by Jason Frank Koenigsberg
Stephen Whitty is an award winning and nationally published film critic for the Star-Ledger and the Daily News. He recently published a book entitled The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia, a definitive dossier on the prolific filmmaker. Do yourself a favor and pick up this book. It is a comprehensive and in depth look at the career of one of the best artists of the twentieth century. I recently had the pleasure to sit down with Mr. Whitty and discuss his new book and what makes Hitchcock the indisputable Master of Suspense.
Jason Koenigsberg: First things first, Why Hitchcock? What about his films made you want to research and write such a comprehensive work on the filmmaker?
Stephen Whitty: I think Hitchcock was one of the really first directors that I was aware of. I remember being a kid, maybe 8 years old and seeing The Birds, maybe 9 or 10 seeing Psycho and then seeing North by Northwest and realizing that these are all movies that I liked and then realizing that the same person was behind all of them. I guess that was one of the first lessons I had in what a director did. I think as a kid you tend to focus on movies based on your favorite movie star or your favorite monster or your favorite superhero or whatever you may be into. But there was a point at which you look at all of your favorite monster movies and realize that they are all directed by James Whale, or you look at all these thrillers and realize that they are all directed by Alfred Hitchcock, or you look at all these science fiction films and realize they were all directed by Steven Spielberg, you begin to realize that these directors are the ones who make these pictures and that he or she are really responsible for them. I think that is the real gateway to becoming a serious film lover.
JFK: Hitchcock is undeniably one of cinemas most important and revered filmmakers, why do you think he was so often overlooked or ignored by the Academy Awards?
SW: It is true, he was nominated a few times for Best Director but never won and I cannot say that he was being cheated out of Oscars all of the time. For example the last time that he was nominated was for Psycho in 1960 and he lost to Billy Wilder for The Apartment which is another great movie. I cannot think of it as he was always being robbed but it is true that he never won and I think one of the reasons for that is that Hitchcock first of all he worked almost exclusively in the thriller genre and second of all the vast majority of his movies are really driven by actresses, they are really female centric movies and whether it is Rebecca or Suspicion or Notorious or Spellbound, and then there is of course Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, Marnie, a lot of his films are really built around a strong female character. I think that the Academy Awards and to a certain degree a lot of critics tend to look down on female oriented stories in favor of male driven stories. Whereas John Ford, Howard Hawks, John Huston, they all made movies that were about strong male characters and about male bonding and about adventure and I think Hitchcock’s pictures did not fit in that model of what an important Oscar movie should be. He did get overlooked quite a bit.
JFK: I never thought about how female centric his films are.
SW: Yeah, I think that they really are and it’s very interesting. Hitchcock the man was a terribly complicated man and artist and I could sit here and make a very strong argument that Hitchcock just hated women, look at how they are treated in his movies, they are turned into objects of desire, they’re victimized, they’re assaulted, they’re killed and all of that is true. Certainly there are a lot of controversial stories about the way that he treated women on the set and how cruel and really terrible he could be to women. Yet at the same time I could make the argument that look at the stories he told they are feminist, they very much identify with women, they are very sympathetic to women and he could also himself be a wonderful mentor to women. His original secretary out in England, Joan Harrison, when he got his contract with Selznick he made sure that she was brought here as part of the business deal and came out with him to Hollywood and after a couple of years working very closely with him she eventually became a producer in her own right and ended up producing his TV show. He was partners with his wife throughout his career, always relying on her, on her judgment and frequently using her as a co-writer and a consultant on his films. In some ways his films are very misogynistic and in some ways they are feminist. He is a complicated story to unravel.
JFK: You touched on a theme that I wanted to ask about. A lot of his films deal with unhappy marriages and yet I know his wife Alma Reville was so involved in his work, reading his scripts and being on set. She was his partner in business as much as she was his partner in life. Do you think that his themes of marital dissatisfaction was autobiographical? Why did he choose stories that dealt with that and how does that tie into his work and his life?
