Slices of Cake

Gilberto Perez

  • Hitchcock’s Secret Notebooks: An Authorised and Illustrated Look Inside the Creative Mind of Alfred Hitchcock by Dan Auiler
    Bloomsbury, 567 pp, £20.00, May 1999, ISBN 0 7475 4490 5

Alfred Hitchcock is famous for planning everything beforehand, shooting his films in his head, never looking through the camera because he knew exactly what he would find. But the photographs in Hitchcock’s Secret Notebooks show him always sitting by the camera. He may not have looked through the viewfinder but he identified with the camera: the eye that knew exactly what it would find, the gaze for whose benefit everything would perform according to plan. We see him sitting by the camera on the set of Rear Window, looking out of the same rear window through which the immobilised protagonist spies on his neighbours, and using a microphone to direct the actors playing the neighbours in the apartment across the courtyard. This is a god spying on the people whose every move he commands.

Hitchcock was essentially a studio director. In the studio he made the world the way he wanted it. Even his most striking uses of real locations involved a fair amount of studio trickery. Hitchcock didn’t care for the actual place, only for the effect he could get from it; he wouldn’t go to the trouble of shooting on location if he could use a studio backdrop or a stretch of back projection instead.

In 1967, however, concerned to keep up with the times and impressed by European films – Antonioni’s especially – he decided to try something new, away from the studio and its fabrications. For this attempt ‘to reinvent the Hitchcock film’, as Dan Auiler puts it in Hitchcock’s Secret Notebooks, he wrote not just a treatment but, inspired by a true story, his first screenplay in twenty years. And, even more remarkably, he arranged to shoot nearly an hour of experimental footage on location in New York City, indoors as well as out, using available light and new colour stocks that were sensitive to dimmer conditions.

It seems appropriate that Hitchcock should have been drawn to Antonioni, who in his own way is a master of suspense, though not a master ruling like a god over his creation: Antonioni is a Hitchcock who appears to have as little sense as we have of the solution to the mystery. Imagine Rear Window as directed by Antonioni: the glimpses we catch of the neighbours would have remained partial, uncertain, mysterious – they would not add up to neat little stories, still less to the neat bigger story of the murder mystery. The detective in Hitchcock’s Rear Window is the snooping protagonist, not the knowing camera; in Antonioni’s movies the camera itself is a detective looking into the mystery of the world’s appearances. In Hitchcock the camera knows because, as its knowing lets us know, this is only a movie.

‘It’s only a movie,’ Hitchcock was fond of saying to his actors and technicians when they got too worried or upset during filming. ‘It’s only a movie,’ he tells his audience in effect, reminding us, even in tense situations, that this is play. That doesn’t make him less serious than Antonioni. The artifice of art is an aspect of its seriousness.

In 1967 Hitchcock found himself in a position not unusual for an artist: the work slipping, the critical reputation on the rise. He had been taken up by Cahiers du Cinéma, and the auteur school of criticism, which included Truffaut and Godard. As Fredric Jameson has observed, the auteur theory reflected its time, with the emergence of film-makers such as Antonioni, Fellini, Buñuel, Bergman, and several of the Cahiers critics themselves, and projected it back to a time when the director was not considered the author of a film but merely one of its makers (just as the rejection of the auteur theory in academic film studies since the late Seventies reflects the current rule of the corporation in the film industry, as elsewhere). Hitchcock, in any case, is an exception. He was an auteur before auteur theory, a director recognised by the public as the author of his films. And after the repudiation of the theory he remained an indisputable auteur: personal expression may be an illusion, but Hitchcock was a master illusionist.

What is even more unusual about him is that he was able to make his signature part of the entertainment that a popular audience goes to see. In its admiration for popular cinema the politique des auteurs was populist – but not populist enough for the populism of today, which considers élitist the focus on certain directors as auteurs to be distinguished from the rest.

