“Actors Are Cattle”
In this lesson, we will look at the major — and often ignored — influences of Hitchcock’s collaborators on his artistic vision.
A screenplay is a blueprint for the finished film. For some directors, like Billy Wilder, the screenplay is an unshakable document. Others encourage departure from the script by actors, or by themselves. Still others take the screenplay as a starting point, recognizing that fine-tuning may be needed on the set. On North by Northwest, Lehman tinkered with lines of dialogue, although the structure of the film remained intact.
Alfred Hitchcock relied on many people to bring his vision to the screen, but two factors have hindered a full awareness of their contributions. First, auteur (or “author”) film criticism typically ascribes the creation of a film to one person, the director; even when the director is indeed the driving force behind his movies (as Hitchcock was), the theory tends to ignore the work of other vital artists.
Another factor is that Hitchcock himself was not always generous about the contributions of his collaborators. In his interviews, Hitchcock’s first task was to feed the public’s image of himself as the genius behind his work. In this lesson, we’ll consider film as a collaborative medium and learn about some of the gifts that Hitchcock’s co-workers brought to the finished films.
Writing for Hitchcock
As we discovered in Lesson 3, Alfred Hitchcock and his writers met incessantly before the screenplay was actually written so that they could trade stories and Hollywood anecdotes and — incidentally — throw out images and story ideas for the upcoming film. Hitchcock would often make outlandish suggestions, trusting that the screenwriter would either file them away for possible inclusion somewhere or gingerly note the problems with the idea.
Some of Hitchcock’s ideas for North by Northwest (1959) might have been brilliant if the story could have accommodated them. One of his favorites was the notion of continuing the north-by-northwest chase up into Alaska across the ice floes, until finally a hand emerges up through the ice in a classic “Boo!” shot. It was never used, of course, since screenwriter Ernest Lehman set the film’s climax atop Mount Rushmore.
Another of Hitchcock’s outlandish conceits was used in the film, albeit in a different form. Hitchcock’s idea of an unexpected attack from above became the crop-duster scene, now recognized as one of the fundamental moments in Hitchcock’s film career. Typically, Hitchcock’s idea was both more visual and lacking in narrative logic. He wanted a tornado to descend from out of nowhere and attack Cary Grant in a cornfield. “Hitch,” Lehman asked kindly, “how are the heavies going to control a tornado?” And so the crop-duster scene was born.
For a more complete analysis of North by Northwest, see Chapter 32 of the course text, Donald Spoto’s The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures.
Hitchcock worked with many talented writers whose contributions should be recognized.
Charles Bennett wrote a number of Hitchcock’s best British films, including The 39 Steps (1935) and Sabotage (1936). Ben Hecht scripted Spellbound (1944) and Notorious (1946). John Michael Hayes wrote a string of Hitchcock’s most delightful films in the 1950s, beginning with Rear Window (1954). In addition to North by Northwest, Lehman wrote Hitchcock’s charming final film Family Plot (1976). Hitchcock’s assistant Joan Harrison often wrote for his films, and as we’ve learned, Hitchcock’s wife Alma had a role in making his scripts both full of Hitchcock’s signature moments and more logical.
Now let us turn to the people who brought the finished screenplay to life, the actors.
Since Hitchcock preferred working with people who knew what he expected, many actors appeared in his films over and over. Repeat performers included Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, and Vera Miles. Edmund Gwenn appeared in four films, from the 1930 British film Murder to The Trouble with Harry in 1955. Leo G. Carroll, who played The Professor in North by Northwest, made five Hitchcock films.
Of all Hitchcock’s collaborators, he publicly treated none with less respect than his actors. “Actors are cattle,” he was often quoted as saying, and then, in the stunned silence that inevitably followed, he would add helpfully, “What I mean is that they should be treated as cattle.”
In one sense, considering Hitchcock’s approach to making films, actors were cattle, simply shapes to hit their marks so that his camera could do its work. Of course, actors brought much more to Hitchcock’s films than that, and in fact some of his actors turned in remarkable performances under his guidance, while others embellished or played against their star personae to great effect.
Many of the greatest Hollywood stars appeared in Hitchcock’s films: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Henry Fonda, Grace Kelly, Jimmy Stewart, Montgomery Clift, Marlene Dietrich, Paul Newman, and Sean Connery, to name a notable few. Hitchcock virtually created Grace Kelly as a major film star, while in films like Rear Window and Vertigo (1958), Jimmy Stewart played against his all-American image to create some of the most powerful performances of his career.
Hitchcock’s ideal actor was someone who could hit the marks, deliver the lines, and do the job without much feedback from him. Actors were hired because he believed they could play the role. Sometimes this reticence worried actors used to receiving positive as well as negative reinforcement from their directors, but almost all of his actors came to realize that this lack of feedback was actually a supreme expression of confidence.
Hitchcock was not above giving direction when it was needed. Eva Marie Saint came to North by Northwest from working with Elia Kazan in On the Waterfront (1954) and was used to Kazan whispering ideas for emotional scenes into her ear before she performed a take. As she reported, her instructions from Hitchcock for the entire film took 10 seconds: “One, lower your voice. Two, don’t use your hands. And three, look directly into Cary Grant’s eyes at all times.” For a new actress like Tippi Hedren in The Birds (1963), he spent considerable time explaining her character motivation and how he wanted a scene played.