SW: That is an excellent question. I am one of those people that believes the only people who really know what’s going on in a relationship are the two people in the relationship. Both Hitchcock and his wife have been gone for more than thirty-five years and passed away very closely with each other. Their daughter is still alive, she wrote a biography of her mother insisting that they had an absolutely wonderful marriage. She did not really touch on any of these issues or themes at all. But there have been reports that he was really beastly towards Tippi Hedren and really harassed her on the set of The Birds and Marnie. There are even stories in one of the Hitchcock biographies that Alma Reville may have been having an affair or certainly had a relationship with a man outside their marriage in the early fifties. Who knows what really went on behind the closed doors of that house in Bel Air. What we do know is that his treatment of marriage does change throughout his films. For example, a great case is that he made two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, one in Britain in 1934 and the other in America in the 1950’s and in the 1934 version the marriage seems to be pretty strong as a woman that is independent and very assertive and saves the day. It turns out that she is a very skilled sharpshooter and she is the one who actually kills the villain. That is certainly one view of a happy marriage between a man and a woman that are at least equals. You look at the 1956 version with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day and that one their marriage seems to be under a certain amount of tension. They are quietly quarreling throughout the beginning of the picture and Jimmy Stewart is very much the assertive character in that movie. As a matter of fact when he worries that his wife is going to become hysterical he even slips a drug into her drink to knock her out. He is very much the dominant if not the domineering person in that relationship. So I think that is really something interesting, that twenty years apart we have what is supposed to be the same movie and yet it does shift. You see other movies where relationships between men and women are fraught with all kinds of tension and I think that probably starts around the time of Notorious. From that time we start to see that relationships that have all sorts of power struggles going on and lies are being told. Sometimes in his films quite innocently people are just totally misunderstanding each other. The saddest thing about the love story in Notorious, and it is a love story in this film where, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are constantly expecting something from the other and the other does not give or they are misinterpreting each other. That is something that begins to show up in his movies starting with Notorious. There are also obvious examples of marital problems in films like Dial M for Murder. That film deals with the husband wanting to do away with her completely, certainly that is a tense marriage.
JFK: People say Vertigo is his most personal film do you agree with that?
SW: I think so because of what we know now the way he dealt with women it was very personal and very powerful.
JFK: What are your thoughts on his 1968 Irving G. Thalberg Award, his lone Oscar win and his infamous acceptance speech?
SW: For someone who is very droll I think that is one of the shortest acceptance speeches on record. He says “Thank you” and then he sort of mumbles afterwards a quick “very much” and that is pretty much it. The Thalberg Award tends to be given to producers who have maintained a great quality of production over a long career and certainly Hitchcock even though he did not always take credit, was very often producing his own films. So it is certainly a deserved award but it does feel like the Academy is making up to him. When it came in his career at the end of the 1960’s Marnie had not done well at the box office, Torn Curtain had been a disappointment and then had come Topaz, which was just an absolute disaster. So I think the Academy was thinking that the gentlemen is in his late 60’s, he has not had a hit since The Birds in 1963 maybe we should just give him a nice little prize and a round of applause and I think he felt that too. That describes his reaction to it. I think nothing quite annoys an actor or a filmmaker more than getting an honorary award when they still feel that they are in the thick of it and are still doing great work. I remember hearing that Paul Newman was annoyed to be getting an honorary Oscar when he thought he was still doing top notch work and I am sure Hitchcock felt the same way. Paul Newman actually won a competitive Oscar the following year for The Color of Money. So sometimes it is premature and Hitchcock came back a few years after receiving the Oscar with Frenzy. Maybe not one of his best pictures but it certainly does not look like the work of an old man. It is a very provocative and a very slickly made film. So he was certainly not done at that point.
JFK: Let me skip ahead and ask you about Frenzy. Late in his career Hitchcock returned to England to make films and 1972 he made Frenzy. Enlighten us why did Hitchcock leave Hollywood and why do you and many other people consider Frenzy Hitchcock’s last great film?