‘Banished completely was the conception of Hitchcock the entertainer, the man who made thrillers because he enjoyed the mechanics of suspense and the chase’: thus Penelope Houston, then editor of Sight and Sound, writing about Hitchcock and auteurism when The Birds came out in 1963. Houston objected to the moral, even metaphysical seriousness with which Hitchcock was being taken by his auteurist interpreters, as if it were impossible for a work of popular entertainment to have a moral, metaphysical or ideological content.

The high-minded critic Robin Wood responded to Houston’s article with the kind of righteousness his mentor F.R. Leavis directed against Bloomsbury, dismissing it in Hitchcock’s Films, his classic auteur study of 1965, as the product of a snobbish, dilettante establishment that refused to take Hitchcock seriously. Unfortunately, he kept invoking Shakespeare as proof that a popular artist can be great – great though he may be, Hitchcock isn’t much like Shakespeare. Houston, for her part, cited the director himself in support of her argument against his auteurist interpreters; Wood, in reply, urged us to trust the tale, not the teller. But when we are told that Psycho, for example, ‘was made with quite a sense of fun on my part ... rather like taking the audience through the haunted house at the fairground’, what this teller is telling us rings true to the tale. It is perfectly possible to take Psycho seriously and to recognise that its lighthearted tone is part of its message. Wood won that round. Houston was right about the playfulness – ‘for me, the cinema is not a slice of life,’ she quoted Hitchcock as saying, ‘but a slice of cake’ – but even now it is the seriousness that prevails in discussions of his work.

In Hitchcock’s Secret Notebooks Dan Auiler has gathered material from the director’s files – story treatments, screenplay drafts, letters exchanged with collaborators and associates, sketches, storyboards, production photographs; it is ‘secret’ only in that most of it has not previously been brought to light. The same papers were the chief source for the useful production history of Vertigo Auiler published last year. Bringing together material on several films, the new volume has been organised according to successive stages in the making of a film – ‘Building the Screenplay’, ‘Preparing the Visual’, ‘Putting It All Together’ – so that each chapter rounds up documentation on a number of different films.

‘The screenplay,’ Auiler writes, ‘is where the director dreamed his films.’ It is both a confirmation and a refutation of the auteur theory to see how closely Hitchcock was involved in the screenplays for his films though he didn’t take a writing credit: a confirmation of our sense of Hitchcock’s authorship, a refutation of the auteurist tenet that in the cinema authorship has to do with direction alone. (Howard Hawks, another celebrated auteur, was also an uncredited writer on his films.) The longest chapter in Hitchcock’s Secret Notebooks documents in detail his part in the building of the screenplay; it was only after he and his wife had written a treatment that he would start working with the writers he enlisted to help him with the construction of the story and the writing of the dialogue. On the central importance of plot Hitchcock agreed with Aristotle; characterisation and dialogue came later.

Initially called From amongst the Dead, the title of the novel on which it was based, Vertigo, we learn from Auiler’s production history, went through several drafts and three different writers: first the playwright Maxwell Anderson, who had worked with Hitchcock on The Wrong Man but whose version of From amongst the Dead Hitchcock found unacceptable; then the little-known Alec Coppel, who met Hitchcock every day for months but whose script, though closer to what he was after, still didn’t satisfy him; and finally Samuel Taylor, recommended because he came from San Francisco, where Hitchcock had decided the film should be set. It was Taylor who proposed giving away the solution to the mystery halfway through the film. This spilling of beans drew a lot of criticism when the film came out, but it has been abundantly defended since; it is the key factor in the movement of the film away from the male protagonist towards the woman, thereby splitting our allegiance and complicating the film’s powerful romantic attraction. Both Taylor and Hitchcock say that it was done simply for suspense: we know something the protagonist doesn’t know and we wonder what will happen when he finds out. Coppel, the other credited writer, didn’t want the change made at all, and Taylor didn’t like the way it was made in a flashback scene with the woman’s voice-over narration. Up to the last minute a version of the film without the change – made at considerable further expense – was ready to be released. Interpretation of Vertigo hinges on a controversial change in the plot that was almost not made: call it the suspense of interpretation.

