The Pequod Review:
Francois Truffaut's book Hitchcock/Truffaut goes deep into the craft of filmmaking with a remarkable series of interviews conducted in 1962 between the French director (who had just begun to establish his film career) and Alfred Hitchcock (already a legend, but respected more commercially than critically). The interviews took place over about a week on a Hollywood studio set, and cover Hitchcock's films mostly in succession. Their conversation is dense and substantive throughout, full of such specific insights that you can see how so many modern filmmakers have cited the book's influence. Here Hitch describes the technical considerations of Psycho's famous shower scene:
F.T.: The stabbing of Janet Leigh was very well done also.
A.H.: It took us seven days to shoot that scene, and there were seventy camera setups for forty-five seconds of footage. We had a torso specially made up for that scene, with the blood that was supposed to spurt away from the knife, but I didn't use it. I used a live girl instead, a naked model who stood in for Janet Leigh. We only showed Miss Leigh's hands, shoulders, and head. All the rest was the stand-in. Naturally, the knife never touched the body; it was all done in the montage. I shot some of it in slow motion so as to cover the breasts. The slow shots were not accelerated later on because they were inserted in the montage so as to give an impression of normal speed.
F.T.: It's an exceptionally violent scene.
A.H.: This is the most violent scene of the picture. As the film unfolds, there is less violence because the harrowing memory of this initial killing carries over to the suspenseful passages that come later.
F.T.: Yet, even better than the killing, in the sense of its harmony, is the scene in which Perkins handles the mop and broom to clean away any traces of the crime. The whole construction of the picture suggests a sort of scale of the ab-normal. First there is a scene of adultery, then a theft, then one crime followed by another, and, finally, psychopathy. Each passage puts us on a higher note of the scale. Isn't that so?
A.H.: I suppose so, but you know that to me Janet Leigh is playing the role of a perfectly ordinary bourgeoise.
F.T.: But she does lead us in the direction of the abnormal, toward Perkins and his stuffed birds.
A.H.: I was quite intrigued with them: they were like symbols. Obviously Perkins is interested in taxidermy since he'd filled his own mother with sawdust. But the owl, for instance, has another connotation. Owls belong to the night world; they are watchers, and this appeals to Perkins' masochism. He knows the birds and he knows that they're watching him all the time. He can see his own guilt reflected in their knowing eyes.
F.T.: Would you say that Psycho is an experimental film?
A.H.: Possibly. My main satisfaction is that the film had an effect on the audiences, and I consider that very important. I don't care about the subject matter; I don't care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the sound track and all of the technical ingredients that made the audience scream. I feel it's tremendouslv satisfving for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion. And with Psycho we most definitely achieved this. It wasn't a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film.
F.T.: Yes, that's true.
A.H.: That's why I take pride in the fact that Psycho, more than any of my other pictures, is a film that belongs to film-makers, to you and me. I can't get a real appreciation of the picture in the terms we're using now. People will say, "It was a terrible film to make. The subject was horrible, the people were small, there were no characters in it." I know all of this, but I also know that the construction of the story and the way in which it was told caused audiences all over the world to react and become emotional.
Hitchcock also details his filmmaking techniques in Rear Window:
F.T.: [T]he exposition of the film is truly remarkable. You open up with the perspiring face of James Stewart; you move on to his leg in a cast, and then, on a nearby table, there is the broken camera, a stack of magazines, and, on the wall, there are pictures of racing cars as they topple over on the track. Through that single opening camera movement we have learned where we are, who the principal character is, all about his work, and even how it caused his accident.
A.H.: That's simply using cinematic means to relate a story. It's a great deal more interesting than if we had someone asking Stewart, "How did you happen to break your leg?" and Stewart answering, "As I was taking a picture of a motorcar race, a wheel fell off one of the speeding cars and smashed into me." That would be the average scene. To me, one of the cardinal sins for a script-writer, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say, "We can cover that by a line of dialogue." Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.
F.T.: Something else I've noticed is the way you dispense with the build-up to a love scene. Here, James Stewart is alone at home, and all of a sudden the face of Grace Kelly comes into the frame and they are kissing each other. Why do you do it that way?
A.H.: Because I want to get right to the important point without wasting any time. Here it's the surprise kiss. In another case there might be a suspense kiss, and that would be completely different.
F.T.: Both in Rear Window and To Catch a Thief the kiss is a process shot. Not the kiss itself, but the approach to the faces is jerky, as if vou had double-printed that frame in the cutting room.