SW: Why he left America for Britain, I am sure there are a number of reasons for that. I know that once he was back there he really enjoyed working with the incredibly wide and deep pool of talent that is available to you in Great Britain. These are people who were doing Shakespeare in the evening and then come in the morning and do a short scene for a movie or TV show. There are a lot of really terrific actors and actresses in Frenzy, none of whom were particularly well known in the US who give marvelous performances. I would say for Hitchcock is also felt like a homecoming, like giving a nice shape to his career. He left Britain to come to America, he had been working primarily in America ever since and accomplished so much there that it was nice to come back at this point near the end of his career and to have the chance to shoot a movie basically in his old neighborhood where he grew up. Where he was shooting a lot of Frenzy there were a lot of those vegetable stands and fruit markets where his father had his grocery shop. I think it was very nostalgic for him to be back in that area, not just in England but literally on the streets where he lived and grew up. I think that had a real pull for him
Frenzy was also his second to last movie. After that he did Family Plot which I think has its charms, it is a much lighter movie, but Frenzy I think is full of so many great themes and ideas. You talk about the dichotomy of Hitchcock, on one hand Frenzy is an extremely violent film, it has an extremely explicit rape sequence and for a lot of people who had grown up on Hitchcock, a lot of his older fans, it was very upsetting to them to see this kind of sexual violence and explicit content in a Hitchcock film. But I think it also had a very compassionate view of the people who are victimized in the film. I think the women are really full characters and portrayed as real people and there are some stunning sequences in it. My favorite sequence in Frenzy is a very quiet one. We know who the killer is, we know the way he operates, we have this tracking shot where the camera follows him up the stairs as he is taking a woman into his apartment and just before he closes the door he says something that we heard him say to another woman we know was a victim of his and then he closes the door. The camera waits for a second and then it slowly reverses, we slowly retreat. I think that is a terrific scene and shot for a number of reasons. First of all it’s horrifying having already seen the explicit rape and strangulation at the beginning of the movie we know exactly what is coming and we don’t need to see it, we can imagine even worse things in our head. Apart from that too, I think there is something very sad and almost despairing in that shot as he is pulling away and the camera is sort of just demonstrating how impotent we are. How there are terrible things going on in the world and the camera keeps pulling back and back and suddenly we are on the street and we cannot hear anything or see anything, we are just completely removed. As if the camera is saying “this is just so awful I cannot watch this anymore, I just cannot look”.
JFK: Can I bring it back to 1940, Hitchcock’s Rebecca, it was his first film in Hollywood for producer David O. Selznick. You talk a lot about him in your book. What makes that film unique besides its Academy Award for Best Picture? It is the only Hitchcock movie to win an Oscar for Best Picture.
SW: I think Rebecca is interesting and crucial in terms of Hitchcock’s career than it is artistically. Even Hitchcock late in life would say Rebecca is not an Alfred Hitchcock picture, that is a David O. Selznick picture. He made a number of films with Selznick and some of them Selznick had very strong control and on some of them Selznick was really barely involved. In my personal bias I think the ones Selznick was really involved in like Rebecca and Spellbound are the least interesting movies that Hitchcock made in the early 1940’s. I think the ones that Selznick sold Hitchcock’s services to another studio or got distracted by other things and let Hitchcock do things mostly on his own, those are the movies that people look at more and talk about like Lifeboat, Notorious and Shadow of a Doubt. But what Rebecca did for Hitchcock’s career was that it showed Hitchcock could handle a cast and a budget and technical resources that Hitchcock never had in England. Quite frankly the British film industry in the late 1930’s was in a pretty low state. Budgets were cramped, it was very tough to get top actors, even British audiences were not very interested in British films. They actually had to have a quota system in the theaters to make sure that the British theaters would even show British films, they earned more money showing Hollywood pictures. So Hitchcock was a big star in England there is no doubt about that from the time he made The Lodger in 1926 he was hailed as being the greatest British director so he was certainly top notch in Britain, but it was a very small pond to be swimming in. I think that for him to come to America and his first movie is for the man who just made Gone With the Wind, you have a top cast, gorgeous sets, very high production value, based on a best selling novel and to pull that off making the film a commercial success and have the picture win the Academy Award for Best Picture is a real coup for Hitchcock. I think that helped really establish him in America. Now there are things that we can find of interest in the film in purely Hitchcockian ways, some of the themes of guilt and suspicion and the heroine. What Rebecca really serves as Hitchcock’s introduction to Hollywood as well as his triumph in Hollywood and all of the successes he was going to have.