But mostly Hitchcock placed the camera in the best position to tell the story, edited the film expertly to capture action and reaction, and made his actors look as talented as they were capable of being. He seems to have recognized actors’ strengths. His films with Ingrid Bergman often frame her in close-ups to take supreme advantage of her beauty and her ability to radiate emotion, while his films with Cary Grant often offer full-figure shots of Grant, one of the most graceful actors ever to grace a screen.
Typically, Hitchcock’s actors didn’t believe he felt they were cattle — they thought by saying so, he was “just being Hitch.” In an interview, Janet Leigh said, “I always felt that, contrary to what a lot of people say, he did have respect for actors because he was saying to me, ‘I’m sure you can do it, old girl, you know.’ And he made me rise to where I could.”
The Sound of Murder
Music always played an important role in Hitchcock’s films. In The Lady Vanishes (1938), he used a folk-music theme as the MacGuffin in the story, while in the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), the audience — and the main characters — knew that when the orchestra’s cymbals crashed, an assassination would occur. Go the Message Board and discuss your favorite music moments in Hitchcock thrillers, as well as your opinions and examples of other directors who use music effectively.
We’ve learned about the roles played by writers and actors in Hitchcock’s films. Now we’ll meet some of the other collaborators who made indelible contributions to his work.
Hitchcock’s first years in America under contract to the producer David O. Selznick were among the most important of his career, and not just because he was given access to Hollywood stars and technology after his years in the British film industry.
Like the writers Hitchcock worked with, Selznick was a consummate professional at storytelling. Because of his nominal authority over Hitchcock, during their work together, he was able to coax Hitchcock to an understanding of Hollywood film narrative that the director otherwise might have taken years to absorb. In some ways, their first film, Rebecca (1940), is more Selznick’s film than Hitchcock’s; a high-gloss literary adaptation, it adheres more faithfully to its source novel than any other Hitchcock film.
As with his other influences, Hitchcock was able to synthesize Selznick’s teaching. His Hollywood films have a narrative logic and storytelling completeness seen only in fits and starts in his British work.
With composers, as with other film professionals, Hitchcock was fortunate in his collaborations. He worked with many of Hollywood’s best-known composers, among them John Williams, Franz Waxman, and Miklos Rozsa.
Although he suggested places in his films where he wanted music, Hitchcock threw up his hands at controlling his composers. He told interviewer Digby Diehl that he liked to exert his control over every aspect of the soundtrack that he could dictate, but for the score, “You’re really helpless in the hands of the musician.” And recognizing that, he let them do their work.
Bernard Herrmann was the composer perhaps best known for his work with Hitchcock, beginning with the 1955 film The Trouble with Harry and continuing through Marnie (1964). Hermann’s swirling romantic score for Vertigo is deservedly one of the most famous of American soundtracks, and his Psycho (1960) score is legendary.
Originally, Hitchcock instructed Herrmann that Psycho’s classic shower scene should play silently, but Herrmann had a better idea. He orchestrated piercing strings to duplicate the attack, building in intensity and at last slowing as Marion Crane’s life ebbs away. Today it is as impossible for us to imagine the shower scene in Psycho without Hermann’s score as it is to conceive of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) without John Williams’ throbbing music.
Fellow Visual Artists
For 15 years, cinematographer Robert Burks shot almost all of Hitchcock’s films, from Strangers on a Train (1951) through Marnie, and he won an Academy Award for his work on the beautifully filmed To Catch a Thief (1955). Burks knew exactly what Hitchcock wanted and appreciated his technical skill, but his own skill was considerable. The films he shot run the gamut from the intimate black-and-white The Wrong Man (1956) to the expansive wide-screen thriller North by Northwest, but in every case, Burks beautifully lit and photographed Hitchcock’s images.
Perhaps the most unusual collaboration in Hitchcock’s long history was on the film Spellbound (1945), a movie about psychoanalysis and the human unconscious. For the dream sequence in the film, Hitchcock and producer Selznick brought in the noted surreal artist Salvador Dalí, who created a multitude of designs illustrating the unconscious fears and desires of the character played by Gregory Peck.
Donald Spoto in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock notes that much more material was actually filmed for the sequence than was used in the finished movie; most likely it was cut because it disturbed the narrative flow of the film. Still the Dalí dream sequence remains one of the most striking instances of Hitchcock’s collaboration with another celebrated visual artist. For a more thorough analysis of Spellbound, see Chapter 17 in the course text.
As we’ve seen in this lesson, many artists contributed to the creation of an “Alfred Hitchcock film.” Next time, we’ll begin to look at the films themselves and Hitchcock’s favorite themes, which resurfaced time and again in his work.
Assignment: Working with Hitchcock
Read Chapters 10, 17, and 39 in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock.
In these chapters on Rebecca, Spellbound, and Family Plot, Spoto notes the contributions of Alfred Hitchcock’s writers, actors, and other collaborators and offers fascinating interviews with some of the cast and crew of Family Plot.
Did they surprise you? Would you have gotten along and worked with him? Why or why not?