Notes on Hitchcock

blogopenerNext week, I begin a section on Hitchcock in my advanced film history course. Though I have taught Hitchcock many, many times in my career, I am challenging myself to come up with new approaches to the material, so I am re-reading existing books and reviewing new materials. Along the way, I stumbled across several interesting Hitchcock tidbits and quotes that I wanted to share.

1 Foreign Correspondent airs tonight on TCM (February 22) at midnight EST, so my first fun fact is in honor of this taut little spy thriller with a terrific cast, including Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, George Sanders, Herbert Marshall, and Edmund Gwenn. One of the film’s most famous sequences occurs at a Dutch windmill. Mills are featured as locations in two other Hitchcock films, Young and Innocent and The Manxman, though these are grain mills with turning water-wheels rather than rotating blades. In German Expressionism, twirling, spinning, or spiraling motions have a threatening connotation, sometimes symbolizing the swirling chaos in the mind of a madman, or the destructive force of a society gone mad. Hitchcock directed his first two films in Germany and was heavily influenced by Expressionism. The spinning of the merry-go-round in Strangers on a Train also falls into this category.

blogreduco2 In 1965, Hitchcock wrote the entry on “Film Production” for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Even when discussing the screenwriter, he always maintained the primacy of the film’s visual techniques. He wrote, “The writer, who should be as skilled in the dialogue of images as of words, must have the capacity to anticipate, visually and in detail, the finished film.”

3 TCM is showing Lifeboat on March 1 at 8:15am EST. Most of the action takes place in the limited setting of a lifeboat, making it difficult for Hitchcock to appear in one of his trademark cameos. Everyone knows that the ingenious solution to this problem was for Hitchcock to show up in a weight-loss ad for a fictional product called Reduco. The ad can be seen in a newspaper that one of the passengers picks up to peruse. What I didn’t know was that the ad echoed the director’s own dramatic weight loss that year. In the beginning of 1943, he weighed 300 pounds; at the end, he had dropped to just over 200. The before and after photos in the ad are both of Hitchcock. After the film was released, letters poured into the studio from viewers asking where they could buy Reduco. Hitchcock took satisfaction in writing to let them know that there is no miracle weight loss cure; they would have to do it by dieting like he did.

AN UNKNOWN ILLUSTRATOR AND PRODUCTION DESIGNER ALEXANDER GOLITZEN PRODUCED THESE WASHES FOR 'FOREIGN CORRESPONDEN.'

AN UNKNOWN ILLUSTRATOR AND PRODUCTION DESIGNER ALEXANDER GOLITZEN PRODUCED THESE WASHES FOR ‘FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT.’

4 A large number of sketches, drawings, and paintings were done to capture the look and atmosphere of small-town America for Shadow of a Doubt. I once saw these works of art on display in an exhibition called “Casting a Shadow: Creating the Alfred Hitchcock Film” at the Block Gallery at Northwestern University. I didn’t realize that the art department at Universal had been influenced by drawings created by WPA artists known as regionalists. The artworks are more accomplished—and moodier—than you might expect for set-design illustrations.

blogshadowWPA

SKETCH FOR ‘SHADOW OF A DOUBT.’ THE VIGOROUS DRAWING STYLE AND MUSCULAR WORKING MAN ARE REMINISCENT OF WPA ARTISTS.

5 The 1950s represented a time of transition for Hollywood. After a Supreme Court decision, the major studios were forced to sell their theater chains, causing them downsize their operations, including cutting actors and directors from contracts. Also at this time, the studios experimented with color, 3-D, stereo sound, and widescreen to lure the public away from their television sets.

GRACE KELLY'S AND ROBERT CUMMINGS' SALARIES TOGETHER DID NOT ADD UP TO RAY MILLAND'S.

ON THE SET OF ‘DIAL M FOR MURDER.’ KELLY AND CUMMINGS’ SALARIES WERE CONSIDERABLY LOWER THAN MILLAND’S.

