ALFRED HITCHCOCK AT HARVARD
On July 14, 1966, Alfred Hitchcock's 50th film, Torn Curtain, had its World Premier in Boston, Massachusetts. Hitchcock attended that premiere and, on the afternoon of the same day, he came to Harvard to receive an honorary membership in the Harvard Dramatic Club. These quotes come from a short question-answer period held at the award presentation, and from an exclusive interview held afterward at 4 p.m. in the Radcliffe Graduate Center.
HITCHCOCK: Well, all detail in the literature of the camera applies to most situations. It is how you use the intimacy and detail. In Potemkin, of course, you have the permabulator going down the steps, and the incident is repeated several times at several angles -- you remember that. Well, I think it's a matter of using the language of the camera which is so flexible and free. The beauty of the camera is that you can photograph anything you want and make and comment you want.
20th Century Art
Unfortunately, you see, most of the films we see today are what I term, "photographs of people talking." They aren't true pieces of cinema. Film was the newest part of the 20th century, and what is it really -- imagery and montage, pieces of film put together to create ideas.
Now so many things are photographed objectively, and yet we have the power from the use of montage to get into a person's mind by the use of the visual. I suppose a really cinematic form would be a picture like Rear Window. Now strangely enough, people think that motion pictures are galloping horses and automobiles and that kind of thing, which they're not. If you use your camera and montage correctly, you can have a scene in a telephone booth.
Now in Rear Window, here is a man in one position for the whole picture. He never moves. Yet you have a close-up of Mr. Stewart. He looks, and you cut to what he sees, and you cut back to his reaction. And by the use of visual means you create ideas in his mind. And to show you how flexible the medium is, let us assume that you have a close-up of Mr. Stewart. He looks, and we cut to a woman nursing a baby. Cut back to Mr. Stewart. He smiles. Now what is Mr. Stewart? He's a benign gentlemen. Take away the middle piece of film, have both the close-ups -- the look and the response -- and insert a shot of a girl in a bikini. He looks, girl in bikini, he smiles. Now he's a dirty old man. So there you see, I've tried to put into a nutshell what true cinema is.
Actually, I make a film entirely on paper. Not "write it" but "make it" on paper. I never experiment on the set, I never improvise. I improvise in the office seven or eight months before the shooting. I have the whole film in mind shot for shot, complete.
When you go into the casting, there's the first compromise. It comes because the leading people are stars, and not really characters but personalities. The original concept goes by the wayside. You're lucky if you get 75 per cent of the original concept on the screen.
QUESTION: Then, do you work with a set designer and cameraman in much the same way that you work with a screenwriter?
HITCHCOCK: Yes. The set designer comes in very early, because during the course of the writing I want certain things researched. Because if it won't work out then I don't put it in the script. In other words, I get the designer involved in the making as well. So really it's the writer, me, and the designer, all working together in the preparatory planning.
QUESTION: Then, does the cameraman in your films have any creative role?
HITCHCOCK: No. He doesn't. The Hollywood cameraman really doesn't.
QUESTION: In that case, would one attribute any differences in camera style between Torn Curtain and the earlier films photographed by Robert Burks to you, and not to the difference in cameramen?
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HITCHCOCK: I have achieved a long-felt desire on my part about the use of color. As you know, many of the films you see are not color films; they're colored films. There's an excess of color, and they're brilliantly lit, and they have on what they call a Hollywood gloss. In other words, there's a lack of reality about them.
Now all this came about because of the early days of black-and-white photography. Being in monotone, the image had to be separated from the background. So they introduced back-lighting, and all the characters wore a halo. They were aiming at a third dimension, but they never really achieved it. So you would find yourself in a scene, let's say, in a farmhouse cottage, with bright lights hitting the people, coming from we don't know where, and creating back shadows everywhere. This method then transferred itself to color, which was quite unnecessary because color separates itself from the background.
So far a long time, I've tried to break this, and at last in Torn Curtain, I've broken right through. My original cameraman went sick, so I brought in a new man who I had worked with in Rebecca many years before. He was an assistant then. I brought him into this room, and I said, "Where are the black shadows?" And I said, "Look at this room now. You can't see a one." A faint one here and there caused by the diffused light from the window. So we went forward, and I showed him what the thing should be, and we made the whole picture with reflected lights. There are no halos on the people, and the light is reduced to one-quarter of what it usually is. So the colors are quite soft, and except for the two principles, there is no make-up worn by anyone in the picture. As a result, the soft light coming on their faces maintains the texture of the skin.
See, I have often wondered when an art director is building a set he creates a wall with a texture -- plaster, then he ages it down -- then the chief electrician smacks one light on it, and it ruins the whole thing. Everything's all been overlit. So now having got down to the minimum lights, the rest is a matter of taste in color.
For example, in Torn Curtain, I decided with the production designer that up to the first reel of the film, which starts in Copenhagen and ends in East Berlin, we'd have a certain amount of color up to that, and from then on the colors would be grey and beige for the mood of the iron curtains. A touch of red here and there, inspired by the color of the uniforms they wore. So that was the scheme.
So I would say that I always go for color, because if you want the effect of black and white you can always create it, because the camera will photograph what you give it. It's a matter of taste. The exteriors in Torn Curtain are all diffused also. We used a grey diffusor. In fact, we did that for the whole picture in order to reduce the color even more, so that we would prevent even Technicolor from cheating us. We made the reflected light with a big sheet: a large 20 by 20 sheet on the end of the set. And the light hit the sheet of white and then bounced back into the set. Where we had any direct light on faces, it would diffuse proportionately.