JFK: Hitchcock is famous for his ‘wrong man’ recurring plots and themes in his films such as Saboteur, The 39 Steps and North by Northwest just to name a few. What do you think was the best of those types of films? Why did he have that theme going on in many of his movies?
SW: You cannot divorce the fact that although Hitchcock was born and raised in London he comes from an Irish Catholic family. His family was Catholic and he got a very old fashioned Catholic education at the turn of the century. We are not talking about a very liberalized point of view, his education was steeped in guilt and sin and the idea that we all have evil in us and that it is possible at any time for us to give into that and let that come out just as it is possible that even the most evil has good in us. Plus, let’s not forget that villains can be very charming, the Devil is a charming character he would not be successful if he were not. Hitchcock villains are very charming people and I think that is one of the things that make his films feel so modern today is that the typical Hitchcock hero is full of guilt, full of doubt, sometimes he screws up, he makes mistakes, sometimes he is scared. The Hitchcock villain however is almost always very suave, charming and amusing and physically attractive. That makes his films feel very modern.
In terms of the ‘wrong man’, I think a lot of Hitchcock’s lightest pictures and most entertaining pictures are about the wrong man on the run, he is accused of something he did not commit or is mistaken for someone he is not and he ends up having to flee both the real criminals and the police. I think he first came upon that and really developed that in The 39 Steps in 1935. He does that again in Saboteur with Robert Cummings, one of his early American pictures. Of course North by Northwest which is sort of the top of those pictures. That is something that Hitchcock got a great deal of enjoyment and adventure out of, what I think is interesting is that it is almost as though he himself began to feel a little guilty about all of these movies turning sin into entertainment then he made an actual movie called The Wrong Man with Henry Fonda about a case of mistaken identity which is a film really steeped in Catholic imagery, iconography and belief and is based on a true story. It tells you the story of what actually happens with a case of mistaken identity. Fonda through the process is misidentified as a robber, he goes to jail, goes to court, is put on trial and it is a very grim movie and I think it is one of his better movies although it did not really find an audience when it was released.
JFK: We see a ton of modern ‘wrong man’ type of films now. What are some of the best more recent examples of that story being done and who are some of the directors that are heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work?
SW: Well just in terms of the idea of the wrong man, I would say the best example of that is the movie The Fugitive did a really great job. In terms of people who have been influenced by Hitchcock so many people have. Certainly the most obvious name that comes to everybody’s mind is Brian De Palma. That is mostly because De Palma used a lot of the same kinds of situations that Hitchcock did particularly in movies like Sisters, Body Double and certainly Dressed to Kill. You see influenced of Vertigo and Rear Window and Psycho. I think stylistically Hitchcock is probably more of an influence on filmmakers today in terms of style than he is in terms of theme and plot. Some of those camera movements that he did, those beautiful crane shots of something like in Notorious where the camera starts up practically at the ceiling and it keeps going down, down, down to finally focus on that key in Ingrid Bergman’s hand, or you think about montage, the art of putting together film and editing film together into a single sequence. The shower murder in Psycho, everybody in terms of the plot of the killer who is the last person you suspect and is killing people in disguise there are countless slasher movies that have stole from Psycho and stolen the music from Psycho. I think even more influential are the rapid, rapid cutting in some cases where it is just a couple of frames and is practically subliminal, that was truly ahead of his time and that is something people are still borrowing from Hitchcock.
JFK: Now you mentioned Psycho. Is Psycho the grand daddy of all slasher films and if so, is that a good thing or has that reputation created a slew of inferior horror films and does that take away from the masterpiece that Psycho truly is?
