Monthly Archives: July 2010

The one and only Alfred Hitchcock: ‘And now a word from our sponsors…’

Eloquent, suspenseful, quirky, and eminently entertaining; these are the words I would use to describe Alfred Hitchcock, one of the elder statesmen of the intrigue-film genre of Hollywood.

Boomers of all ages were among the youngest to become entranced by his talents, but may be among the most ardent admirers of his work. The rekindling of my interest in this master storyteller and director was sparked at a recent writing conference, where budding and veteran writers of all ages converged to hear guest lectures and to participate in fascinating workshops on the art and craft of all manner of writing – for print, cyberspace, stage or screen.

One such workshop, conducted by San Francisco Bay Area-based film critic and author Gil Mansergh, revealed secrets behind many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films; his use of storyboards, his frugal production techniques, and the flavor he lent to his films because of his own childhood experiences, etc.

Some little-known facts about the Brit who kept us guessing:

• Alfred Hitchcock was once questioned at the French border by a suspicious customs official. When Hitchcock had indicated his profession as “producer,” the official demanded, “And what do you produce?” “Gooseflesh,” Hitchcock coolly replied.
• In his childhood days, Alfred Hitchcock was remanded by his father to the local police station for being guilty of some youthful missteps. The constable, without further ado, locked young Alfred up for ten minutes. Then he released him, but not without lecturing the young boy on the wages of crime. This was a life-changing experience for the ten-year old Hitchcock, and he became frightened of the police from that day on. If you study his films, you’ll find that nearly all contain members of a police force in their storylines.
• The idea of being harshly treated or wrongfully accused is frequently reflected in Hitchcock’s films. Hitchcock’s mother would often make him stand for hours at the foot of her bed to admit his guilty behavior. These experiences would later be employed for the portrayal of the character of Norman Bates in the movie Psycho.
• Hitchcock never sat with the crowd to watch his films. “Don’t you miss hearing them scream?” he was once asked. “No,” replied Hitchcock. “I can hear them when I’m making the picture.”
• Making movies was a family affair for Alfred Hitchcock. In 1926 he married Alma Reville, an assistant director and screenwriter. They first met when Hitchcock has a lowly studio position while Alma had already been elevated to film editor. Once his star began to rise, he was to gain more confidence and began courting her. The couple worked together from then on– she was a screenwriter on Shadow of a Doubt (1943). The two had one daughter, Patricia Hitchcock, who also appeared in several of his movies: Stage Fright (1950), Strangers on a Train (1951) and Psycho (1960).
• Amazingly enough, Hitchcock never received a prized Oscar statuette. He did, however, receive the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award (the producer’s entire acceptance speech was comprised of  the words, “Thank you”) at the 1967 Oscars and went on to accept the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award in 1979. His native Britain also made sure the film legend was properly acknowledged by naming Hitchcock a Knight Commander of the British Empire in 1980.

When I returned from the writer’s conference, I was eager to revisit several of Hitchcock’s films, including one of my all-time favorites, North by Northwest. Again, I sat mesmerized at his camera angles, the scope of his sets, and the development of the screenwriter’s characters. This particular film used nearly all of Hitchcock’s favorite themes; threats by the police, the wrong man, the icy blond, larger-than life locales and interestingly enough, a HUGE use of erotic and even homo-erotic sexual tension only hinted at in his earlier works.

Wanting more Hitchcock, but in smaller bytes (I could have watched his films all day), I then dug up his 1950s TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, from among the selections on Netflix’s downloadable menu. Here was the king of suspense in all his glory, introducing his one-hour segments while using clever ways to cut to commercials. “And now you shall hear an illustrated lecture on the virtues of our sponsor’s product,” he says in his slow, polished, inimitable delivery.

The vignettes, boiled down to only about 35 minutes with the elimination of 1950s’ television lengthy spate of commercials, contained drama, humor, and intrigue but employed Hitchock’s trademark use of everyday people who place themselves or are wrongly placed in compromising positions.