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QUESTION: A shot where the camera looks straight down a stairwell recurs in several of your films. Is this intentional?
HITCHCOCK: No. I think that's the kind of thing one reverts to by instinct. The very first time I used that shot -- shooting down a stairwall -- was in a film I made, The Lodger, in 1926. And of course you didn't have sound in those days.
The essence of the story was the landlady's concern -- is her lodges Jack the Ripper or not? And when he went out at night, I had a special staircase built right at the top of the studio. I had the whole four flights built, and all you saw was the white hand going down the rail as he went out. And that's when it first started.
QUESTION: And the similar shot in Vertigo, where the background seems to fall out of the frame...?
HITCHCOCK: As a matter of fact, that effect first came to me at the Chelsea Arts Ball in London, about 2 A.M., when after many libations everything seemed to get further and further away. I remembered that effect when I first came to America to make Rebecca.
There was a scene where Joan Fontaine was supposed to faint at a coroner's inquest, and I wanted to get the effect, but nobody could lick it. From 1939, I tried again several times. And it wasn't until Vertigo, when we had to have it that it was solved with a combination of a zoom lens and a dolly-back. When I asked the trick department how much it would cost, they said it would cost $50,000.00 for the one shot, because they'd have to take a rig above the staircase to take the camera up and the zoom forward. It was very elaborate. So I said to the trick department, Yes, but there's no one on the set. Why don't we make a miniature of it, then lay it on its side, and do the same thing from the studio floor. $19,000.00 . . .
QUESTION: Would you explain the shot in more detail?
HITCHCOCK: First of all, we have to explain the perspective of various lenses. In other words, when you look through the finder of a 50mm lens --a two-inch lens -- you see the perspective as roughly normal, as the eye sees it. Now the moment you go to a 35mm lens, the perspective begins to change, to elongate. Then you go to a 28mm. In other words, the wider the angle of lens, the more forced the perspective becomes.
You've probably seen still photographs of interiors of rooms where the ceiling seemed to go up, especially if you're familiar with the room. It was on this basis that I'd gotten them to devise this movement. It's a changing of perspective from the normal to the abnormal -- from the normal of a 50mm lens to the abnormal of the 22mm, say.
The difficulty they had in doing it was that they found the sides moved, and I said, "The sides cannot move!" The sides nearest the camera must stay where they are. At one time many years ago, when I was frustrated in getting this effect, I had thought, why can't we get a still printed on rubber, and I'll make a little wire on the back and pull it. I got so desperate, I even suggested that. And at last, of course, they came up with the effect of dollying back while zooming forward.
QUESTION: Speaking of deliberate cinematic distortion, was the montage of the horse's fall in Marnie a deliberate time distortion?
HITCHCOCK: Oh, yes. Sure. You see, when you deal with an accident of this sort, if you did it at its normal speed, it would happen so flashily that you'd never really realize what was happening; you wouldn't get the full benefit of it. Now for when the horse rears up, we built a low wall -- I think it was only 9 inches from the ground, and then we skimmed the ground with the camera, just leaving the grass out of the picture, and then we got a horse just to roll over. It was a trick horse that loved to roll. So all it was doing was rolling over a 9-inch bit of brick wall, that's all. The rest, when the girl was thrown into the air, was slow motion. We sat her on the arm of the crane and swung her through the air in an arc, in slow motion.
QUESTION: And the unreal quality of the horse-riding process in Marnie?
HITCHCOCK: Strangely enough, over the wall and everything. But it did jig up and down in an unusual way.
QUESTION: And the painted drop of the Baltimore dockyard?
HITCHCOCK: That was a bad horse on a treadmill. The process in back of her was made on the actual field. It was made on a crane, it went that was correct. She was on a trained shot. They said when you get the final Technicolor print, it won't look like that. But they were lying. It was a bad shot.
QUESTION: But do you think that the obvious unreality of the process and set-painting in Marnie could be interpreted as a sign of Marnie's world of illusion?
HITCHCOCK: Yes. I think so.
QUESTION: Saul Bass, the title designer, has said that he is responsible for designing the shower killing in Psycho.
HITCHCOCK: It isn't true. I'll tell you, Saul Bass asked me if he could design a sequence, so I said, "Yes, you can design the sequence of the detective going into the house." So he made up a series of sketches: feet on the stairs, hands on the rail, moving through the bannister with his legs going up, close-ups of him.
Well, I went sick one day -- it was the only day I went sick on a picture -- so I told the assistant and Burks, the cameraman, "There's something you can do to fill in time. Take these drawings of Saul Bass and photograph them." I saw them on the screen exactly as he laid them out, and I said, "We can't use them. None of this can be used. All these things are sinister stealth. He's not a sinister man; this is an innocent man." So we threw the whole lot out, and I took a simple shot of him going up the stairs.
QUESTION: In Psycho, how did you do the shot beginning with Norman going up the stairs to his mother's room and ending with him carrying her body to the fruit cellar?
HITCHCOCK: That was a hanging crane shot. An overhead hanging goes up -- photographs up -- with one side open. And as the camera goes up, you turn and look down the