It's Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock, a Personal Biographyby Charlotte Chandler
In his films, Alfred Hitchcock found the perfect expression for his fantasies, and he shared those fantasies with the world in such classics as The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. In It's Only a Movie, Charlotte Chandler draws from her extensive conversations with Hitchcock, frequently revealing unknown facts and unexpected insights into the man, the director, and his films.
Author of acclaimed biographies of Groucho Marx, Federico Fellini, and Billy Wilder, Charlotte Chandler spent several years with Hitchcock discussing his life and his amazing career. She also talked with his wife, Alma, and daughter, Pat, as well as many of the screen legends who appeared in his films, including Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, John Gielgud, Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, Tippi Hedren, James Mason, Eva Marie Saint, Kim Novak, Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, and others. The result is an intimate yet expansive portrait of a unique artist who, from the 1920s through the 1970s, created many of history's most memorable films.
A quarter-century after his death, Hitchcock's distinctive profile remains an instantly recognizable icon to millions, while his films continue to grow in popular appeal and critical esteem. Chandler introduces us to the real Hitchcock: a devoted family man, practical joker, and Englishman of Edwardian sensibilities who was one of the great masters of cinematic art.
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My dearest dream," Alfred Hitchcock said to me, "would be to walk into an ordinary men's store on the street and buy a suit, off the rack.
"There are, I suppose, many men who would envy me having the finest tailors to make my bespoke suits of the best material, but my own dream would be to buy a suit -- on sale.
"Now, I have pretty much given up my hope of losing enough weight, which I don't think will ever happen, but that is not the problem. The real problem is not my size, but my shape.
"Even sex is embarrassing for a person who looks the way I do. There weren't enough light bulbs to turn off.
"If I had been given the choice in life, I would have looked like Cary Grant on whom everything looked good, and I would have indulged some fashion fantasies, a 39 Steps raincoat, tossed on, a beige cashmere cardigan thrown casually around my shoulders, or better yet, tied around my waist -- if I had one.
"Some writers say that Cary Grant was my fantasy alter ego. Silliness. When I look into my mirror, I don't see Cary Grant. I look into my mirror as little as possible, because the person who looks back at me has always seemed something of a stranger who doesn't look at all the way I feel. But, somehow, he kept getting into my mirror."
When Alfred Hitchcock showed me his home on Bellagio Road in Bel Air, California, in the mid-1970s, I had the opportunity to see his astounding wardrobe. Most remarkable was not the quantity of suits, nor the quality, all of the finest fabric, but that they seemed to be the same suit, repeated many times.
At second glance, however, it was obvious that there were numerous subtle distinctions. Among the black suits, there were shades of black.
Hitchcock's suits were famous, and it was widely assumed that he invariably wore the same black suit. James Stewart remembered, "Hitch in Marrakech, 110 in the shade, scarcely ever taking off his dark jacket or even loosening his tie." Director Ronald Neame recalled that even as far back as 1928 when Hitchcock was directing Blackmail, he wore a dark suit, white shirt, dark tie, black shoes and socks, in spite of the intense heat from the klieg lights, before air-conditioning.
Many of these suits actually were navy blue. "It is called French blue," Hitchcock told me, a blue so dark that it seems black. Every suit appeared new, in keeping with the reputation of the director for being meticulous.
Another noteworthy aspect of the collection was that there were many different sizes. "Those suits are all in my sizes," he said.
"If my weight changes, up or down, I'm prepared."
I asked him how he kept so many suits paired, together with their mates. He explained that they were all keyed, the trousers with their jackets, the sizes with labels sewn in and dated. Inside the waistband of each pair of trousers was a large number in black, and in each coat was a number. "I don't enjoy any suspense about finding my clothes."
Continuing in a more serious tone, he said, "I never achieved the body I wanted, but I am proud of my body of work. It is tall and thin and handsome."
Henri Langlois, the founder and secretary general of the Cinémathèque Française, introduced me to Alfred Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, at the Plaza Athénée hotel in Paris. Some years before, Langlois's dismissal by the French government from his post as curator of the Cinémathèque had provoked demonstrations that escalated into the 1968 riots, effectively shutting down Paris. Throughout dinner, Hitchcock and Langlois talked about Hitchcock's films, those that existed, and a few that existed only in Hitchcock's mind.