In a 1953 letter to friend and former partner Sidney Bernstein, Hitchcock revealed what it was like to be in the midst of this uncertainty. At this point, he thought Warner Bros.’ investment in 3-D was smarter than 20th Century Fox’s decision to go with CinemaScope, because a Warners’ 3-D movie could be converted into a regular “flat”’ film by using only one of the two negatives involved. This was smart because there were so many small theaters not equipped for 3D. But, as he noted,“CinemaScope must have a very wide screen and this is so large (64 feet) that only about 1500 houses [theaters] are capable of taking it.” Apparently, Fox was secretly making regular 35mm prints for each of their Scope films, a decision that was holding up production on The Robe. The regular prints were not only holding up the schedule but they were expensive because they required “more set-ups than is necessary in CinemaScope.” He complained that both 3-D and Scope created production problems because both required more lighting. He speculated that The Hollywood Reporter was “no doubt subsidized” by Darryl F. Zanuck of Fox because the trade magazine was campaigning hard for CinemaScope while poking fun at 3-D with slogans like “Throw Away Your Glasses.” He also noted that the Spyros Skouras, president of Fox, had announced he was selling 800 old films to television as soon as CinemaScope was fully launched as the studio’s new format.

HITCHCOCK DIRECTS LAWRENCE OLIVIER AND JOAN FONTAINE IN 'REBECCA.' ONE PREVIEW AUDIENCE MEMBER WONDERED WHY FONTAINE'S HAIRSTYLE WAS SO BAD.

HITCHCOCK DIRECTS LAURENCE OLIVIER AND JOAN FONTAINE IN ‘REBECCA.’ ONE PREVIEW AUDIENCE MEMBER WONDERED WHY FONTAINE’S HAIRSTYLE WASN’T MORE ATTRACTIVE.

6 Hitchcock closed this letter to Bernstein by revealing that Warners had paid off Michael Curtiz’s contract after 26 years of loyal service to the studio, because they were letting all their contract directors and players go. Only six or seven contract players remained. He lamented, “The Warners lot is the deadest that anyone can remember.”

7 In other letters to Bernstein, Hitchcock mulled around casting ideas. For example, Cary Grant wanted to star in Dial M for Murder, but Warners didn’t feel like he was right for the role that eventually went to Ray Milland. Grant’s asking price also proved to be too high. Olivia de Havilland expressed interest in playing the Grace Kelly role but her price was $175,000, which was also too high. Here are the salaries for the final cast members: Milland received $125,000; Robert Cummings was paid $25,000, and Grace Kelly got $14,000.

8 I found the film projects that Hitchcock turned down—and why he turned them down—to be interesting. Hecht-Lancaster (Burt Lancaster’s production company) asked him to direct Operation Heartbreak, a military story based on the book by Duff Cooper. Somehow, I can’t see Hitchcock interested in a military milieu. I don’t think the project ever came to fruition under any director. He was also asked to direct Anastasia, which became Ingrid Bergman’s comeback movie. Hitchcock refused because he thought the writing was “atrocious.”

HITCHCOCK UNDERSTOOD HOW TO USE SPACE TO ITS VISUAL ADVANTAGE ON A BIG SCREEN.

THE FAMOUS BIRD’S EYE VIEW IN ‘THE BIRDS.’ HITCHCOCK UNDERSTOOD HOW TO USE SPACE TO ITS ADVANTAGE ON A BIG SCREEN.

9 Hitchcock claimed that his films were never previewed, but that wasn’t true. For example, Rebecca was previewed for 266 viewers on January 4, 1940, resulting in remarks that prove exactly why this process is counterproductive. Under “Comments on the Story in General,” one viewer wrote, “Too much dialogue,” while another said, “Too much footage without dialogue.” When asking amateurs for their opinions, don’t be surprised if there are insulting comments such as: “Why wasn’t Fontaine’s hair fixed more attractively.” Or, “Fontaine too drooped and meek.” Some complained that there was “too much of Fontaine,” while others were so taken with her that they asked for a picture to take home.

10 Over the weekend, I saw Hitchcock/Truffaut, an excellent documentary about the series of interviews conducted with the Master of Suspense by Francois Truffaut in 1962. Hitchcock made some perceptive remarks about the nature of seeing a film on a big screen in a theater with an audience. While talking about The Birds, he noted the importance of space and size in a film: “Emotionally the size of the image is very important.” Later, he talked about the power of film as the greatest form of mass communication: “One’s film should be for 2000 seats, not one seat.” His remarks made me nostalgic for a time when the theater was the dominant venue for seeing a film—before the mass audience was brainwashed into thinking that watching a movie on a small screen or a computer was an equivalent experience.

Auiler, Dan. Hitchcock’s Notebooks. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.

Eisner, Lotte. The Haunted Screen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965, reprinted 1977.

