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 . . .