Like Vertigo, Marnie is a Hitchcock film about a beguiling, reticent woman and a man who wants to possess and reconstruct her. It was to have marked Grace Kelly’s return to the screen after the marriage that made her a princess, but in a referendum the citizens of Monaco registered their disapproval, and the part went to Tippi Hedren instead. Marnie is a thief, and what drew Hitchcock to the project, he told Truffaut, was the ‘fetishist love’ of a man who ‘wants to go to bed with a thief because she is a thief’. Hitchcock told Truffaut that in the original treatment Marnie ‘went to see her mother and found the house full of neighbours: her mother had just died. That’s where the big love scene would have taken place, to be interrupted by the arrival of the police who came to arrest Marnie.’ This sounds intriguing, but there is no such scene in the treatment included in Hitchcock’s Secret Notebooks, and Auiler makes no mention of it Reading the book, we find that the man who falls in love with the thief was originally split into two different characters, one fairly kind and gentle, the other more of a cad. To combine the two into one character was a good move – presumably the work of Jay Presson Allen, the writer credited for Marnie. Evan Hunter, who wrote The Birds and worked on Marnie before Allen, argued with Hitchcock over a scene in which the sexually inhibited Marnie is raped by her husband during their honeymoon cruise. Hunter thought the nice guy wouldn’t do that and wanted to omit the scene. Hitchcock was right to insist on keeping it, especially after the nice guy and the cad were rolled into one.

Hitchcock’s Secret Notebooks contains valuable stuff, but it would probably have been more effective had it been organised film by film. As it is, the production history of Marnie, to take one example, has to be pieced together from material scattered in three different chapters. It was easier to follow the process of creation in the book about Vertigo, because it was about one movie. The new volume is more of a grab bag. There is very little from the British period – which means that we are unable to compare Hitchcock’s working methods before and after he went to Hollywood. Much of the material takes the form of photocopies, which reproduce the look of the original handwriting or typing, but can be difficult and at times impossible to read. We can work our way through a few handwritten pages of Thornton Wilder’s screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt, but after we have put in the effort we find Auiler saying that ‘the film has only the slightest variations’ on the written screenplay. It would have been nice to have material – there is nothing in the other chapters – to allow us to ascertain the difference Hitchcock’s direction made in Shadow of a Doubt, what sharpening, shading and slant it brought to the film.

Writers came and went, but otherwise Hitchcock worked with a reasonably stable team. On most of the films from Strangers on a Train (1951) to Marnie (1964) – the period many regard as the peak of his career – Robert Burks served as cinematographer, George Tomasini as editor, and Bernard Herrmann as composer. The deaths of Burks and Tomasini and the falling out with Herrmann must, as Auiler suggests, have had something to do with the director’s subsequent decline. Hitchcock’s authorship was not confined to the direction – nor to the preparation, the screenplay or the storyboards. Steven Spielberg storyboards everything: Hitchcock, for all his thorough planning, did not. As Auiler says,

Despite his legendary use of storyboards, it was only very rarely that Hitchcock storyboarded an entire film. Lifeboat and The Birds were extensively storyboarded. The rest of his films would have storyboards done for key sequences: the cropdusting sequence from North by Northwest, the shower sequence from Psycho, the car scene in Family Plot.

Gus Van Sant’s recent shot-by-shot remake of Psycho, by failing to recapture any of the power and spirit of the original, succeeds in proving that a Hitchcock plan needed Hitchcock to realise it.

