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Hitchcock at 100:
The Final Days

by Gregory Avery

The other picture Hitchcock wanted to make -- and should have been able to, with what he had given the film world up to that time, artistically and financially -- was Mary Rose, based on a beautiful James M. Barrie play about a young bride who, during the early part of the century, is swept away by mysterious forces while visiting a Scottish island with her new husband. Years pass, and the now-elderly man is revisited by his still-young, almost childlike wife.

Hitchcock had seen the play's original performance in London, and several revivals. He even figured out an ingenious way to light the actress playing the revived Mary Rose so that she would cast no shadow before the cameras. But resentment on this apparently went deep: Hitchcock told people that MCA has specifically written into his contract that he could not make the film. Was MCA that scared of him, or did they simply want him to continue to turn out the same old thing, movie after movie?

"That's my tie." Through a trick of editing, Hitchcock steps out from behind a tree and appears to pull a necktie from the frozen grasp of a murder victim. He puts it on, knots it, and turns to the audience: it is navy blue, with white polka-dots. "How do you like my tie?"

Frenzy was the first film Hitchcock made in London in two decades, and it starts out magnificently, with the camera swooping down and over the Thames and through the Tower Bridge. Hitchcock made the footage for the preview trailer after finishing the film, and time, worry, and age had taken their effects on him: in the preview, he looks frankly terrible. The picture would take Hitchcock into the new age of "openness" on the screen, and it would allow him to take some of his concerns and preoccupations from his very earliest films on to their furthest expectations. He was fortunate in obtaining as his screenwriter for this film someone who was both talented and shared as black a sense of humor as the director did: Anthony Shaffer, fresh from the success of his stage play, "Sleuth."

FrenzyOnce again, we are back on the embankment of the Thames, where a crowd is listening to a politician promising to clean up the river, rid it of "industrial effluent," returning it to its natural state. And, once again, the body of a young woman is found, afloat in the water: a nude girl, strangled with a necktie around her neck, another victim of the "necktie murderer" at-large in the city. "That's not my club tie?' asks the politician, who is quickly spirited away to a local pub, where, in more casual surroundings, he ends up admitting that the murders aren't all that bad, especially for the tourist trade, which expects, when they visit London, to find a place with streets that are "fog-weaved, full of Hansom cabs and littered with ripped whores." Sitting behind him, not far away, unawares, is the story's protagonist, Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), who has just lost his job and his place to live all in the same morning.

With scraggly hair and mustache, his face seemingly fixed in a constant scowl, Jon Finch plays the perpetually ill-fated Blaney much better than he has probably been given proper credit for. His character is also probably the foulest-tempered protagonist ever to grace any film, let alone one of Hitchcock's. And it is a deliberate move. This is a film about a man who is disappointed with his life and what he sees going on around him, and becomes even more so, to the point that when he is caught and charged with the "necktie murders," he figures, fine, he has nothing else to lose, he might as well go ahead and do what everyone has already said he is supposed to have done.

And Frenzy is also very much an old man's film, one about the pliancy and lure of flesh and the disappointments of the body. The murderer rends the clothes from his female victims, but he is impotent; he can only experience the satisfaction he seeks sexually in the moment when he strangles his victims to death. In keeping with his stated theory that the audience must see the killer in action to understand the horribleness of his crimes, Hitchcock stages the murder of Blaney's ex-wife -- played, in her first screen role, by Barbara Leigh-Hunt -- with exacting detail, right down to the moment when the murderer sees the life depart from her eyes.

For scenes involving nudity, Hitchcock had to resort to using body doubles, including one scene where Blaney's girlfriend, Babs (Anna Massey, who had also appeared in Peeping Tom), rises from their bed, puts on a pair of woolen socks, and walks across the bare floor to the bathroom. The only reason the scene seems to exist in the film is so that we can see a live nude woman, although the bit with the socks is a perversely unique Hitchcock touch.