"I once had an idea," Hitchcock told us, "that I would like to use to open a film. We are at Covent Garden or La Scala. Maria Callas is onstage. She is singing an aria, and her head is tilted upwards. She sees, in a box high up, a man approach another man who is seated there. He stabs him. She is just reaching a high note, and the high note turns into a scream. It is the highest note she has ever sung, and she receives a tremendous ovation."
Hitchcock seemed to have finished the story.
"And then? What happens next?" Langlois would have leaned forward on the edge of his chair, except that because of his substantial girth, he already was on the edge of his chair.
Hitchcock turned and indicated his wife, Alma, who had worked with him officially and unofficially for more than fifty years. He said to Langlois, "Ask the Madame. She does continuity."
"I've retired," Alma said.
"The closest I ever came to doing this opera vignette," Hitchcock continued, "was in The Man Who Knew Too Much.
"I've always wanted to do a murder among the tulips, too. When I saw the vast fields of tulips in Holland, I knew right away it was a setting I wanted to use, especially in color with blood on the tulips.
"There's another scene waiting for a story that I've thought about, involving an automobile assembly line in Detroit. The cars are moving along, and the workers are talking about their lives, an argument with the wife, lunch, and other mundane matters. A car rolls off the assembly line, and when the door is opened, a body falls out. That's as far as I got.
"Some years ago, I was in New York for Rope, and the publicist took me to my first baseball game. We watched from the broadcast booth, and I made a few drawings. I asked him how many people were watching the game, and he said sixty thousand. I thought, what a perfect spot for a murder! A murder on a baseball field. One of the players is shot, and there are sixty thousand suspects.
"Then, it actually happened a few years later."
"Sometimes your films seem like nightmares that are really happening," Langlois said.
"I consider them frightmares," Hitchcock explained. "Frightmares are my specialty. I have never been interested in nightmares per se. Frightmares have a great deal of reality. A far-fetched story must be plausibly told, so your nonsense isn't showing.
"Fear of the dark is natural, we all have it, but fear in the sunlight, perhaps fear in this very restaurant, where it is so unexpected, mind you, that is interesting.
"Fear isn't so difficult to understand. After all, weren't we all frightened as children? Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It's just a different wolf. This fright complex is rooted in every individual.
"It's what you don't see that frightens you, what your mind fills in, the implicit usually being more terrifying than the explicit. The unexpected is so important. I've never liked heavy-handed creaking-door suspense and other clichés. I like to do a 'cozy.' Something menacing happens in a serene setting. The cozy setting is a wonderful opportunity for danger and suspense.
"I, personally, have always been interested in rounding up the unusual suspects.
"Eventually everything becomes avoiding the cliché. Your own cliché as well as everyone else's. It's not just what you've done. It's what everyone else has done and done and done. I pity the poor people in the future."
Hitchcock was interested in Langlois's activities on behalf of film preservation during the World War II German occupation of Paris. The French film lover had broken the law of the occupation, risking his life to personally save hundreds of films that might have been destroyed or lost.
Hitchcock asked, "How did you choose which ones to save?"
Langlois answered, "Those which came to me and said, 'Save me!' I didn't have the possibility to see them -- only to save them."
"It was very brave of you," Hitchcock commented. "You could have been put into a concentration camp."
"I didn't do anything brave," Langlois continued. "I just hid the films in my bathtub and the bathtubs of my friends. We didn't take so many baths."
"Not taking those baths was a great service to the world," Hitchcock said. "At the end of the war, I made a film to show the reality of the concentration camps, you know. Horrible. It was more horrible than any fantasy horror. Then, nobody wanted to see it. It was too unbearable. But it has stayed in my mind all of these years.
"I don't think many people actually want reality, whether it's in the theater or in films. It must only look real, because reality's something none of us can stand for too long. Reality can be more terrible than anything you can imagine.
"I, myself, was not old enough for World War I until near the end, when I was rejected. I was too old for World War II, but I like to believe I would have been brave."
"Trying to make films you want to make requires some bravery, too," Alma said.
"I have heard of a film," Langlois said, "that you have wanted to make for years, but..."
"Mary Rose," Alma said. "It would be a wonderful picture, but they have typecast him as a director who doesn't make that kind of picture. But we're not giving up.
"My husband is very sensitive to criticism," Alma added. "But when people don't like what he does or won't let him do something he believes in, I'm twice as hurt. I'm hurt for myself, and I'm hurt for him."