Schmenner, Will and Corinne Granof, Casting a Shadow: Creating the Alfred Hitchcock Film. Evanston, Illinois: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, 2007.

12 Responses Notes on Hitchcock
Posted By robbushblog : February 22, 2016 3:36 pm

You know that whenever Hitchcock’s name pops up in the title of a post I’m going to read it right away.

Thank you for the interesting little tidbits about Hitch. I had only heard the LIFEBOAT one before. The rest I had not.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 22, 2016 5:45 pm

My favorite comments were those from the 1950s. I thought it was interesting to read a director’s perspective on widescreen, 3-D, etc. during the era that it was happening in.

Posted By LD : February 22, 2016 8:03 pm

Hitchcock is my favorite director and I really enjoyed this post. The info about the symbolism of the windmills in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT I found particularly interesting.

Criterion’s release of the film has a section on special effects in the supplements. For those who don’t know, the shot of the three windmills in the desolate countryside has only one real windmill, built at the studio. The two in the background are part of a matte painting. All of them have rotating blades, achieved by poking holes through the painting and attaching blades to the front to create the effect. And all of them with a “threatening connotation”.

Posted By Emgee : February 22, 2016 9:03 pm

Strange that Hitchcock wanted Cary Grant to star in Dial M for Murder,because he couldn’t portray Grant as a murderer in Suspicion. Therefore the (in)famous copout ending. Had times and opinions changed by then?

Posted By Susan Doll : February 23, 2016 12:23 am

Emgee: From Hitchcock’s letters, it seems Grant was most keen to be in Dial M for Murder. I don’t think Hitchcock was against it, but Grant was lobbying hard for the part.

Posted By AL : February 23, 2016 12:39 am

When Hitch rejected David Raksin’s offer to score LIFEBOAT by saying that he had decided to use no music “because the audience wouldn’t know where the music was coming from”, Raksin replied “Ask Mr. Hitchcock if the audience wouldn’t wonder where the camera was coming from”…BTW: one of my Treasures is the awesome pictorial FOOTSTEPS IN THE FOG: ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S SAN FRANCISCO…

Posted By Emgee : February 23, 2016 10:29 am

I’m sure Cary Grant was keen to star in Dial M for Murder, but my point is that he couldn’t play a murderer in Suspicion, because it would have harmed his image. That’s why the original ending had to be changed for the movie, i.e. it was all in her mind. So why could he have played a murderer in Dual M for Murder without anyone objecting? ( Just wondering, i’m not expecting you to supply the answer.)

Posted By swac44 : February 23, 2016 12:20 pm

I went on a Hitchcock binge recently (in advance of seeing Hitchcock/Truffaut, and for a podcast on the topic), and like the windmills, noticed how every film I saw used a staircase to some dramatic effect, often as a transitional device, but also to indicate impending peril or violence. You are vulnerable on a staircase, easily thrust off balance and sent hurtling to the ground, like poor Martin Balsam in Psycho, or it could be an obstacle, as for James Stewart in Vertigo. I’m sure I’d read about staircase symbolism many times before, but watching six or so of his films in rapid succession it became readily apparent.

Note: I didn’t watch Lifeboat in this batch of titles, the obvious odd film out in this regard.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 23, 2016 1:24 pm

Swac44: You should pick up a copy of Lotte Eisner’s book on German Expressionism. Still the best book on interpreting Expressionist imagery. She has a whole section on hallways and staircases, weighing in on various meanings from different sources. Spiral staircases are particularly interesting because of the association with disorder and chaos within the mind of a character. Again, because Hitchcock directed his first two films in Germany during that era, it is easy to see where he picked up his symbolism.

Posted By swac44 : February 23, 2016 1:59 pm

You’re right Susan, I should! I’ve already got Eisner’s book on Fritz Lang, one of my favourite film texts, and I think I read some of the expressionism book when I took a film course in school many moons ago. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for another copy, I love that period in film (and recently watched The Lodger, where the influence is profound).

Posted By tdraicer : February 26, 2016 7:43 pm

Since I’m about to be one of those annoying nitpickers, let me first say I certainly enjoyed this post.

But…

it is Laurence not “Lawrence” Olivier. :)

Posted By Susan Doll : February 26, 2016 9:37 pm

Thank you TD. I don’t mind corrections on my typos. As a matter of fact, I appreciate them.

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