Frenzy was a remarkable critical and box-office success. It is also a rancorous, uncomfortable film, and a picture that not many people talk about, not as much as other Hitchcock films. Hitchcock and Shaffer relocated the action in Arthur La Bern's novel "Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square," on which the film is based, to the great open-air produce market at Covent Garden, which would shortly be demolished after the film was completed. There are also ongoing scenes where the police inspector (Alec McCowen) assigned to the case is plied with "gourmet" cooking by his wife (Vivian Merchant), who is seemingly oblivious to the inedible qualities of everything she's making. It is a film where a director who we have come to know and respect expresses himself in ways that, perhaps, we don't want to know about. Moreso than Vertigo, Frenzy is a strident "cri de coeur."

During the filming in London (and before shooting the murder scenes), Alma Hitchcock suffered a stoke and had to be flown back to the U.S. Hitchcock did a phenomenal promotional tour for Frenzy, filming an entire show for Merv Griffith on which he was the only guest, and throwing himself into a whirl of activities and events. Along the way, he also received an honorary degree from Columbia University, was honored by the Film Society at Lincoln Center, and received some of the highest awards the French Government could bestow upon a civilian. (Conversely, he received the Irving Thalberg Award from A.M.P.A.S. in 1968, after having been nominated five times for the Best Director award. Hitchcock accepted the award with a simple "Thank you," and left the stage.)

Family PlotHitchcock made his next film, Family Plot (the title of which was not decided upon until the last minute) in California, close to home. Hitchcock took a dark novel by Victor Canning, "The Rainbird Pattern," and, with the help of Ernest Lehman, his screenwriter for North by Northwest, turned it into a light comedy-thriller. The picture is of note mostly for the splendid performance in it by Barbara Harris, but I rather like Neil Sinyard's summation of it, that it was "as if he sensed that Family Plot was his swan song. 'The Trouble With Hitchcock', one might have called it, and the expansive, relaxed style is like a slow exhalation. It was a modest, stylish, cheerful way to end: not with a bang, but with a wink at the audience." Actually, Hitchcock was planning on creating a bang.

During the last 3 1/2 years of his life, Hitchcock labored on pre-production of The Short Night, a film of Ronald Kirkbride's novel based on the account of a British spy who broke-out of prison and escaped into the Soviet Union. This was envisioned to be a film where Hitchcock tested his audience's identification with the main character to the limit -- moreso than the surprise in Psycho, even further than with Bill Blaney in Frenzy.

Hidden in an isolated farmhouse (a la 39 Steps), Gavin Brand is momentarily left alone by friends with a young woman named Rosemary, who is fixing tea in the kitchen. Brand, who has been incarcerated in the bleak Wormwood Scrubs prison, presumes upon the pretty young thing for sex. When she refuses, he persists, and, in the ensuing struggle, loses all control and strangles Rosemary to death. This occurs within the first 40 minutes of the picture.

Friends and associates prevailed upon Hitchcock that the audience would reject any main character who would do such a thing, but Hitchcock was adamant. Eventually, David Freeman ended up doing about as good a job as anyone could in writing such a film with a scene like this in it. Maybe it was Hitchcock's rebellion against MCA after Kaleidoscope and Mary Rose. Andrew Sarris recounts that the last time he and his wife met the Hitchcocks, in 1976, Alma asked, "Why won't they let Hitch make Mary Rose?" Well, if M.C.A./Universal wouldn't let him make Mary Rose, this is what he'd give them. It would certainly beat anything Erica Jong or Martin Scorsese were dishing-up! (Or the man many thought would be Hitchcock's successor, Brian De Palma.)

Freeman worked with Hitchcock on finalizing the screenplay for The Short Night, and things were such that it was included on the roster of films for which Hitchcock was honored with the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1979. The event's last speaker was Ingrid Bergman, who told a story of how Cary Grant palmed the key given to him by Bergman in front of the cameras while filming the huge party scene in Notorious, and, at the end of production, gave it back to her. Bergman said she kept it all these years -- and she had it with her, now, at the podium, and was going to go to Hitchcock and, 33 years later, return it to him. This she did, and, with the eyes of a star-packed audience in attendance and the electronic nation upon them, the director and the actress embraced openly and warmly, Hitchcock seeming to cling to her, with both arms, as if for life.