"Mary Rose," Hitchcock explained, "was a play by James M. Barrie which I saw in London in the early 1920s. It impressed me very much. In brief, it is the story of a twelve-year-old girl who is taken on an excursion to an island by her parents. She disappears and, weeks later, reappears, with no explanation. As a young woman, she returns to the island with her husband, and disappears again. She is gone many years. Then, when she reappears, her son is a grown man, her husband is middle-aged, but she hasn't changed at all. In the end, she has to go back, but to where?
"I have never forgotten it. I'm trying to attack it now from a science fiction angle, because the public will want to know where Mary Rose went when she disappeared for twenty-five years and then came back as young as she was when she disappeared.
"There was another story I always wanted to do. It was a true story, on which So Long at the Fair was based. A woman searches for her mother who has disappeared without a trace at the Paris Exposition of 1889. The missing person has contracted the plague, and the facts have been covered over to protect the city from panic. It is a story like Death in Venice, also a very good film. I would like to have made both of those.
"And Diabolique; I'd like to have made that one, too, but [Henri-Georges] Clouzot beat me to it. For many years, I thought I would do a John Buchan book, Three Hostages. It's not as good as his 39 Steps, but it's a good story. And, oh, something of Wilkie Collins. What a writer that man was! I admired Dickens, and I'd like to have done something of Poe.
"I was always an avid reader of the newspaper from the time I was a boy. As I became interested in the world of film, I became more alert to stories, especially crime stories that could be the basis for a film. There was one I read somewhere, I don't know where, which has never left my mind. It's not one I could ever use because it's too horrible to show, except in a horror film, and even in a horror film, it would be too shocking and probably would provoke a release of tension resulting in a few gasps, some giggles, and then laughter.
"There was a report of a Chinese executioner who did heads. He was so good at his job that people requested him when they were sentenced to have their heads chopped off. You can imagine how painful botched and sloppy work could be, especially if the whole procedure were dragged out.
"One poor fellow who had resigned himself to his fate, stepped up, and this super-executioner deftly dealt the death blow with the greatest precision, but nothing happened.
"The man said, 'Please don't keep me waiting.'
"The executioner said, 'Please nod.'
"The man did, and his head fell off. What imagery!
"I don't know if the story was true or not," Hitchcock said, "but it's so far-fetched, that maybe it was."
Our conversation was a mix of movies and food, the two passionate interests of which neither Hitchcock nor Langlois ever tired. Langlois was even stouter than Hitchcock.
"I believe that there is a perfect relationship between love of food and a healthy libido," Hitchcock said. "People who like to eat have a stronger libido, a greater interest in sex.
"I was very innocent and sexually repressed in my youth. I was a virgin when I married, you know."
He hesitated momentarily, having noted the disapproving frown on his wife's face, and then continued. "I think that too much sex while you are working goes against the work and that repressed sex is more constructive for the creative person. It must get out, and so it goes into the work. I think it helped create a sense of sex in my work.
"The experiencing of passion, as with fear, makes you feel alive. In the film, you can experience these very extreme feelings without paying the bill."
Before dinner, Hitchcock had enjoyed his then-favorite drink, a Mimosa. Both Hitchcock and Langlois ate rapidly. Since both of them seemed to enjoy food and be so interested in it, I would have expected them to savor the experience more and make it last.
A waiter brought out a splendid multi-layered cake, frosted in butter cream, with pink and yellow flowers and the message Bienvenue spelled out on top. The chef came out, too, wearing his toque blanche and an impeccably white apron. He was glowing as he told Hitchcock that the cake was being presented with the compliments of the Plaza Athénée, and then, in a sort of aside to Hitchcock in French, he whispered that he was a great fan of his films and that it had been such an honor to work on this cake for him. As if embarrassed by his own audacity in daring to speak for himself to the great director, the chef rushed off. As he left, Hitchcock, who spoke French rather well, called out after him, thanking him for the beautiful torte.
The captain then ceremoniously carried the cake away. After a few minutes, the waiter returned with four slices of chocolate cake and a slice was served to each of us.
Hitchcock turned to Langlois and said, "My films, you know, aren't slices of life, but slices of cake."
He said he was reminded of the first film he was supposed to have directed in Hollywood, Titanic. It was to have been his first American project for David O. Selznick.
"My favorite scene was in the ship's great kitchen where the pastry chef is decorating an extraordinary cake. It has many layers, and with a flourish of his pastry bag, he is putting the final petals on a butter cream rose of which the cake has many. Then, the pastry chef writes out Happy Birthday.
"The chef is smiling slightly with pride as he works. He is so pleased with his creation. He is tasting it in his mind.
