doings. Their offices adjoin and the doors are closed. I hang about reading the London Daily Telegraph--Hitch subscribes so he can check the West Ham soccer scores--and chat with Sue Gauthier, Hitchcock's secretary of many years.
At about eleven-thirty the door opens. Hitchcock looks dazed, Peggy is trembling. The two of them look as if they have been in a car wreck. He motions for me to join him in his office.
“Da-vi-id. Good morning.” The more syllables he puts into my name, the worse his physical condition.
“Good morning. How are you feeling?”
“Knees … my knees.”
Not much work is going to get done today. Normally I would spread out my note cards, remind him where we had left off the previous day, review the last scene, and then we'd plunge in, debating and examining. It's slow and arduous and takes great concentration under the best of circumstances. With Hitchcock, the pleasure, and occasionally the problem, is letting his mind roam, then ever so gently tugging it back to the script. There are two areas for discussion on the table. The first is relatively routine. Some cuts, a few slight character changes, an idea or two about putting some humor into the script. Nuts and bolts and not much glamour. The second deals with the nature of the love affair that is central to the script. But the man appears so weary that I decide to skip the dull stuff and get to the heat.
Hitchcock lived the life of a good burgher. He dressed like a banker and never did anything irregular. His roots were Edwardian, in the nineteenth century. He once told me that he only vaguely understood “the mechanical aspects of sex” until he was in his early twenties. But below the surfaces of many of his films, rude, angry sex simmered; cool, icy blondes were tied up, handcuffed, humiliated. It was clear to me that at least at the end of his life the Dionysian streak was trying to get out.
I begin talking about the nature of the love affair in the script. Sex and passion; compulsive, life-changing, soul-altering sex, all to be made more explicit than he had done in the past. I genuinely believe that some spelling out of the passion is necessary for the film, and in fact I had been brooding about how to bring it up. I sail on, but I don't have to sail far. The talk of love is a tonic for him. “Yes, yes. That will work. Very exciting.” He's telling me, “I will put that in my movie.” Hitchcock's off and running.
“The lovers are seated across the room from each other,” he begins in his deliberate tones. “Their robes open as they look at one another.” Hitchcock stops, savoring the scene, and repeats that the robes are open. He's starting to sound like a schoolboy with a copy of Penthouse. “Outside, on the bay, a tiny boat is approaching, coming over the horizon” (the scene takes place in a cabin on an island off Finland). “The lovers know the husband is approaching. They can hear the sound of his boat's motor, growing louder as it comes over the horizon. They stare at each other and begin to masturbate, each of them. The camera moves closer to their eyes. The sound of the motor grows louder as their eyes fill the screen.” He's grinning now and actually stretching his legs--his cane has fallen away as he speaks of the !overs' robes. “Then, after orgasm, the man must take an ivory comb and comb her pubic hair.” He doesn't actually intend to put this scene in the film--it's a true home movie. This leads to a chat about pornography. I tell him about the Pleasure Chest--a Hollywood shop that sells sexual paraphernalia. I tell him San Fernando Valley housewives walk up and down the aisles with supermarket baskets, buying vibrators and dildoes. I may be exaggerating, but the image astonishes him. He loves being astonished.
As this is a Tuesday, Hitch has his regular lunch with his agent, Herman Citron. Peggy and I go off to the commissary. I'm pleased with my decision to avoid the routine script problems in favor of the spicy stuff. I was more right than I knew. Peggy says that before our story meeting he had been in tears, complaining bitterly about his pain and saying she should call Lew (Wasserman) and tell him the movie was off, that there was no way he could possibly continue. She says he kept repeating, “When do you think I'll go? When?”
AT HOME IN BEL AIR
Hitchcock was a man of considerable wealth. In the early '60s his friend and then agent, Lew Wasserman, helped Hitchcock arrange the sale of his portion of the rights to the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series to MCA in exchange for stock. As a result, Hitchcock claimed, he owned more than two hundred thousand shares, which made him one of the largest shareholders in the company. In addition, he had made prudent investments and, except for his wine cellar, did not live lavishly. As for the wine, he told me that he had two cases of an 1875 Mouton-Rothschild in storage and several cases of a 1921 Cheval-Blanc in the basement of his Bel Air house. He had no plans to drink any of it.
Soon after we've begun working, Hitchcock announces he isn't coming to the office because it is raining. When it stops, he still doesn't come in. I suspect it is due to his wife. She's had two strokes in the last few years and is a semi-invalid, and since she had co-written several of the films, I don't think she likes being left out.
We meet in his study, where Hitchcock sits waiting, dressed in his black suit. There are paintings on the walls: Vlaminck, Rouault, Utrillo, Soutine, and several Klees. The books in the study include a set of Shaw's plays with the first volume inscribed to Hitchcock from GBS.
The house is simple by neighborhood standards. The Hitchcock house, the only one they ever owned in Los Angeles, is a bungalow looking out on the fairway of the Bel Air Country Club. One of its few concessions to the luxurious standards of the neighbors is a long, winding road. The furniture is department store good taste, and except for the art and the large number of books, it might be the house of a well-to-do businessman. A good burgher indeed.
