by Freda Bruce Lockhart
AFTER Charlie Chaplin, I suppose, Alfred Hitchcock is the greatest living British film figure on the international scene. Them was no mistaking the warmth of welcome home given to his latest movie, "Frenzy."
When 1 went to see him at Claridge s, or when he came as guest of honour to lunch with the Critics' Circle at a humbler Soho restaurant, there was no mistaking either the warmth and pleasure of homecoming to his first London set picture for 20 years.
In those 20 years (since "Stage Fright") Hitchcock's status has steadily grown. At the same time there is about both his work and his person ality an unchanging constancy which is very reassuring in these revolving times.
When I found him sitting almost primly on a little hotel armchair, I instantly recognised the same man I remembered at breakfast in his flat in the Cromwell Road before the war, or on the set of "Under Capricorn" over 20 years ago, when his technical innovation of the "ten-minute take" was the current novelty.
Then. as now, "Hitch" has always been undeviatingly himself : the same paradoxical mixture of eccentricity, mischief. taste and unbudgeable, rocklike. security, he returns, like one of those rocking figures weighted with lead (whose shape is not unlike his own), he always rocks back to base and steadiness.
Erik Rohmer, the brilliant French director of "Ma Nuit Chez Maude" heads his article on Hitchcock in the "Cahiers du Cinema" with a tag from Plato: "Himself, by himself, with himself, homogeneous, eternal." It is an apt enough account of Hitchcock, the great master of suspense, whose early thrillers—from Peter Lorre in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" to "The Lady Vanishes"
used to send shudders along our spines long before the permissive age.
They still do, holding their own with any of the outrages we see today, and still come out the other side—more often than not with a laugh. But Hitchcock insists that he only curdles our blood for the sake of the story, that his so-called "sadism" is always a dramatic method, never empty sensationalism.
He cited examples from "Frenzy," relishing his own cleverness with a combination of mischievous glee and infallible taste.
"Nudism is something I'd had nothing to do with," he said with a look of mockinnocence. "But we had to have some. So when the first girl's naked corpse is driven, away in the potato truck from Covent Garden, I had the prop man make a bikini of potatoes on a wire frame, so that however much the murderer had to scrabble among the potatoes to retrieve his tiepin, he wouldn't expose anything unseemly. -Then you remember when Jon Finch and Anna Massey go to bed together, I show them lying relaxed and quite far apart on opposite sides of the bed. I can't stand those allin wrestling bed scenes, they're so tedious." In fact by Hitch's methods no excitement is lost and much sense of security gained.
Hitchcock has always been the soundest of directors, a guaranteed reliable purveyor of popular thrills and laughs in perfect safety. But over the years he has become the idol, the darling of the highbrows, especially of the "new wave" French directors. Chabrol, Rohmer, Truffaut and the American Bogdanovich have all written books and articles about him. Bogdanovich and Truffaut have also made films acknowledging his inspiration,
I asked him what he thought of these most serious admirers among the cinema leadership. "Well, of course it's very gratifying," he purred.
But he admits that his more ardent admirers often credit him with solemnity beyond his intention; and he agreed that an important element in any artist's work must be unconscious—even in such meticulously premeditated work as
Hitchcock's, who knows exactly how long every shot will last and what it will look like before he shoots it.
"I'm not much interested in the content of a film," he said. "I'm principally interested in style — and in avoiding cliches. Who was it said that self-plagiarism is style?" (I've been unable to trace who may have made the bon mot before Hitchcock, but it's certainly apt.)
So he chooses a story rather for the scope it offers him than for the "message." Above all, he insists, his approach is visual. A movie is seen in visual terms.
So, describing his invariable method, he said : "First I work the whole thing out with the writer as a silent film. After that he can start putting on the dialogue when the structure of the movie is set---and then ail the other trimmings.
"Rut a movie is made of images in juxtaposition, which is why montage is the most important thing," He pointed out how the structure of "Frenzy" is basically and originally that of a silent film.
Hitchcock also uses sound in a non-literary, pictorial way as an element in his dramatic style. He was clearly pleased with the second murder in "Frenzy," the second time the murderer finds a victim who is "his type of woman," "You can't do the same thing twice over," Hitchcock said impatiently. "less° boring. I had the camera follow upstairs until we hear him say again 'You're my type of woman.' Then the camera comes all the way down again out into the street. I have the volume of the street noises and the traffic come right up until the audience unconsciously realise they won't even hear the scream when it comes."
The Hitchcock attitude to actors is, I think, fairly well known. On the whole it is aloof. So he sometimes seems to regard them as props valuable props of course, but they must be subordinate.