"But we all know everything he's doing is for nothing. Nobody will ever eat the cake. The cake is going to a watery grave and maybe the people who were supposed to be eating it, too. Maybe also the chef we have come to know.
"The audience is thinking, 'It's no use.' They want to scream out, 'Stop! Run to the lifeboats!'"
The maître d' asked Hitchcock if he would like to have the rest of the cake kept for him for the next day. Hitchcock declined, telling us that the waiters and the people in the kitchen, the chef included, would be disappointed if they didn't have the chance to taste the cake.
"I want to ask you," Langlois said, "what was it like going from working in London to suddenly working in Hollywood?"
"It wasn't as different as I had expected it to be," Hitchcock explained. "The technical possibilities, because of the bigger budgets and better equipment, were dazzling. On the other hand, everything in America seemed a bit less spontaneous and, of course, more complex because of the bigger budgets and the need for more careful planning."
"In America, were you conscious of making films for a different audience?"
"No. When we make films in America, we are automatically making them for the world, because America is full of people from everywhere.
"Selznick had wanted to buy an old American merchant ship that was being scrapped to play the title role. He was going to sink it in Santa Monica harbor, but we burned down Manderley instead."
"I am glad," Langlois said, "because Rebecca is one of my favorite films. It was brilliant never to show Rebecca except as a painting. She was so beautiful there was no actrice who could have played the part. There could not have been a Rebecca."
"But there was an actress to play Rebecca," Hitchcock said. "A perfect Rebecca. And she even wanted to be in the film, only she wanted to play the wrong part, that of the cringing, meek girl with rounded shoulders who was totally lacking in self-confidence.
"The actress was Vivien Leigh, who was born to be Rebecca, as she was to be Scarlett O'Hara. Scarlett shared many characteristics with Rebecca. Vivien Leigh had the requisite beauty. She and Rebecca were both uniquely strong women who knew what they wanted and how to get it, if not how to enjoy it. They were not girls; they were women.
"Vivien Leigh was absolutely right to play Rebecca, but Rebecca never appears in the film, so neither does Vivien. And for people who knew about the real-life affair between Olivier and Leigh, that would have intruded on any illusion.
"Joan Fontaine was rather outside the little clique of British actors on the set, and that worked well for her character, who was supposed to be alone and apart."
As we were served coffee, Hitchcock suggested "a divertissement."
"Let's play a little game of Murder," he said. "We'll choose a victim, and then try to find the murderer."
He looked around and chose as victim the fattest man in the room, saying he could best identify with him. "Now we need a villain." Looking around again, he selected a good-looking man with blond hair and blue eyes. In a room full of well-dressed people, this man stood out as exceedingly well dressed. "A villain cannot look villainous or no one would let him into their house," Hitchcock told us.
A man and a woman sitting at a table near us who were deep in conversation caught Hitchcock's attention. Her earrings were next to her plate. Observing the couple, Alfred Hitchcock pointed out that they knew each other well. "You can tell she is comfortable with him or she wouldn't have taken off her earrings, which were bothering her.
"See that man? He's wearing very expensive shoes. You can tell a great deal about a man by his shoes," Hitchcock said. Langlois pulled his feet farther back under the table.
Hitchcock then asked Langlois to choose a victim for our little game of Murder. He selected a very thin man at a nearby table who was enjoying a chocolate mousse, saying, "Look at the chocolate mousse he's eating and see how thin he is. That is enough reason for me to hate him."
Hitchcock accepted that as logical. "I understand. I am an expert on losing weight. I have lost hundreds of pounds in my lifetime, and I represent the survival of the fattest."
His weight was unearned, Hitchcock claimed, since he ate so little. "Journalists often ask how much I weigh. I tell them, 'Only once a day, before breakfast.' The number of pounds, though, must remain a mystery."
"Can you believe," Langlois said, "that when I was young I was so thin, women were always trying to force me to eat, my mother, my nurse. I ate chocolates and cake and an entire jar of marmalade in the afternoon. I thought it would always be that way. At that time, I never walked up stairs. I ran up."
"Me, too," Hitchcock said. "I was always heavy, but I was agile. I think the reason that I've never received an Oscar is that I don't look like an artist. I don't look like I've starved in a garret.
"But the real reason is that the suspense genre is not so highly esteemed. It's treated like a switchback railway in an amusement park, just for thrills. Villains and heroes, hisses and kisses."
"You should receive many Oscars," Langlois said. "There is time."