Working here is easy, and at first Hitchcock seems more relaxed than at the studio. Story meetings with my peers are usually a matter of tossing out many ideas until the right one hits. The trick is to be able to recognize the right one when it comes along. Hitchcock identifies the good stuff quickly, and his own ideas are almost always right. So, with good ideas in the air, we plunge into one of the knottier sections of the story. Hitchcock leans toward me in a conspiratorial, almost lascivious, way and says, “Let's pile on the menace.”
Hitchcock does not seem generous by nature. He offers no drink until he wants one, nor any of his Cuban cigars. I don't think he's stingy, just self-absorbed. It takes me a day to figure out the drink ritual. By two-thirty on the first afternoon at his house, I long for a cup of coffee but feel awkward about asking. Finally, he says, “Would you like a cup of tea or something?”
Too quickly I answer, “Yes, I'd like some coffee.”
He rings for the nurse (the Hitchcocks kept round-the-clock nurses but no servants) and announces darkly, “Mr. Freeman will have coffee.” The workday is clearly over. The next day, about the same time, he says, again, “Would you like a cup of tea or something?”
“Umm,” I answer, “that would be nice. Tea … or something.”
“Maybe a glass of wine?” he asks. I nod and he rings for the nurse. “Two vodka and orange juice,” he announces, deadpan. We start belting them down. I learn by the third day to tell the nurse privately to make mine mostly orange juice. I try to stay sober enough to maneuver back to West Hollywood.
On the fourth day, it's vodka and orange juice again. But this time a substitute nurse is on duty. She doesn't know that I don't want the vodka, so I'm getting smashed and Hitchcock, as usual, is complaining that his drink is too sweet, which means the glass is cluttered with ice cubes and orange juice. He's belting them down, ringing bells, and demanding more. The substitute nurse says to him in a stage whisper, “You know, the doctor says no vodka.” Hitch picks up his cane, pushes her aside, and laboriously tries to get to his feet, saying, “I'll do it myself.” I quickly appoint myself bartender and make the man a drink. I never see that nurse again.
Alma Hitchcock, the times I saw her, was a frail, birdlike woman who looked angry about her infirmity. Her opinions were of great importance to Hitchcock. He called her The Duchess, and if The Duchess didn't like something, then it was of no value. She was a court from which there was no appeal. One anecdote is revealing. In Vertigo there's a strange cut in the first bell-tower sequence. Kim Novak runs away from James Stewart, across an expanse of field. She starts running, then cut: she's across the field and Stewart has caught up with her. The transition is disconcerting since there are no other cuts of this sort in the picture. Hitchcock said that when Vertigo was finished, he took it to New York to screen it for the Paramount executives. The film had been with George Tomasini, the editor, and Hitch hadn't seen it in ten days. Hitch, Alma, and several others watched the final cut before they showed it to the studio. When the screening was over, Hitch asked Alma what she thought. She said, as Hitch recalled, it was fine, but “of course you're going to do something about that shot.”
“What shot?” he asked nervously.
“Why, that shot of Kim running. Her legs are so fat. It looks awful.”
Hitchcock issued the order to Tomasini: cut out the run. Alma's criticism was answered. Kim Novak's heavy legs were concealed and all logic left on the cutting room floor.
By the second week of our story meetings at their house, when Mrs. H. has gotten used to my presence, Hitch asks if she would like to sit in on a story meeting. To his delight she answers yes. She's helped to the study where we're working. She sits on a sofa, sipping tea, looking hopeful. Hitch seems thrilled. The woman had had two strokes and was generally in a dark frame of mind. Today is like an outing for her, and he wants to make it a good one. He begins to perform, going over his favorite scenes, repeating sequences, and acting out dialogue as if he'd just thought of it all that minute. Since he doesn't have to impress me, it's clearly a little show for Alma. He wants to show her how clever he is and, more importantly, how well the script is going, that there is hope, a future. And he desperately wants her approval. Each time he mentions a story point or repeats an exchange of dialogue, he glances up to see if she's smiling. I feel as if I were intruding on a first date. At this time they have been married more than fifty years.
At the end of one of our sessions I join them in their kitchen for yet another drink. Hitchcock is very proud of his kitchen; he's comfortable here. The room is quite elaborate, with a walk-in freezer and several ovens. There's a large red banquette with an oval table. The freezer is filled with meat, sides of beef and large pieces of lamb. But if the Hitchcocks want food, they call Chasen's and Mrs. Chasen sees that dinner is sent over. This is a service that I assume is reserved for very few. Chasen's is known for its catering but not for takeout. When they do dine, the Hitchcocks sometimes use Limoges china marked “Plaza Athénée.” They seem to have service for eight of these elegant blue-and-white plates. Alma had admired them during a stay in Paris some years ago. Hitchcock dropped a note to the hotel asking if it would be possible to buy some. “I had in mind a teacup or two. Perhaps a saucer.” A crate of the stuff arrived at the studio, compliments of the Plaza Athénée.
Around his kitchen table, with his wife having a good day, Hitchcock relaxes a bit, asks me a few personal questions, talks a bit about other directors. He says he likes Truffaut's work, but is hard pressed to think of a title. I suspect that mostly he likes Truffaut. He finds a grudging word of admiration for Buñuel. He can barely speak the titles, but manages to let Viridiana and That Obscure Object of Desire pass from his lips. As far as I can see, no one else's work really interests him, and, except for his current work, he's happiest when he's reminiscing. I would not presume to say what is in anyone's heart, but I suspect that the streets of Leytonstone and life in his father's house are very much on this man's mind now.
Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, the youngest son of a prosperous London greengrocer, was born in the last year of the last century. Like the movies, he grew up with the twentieth century. The family was English Catholic and Alfred, like his brother and sister, was raised in the faith, educated by Jesuits. By the end of his life, the memories of corporal punishment at the hands of his teachers were vivid. “One was beaten with a cane made of gutta-percha, which was similar to hard rubber. The sting was absolute. I can feel it now.”
His father died when Hitchcock was 15. At 18 he took a job with the W. T. Henley Company, as a sort of apprentice mechanical engineer making working drawings of electrical fittings. By day he kept at his job but schemed to find ways to work in the movies. He read technical journals about film and haunted the theaters and film production companies. His entry into the business of film making was as designer and writer of title cards for silent films. During his early attempts to become a director, he met Alma Reville, an English girl just one day younger than himself. She was already established in the movies as a script girl. At that time the script girl also cut the film.
When he was 25 and had become an established jack-of-all-trades at Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount) at its studios in Islington, he got his chance to direct. Hitchcock went to Munich as part of an Anglo-German production team. He worked at the UFA studios in Neubabelsberg and made The Pleasure Garden, a melodrama about a chorus girl, a modest commercial success but a great showcase for the director. Also in Germany, he made The Mountain Eagle, which was set, Hitchcock recalled, “in Old Kentucky, wherever that might be.” The film is now lost.
Hitchcock saw the work of, and probably met, Murnau, the great German filmmaker--the earliest master of bleak light and shadow. Murnau's Nosferatu, with its stark and arresting images, looks like the source of the visual style of The Lodger, the silent picture generally regarded as the first true Hitchcock film. Hitchcock also met Fritz Lang, who was later to work in Hollywood. Hitchcock's sensibility was being shaped by the German Expressionist masters. He was in the right place at the right time.
Back in England, Hitchcock made the transition from silents to sound with Blackmail, Britain's first talkie. During this English period he also made his first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent, and The Lady Vanishes.
The former apprentice engineer retained a lifelong interest in the way things worked. His most elaborate camera maneuvers seemed almost diabolical in their complexity. Movie buffs have commented endlessly on the bell-tower sequence in Vertigo. It involved a model of the tower set on its side for the shot. The camera dollied backward along the length of the tower's staircase while simultaneously its lens zoomed forward. The effect when projected upright was, well, vertigo. Hitchcock had done simpler versions of things like that before sound. In The Lodger an ominous character paced the floor, which Hitchcock constructed of glass. He shot from the point of view of the people on the floor below. We see the pacing and its effect on the people below, all in one shot.
Hitchcock didn't come to the United States to live and work until he was almost 40. The British film industry had grown and Hitch was a star in its small firmament. Hollywood, however, was the galaxy. He came at David O. Selznick's urging, and together they made Rebecca, Spellbound, and The Paradine Case. Hitchcock settled in southern California, leaving behind a flat in London and a country house in Shamley Green. He leased them so that if things didn't work out in Los Angeles, he and his family could always “come home,” as he put it. But after a taste of Hollywood's facilities and technicians, Hitchcock bought a house, enrolled his daughter in American schools, and, most importantly, committed himself to Hollywood movies. Yet for all his enthusiasm for the American film industry, he remained forever an expatriate. Even after he became a citizen in 1955, he regarded himself as an Englishman abroad. He always dressed formally. He had a tailor who ran up dozens of the same suit in different sizes to account for slight variations in his weight. In his black suits, Hitchcock always looked odd in the bright California sun. The only surprise was the left collar point, which was allowed to curl. It looked accidental, but it wasn't. A portrait of him was done once in which the collar point was made to sit in its proper place. He hated the painting and wouldn't have it around.
During the early '50s Hitchcock became the subject of serious critical scrutiny by a group of French film critics, mostly associated with the journal Les Cahiers du Cinéma and known loosely as the nouvelle vague. Some of these critics, notably Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Eric Rohmer, later became filmmakers of international repute. In 1953, Les Cahiers devoted an issue to Hitchcock, including an interview conducted by André Bazin, the editor of the magazine. Hitchcock's reputation before the Cahiers group had not been exalted. He was regarded as a very good commercial director.
The small band of French critics helped shift the view of Hitchcock from a clever, popular entertainer to a Significant Artist. This in turn led to a counter appraisal. In Hitchcock's case, he was sometimes accused of favoring form at the expense of content--in other words, anything for the flashy shot.
Hitchcock himself rarely answered these charges. But he did speak to the issue of the razzle-dazzle camera moves, at least indirectly. Once we were discussing Lifeboat, a Hitchcock film that takes place almost entirely in a small boat adrift at sea. “People believe that the cinema has to, by necessity, be horizontal in its form. That is, go to a great many places and locales. That is not so. It should be possible to make an interesting film in a closet with the door shut. The idea is to reveal human nature and behavior with your camera moves. This presupposes, of course, an interesting story and characters worth revealing.”
In the script I worked on, a man pursues a woman in order to apprehend her husband. As in Shadow of a Doubt--which Hitchcock sometimes cited as his favorite--a man falls in love with a woman connected to a criminal. Hitchcock was fascinated when I pointed out the similarity, and considered it at some length. This was unusual. Hitchcock was always interested in connections between real events, but connections between films usually struck him as bookish, the province of critics.
