“I See It All In My Head”
This lesson outlines Hitchcock’s involvement in every stage of producing his films, which let him fully visualize them before filming even began and market them once they were completed.
Often used by today’s directors, storyboarding is a technique by which an artist translates the director’s plans for a scene into shots which camera operators, actors, and other key film personnel can see for themselves. Some of Hitchcock’s scenes were so complex that storyboarding was almost the only way to explain them to others. In the course text, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures, author Donald Spoto includes a storyboard for the runaway car sequence in Family Plot (1976).
In Lesson 2, we saw the combination of circumstances and personal talent that led to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Pure Cinema.” Now we’ll examine the process by which Hitchcock brought his theories to the screen, from the planning to the promotion of a film.
Finding the Story
Alfred Hitchcock was almost always involved in creation of his films from the outset. Although he occasionally took on films in which he had no compelling interest, during most of his career he was able to choose his projects.
Often his films were derived from plays, books, or short stories, but Hitchcock had little interest in the traditional notion of adapting literary properties. Rather than following works closely and faithfully interpreting them, he would read them for the story and then put them away. After reading Daphne du Maurier’s short story “The Birds,” he and screenwriter Evan Hunter kept only the premise of the bird attack and created their own story, one more attuned to Hitchcock’s own interests.
Typically, as screenwriters Charles Bennett and Ernest Lehman (among others) have noted, Hitchcock would meet with his screenwriters for an extended period — sometimes weeks or months — to hash out details of the plot and to try and work “Hitchcock moments” into the script. Hitchcock’s interest in the films was primarily visual, and it was the job of the screenwriter to craft a story with narrative logic. These meetings would sometimes consist as much of stories and jokes as focused work, but this was perhaps the stage Hitchcock enjoyed best; once the writer went off to work on the script, he lost his captive audience.
Casting an Eye
Hitchcock was also closely involved in casting his films. Although sometimes during his early Hollywood years he was unable to get the precise people with whom he wanted to work, typically he was able to cast leading roles with his chosen actors. Then, as now, it was important to attach stars to films early in the process to generate interest, and as Hitchcock grew more famous, stars became willing and eager to work with him, some of them in film after film. Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant each made four films with Hitchcock; Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly made three apiece. Hitchcock often planned films explicitly around the stars who would populate them, as we will see in Lesson 4.
Before the cameras rolled, Hitchcock had envisioned the complete film shot by shot in his head. The process of actually making a movie, he often said, was a disappointment, because the movie would never be as perfect as it had been in his mind. His ability to imagine the entire film made it possible for Hitchcock to work with artists to create storyboards of key sequences. Storyboards allowed the actors and technical crew to see what the finished scene would look like and for the director to plan his film completely before he set foot on the set.
Read Chapters 20 and 34 in Spoto’s The Art of Alfred Hitchcock to learn about two of Hitchcock’s most technically challenging films, Rope (1948) and The Birds (1963). Throughout his career, Hitchcock posed himself technical challenges, perhaps to make the production process more interesting for himself. What were the challenges he faced with these two films? In your mind, what was the greatest scene Hitchcock created and why?
We have seen how Hitchcock exerted control over the planning portion of the film, and his involvement with the actual production was no different.
On the Set
The filming of a Hitchcock film was typically calm because he brought to the set an awareness of exactly what the film would look like and the technical knowledge to achieve that vision or something very close to it. Unlike directors who badger actors with line readings or tyrannize the crew on their sets, Hitchcock often sat quietly in his director’s chair and watched.
In an interview, Janet Leigh recalled a young director who visited to the set of Psycho (1960). “The director looked on for three days,” Leigh remembered. “He finally felt compelled to ask Hitchcock, ‘You know, in all the setups in all these three days, you said “Put the camera there” and you never looked through the camera.’ And Mr. Hitchcock said, ‘Well, there’s no need. I know where the camera is, I know what the lens is, and I know what’s inside — I know what’s being shown.’ That’s how meticulous and absolute his knowledge was.”
Hitchcock sets tended to be relatively sedate, because Hitchcock did not like conflict or confrontation. He preferred working with the same actors and crew because they knew what he wanted without his having to tell them. Those who had worked with him before knew that with one exception — his camera was going to be placed where he said, and it was absolute — he counted on them to do their jobs without interference from him.