SW: Psycho is influential but it came out after a film called Peeping Tom only by a few months in 1960 which is also a tremendous film about someone who kills people and films them while they are dying and that was made and just predated Psycho. You look at Psycho and it really is its own movie. The things that it does best are things that no slasher film has ever copied. The true brilliance of Psycho is that it really is almost a very careful illustration of how to toy with an audience. The first twenty to twenty five minutes or so of the movie it seems to be a kind of simple cheap B movie about an embezzler. It takes a lot of time setting everything up. Janet Leigh steals the money out of her bosses safe, she’s driving, she changes cars, she is worried about her boyfriend, it goes on and on, and then suddenly it kills her off. It is hard to see this with the drama that audiences are used to but in 1960 Janet Leigh was the star of the movie. She was the biggest star in the picture and it completely pulled the rug out from under the audience. It would be today as if you went to see the new Avengers movie and half an hour into it, they kill Scarlett Johansson off and she is dead for real and not coming back. The director Peter Bogdanovich who wrote some of the first real serious studies of Hitchcock said that after Psycho it was no longer safe to go back to the theater. In a way I think that is true, what Psycho did was showed that you really should not take anything for granted, at least not in a Hitchcock film. You like a character? He is going to kill them off. You like this other character? He is going to turn out to be the murderer. All bets are off with Hitchcock, messing with audience expectations. You look at slasher movies, they are really very conventional in terms of the narrative, maybe they have a twist at the end but they are pretty conventional movies. Psycho is not. In it’s own way Psycho is really ahead of its time and an almost avant garde movie.
JFK: We have talked about a bunch of his movies, what would you say are Hitchcock’s most influential works and what would you say was his single most important contribution to cinema?
SW: Oh gosh, I think his most influential works I would include Read Window, Vertigo and Psycho. Rear Window, although it works beautifully as a mystery it is also kind of a serious movie about looking and living vicariously through other people’s lives and it expresses that in a very complicated way. At some point you have to realize I am sitting here in a movie theater watching Jimmy Stewart watching other people, it is like a hall of mirrors. It does talk a lot about voyeurism and about not living our own lives and getting wrapped up in other people’s lives and that is actually pretty pertinent to anybody who is a huge movie lover.
Vertigo I think is a great movie and also for Hitchcock a much more personal movie even more so that perhaps he knew it was. I mean Hitchcock had become obsessed with his leading ladies he could become truly wrapped up in these sort of daydreams of them and Vertigo is his story about a man who falls in love with something that is not real and then keeps trying to recreate that. Vertigo may be his most profound movie.
And then Psycho for the reasons I was saying before. What Psycho does with editing, with narrative, the way it uses music. In all of those ways it is very forward thinking and also it is funny in ways that you would not expect it to be. There is a really dark humor to it.
In terms of Hitchcock’s greatest influence, there are so many things that he was adept with. We mentioned before camera movement, editing, use of music, he was really terrific at casting and at seeing things in movie stars that other directors did not necessarily see. Cary Grant in Hitchcock movies is not really the Cary Grant he is in other movies. In Hitchcock’s movies Cary Grant always has something a little devious about him, something that you cannot quite trust. Jimmy Stewart is different in Hitchcock’s movies than he is in other pictures. In his movies there is something a little kinky about him, a darkness that he has that you do not see in a lot of his movies although he did some dark westerns in the fifties, but Vertigo is a much darker movie than Stewart did for anybody.
There is a lot of influence that Hitchcock has but I think the greatest thing about Hitchcock is what he called pure cinema. Hitchcock is somebody that did not want movies to simply be filmed plays. Movies were their own art form and he was very intent on that. He was really a master at using every tool at his disposal to move an audience emotionally in a way that they would not be if they had read the novel that the film was based on, or seen the play that the film was based on. He really added everything that cinema can do and most often that was done visually. He once said when people were talking to him about good directors and bad directors and he said “one of the easiest ways to tell if the film is well directed is to close your eyes and listen to it. If you can tell what is going on in the movie without seeing the movie, the director is not doing a good job”. It means that the director is using dialogue to tell the story and not tell the story visually. If you close your eyes during a movie you suddenly become lost and do not know what is happening that is because the information is being conveyed visually which is exactly how it should be conveyed. Not that we do not love movies that have great dialogue and we enjoy listening to the characters in Billy Wilder films and Preston Sturges films and Quentin Tarantino films, they are certainly fun to listen to but Hitchcock never lost sight of the fact that movies are a visual medium and it is all about conveying thought and emotion and information through pictures.