Hitchcock read speculation about his mind for so long that I suspect he just decided to go along with it, probably because it seemed like good publicity. He was a!ways ready to tell a story that seemed fraught with significance. One of the best is how, at age five (or six or seven -- it varied), he was put in a cell at the police station to be shown “what happens to naughty little boys.” He told that story all his life and it may even be true. Critics, friends, and enemies have cited it in connection with their theories about Hitchcock's fear of the police and his prurient interest in handcuffs. He acknowledged the theories but his voice lacked conviction. He always sounded like a schoolboy parroting his teachers. It was as if he were saying, give them a little Freud, maybe they'll let me alone. But one could no more imagine Alfred Hitchcock undergoing analysis than one could picture him anoretic.
It's obvious that in place of self-analysis, Hitchcock made movies. He went along with the speculation about his mind, but in his work he usually let the meaning come sliding out in indelible images that have no “explanation” save their existence. Nevertheless, at the height of his powers, two great works, Psycho and The Birds, have scenes in which an incidental character tells us what it all means. In Psycho a psychiatrist (the young Simon Oakland) tells us in clinical terms what we've seen. He needn't have. His explanation only diminishes the irresistible excitement we feel while watching Tony Perkins peer at Janet Leigh in her shower. In The Birds the action is stopped so an elderly ornithologist (a very old Ethel Griffies) can tell us how many birds are in the world. Hitchcock always insisted the scene was important, that “the public has to have the facts.” He really believed that enumerating the bird population gave understanding. But information is not emotion; facts are futile. Real understanding and actual truth accumulate more insidiously. We are all guilty all the time and retribution will come for our unnamed sins. The birds will seek us out and they will use no logic we know. They will attack us and be still and then attack us again. No matter what Hitchcock said, what he did was to photograph our fears and make palpable the invisible. His film is not about how many birds are fluttering about, but about the unknowable terror that is everywhere all the time. It's about the delicate fabric of the universe and how our fragile insides crumble when that fabric is torn. It never explains these things. It is these things.
FADING TO DARK
With senility's fingers at his throat, it was clear that no more movies were going to be made. Hitchcock's drinking, a problem for some time, got seriously worse. He carried around a hundred pounds too many most of his life, a great buffer of flesh between himself and the world. Now the gut was fueled not by Romanée-Conti and Château d'Yquem but by brandy--and a hell of a lot of it. Claret for boys, port for men, and brandy for heroes, according to Dr. Johnson, and Hitch went for the heroic. He kept it in a brown paper bag stashed in the bathroom of his office. He would laboriously make his way from desk to loo, belt down a few, then return.
One morning at about eleven, he announces his intention as though it's truly an unusual thought: “Let's have a little drink.” I nod, and he rolls his eyes in the direction of the bathroom. I get the bottle while he opens a desk drawer containing two glasses. He pours me a large drink. As I stare, wishing for a potted palm, he wraps his lips around his glass with an urgent bite, bends his head back until his throat and several chins seem flat, and pours the brandy into his throat in one great gulp.
On a morning of many trips to his brandy bottle, as he sits in his office with Peggy Robertson and Bob Boyle--the art director who worked with Hitch on and off for 40 years--Hitchcock asks me to review a section of the script for him. As I describe a particularly graceful camera move he had outlined a few months earlier, he stops and says sharply, “No, no. Don't move the camera.” Then he's quiet, while I, nonplussed, just stare until he adds, “The camera must never move.” Boyle, a graceful man, says, “Hitch, I'm a little tired this morning. Do you think we could take a break?”
“Yes, yes … a break,” Hitchcock mutters. Boyle and I help him back to his desk, where he sits numbly, beyond the help of those who would help him. Adrift in senility and depression, Hitchcock is dismantling his life, putting it away. And indeed, after that the camera didn't move.
After the script's continuity has been done--that is, each beat of the movie has been discussed and outlined and I'm ready to start writing the dialogue--Hitchcock asks if I think it might be a help to visit the locations of the story: walk around the streets in London, see the prison, go to Finland, and have a look at where it's all to take place. Ten years earlier, when he had first started thinking about making this film, he had made such a trip and found it useful. Would I like to do the same now? Perhaps I smile too much, or not enough, because a few days later Hitchcock doesn't think it is such a great idea.
“I think there's too much snow in Finland at the present time,” he announces. “You won't be able to see the ground.”
I cannot imagine actually arguing with him. The man can't stand unpleasantness, any dispute. He demands complete control. Everything must appear calm. There must be in his life, as Truffaut remarked about Hitchcock's films, “inner fire and cool surfaces.” It is an article of faith with this man that there won't be any unruly behavior or, God forbid, any scenes. I propose reducing the scope of the trip. I don't need to see midtown New York and I can probably manage to avoid London, but I've never been to Finland, and seeing it, snow or no snow, will probably help the script. Hitchcock reacts as if he has an upset stomach--and that I gave it to him. It's clear he doesn't like my compromise, but he seems resigned. Then he says he doesn't want to have lunch. He'll just have something at his desk. He goes home early and doesn't come in the next day. If this is the price of some airplane tickets. it's much too high. I try to call him to say l agree it's better to stay in Los Angeles after all. He's asleep. He doesn't call back, nor does he come in the studio the next day. I can't believe it, the man has taken to his bed. So I send a note out to his house with Tony, his driver, who promises he'll put it directly into Hitch's hand. Still no response. He stays home one more day and then comes in and seems fine. Hitchcock says nothing about the flap, but he appears pleased with himself, asks me to have lunch with him, wonders what films I've run in his absence. We never mention travel plans again.