A.H.: Not at all. These are puslations that I get by shaking the camera by hand or dollying backward and forward, or sometimes by doing both. One scene I meant to shoot for The Birds, but didn't, was a love scene in which the two heads would have started apart, to gradually come together. I was going to try to get a very quick pan from one face to the other by whipping the camera. I would have whipped from one head to the other, and as the two faces got closer to each other, the whipping would decrease until it became a slight vibration. I must try it sometime!
F.T.: To my mind, Rear Window is probably your very best screenplay in all respects: the construction, the unity of inspiration, the wealth of details.
AH.: I was feeling very creative at the time, the batteries were well charged. John Michael Hayes is a radio writer and he wrote the dialogue. The killing presented something of a problem, so I used two news stories from the British press. One was the Patrick Mahon case and the other was the case of Dr. Crippen. I the Mahon case the man killed a girl in a bungalow on the seafront of southern England. He cut up the body and threw it, piece by piece, out of a train window. But he didn't know what to do with the head, and that's where I got the idea of having them look for the victim's head in Rear Window. What Patrick Mahon did was to put the head in the fireplace and light the fire. Then something happened that may sound phony but is absolutely true. Like in a stage play, just as he put the head in the fire, a thunderstorm came on, with lightening and thunder. Somehow, the heat of the fire made the eyes open wide, as if they were staring at Mahon. He ran out to the beach screaming, with the storm pouring down on him, and didn't get back until several hours later. By that time the fire had burned the head.
Several years later one of the four chief inspectors of Scotland Yard came to see me. He had handled the investigation after Mahon's arrest, and he told me they'd had a problem in getting hold of that head; they only found traces of it, but not the head itself. He knew the head had been burned, but he needed to have some indication of the time at which it was put in the fire and how long it had taken to burn. So he went down to the butcher shop, bought a sheep's head and burned it in the same fireplace.
In all cases involving mutilation, you see, the biggest problem for the police is to locate the head.
Now, Dr. Crippen lived in London. He murdered his wife and cut her up. When people noticed his wife had disappeared, he gave the customary explanation: "She's gone to California." But Crippen made a crucial blunder that turned out to be his undoing. He allowed his secretary to wear some of his wife's jewelry, and this started the neighbors talking. Scotland Yard was brought in, and Inspector Dew went down to question Dr. Crippen, who gave a fairly plausible account of his wife's absence, insisting that she had gone to live in California. Inspector Dew had more or less given up, but when he went back for some formality, Dr. Crippen ran away with the secretary. Naturally, there was a big hue and cry, and a description of the missing couple was sent out to all ships at sea. This was when they were just beginning to use radios on ships.
Now, if I may, I'll jump aboard the steamship Montrose, going from Antwerp to Montreal, to give you the ship captain's version of the sequel to this story.
The captain had noticed among his passengers a Mr. Robinson and his young son; he had also noticed that the father was particularly affectionate toward the boy. So, being a snooping man -- he might have been in Rear Window -- he noticed that Master Robinson's hat, bought in Antwerp, was full of paper to make it fit. He so noticed that the boy's pants were held together at the waist by a safety pin. According to the description he had received, Dr. Crippen wore a false top and bottom plate of teeth and there was a mark on his nose where he wore gold-rimmed glasses. The captain verified that Mr. Robinson had just such a mark. One evening the captain invited Mr. Robinson to his table and told him a joke so that he would laugh out loud, and he found that the man really had
At this point the captain wired a message stating that he believed the wanted couple was on his ship. While that message was being transmitted, Dr. Crippen happened to walk by the radio cabin, and on hearing the spluttering of the keys, he said to the captain, "The wireless is a wonderful invention, isn't it?"
Anyway, upon receiving the message, Inspector Dew got on a fast ship of the Canadian Pacific Line, and he reached the St. Lawrence River at a place called Father Point. He boarded the Montrose and walked up to Mr. Robinson, saying, "Good morning, Dr. Crippen." He brought them back. Crippen was hanged and the girl got
F.T.: So that's what gave you the idea for the jewelry scene with Grace Kelly?
A.H.: Yes, the scene with the wedding ring. If the wife had really gone on a trip, she'd have taken her wedding ring with her.
F.T.: One of the things I enjoyed in the film was the dual significance of that wedding ring. Grace Kelly wants to get married but James Stewart doesn't see it that way. She breaks into the killer's apartment to search for evidence and she finds the wedding ring. She puts it on her finger and waves her hand behind her back so that James Stewart, looking over from the other side of the yard with his spyglasses, can see it. To Grace Kelly, that ring is a double victory: not only is it the evidence she was looking for, but who knows, it may inspire Stewart to propose to her. After all, she's already got the ring!
A.H.: Exactly. That was an ironic touch.
This is great stuff. Highly recommended.