"You never watch your films with an audience. Don't you miss hearing them scream?" "No. I can hear them when I'm making the picture." - Hitchcock responding to an interview question by Peter Bogdanovich, 1963.

The philistinism began shortly afterwards. James Toback, who was himself just embarking upon a directorial career, published a churlish article in the year-end issue of "Rolling Stone" in December, 1980, in which, after some, um, creative interpretations of the work of eleven other directors, claimed that Hitchcock's films fell short of greatness: that they were artificial, over-controlled, lacked an "interior, first-person consciousness," that they were made by a director who wasn't a maverick but catered too much to the audience, placated them, would not challenge them, sought approval over art, changed his films to suit the demand of others (an uninformed interpretation of the Topaz fiasco, probably). And that they weren't sexy enough. (Toback had just made two films, Fingers and Love and Money, which both had, to use a phrase by D.H. Lawrence, plenty of "sex on the head.") At least he wasn't like Spielberg and Lucas, whom Toback despises from the article's start.

This was not the first time that Hitchcock had been assailed. In the May, 1949 issue of "Theatre Arts," Lawrence Kane wrote a lengthy article taking Hitchcock to task because his American films weren't as good as his earlier British work, and that his Hollywood pictures lacked a "personal philosophy" beyond his trademark cameo appearances. True, the British films, seen today, have a friskier, wittier, more spontaneous quality to them, but one has to question if Hitchcock would have had the chance to have directed the range of work he produced in the Forties and Fifties if he had not come to the U.S.

The question of "personal philosophy" could be heard echoing all the way into David Thomson's article in the March, 1979 "Film Comment," published on the eve of his receiving the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award. Thomson, one of the preeminent writers on film today, attempted to articulate the disparity he felt in how the director would always talk about how he'd "do" things in his films, instead of how he "felt" them. "Surely we require the impurity of human intransigence to temper the awful sublimity of unhindered formalism?" Thomson asked in print. "But is the compulsion to talk trade so that contemptibly Philistine?" responded David Lubin, in a rebuttal published in the magazine two months later. Unlike Orson Welles, who could very well explain how Chimes at Midnight depicted the passing of the age of chivalry, Hitchcock instead displayed a very British deference, preferring to put work first, and then let the work speak for itself.

If Hitchcock talked more about how he accomplished certain camera shots or effects, if he referred more to his films' style and form than their emotional meaning, part of that has to do with the man's own preference towards personal reticence. On the other hand, everything you wanted to know about how Hitchcock felt was on the screen, all out in the open. The films reflected the person, and whether you like that person or not was entirely your own affair.

There can be a confusion between "accessibility" and "commercialism." One wants to make films that will be seen; otherwise, the only place they're going to be shown at is in the back of a clothes closet. Hitchcock worked primarily in the same genre, which made him look conservative, and I've no doubt that he to make films that people would see. I've also no doubt that he was a progressive and evolving filmmaker, one who tried to invest his films with an animate intelligence, one who tried to make films in different ways, used different means, and maintained an ongoing way in how he made and said things in films. As has been stated, he would have continued to do so had not the people who controlled the "expensive paintbox," as Welles called it, allowed him to. There is also no sin in being entertaining, especially if you slipped just a little bit of a Mickey, a little bit of subversiveness, into it, just to keep things lively.

From my desktop, Hitchcock gazes from a first-day cover issued by the U.S. Postal Service in 1998. And the discussion continues unabated. Was Hitchcock a genuine sadist? (He claimed to have subscribed to the playwright Victorine Sardou's credo for dramaturgy, "Torture the women! Make them suffer!" North by NorthwestBut many of his films, from Nova Pilbeam in Young and Innocent to Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, contain strong, independent depictions of women. People claim he was difficult to work with, showing that Hitchcock was susceptible to the same foibles and failings as any other human being. Kenneth Anger has even suggested that Hitchcock was a practicing sado-masochist, in his private life, but having gained an understanding of his background and character, I think he would have found that a little undignified, and unseemly.) Could Vertigo have been based on not just the Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac novel "D'Entre les Morts," but also on an earlier novel by Georges Simenon, "Lettre á Mon Juge" (published in English as "Act of Passion"), from 1947? (Possible. Simenon was one of the most widely-read mystery writers of the century, so I'm sure that his influence found its way into a number of places. Oddly, I've run across no record of Hitchcock and Simenon, two giants of the suspense genre, ever meeting. Boileau and Narcejac were supposed to have written "D'Entre les Morts" with Hitchcock in mind; another of their works had been made by Henri-Georges Clouzot into the film Diabolique, which became internationally famous and caused Clouzot to be labeled "the French Hitchcock.") When Lila Crane is surprised by Norman Bates in the cellar near the conclusion of Psycho, can you really hear the words "I am Norma Bates!" on the soundtrack? (YES! I've checked this. Allegedly, Stephen Rebello is kicking himself for not catching this, himself, earlier. And it's in the original Robert Bloch novel, too!)