TALES OF HOLLYWOOD
Hitchcock loved to tell stories, elaborate, complicated rough drafts for movies he would never make. And because he was at the center of the movie business for so long, many of his stories were about the famous.
When Hitchcock and David O. Selznick were preparing The Paradine Case, in 1946, Selznick felt Alida Valli was perfect for the leading role. Hitchcock preferred Garbo, but she proved hard to get. Selznick prevailed, but not without some difficulty. At the time, Valli was in Europe, married to a fascist type who was minor-order royalty. Selznick went to William J. (Wild Bill) Donovan, then head of the OSS, later of the CIA, Vietnam, and the law firm of Donovan Leisure Newton & Irvine, and, according to Hitch, came up with fifty thousand dollars in currency, hard cash, to get Alida Valli into the country. Hitchcock was quick to add he didn't see the cash exchange hands, but he doesn't doubt it happened.
And anyone who worked with him probably heard this one more than once:
In 1945 or 1946, Hitch and Alma were in New York with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, on a publicity tour. Grant's pal Howard Hughes offered to fly them back to Los Angeles in his private plane. “Well, as soon as we had canceled our commercial reservations, in anticipation of the adventure of a private aeroplane, Mr. Hughes began delaying our trip. He would say, 'Meet me at Idlewild field at such and such a time, on this day or that.' We'd all say, 'Fine. Thank you very much.' Then he'd call back the next day and say the trip had been delayed. Something about a valve in the engine. He did that several times. Such and such a time, such and such a day, then trouble with the valve. It got so Ingrid would say, 'No valve?' I would nod, and we'd tell the St. Regis 'One more night, please.' Alma gave up and took the train back to Los Angeles. Eventually, the rest of us did take off. I do not recall what sort of aeroplane Mr. Hughes had at the time; however, it was quite comfortable, as I recall. He did all the flying himself, you know. I believe there was a captain aboard, but Hughes kept throwing him out of the cockpit. Well, we thought we were as good as home, but then he began to make stops. In St. Louis, I believe, for a change of clothes and to go to a nightclub. Then we were dropping in on some cabaret in Denver, or perhaps it was a restaurant in Nevada. It took, as I recall, almost two days to fly from New York to Los Angeles. Eventually, however, we did arrive.”
Hitchcock had met or known about everyone of artistic consequence over the last 60 years. He was widely read. Yet from time to time he'd turn to me and ask what some word or another meant. Whether it was actual ignorance, senility, or some obscure test, it's hard to know. The words were mostly simple, commonplace. Synonym was one; euphemism was another.
Hitchcock enjoyed formulating his operating principles into pithy stories and aphorisms: “I am from the 'Man Comes Through a Door How?' school of dramaturgy. Suppose a man comes into a room, just walks in. Another chap is there. Then the small talk. 'How are you?' 'I'm fine.' That sort of thing. The second man says to the new arrival, 'Please put the doorknob back,' and we see that throughout the small talk the visitor's had the doorknob in his hand. First we laugh, then we begin to wonder why the man was so distracted that he didn't notice he'd taken the doorknob with him. And we're into our scene.”
Hitchcock always seemed to know when he should cut and when not to: “In The Paradine Case, we built an enormous courtroom set. We were on it for forty minutes of the film, a considerable part of our schedule. But not until Gregory Peck is humiliated and walks out do we cut high and long to show his exit. That's the first time we see the entire room. We see Peck's character change and at the same time we see the awesome size of the forces he's up against. In my view, it was worth the wait.”
Hitchcock has a pacemaker. Once a month he attaches a device to his chest, clamps metal bracelets on his wrists, and hooks the whole thing up to a telephone. An electrocardiogram is taken over the phone and then sent to his physician for examination. “Come on, Da-vid, let's play with my pacemaker.” He takes great pleasure in demonstrating the monitoring procedure. After everything is in order and the call has been placed, Hitch picks up the receiver and says “How do you do?” in his slow and deliberate voice. The technician on the other end is probably in a laboratory a thousand miles away. “Today,” he intones, “I have attached our little device to the electric typewriter. How is its heart?” He also says he intends to attach it to the dog. The little disks on his wrists resemble handcuffs. He seems quite taken with the idea of being taken.
He is fascinated by the Patty Hearst affair. He followed the trial compulsively. Hearst is to be released from prison and is planning to marry. “First she says she fell in love with her captors. Imagine! Now she wants to marry her bodyguard. Is it the gun, do you suppose, or the set of keys?” Hitch cannot get enough of it. Patty Hearst's parents are separated, and he broods about which parent the girl will go to before her marriage. He keeps mulling the question, over and over.