He is emphatic that one of the things he valued most about coming home to make "Frenzy" was the privilege of having all those marvellous actors like Alec McCowen, Barry Foster, Anna Massey and Vivien Merchant playing what are really quite small
parts. "You could never get actors of the same calibre in America to do that, and it's invaluable."
Hitchcock's special line in bland blondes, from Madeleine Carroll to Grace Kelly, is famous. "I call them my Cool Blondes," he said. "I've never fallen for women who wear their sex round their necks like jewellery."
On his way home he had spent a night at the Royal Palace in Monaco and found Princess Grace quite unchanged by marriage and royalty. "Just as amenable as ever," he said, choosing the word so carefully I felt he must count it a prime virtue in an actress.
On the other hand, the only director about whom he enthused more than once was the Spaniard, B unue I. Hitchcock had greatly admired Bunuel's superb latest picture, "Tristana," in which he was unusually intrigued and impressed by the beautiful Catherine Deneuve's splendid performance.
Unusually enthusiastic, I thought, until it dawned on me that perhaps Deneuvc was the most perfect bland blonde of them all, plus considerable depth and subtlety in her acting. When Hitchcock said he had talked to her on the telephone I sensed the challenge to find a story for her.
in our national pride in
Hitchcock as a Londoner. we may sometimes forget he is a Catholic. He is so clearly what I have heard Antonia White welcome as "not one of the Catholic Brigade." He doesn't flaunt or parade his Catholicism, but talking to him I felt it was very basic. born and bred, even were there no sign of it in his work.
Some of his great French admirers consider him a great Catholic director as well as the magician of melodrama.
"Others say my films are all due to my Jesuit training," he said with some irony, but added almost simply : "I don't think so really."
Hitch went to school at St. Ignatius College, Stamford Hill. His cousin was a priest, Fr. John Hitchcock of Harrow. Yet he has made only one explicitly Catholic film, "I Confess," with Montgomery Clift.
"It wasn't," Hitch admitted, "much of a success. I think that was because so many nonCatholics couldn't believe that a priest really would give up everything. even his life, not to break the secrecy of Confession. "Absurd of course, because it happens all the time. They y just don't know. Ignorance."
When Hitchcock said ."iamorance" he was not scorning the audience. For him to say "I can't believe it" is the ultimate criticism.
After "Topaz" and "Torn Curtain" I had wondered if he might be turning to political films. "No. I don't think so," he said. "Topaz was a commitment—all those Cubans and Frenchmen talking English! couldn't believe it."
He doesn't think his films express any deliberate philosophy—"except the general victory of good over evil. I think in most of my films good triumphs over evil. That surely is what most people want."
So here he is, a paradox : a Catholic director of violent and sinister thrillers, eccentric and consistent, combining rigid moral and aesthetic taste with daring, caprice, quirky humour and classical balance. All this paradox is very Catholic in the sense Chesterton used to say the Church is truly Continental because it contains everything.
Now, at 72. Hitch appears to have mastered the secret of really graceful ageing to become mellow and mature without losing any of the qualities of his youth. The Continental, comprehensive nature of his sanity and balance seemed to be summed up in a little series of stories round the word "Alma."
He was telling me of a thriv
ing Catholic College in California called Alma College. He had been mischievously amused to find a local "house" had been known as "Alma's Place" so supposed Alma was the gay lady of the locality.
Finally, coming back to his own domestic happiness, he told me the story of the birthday brooch he ordered for his wife, Alma—formerly Alma Reville, to whom h.e has been married for many years.
She had been called Alma after the Battle of Alma where her father had fought. So Hitch went to Spink's in search of a memorial badge of "Alma" to have set as a brooch. His only shock was that such a venerable object cost him only f7. ourites, the trusty Beggar's Opera and Shaw's Doctor's Dilemma. Both are produced with panache; too much panache at times—in the Beggar's Opera gallons of water are thrown over the stage and characters keep appearing from the audience, when neither of these gimmicks really help the play. But John Neville is always an actor worth watching. His Macheath was controlled and dignified, if a little limp, but as the monstrous old doctor in the Doctor's Dilemma he's precisely right.
Sheridan's always a favourite. Jonathan Miller's production of The School for Scandal at the Old Vic is deliberately cloddish and sordid. Lady Teazle is very obviously a country bumpkin; the sets are tatty and give an impression of grubby dissipation. The play is wright John Antrobus, used to write scripts for the Goons and he hasn't lost his touch. The play is set in a German prison camp in Crete early in the Second World War. Sergeant Pepper is haunted by guilt because he shot his Major on the beaches of Greece; the Major would not let his men abandon a safe containing the regimental papers, and the Navy wouldn't take them with the safe.
Then the Major reappears. How much does he know? And who is the sex-murderer in the camp? A very, very funny play, crisply produced. liberally spiced with wartime songs.