"Once more, the island is seen as we saw it first, a sweetly solitary place, a promising place. And now again, we hear Cameron's voice. 'The island. Surely we all know at least one such tempting place,... such an island where we may not go. Or if we do dare to visit such an island, we cannot come away again without embarrassment. And it takes more than a bit of searching to find someone who will forgive us that.

"'Well, that is it. Let's go back home now. There of course it's raining, as usual. And there's a naughty boy waiting for punishment and an old villager who had the fatal combination of a weak heart and a bad temper. He's waiting to be buried. All the usual, dependable, un-islandy things. You understand.'" That is some additional material that Hitchcock himself wrote for the ending of Jay Presson Allen's screenplay for Mary Rose, in February, 1964.

Hitchcock is an enigma. Hitchcock is not an enigma. He had a closetful of the same suits, each tailored to accommodate fluctuations in his weight, all so that he would never be inconvenienced and, in a way, never found out, yet he put something of himself into each and every one of his films, for everyone and anyone to see. He was pursued by fears, and became a chronicler of the pursued. He was a creature of habit, who delighted in relating stories about people being dropped into the middle of the most unusual circumstances. His career spans from the early years of the century to the edge of the electronic information age, an innovator and experimenter who also clung tenaciously to the way that he wanted to make films, while wondering at the same time what other filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni were accomplishing in the field of filmmaking. We have lived in a hunted century. It started with the shift from an agrarian to urban-based society, ran through two world wars and several smaller ones, saw several upheavals in politics, society and our way of life, experienced small moments of nobility, large displays of degradation, walked in space, was ravaged by disease, and saw the rise of a media culture that started with the newspaper and telegraph and ended up as a communications network that connects everyone to everything from anywhere and downloads the average citizen silly with images and messages from the moment one rises to the moment one falls asleep. Amid all of this, Hitchcock has retained his cool center, his cool presence. The man who could scare us and send us topsy-turvy in theaters became the figure who was welcomed belovedly into homes every week, sending us greetings from "darkest Hollywood" where such creatures as the "vicious table-hopper" and the "spotted backbiter" could be found.

Hitchcock may have been proud, but not ornately boastful, least not in public: boys such as he were not brought up to make a spectacle of themselves by proclaiming that they were "king of the world." And that is another thing that makes Hitchcock all the more endearing, in retrospect. As David Freeman put it, "The man was put on earth to make movies and he must have known it...." He made us laugh, he made us scream, and he, still, has us coming back for more.(Sources for this article include Donald Spoto's books "The Art of Alfred Hitchcock" (1978) and "The Dark Side of Genius" (1983); David Freeman's "The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock" (1984), which includes the screenplay for "The Short Night;" Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol's "Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films" (1957); Leonard J. Leff's "Hitchcock and Selznick" (1987); Janet Leigh and Christopher Nickens' "'Psycho': Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller" (1995); François Truffaut's revised edition of "Hitchcock" (1983); "Hitchcock's Notebooks," edited by Dan Auiler; and Oriana Fallaci's "The Egotists" (1963); and the MacGuffin website (, the primary Internet source for Hitchcock information. Robert Schoen's novel "Hitch and Alma" is published through Xlibris Corp. A book and CD on Douglas Gordon's "Feature Film" will be published, in the UK, by Cornerhouse Publications.)

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