The project Hitchcock pursued in 1967, his experiment in the techniques of European cinema – called Frenzy and later Kaleidoscope and, Auiler stresses, a quite different project from the real Frenzy of 1972 – was cancelled by Universal. But he had earlier made a film along similar lines, based on a true story, shot largely on location in New York City, and showing the influence not of Antonioni but of Italian neo-realism. A slice of life rather than cake, The Wrong Man was a flop with the public when it came out in 1957, and though it has its admirers, it has never been much of a critical favourite. ‘What’s wrong with The Wrong Man?’ Slavoj Zizek asks at the start of the concluding essay in Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock). Zizek accepts Rohmer and Chabrol’s Catholic – or more precisely Jansenist – view of ‘Hitchcock’s universe’ as ruled by a cruel and inscrutable God who will grant grace or inflict misfortune quite independently of a person’s character and deeds. The Wrong Man, whose protagonist is a good man who finds himself in trouble for nothing he has done, accords perfectly with that view. What’s wrong, then? Zizek’s answer is that in The Wrong Man Hitchcock steps aside and lets God do his unfathomable will in God’s world, the world of our reality. The characteristic Hitchcock universe is not God’s but Hitchcock’s: the world of a movie, only a movie, over which the director, assuming the role of God, is seen to preside.

Hitchcock is present in his films in a way no other director is. I don’t just mean his cameo appearances, though these indicate how much his presence is felt everywhere else in the work: no other director could appear as himself, for everyone in the audience to recognise, without intruding like a foreign body in the world of the film. Significantly, The Wrong Man is one film in which Hitchcock chose not to appear except in an introduction, because his presence would have disturbed the illusion of reality. This tells us what kind of illusion Hitchcock usually creates – not the illusion of reality but the illusion we enter into knowing it’s only an illusion, only a movie. The kind of relationship he establishes with his audience – and he is nothing if not a director of audiences – asks us to recognise his presence, his agency in making this movie we are watching. His rapport with us calls for our awareness that he is in control, that we are in his hands, at the mercy of his manipulation. That is part of our pleasure.

The ultimate auteur study of Hitchcock is William Rothman’s Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze, whose premise is that Hitchcock’s films are essentially about Hitchcock’s authorship, allegories of their own creation, and of their maker’s transaction with his audience. But Rothman is looking for a hidden Hitchcock, a Hitchcock behind the Hitchcock the audience sees, and though he finds him, thanks to a very careful and revealing analysis of the films, in the process he tends to lose sight of the Hitchcock the audience sees: a remarkable figure, an artist reaching a popular audience with an art as self-conscious and self-referential as any élite audience could wish. Invoking a triad proposed by Jameson, Zizek sees Hitchcock as an exponent of realism (in his British films of the Thirties), of Modernism (in his American films of the Forties), and of Post-Modernism (in his work from Strangers on a Train to The Birds). But those are categories of high art, and Hitchcock was a popular artist who demonstrated how consummately sophisticated popular art can be.

We always know, when we watch a popular movie, that it’s only a movie. Just as we know that a romantic comedy will end happily, and that a thriller, even as it has us on the edge of our seats, is heading towards a foreordained resolution. What is different about Hitchcock is that he comes forward like no other director and makes us aware of his agency as arranger of the fiction, contriver of the characters and situations, framer of the views unfolding on the screen. Because he is a director whose films bear the mark of his direction, Raymond Bellour calls him ‘Hitchcock the enunciator’. I would prefer to call him Hitchcock the narrator: a director who interposes himself between the viewer and the drama as a narrator mediates between the reader and the story. Either way, Hitchcock is to be recognised as a director who shows his hand and whose showing of his hand is part of the show.

Hitchcock’s 1967 project, had he been able to realise it, would probably have been no better than The Wrong Man. Antonioni would have given us a tragic Rear Window, tragic in an ironic way, for the protagonist would not have risen to the stature of a tragic hero. Hitchcock gives us a comic Rear Window, comic in an ironic way, for the protagonist does not stoop to the condition of a fool. Antonioni started with Italian neorealism and inflected its way of looking at external reality with the anxious inferiority of expressionism. Hitchcock started with the anxieties that expressionism constructed in the studio and inflected them with a comic awareness of their construction. Both achieved a kind of poise.

Alfred Hitchcock was born on 13 August 1899. This volume of selections from his papers has come out to coincide with the centenary of his birth. Let us honour the poise of this great popular artist.