In one such segment, a couple is at wits’ end trying to figure out how they will survive when the husband finds himself between jobs. Then they devise a plan for the wife to disappear for seven years, long enough to be declared dead, in order for the couple to fraudulently claim a $25,000 life insurance settlement. Dogged by a suspicious insurance investigator, the main character nearly goes crazy trying to prove that he did not kill his wife, nor did he have a girlfriend on the side as a motive to do so. When seven years is up and the husband has purposely neglected even secretly seeing his wife so as not to arouse suspicion, the wife returns to him unexpectedly. Instead of being relieved that they would now be safe, she demands a divorce, claiming she has moved on with her life and has another lover, whom she wants to marry. Having sacrificed so much for so long, he is so enraged that he kills her on the spot and buries her in his backyard rose garden.

On the day the husband is to appear in court to hear his wife declared dead, the insurance investigator reappears, admitting that he had indeed been outwitted by his insured, who kept up the life insurance payments during those seven years and was now about to collect. The story ends with the insurance investigator picking up a garden spade in the backyard, volunteering to help plant more roses as the guilty main character is supposed to leave for the legal proceeding. Cut to commercial.

‘Hitch’ then appears for a final commentary, reassuring his audience that the wife did indeed receive a proper burial, just to tie up loose ends for us all. He then concludes the segment with, “When I come back seven days from now, I shall be here to tell you another of our fairy stories for grown-up children.”

A loyal fan of this rotund, balding producer-director who will forever have changed the history of filmmaking, I know without a doubt I am among the ranks of those grown-up children . . .

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A day when youth was not wasted on the young

It had been planned for this past weekend for nearly a year and now it was over. I had involved myself with Capitol City Young Writers ( CCYW), a fairly new non-profit organization that gives young people a mentoring venue for creative writing, and I (feeling like a kid myself where writing is concerned) was giddy over the prospect of attending and helping out.

It was the group’s first-ever conference, held at a campus-like private school in woodsy San Anselmo, CA. Rock-star authors, journalists, radio personalities, songwriters and all manner of scribes came together to inspire youthful would-be poets, novelists, columnists and playwrights for an entire day. The air was absolutely electric with anticipation.

Even though the conference was geared to young writers, I listened intently to keynote speaker James Redford as he told his own story about having two liver transplants and becoming a screenwriter writer as well telling of the kind of life he had led as a movie star’s son. I had my photo taken with Peter S. Beagle, who became a best-selling author for the first time at the tender age of nineteen after having his first novel, A Fine and Private Place, published. He then gained worldwide recognition with The Last Unicorn. In addition to this, there was a drama professor from Stanford University who gave an acting lesson, a radio personality from NPR who, in his career had interviewed everyone from past presidents to famous artists, and a nuclear physicist who now writes about things as far ranging as science vs. religion to bringing up teenagers.

It was an amazing experience not only for the kids, but for those of us who had never been in such illustrious company as well. An interesting phenomenon about the kids who attended, however, was the advanced way in which they expressed themselves – even those as young as 12. I  began to wonder how they were received by others their own age when they spoke in fairly adult-like fashion.

In this setting, the kids were the real stars. Some of them knew the cinematic anthology and film secrets of Alfred Hitchcock. Others could verbally illustrate the use and beauty of satire, and still others understood how storyboards are used to write a novel. I was literally blown away by their contributions to the workshop discussions as adults sat all around them, often slack-jawed. I kept thinking to myself how much I would have benefited by a seminar like this if one had taken place near where I lived as a child.

On my drive home, I pinched myself for having been a part of this day. The sun set on my back as I headed east to California’s valley, and I felt more than a bit guilty for not staying longer to thank all those who attended. But then I realized that this was only the beginning, not only for the young people who attended, but also for the organization itself.

I believe that it is indeed our solemn duty as adults to find ways to encourage the generations that follow to keep writing alive and to elevate its worth. I reasoned that no matter what form it takes, communication and the literary arts are what we leave behind like golden artifacts – whether the words take the forms of print on paper, an electronic download on an iPhone, a link on the Internet or an outrageously entertaining new play or movie. Our youth are our future novelists, musicians, journalists and playwrights, offering us a respite from the stresses and challenges of everyday life with their contributions to the literary world.

So the next time you run into a budding scribe, instead of telling them you have no time to read their story or essay, read it as if you were receiving a prized orchid whose young roots are forming underground. Be encouraging, be tactfully honest, but never, never be brutal with your assessments. The future of the literary arts may just be in your hands.

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