Hitchcock kept control of more than just the technical aspects of the film set. Eva Marie Saint described an incident on the North by Northwest (1959) set that demonstrated his awareness of every detail. Extras for a scene had shown up wearing shift dresses without a waistline or a belt. “He sent them all home,” she said. “Why? Because that particular fashion was an ‘in’ fashion and it would date the film . . . He was very meticulous and had definite ideas about what you wore. A wardrobe was made for me and he didn’t like it, so he took me to New York and we shopped at Bergdorf Goodman’s.”
Many of his actors reported that working on a Hitchcock set was one of the most pleasant experiences of their professional lives — that he was warm, funny, and generous — but not everyone found him so. Tippi Hedren and Joan Fontaine felt that Hitchcock manipulated them or played mind games while they were on the set. This may have been a trick that directors sometimes use to prime actors emotionally for a particular performance. Whatever the reason, critics sometimes label Hitchcock a misogynist because of this treatment of some of his actresses and the violence directed against women in his films.
The Hitchcock Image
Although Hitchcock was an intensely private man, he cultivated a public image that served him well as a director. In his publicity appearances, movie cameos, and hosting duties on his television show, he consistently appeared as a witty, slightly aloof gentleman who looked on the proceedings with an impish, yet benign twinkle in his eye.
Post-Production and Promotion
We have learned that Alfred Hitchcock quietly controlled the processes of film planning and production. Now we’ll see how he took an equally controlling — if less quiet — role in finishing and marketing his movies.
When Hitchcock first came to America, he was under contract to David O. Selznick, the Hollywood producer famous for making Gone with the Wind (1939) and for sending lengthy memos to those working for him. Selznick was accustomed to exerting a firm hand in the editing process, but he discovered that — instead of the common directorial practice of ordering shots filmed from several angles and then choosing one during editing — Hitchcock tended to “edit” in the camera. He filmed only the shots he envisioned during the planning stages of the movie. Today directors strive to attain “final cut,” the ability to decide the final state of a movie before its release; Hitchcock’s methods gave him a built-in degree of discretion over the completion of the film.
No one was savvier than Hitchcock about crafting an image and promoting his films. In today’s vernacular, he “branded” himself skillfully so that filmgoers would treat his films as a valuable commodity no matter who starred in them or what the subject might be. To this effect, he licensed his name and image for a mystery magazine and a series of horror/suspense books, hosted the self-named television program, and came to recognize the value of his omnipresent film cameos.
But he did more than this.
Long before directors stepped into the spotlight on their own, he wrote articles about his craft, gave interviews, and pushed the media to recognize him as a unique talent. Even if the media tended to underestimate him by calling him simply a masterful creator of popular films, he still reached a wide audience through them.
Thanks to his inventive self-promotion, the name Alfred Hitchcock summons up a set of associations even today: suspense, horror, excitement, and a droll sense of humor.
Going For Gimmicks
Hitchcock was actively involved in promoting each individual film. He often appeared in movie trailers urging filmgoers to see his new picture, and sometimes he even masterminded their publicity campaigns.
For Psycho, Hitchcock not only appeared in a gruesomely funny preview in which he served as a sort of tour guide to the Bates Motel, but he was also behind the publicity campaign that insisted no one be admitted to the film after the movie had begun. This gimmick built a mystique around the film — similar to the buzz around a later film with a plot twist that audiences were urged to keep secret, The Crying Game (1992) — and added to the suspense audiences already felt about attending the film.
For a complete analysis of Psycho, see Chapter 33 in Spoto’s The Art of Alfred Hitchcock.
With his savvy marketing of his persona, Alfred Hitchcock secured a place in the public imagination as a one-of-a-kind filmmaker. He could not make his films single-handedly, of course, and in Lesson 4, we’ll learn about the great writers, actors, and other film artists who helped Hitchcock realize his distinctive vision.
Assignment: Alfred Hitchcock at Work
Read Chapters 20 and 34 in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock. These chapters cover two of Hitchcock’s most technically demanding films, Rope and The Birds.
According to Spoto, what were the technical challenges for Hitchcock with each film?
If you haven’t made it to the Message Board yet, now is the time — it’s a great way to get to know fellow movie fans and Hitchcock lovers. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself and rave on about your specific film interests.
Here are some questions based on the lessons so far that would be good for discussion:
- If Hitchcock hadn’t been in the right place (England) at the right time (early 1900s), how would movies be different today?
- What Hitchcock film originally ignited your enthusiasm for the director and why?
- Which film, from either the past or present, would you have liked to seen given the Hitchcock touch? How do you think it would have been different or better had he directed it?
- Which modern directors — if any — do you think Hitchcock would draw inspiration from, and why?