Love, Hitch

Patrick McGilligan is the author of "Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast" and is working on a new biography of Alfred Hitchcock

Get ready for the 100th birthday of Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, being celebrated on Aug. 13, 1999, by a museum, revival theater, cable network or bookstore near your home.

There are probably more books about Hitchcock than any other motion picture director, yet there is room for many more. No matter how deeply reported or examined, Hitchcock's life and films remain elusive, enigmatic and open to reinterpretation.

"Hitch," as he called himself on his first job, almost 10 years before he entered the film trade, is one of the great provocateurs of the cinema. His best films, from his first important work, "The Lodger," made in the silent era, to "Frenzy," released in 1972, eight years before his death--in all, more than a half century in the business--stand out as bold, captivating, sometimes disturbing entertainment. Partly because of their meticulous craftsmanship, partly because of their unsettling modern terrain (lust, voyeurism, murder, false accusation), they continue to attract young fans and fascinate scholars while tempting remakes by a new Hollywood generation feebly in his debt.

Thanks in part to his own shrewd publicity, Hitchcock's name--and face--have become better known to the general population than any director's in history. At the same time, paradoxically, Hitchcock was a fundamentally private man who successfully guarded the sanctum of his soul--if anything, enhancing his mystique.

"There's a mystery about me," as the undercover police detective played by John Loder says of himself in "Sabotage," Hitchcock's 1936 film. "Come to think about it, there's a mystery about most people."

Dan Auiler, a Los Angeles teacher and writer, has launched a cottage industry on the subject of the mysterious Hitch. His book about the production of "Vertigo," quietly published last year, provides signal service to students and devotees of the 1958 film starring James Stewart and Kim Novak. At the time of "Vertigo's" original release, U.S. reviewers were underwhelmed, the box office was so-so and the film regarded as "neither winner nor loser," in Auiler's words.

Modern critics, the English more than the French, who have long championed Hitchcock's genius, have rescued the film and promoted it as one of several masterpieces in the twilight of the director's career. Auiler agrees: "If Hitchcock, as the critic Robin Wood has argued, is the cinema's Shakespeare, then 'Vertigo' is his Macbeth."

Martin Scorsese contributes a brief but elegant introduction to this handsome volume. Chapters on the writing of the screenplay, filming, post-production and the film's fate beyond its initial reception lay out the whole story, modestly correcting previous Hitchcock books while minimizing the abstruse analysis (Raymond Durgnat dubbed the film "Everyman in Search of His Love-Image") to which "Vertigo" is prone.

Auiler's latest book, "Hitchcock's Notebooks," is bigger, broader in scope and patently more important. It has a title that evokes Da Vinci and a subtitle that lets people know it has the imprimatur of the director's daughter, Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell, who may be remembered for playing Ruth Roman's sister in one of her father's nail-biters, "Strangers on a Train."

"Hitchcock's Notebooks" consists of sketches, storyboard layouts and stills, annotated script material, production notes, correspondence and other memorabilia from the director's voluminous collection on deposit at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. Although the book is more smorgasbord than gourmet feast, there is something on the table for every appetite.

Like Da Vinci, Hitchcock was a sketch artist who filled pages with doodles and drawings. He worked out his camera placement and montage in advance, on paper. He had been trained as a youth, back in World War I days, when he toiled in paste-up and design for an electrical cable supply company in London. The 12 pages of storyboarding for the "Crop-dusting Sequence" of "North by Northwest" will be valuable to Hitchcockians, even if they illustrate one of the pitfalls of the official archives. They were drawn not by Hitchcock, but by production artist Mintor Huebner, at the director's behest, based on Ernest Lehman's screenplay.

"What images are Huebner's? Hitchcock's? Lehman's?" the author muses. "The answer, which makes empiricists uneasy, is all three."

It isn't always clear in the book what was executed by the director or by his staff. One noteworthy exception is Hitchcock's renderings for "The 39 Steps," made in England in 1935, which are all the more precious because the academy collection lacks significant material on the first half of the director's filmography. Its emphasis is on the post-1939 Hitchcock in Hollywood.

Script and production memoranda are the meat of the book, as they are the meat of the archives. Among the particularly arcane are excerpted notes for matte work and sound overlays for "The Birds" and reel-by-reel sound notes for the remake of "The Man Who Knew Too Much," although the latter was supposedly written (probably dictated) by Hitchcock himself. Hitchcock's shot-by-shot instructions for editing the key bird attacks for "The Birds" are in his own handwriting ("A high moving shot showing the crows among the running children"), which is rare and of more interest. They are the first jottings of what on the screen became textbook mise en scene from a master.

Hitchcock's co-authorship of his screenplays often went uncredited. But his wife Alma Reville, who was established in cutting and continuity before Hitchcock started out in film, also was involved with many of the director's scripts. The Hitchcock scripts surely hold clues to the director's enigma, but the close contributions of Mrs. Hitchcock and other collaborators--writers such as Charles Bennett (primarily in England) and John Michael Hayes (in the 1950s)--tend to obscure any definitive analysis.