Occasionally Hitchcock would have ideas for films, or chunks of films, but no real story to hang them on. One beginning that amused him takes place at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. A performance of Lucia is in progress. When the soprano is at the height of the mad scene--he said he always imagined Callas doing it--and impossibly high notes are ringing through the great house, a shot is fired, its sound muffled by Callas's voice. But it goes wrong and the man shot--he's seated in a box--pitches forward and tumbles into the seats below. People scream, the orchestra stops playing, and the stage manager whisks the diva into the wings. We cut backstage to her dressing room. She's pale and frightened. Her dresser and various assistants cater to her until she says to them all, “Please … thank you … but I must lie down. Thank you. Please go now.” Her attendants bow and depart. When she's alone, she picks up her telephone, dials, and then says, “Well, it's done. You almost botched it, but he's dead.” That's as far as Hitchcock ever got.
HITCH AMONG THE CATTLE
When Hitch is feeling good, when he is not in pain, he throws himself into the business of preproduction. He sets Bob Boyle to story-boarding sequences -- that is, making detailed, shot-by-shot drawings of the camera setups and movements, which he reviews the same way he goes over the script with me. His vision of the film accumulates, detail by detail. He also starts preliminary casting discussions. These talks usually involve Peggy Robertson, Boyle, and me. At various times, Hitchcock has considered all the major players for the two leading roles. We are talking about Redford one day, an actor Hitch admires. “The difficulty with Mr. Redford is, you see, as I understand it, he gets one million dollars a picture.” Hitch knows damn well that Redford gets pretty much anything he wants. And the days in which a director, even Alfred Hitchcock, can get him for a million are gone the way of the sweet-tempered usher. But Hitch enjoys his reputation as a man who is close with a dollar, as well as a patriarch who can't be bothered with the latest indignities of inflation. The Redford business is only a game, a red herring. For our project, he really prefers Sean Connery, not only because Connery's a fine actor but because Hitch knows him to be a gentleman who will always learn his lines, ask only pertinent, intelligent questions, and be on the set on time. I point out that Connery speaks with a brogue and that our character is an American from New York. “Oh, well, you'll think of something. Perhaps he went to school in Glasgow as a boy.”
For the woman, who in the script is English, he thinks Liv Ullmann would be good. Again, an actress whose abilities are unquestionable, but she's not exactly British. It's pointed out to Hitch that Ullmann will soon begin rehearsals for a Broadway musical and the show already has a big advance sale. She is unlikely to be available for at least a year. He seems miffed that Liv Ullmann would go off and do a musical when he was thinking of putting her, accent and all, in his movie. “I suppose she'll want a fortune as well,” he says, looking at me as if I were Liv Ullmann's agent. “Get me Batliner,” he calls out. Batliner is a casting director at the studio and would know what Liv Ullmann was up to. While Batliner is hunted down, Hitch goes back to musing on Redford's price and the difficulty of selling enough tickets to cover it. He says, “Why, you'd have to charge four dollars a ticket.” “It's been known to happen, Hitch,” I mumble. He looks at me darkly, as if to blame me for the price of movie tickets.
“Batliner on two,” comes word from the outer office. Hitch grabs the phone and barks into it, “Bill, I'm considering Sean Connery for my picture. If you will, please investigate his price and his shedyule.” Hitchcock is silent for a moment as Batliner checks on Connery's availability. Then, almost as an afterthought, he says, “Oh, yes, one more thing, Bill. I'm very interested in Liv Ullmann for the woman's part, opposite Sean … yes … oh, I see then. Very well.”
He hangs up, glares at me, and says, “Batliner says we can't get Liv Ullmann. She's doing a musical in New York. She'll be tied up for months.”
Hitchcock's views about actors were notorious. He compared them to cattle. Indeed, he could be quite rude about the profession. He once remarked to me that “Henry Fonda turns in the same performance year after year and the critics always call it wonderful.” Yet, he counted actors among his friends. He seemed particularly fond of Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. When the couple played The Gin Game in Los Angeles, Hitchcock sent them a case of gin.
He liked to recall his films from the '20s and '30s, in which he put distinguished West End actors on the screen. He said many of them had trouble making the transition from stage realism to the more naturalistic demands of the screen. Of John Gielgud (Secret Agent), Michael Redgrave (The Lady Vanishes), and Laurence Olivier (Rebecca), only Olivier, according to Hitchcock, made the transition without apparent strain. Those performances were the reason, Hitch said, he was less satisfied with Secret Agent than with Rebecca. Of Gielgud: “It was as if to avoid the excesses of the stage, he became so low-keyed [on screen] that there was no fire at all. Of course, he got the hang of it later.” Of Rebecca and Olivier, Hitchcock said, “Very romantic. One understood why Joan Fontaine stayed with him no matter what. He [Olivier] filled the screen quite easily and still remained naturalistic. He was able to move back and forth from the stage to the cinema. Of course, they all do it now, but then it was rather unusual.”
Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman spoke on the phone occasionally. One afternoon we were watching Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata. The film is a very rich, but not particularly cinematic, battle between a worldly mother (Bergman) and her quiet, less successful daughter (Liv Ullmann). The whole thing's in Swedish and clearly not to Hitchcock's taste. He's watching it because of his fondness for Bergman and because, he says, “She'll be nervous about my opinion.” In our screenings, he always sits in the same corner chair and always looks hopeful, no matter what the movie. From the first shots of Autumn Sonata it's clear that this is going to be slow going. On her first entrance, Hitchcock says, “She looks old, they've shot her badly.” (She was the age of the character she was playing, mid-60s.) I think he expects her to look as she did in Notorious. He seems peeved that she's gotten old, as if it were a personal affront. Later in the film, when she comes on wearing a strand of pearls, he snorts, “She looks like the queen.” He's quiet for a bit, then, during a long, brilliantly acted sequence between mother and daughter, Hitch rises and mutters, “Keep running, keep running.” I turn up the lights for him. When he gets to the door, a matter of a few steps, he calls for Tony, his driver, then turns back to me and, ignoring the screen, declares, “I'm going to the movies!” And just like that, out he goes.