JFK: That is interesting that you point out that he was such a visual director because he was not primarily known for being a special effects director.
SW: Well his last film was made about twenty years before computer generated images really started taking over special effects in cinema. He probably would have loved them, honestly. He was someone who was doing all sorts of experimental things with sound when that first came in, figuring out ways to use it not just to record dialogue but to use it in an expressionistic way or kind of a surreal way. When color came in he took advantage of that and we do not think of him primarily in terms of special effects I guess because the one genre that he did not really work in was science-fiction-fantasy unless you count The Birds in that, but I would not. The Birds has multiple exposures, some very technical and tricky work done. He loved just coming up with a simple elegant solution to something. In Suspicion when Cary Grant is coming up the stairs with what we think is a poisoned glass of milk Hitchcock wanted everybody to be looking at that glass of milk and think there is something sinister about that glass of milk so what he did was he got the prop department to build a glass that had a tiny lightbulb in the base so that it would literally glow. So that is a special effect, it is not like what we have today but I think he would have embraced what we have today if it served the story.
JFK: If Hitchcock were alive today, what would he think about the state of motion pictures in 2016?
SW: He would always care about telling a story that moved the audience. I think he would love movies that had strong narratives and complicated characters that made the audience feel and react a certain way. I think he would be a little tired of the absolute avalanche we have of superhero films. I do not picture him ever directing a comic book movie. His movies were pretty realistic about the evil humans are capable of. There was one story he was interested in telling based on a play called Mary Rose about a woman who mysteriously disappears on an island and she does not seem to age and then returns at some point. Occasionally he flirted with odd ideas but he did not really do any ghost stories. Sometimes the movies have the feel of a ghost story like Rebecca that feel very gothic and eerie. Whether or not you define Psycho as a horror film is how you define horror films. His films were rooted in reality.
JFK: You mentioned black and white and color cinematography and how he embraced color. What would you say are some of his best black and white films and how did he use that versus color and how you explain his use of color in your book?
SW: Yeah, he was not somebody who generally did things just for the sake of doing them, there had to be a reason. Dial M for Murder was supposed to be shot in 3D because the studio insisted it be shot in 3D. By the time it was released it was mostly in 2D because the fad had passed by then. When he shot a film in color he felt that it was right for the film and the story. One of the reasons that he shot Psycho in black and white was because basically he was paying for it himself and it was much cheaper, but also Psycho, the shower scene would have been really bloody with color. If we saw Janet Leigh’s body colored in red, sticky blood it would have been gory. Black and white made it easier to get it past the censors. Plus, Psycho was also scarier for the fact it was shot in black and white.
My favorite of his older black and white films is probably Notorious. The photography in that is just gorgeous, it has a real shine and sharp look to it. The color in To Catch a Thief is lovely. That is a light film, not a serious film but the color sort of brings that out and gives it a festive look, a very joyful look and he finds excuses to really use the color. There is a chase through a flower market, there is a costume ball, whenever there is an excuse to really fill the screen with colorful images he takes full advantage of it.
JFK: Hitchcock handled fame and his public persona like no other director before to the point where people recognized him from his profile. Has any other director come close to duplicating that time of fame and image and persona he had?
SW: There were directors who were well known before Hitchcock like Erich Von Stroheim, D.W. Griffith and there are directors today like Tarantino and Scorsese who are very well known. I think in most cases the directors that the average American filmgoer is aware of are directors who also occasionally act or do cameos in their films as are directors that are not afraid to do a lot of publicity to promote their films and go on talk shows. What I think is interesting is that is something that Hitchcock pioneered just in terms of the business of filmmaking. From his start in the 1920’s as soon as he started directing he began doing publicity, he would write articles for newspapers and magazines and of course became famous for the cameos he did in his own movies.
JFK: I loved how you cataloged all of his cameos in your book.