The biggest chapter of "Hitchcock's Notebooks" is devoted to "Building the Screenplay" and emphasizes script-related matter. Again, the most compelling pieces are in Hitchcock's scrawl (his line edit of the rape scene in "Marnie"), but they are few. The section on "Suspicion" is rather lengthy but hard to follow without knowing the film backward and forward, and the drafts and memos are written not by Hitchcock, but by scenarist Samson Raphaelson and RKO production head George Schaefer. Quaint is the word for the "draft comparisons" of "Rebecca": a formatted chart that, for story analysis purposes, makes a scene-by-scene comparison of the novel, the story outline, the treatment and Daphne du Maurier's three-act play. It is hard to see anyone but that memo-mad producer, David O. Selznick, taking all of it seriously. (Ditto the audience preview questionnaires for "Rebecca." "Question: 'Did any parts seem too long? Which parts?' Respondents: 113 said no. 86, no answer. And 33, 'Some parts too long.' ")

Hitchcock, his own most appreciative audience, didn't fret about audience reaction. But not every project was seen through to success, and the director's unproduced scripts continue to float around Hollywood in development. "Kaleidoscope," a pre-"Frenzy"-type serial-murder project from the late 1960s, is chronicled in detail. The original outline by Benn Levy, who had labored for Hitchcock on "Blackmail," his first British sound film, is followed by the director's revision of Levy's draft. "Hitchcock had not penned his own screenplay since 'The Paradine Case,' " writes Auiler. "To take up the gauntlet again just before he turned 68 is remarkable. Even more remarkable is the quality of his brave, disturbing screenplay." Besides sharing a substantial slice of the brutal and sexually explicit "Kaleidoscope," the enterprising Auiler interviewed photographers who shot mock-ups and test scenes with unknown actors and models in New York, illuminating what has been, until now, a virtually unknown property.

There are (as there always are) other intriguing unproduced projects, but the most delicious has to be Hitchcock's idea to cast Cary Grant as Hamlet with the classic text transcribed, first by a professor and then by a professional, into "modern English" with the story then dumped into a modern English setting. One telegram tells it all. Grant seems always to have been the director's idea of perfect casting, but the actor was forever being vetoed by the studios because of his requisite percentage of the gross. He was competing with too many other percentages, including Hitchcock's.

The real treat in the "Building the Script" chapter is the attention accorded "Shadow of a Doubt," which stars Joseph Cotten as a murderer hiding out in an American small town. Hitchcock had temporarily escaped the control of Selznick, and the result was a film he often cited as a creative high point and personal favorite. Until now, not much has been known of the story's genesis and evolution. Auiler reveals a Jan. 10, 1943, letter from original author Gordon McDonell, expressing gratitude to Hitchcock after seeing the film, and McDonell's initial six-page synopsis, which clarify the film's humble origins. The director's "Notes on Possible Development" show Hitchcock beginning to experiment with his colors; pages from Thornton Wilder's draft, reproduced in Wilder's handwriting, add character and pictorial detail.

Because he often dictated to an assistant, Hitchcock's "voice" was often filtered through someone else's transcription and can't always be trusted as authentic. The director's entertaining account of shooting "The Mountain Eagle," Hitchcock's second completed film as director, released in 1926 and generally regarded as a lost work, "one of the 100 most wanted films in the world," seems bona fide, although it may have been ghosted for press purposes. Even the taped telephone calls and production conferences must be considered suspect, because by the time they were apparently routinized by Hitchcock in the 1960s, he was keenly aware of his image and always playing off it.

The Hitchcock papers at the academy are, in general, quite impersonal. A unique example of something more in the personal realm are several 1953 letters from the director to Sidney Bernstein, one of his oldest friends and his producing partner on "Rope" and "Under Capricorn." On his own stationery and in his own hand, Hitchcock brings Bernstein up to date on Hollywood news and gossip. He wittily surveys the decaying scene: There are jibes at studio heads, a collegial tip of the hat to Michael Curtiz (cashiered by Warners after 26 years), asides about depressing cutbacks and trends. Yet as warm and intimate as the letters are in tone--signed, "Love, Hitch"--they are all business-related in content. Hitchcock rattles off cost estimates, salary specifics, screen size projections. There is, even here, no letting the belt out a notch.

It can't have been an easy task for Auiler to make his selections and organize the book chronologically as well as thematically. Some of his choices need more explanation and decoding, but "Hitchcock's Notebooks" is a useful testament to one of this director's least well-kept secrets: his hard work and devotion to craft in every department. If it's a book that sheds further light on this most public of film artists, it also reminds us that even in death Hitchcock stubbornly guards his mysteries.

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