Near the end of my time with Hitchcock, the American Film Institute is preparing to honor him with their Life Achievement Award. For weeks preceding the bash, Hitch refuses to have anything to do with it. He won't talk to the officials of the AFI or to the press. He ignores it all, until the last ten days or so. As far as he is concerned, they're preparing his obituary and he doesn't care to attend the funeral. As he contemplates the dinner, he drinks more. His physical pain seems constant. A doctor comes to his house and gives him shots of cortisone to calm the arthritic pain in his knees. With the physical pain, the drunkenness, and the oppressive AFI date looming, Hitch takes to spending long, preposterously flirtatious sessions with a young secretary. When she walks past, he crinkles his nose and gives her little private waves. She always blushes.
Finally, a little flash of the old energy pops out. It is about ten days before the dreaded dinner. The AFI people are frantic. Suddenly, Hitch throws himself, or what's left of himself, into it. He gives a long telephone interview to nine reporters around the country. He's dazzling, fielding questions, spinning out anecdotes and limericks, sounding 35 and hungry for publicity. None of the reporters know he's in physical pain.
With the dinner pressing in on him, very little work is getting done. I'm turning out pages, but Hitch has lost the thread of it. As journalists are marching in and out, and the phones are ringing between the studio and the AFI, Hitchcock decides he wants to see the script. While there are several important matters as yet unresolved, it's certainly ready for him to read again. He tells me, “Polish it, polish it.” And he tells Bob Boyle to start making sketches for the more elaborate sequences. “Angles, show me some angles.” So I begin polishing, Boyle begins to make preliminary drawings, and things are buzzing. Hitchcock even manages to trundle his way back to my office to see how I'm doing. I hand him the script and with it a little speech about how excited and pleased I am with the work, blah-blah-blah. Hitchcock glances at it and says, “Let's send it on up to the front office.”
“Well, shouldn't you read it first?” I ask.
“Oh, no. We've been over it, and if you say it's ready, then I'm sure it's fine.”
Hitchcock sends the script--unread--to Thom Mount and his superior, Ned Tanen. This happens on a Friday. On Monday Mount calls to say he thinks the script is terrific. It occurs to me that Mount must assume that Hitchcock has read it--after all, it came from him. It's possible Mount never read it either. Maybe no one will ever read it. Only I. This is insane. I thank Mount for his kind words and tell him that I want to do a little more work on the script, but I'm very excited and pleased with my blah-blah-blah.
On the day of the AFI dinner, Hitchcock receives a wire from Frank Capra, who is in Palm Springs. Capra is sorry he can't attend but wants both Hitch and Alma to know he is thinking of them. A message from one old lion to another. Hitch holds it in his hands, reads it, rereads it, then cries--not for the sentiment, I don't think, which is certainly genuine, but because it attests to his own demise. Everything connected with the dinner has become funereal in his mind. To Hitchcock, this is not a sweet wire from an old colleague but a condolence letter on the occasion of his own death.
At the dinner the waiters are instructed not to give Mr. Hitchcock any wine. He manages to talk one of them into a glass or two, but for the most part he remains sober. The menu, on the other hand, presents a problem--lobster. Hitchcock hasn't eaten shellfish of any sort in 50 years. He claims it makes him ill to look at it. The lobster is taken away and a steak, something he considers edible, is provided.
The dinner goes well enough, but the terrors and demons of the last few weeks have taken their toll. The man looks awful. It seems to me that he is playing the part of the valiant hero nearing his end.
He insists on walking to his table without aid. He might as easily pole vault his way. His arthritic knees are at their worst, despite the endless shots of painkiller.
The audience--tout Hollywood--stands to cheer his slow and painful trek from the wings to the table. He makes his way, step by agonizing step, his face red and wheezing, his eyes straight ahead. It lasts several brutal minutes. Mercifully, much of it will be edited out of the televised version.
Ingrid Bergman was among the hosts of the dinner, and she did a fine job of it, direct and sincere in her admiration for Hitchcock. At the end of the ceremony applauding him, Bergman walked to his table to embrace Hitchcock. With help, he got to his feet, and when she hugged him he lifted his arms slightly as if to return the hug. He was not a man given to casual affectionate display; the moment was charged with emotion.
“She's been in love with me for 30 years, you know. Mad for me all her life,” he'd announced to me one afternoon earlier on. And he repeated it from time to time, drunk and sober. “Hitch,” I said as gently as I could, “why are you telling me this? You know, I was a journalist for some years … you do know that, don't you?”