SW: That is fun to go through those but he then expanded on those he began to be featured in his own movie trailers and then of course when the TV show started in the 1950’s he introduced each show on camera so he became very well known and sort of became a brand name.
JFK: Could you picture any other director doing that? Where they have a hit TV show while they are making films in Hollywood and being the focal point of their movies trailers? I do not think that could be done today by any other great director.
SW: I do not know if it can be done. Folks have tried over the years, Tarantino has done cameos in many of his movies, Spielberg briefly tried to do a TV show called Amazing Stories that did not last. William Castle also starred in his own trailers making grade B horror movies like House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler, sort of copycats of Hitchcock. Other directors have tried it but I do not know of any other director who has done all of it and done all of it at the same time. Had a TV show at the same time they were directing a movie a year like Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho simultaneously. It is amazing what he accomplished.
JFK: Did Hitchcock’s films ever focus on certain important social or political events from the times they were made? He is not known as being a political director but did he make films that reflected life during the Great Depression, World War II or the values and norms of the 1950’s?
SW: Yeah, I think so. Look at a movie like The Lady Vanishes made in England in 1938. There is this plot against England, we are not sure who is behind it but it seems to be Germany or some Eastern European country and you look at the people who are on the train where most of the action is taking place you have English characters who really do not want to get involved, you have Eastern European characters who are involved but you do not know to what extent. In some ways it kind of functions as a comment on what the world was like in 1938. You have the continent is embroiled in all of this terrible chaos and espionage and subterfuge and you have a very British world that does not want to have anything to do with it.
He sort of does the same thing again in Lifeboat. The German character, a Nazi captain taken aboard the lifeboat is ruthless and competent and strong and a very formidable adversary and the other people on the boat who are either Americans, Canadians or British, they are all arguing amongst themselves they are not really working together and it’s also interesting the way the characters in Lifeboat divide very much along class lines. You look at lifeboat again and you notice it is the richest characters in that film who are the most sympathetic to the Nazi. It is the working class people or the politically radical characters who are the most suspicious of him from the beginning. I think that kind of class consciousness shows up in a number of Hitchcock films where the characters that you have to watch out for are the very rich businessman, the respected people of the community, they are the ones that turn out to be the spy. With Hitchcock people would complain that he lived in a fantasy world and he was not at all political, I think there is a political side to him and a political subtext to his movies and class consciousness to him that shows up in a number of his films.
You mentioned the 1950’s Hitchcock was not liberal or radical enough that he was going to fall in danger of the McCarthy people but very quietly he gave jobs to people who were having trouble getting work. Norman Lloyd who plays the villain in Saboteur was blacklisted and it was Hitchcock who gave him a job working as a producer on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Same for the actor Paul Henreid and Barbara Bel Geddes who shows up in Vertigo and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Hitchcock went out of his way to hire these people. So he was quietly political and he was not always given the credit he deserves.
JFK: If you were to set a primer to get young audiences into Hitchcock what films would you include for people to watch that would give them an appreciation for Hitchcock?
SW: Oh that’s a tough question. I think generationally younger audiences are much more used to things starting off with a bang and moving very quickly. Alluding before to Psycho, it is a long time before that first murder and it may be hard to get a young audience to sit down and wait patiently for that to happen, and the same is true for some of the other pictures. I think one film which could work for tween and teen audiences is one that has a young heroine is Shadow of a Doubt. It is a story about a teenage girl and her favorite uncle is coming to visit and what she gradually learns is that he is actually a serial killer. So what does she do? That is a really interesting movie and that might appeal to younger audiences because of the age of the character. Also pictures like North by Northwest, pictures like Saboteur, they start off pretty quickly. Saboteur is kind of an underrated Hitchcock that is a lot of fun. Once you get into him I think the pleasure of Hitchcock films start to unfold pretty quickly.
So I guess I would say Shadow of a Doubt, North by Northwest, Saboteur, then move on to his most influential works Psycho, Vertigo and Rear Window. After that you’ll want to see more of his films.
The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia by Stephen Whitty is a must have for film aficionados and Hitchcock fans for one of the most detailed books on the great directors work. You can purchase it from Amazon here.