“I don't read it anymore … not at all …,” he said, speaking as much to himself and his private ghosts as to me. “She threw herself across my bed … she wept. She wept.” We sat there for a while, saying nothing. Then, visual to the bitter end, and surrendering to the inadequacy of words, he grabbed a piece of poster board and a black marking pen, and began to draw himself, making the famous caricature, the line drawing of his profile that appeared on everything from his television show to his matchbooks. He sketched it quickly, his hand trembling, giving the drawing an awkward, palsied look. Then he began stuttering the word “I … I … I …” as if he were making a last desperate attempt to define himself. His face turned red from the effort and for a moment I thought he might be having a coronary. Then he was still. After a moment he offered me the drawing. Later that morning I told him I was keeping a journal of our work together. “Shall I read it?” he asked. “If you like,” I said. But he never asked again and I never offered.
Today, with the memories of Ingrid Bergman so vivid in his mind, it seems clear that he's been thinking about her a great deal. When they were working together, 35 years ago, she was in her prime and one of the most beautiful women in the world. She was a celebrated bohemian, considered a scandalous woman. It's not unrealistic to think they might have had a love affair if he had wanted it or known how to ask. And perhaps they did--but I doubt it. Now in his old age, Hitchcock develops crushes on young women, gives them money, and asks them to do God knows what. It may be that some hagiographer yet to come will find the stained sheets of fact and memory amid his papers. To make great films, that's one thing; to make yourself happy, that's quite another.
DEATH OF A SHORT KNIGHT
At various times, we had spoken about honors--Hitchcock had been awarded the Légion d'Honneur and wore a ribbon in his lapel. His ribbon was what he termed “of a lesser grade.” He was offered the higher grade and the more familiar rosette, but it required, he claimed, an appearance at the Cannes Festival to receive it. The idea of negotiating for honors amused him. As for a knighthood, he told me that during the Macmillan government he was sounded out about accepting an honorary award but had turned it down. “One would be in the midst of a lot of actors, and besides, they're really only good for impressing shopgirls.”
At the end of his life, after the AFI dinner, the queen offered, and he accepted, a knighthood. For a few months before he died, he was Sir Alfred. The script we had cooked up together was called The Short Night, a title I didn't care for and one he always promised to consider changing. Puns always made Hitch laugh, his or anyone else's. When I tried to persuade him to drop the title The Short Night, I proposed calling the picture Pursuit. He wouldn't commit himself. To bolster my case I told him we should actually call it Pursuito, like Vertigo or Psycho. Hitchcock nodded and replied, “Call it Prosciutto and change the locale to Italy.”
After his knighthood, I stop by to see him and call him Sir Alfred. I arrive at the bungalow and find his staff standing about stunned, some of them in tears. One of the secretaries says, “They're shutting it down. They're firing him.”
The fact was, he'd gone up to what he always called “the front office” and what everybody else at Universal called the Black Tower to say, in effect, he just couldn't do it anymore. The studio took him at his word and jumped at the chance to close down, or at least reduce, his costly operation. A few days later, a studio functionary called to say the offices were to be vacated. The staff was furious at Hitchcock for not making an announcement to them himself, and more importantly not helping them look to their futures. His own sense of himself was so wrapped up in being a filmmaker that when he wasn't one anymore, he just closed up his shop and released his staff. The people around him had trouble seeing past his recent cruelties and drunken behavior; these people saw venality where there was only human frailty. They left angry and hurt, and when they were gone, Hitchcock came back supposedly to clear out his personal effects.
He ate in his office while furniture movers and truckers came in and out of the bungalow to pack up and move nearly 20 years' accumulation of files, books, old films, equipment--the detritus of his business. He might have sent the clerical staff and various deputies on their way, but he himself stayed on and called for Nino the barber to shave him and trim his hair. He sat in the center of the office, draped in a barber's cloth, ignoring the swirl of workmen. He would nod to them occasionally, but mostly he sat Buddha-like at the eye of the storm while Nino carefully, lovingly, trimmed his sideburns.
Then when he'd had his fill of it, he left, saying goodbye to those few who remained to help him, calling friends to say that henceforth he could be reached at home; and out he went. He stayed home for a few days and then he just started coming back to the studio, as if nothing had changed. He'd kept the few offices at the front of the bungalow, now oddly barren. He'd found a new secretary and resumed his rituals, unencumbered by the fiction of being a filmmaker, or the trappings of power and authority. There was only one phone left and when it would ring, the bell would echo, oddly, off the walls. He was like some cryptic English-Chekhovian figure, playing out the last days of his private, imagined Raj.
Now that he was Sir Alfred, there was one final blast of publicity. A television crew arrived and reporters were calling again. He was in publicity heaven, a place he adored, and he was full of talk of the future. “Do you think we could redo the script so that I could shoot it on a stage? Keep the location work to second unit so I wouldn't have to be away from Alma? Think about it, Da-vid.”
A few months later, on April 29, 1980, I was on the other side of town, walking across the Paramount lot, going I don't remember where. The Santa Ana winds--hot, dry, wicked winds off the desert--were blowing through the sound stages, when a mob of actors dressed as '50s teenagers, shooting the umpteenth episode of Happy Days, ran past me, laughing and shouting. A friend I hadn't seen in a while stopped me and said she'd just heard on the radio that Hitch was dead. He'd died at home, in his sleep, his family nearby.
He had the last laugh, though. At his funeral--formal, Catholic, correct--his coffin was not present. He had managed to arrange a cremation. He didn't want to be there exposed, unable to shift the focus when he felt like it.