There wasn't, however, much time remaining, and Hitchcock never did receive an Oscar as a director. He had been nominated as best director five times; for Rebecca, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window, and Psycho. It was Langlois who was awarded a special Oscar, for his contribution to film preservation.
Langlois asked Hitchcock if he liked mysteries and melodrama best.
"Yes, I do. But I like to feel that I don't do mysteries. I do mystifyings. That's my brand of melodrama."
"What is most difficult about melodrama?" Langlois asked.
"Casting. In melodrama, you lay out the plot, and only after you have the story, do you put in the characters. For that reason, I believe in typecasting.
"If you do it right, casting, you don't need to do much direction of actors. The really good ones find their way, and you only need recognize if they are going astray.
"Stars do have an advantage when you are casting. When something is happening to a star, a Cary Grant or a James Stewart, the public feels it more."
"Or Ingrid Bergman or Grace Kelly," Alma added.
"Yes," Hitchcock agreed. "There has been a lot of talk about the Hitchcock blondes and my heroines, you know. There was one very important factor in my selection of leading ladies, which isn't mentioned. The heroine must please women. Women not only represent half of the audience for my films, but very often the man wants to please and impress a woman, and he asks her, 'What film would you like to see?' So she chooses."
"Madeleine Carroll was my choice for The 39 Steps," Alma said. "I saw her first, and told Hitch about her."
As we spoke, Alma was quiet and reserved, a tiny person, pleasant, not eating very much. Hitchcock often looked at her for her reaction to what he had said.
"Do you know the proof of her love for me?" Hitchcock asked, indicating Alma. "She diets with me. She doesn't have to, but to make it easier for me, she eats only what I eat. Then she loses the weight and I don't. I couldn't afford to stay too long on a diet, or the Madame might disappear entirely."
"You are a fortunate man," Langlois said.
"We were so lucky," Alma said. "Our two imaginations met."
"She'd been working in films when I met her," Hitchcock continued, "and she knew more about it than I did. She taught me. I don't know why she married me."
Alma laughed. "Because I liked older men."
"I was born on August 13, 1899," Hitchcock said, "and she was born on August 14, 1899, so I am one day older."
"That is formidable," Langlois said.
Hitchcock agreed. "Yes, it is unusual."
"No, what I mean is, it is the very same thing that is true of Mary and me." Mary Merson was his close associate at the Cinémathèque Française.
"Our birthdays, Mary and me, are only a day apart. I was born on November 12, and she was born on November 13. We are Scorpios. And you are Leos."
"You're like Marlene Dietrich," Hitchcock said. "She wouldn't do anything on Stage Fright until she consulted her astrologer. He should have received a credit."
Langlois asked Hitchcock if he would like to have any of his past films screened for him at the Cinémathèque while he was in Paris.
"Thank you, we don't have time. If we had time, I would rather see someone else's film, Fellini or Antonioni, one of those Italian fellows.
"I have a visual mind, and my past films are all storyboarded in my mind, if I choose to recall them. I do not, however, choose to resee my films in a theater, nor to rerun them in my mind."
"I have heard," Langlois said, "that after you see the script, you can visualize the entire film."
"Could you do this when you began to make silent films in the early 1920s?"
"Yes. I believe it's intuitive to visualize, but as we grow up, we lose that intuition. My mind works more like a baby's mind does, thinking in pictures. I have vague memories of my infancy, all visual, none verbal. I can't be certain, but I believe they are true memories."
"I learned to do that from him," Alma added. "Now I can't read a book without dramatizing every scene, every camera angle, every word of dialogue. It takes me forever to read a book."
Hitchcock said, "My life and the Madame's are films. If that were not true, what would we have talked about all these years?"
I asked Hitchcock if it was true that he didn't look into the camera when he was directing.
"I don't have to," he answered, "and I'll tell you why.
"About 1923, before we worked together, young Miss Alma Reville asked me if I would mind shooting some inserts for a picture she was editing. Since it was lunchtime, I walked on the stage and just as I was looking through the viewfinder of a camera, a voice behind me said, 'That's my job. You stick to what's in front of it.' It was Jack Cox, who later became my cameraman on Blackmail and a lot of other pictures. From that moment on, I learned everything I could about cameras and lenses, what they did in terms of angle and perspective. I trained myself to see like a camera, so I never needed to look through a lens again. Now all I need to know is the focal length of the lens, and I know exactly what the cameraman is seeing."
Langlois asked about Hitchcock's often repeated quote that "actors are cattle."
"I have been accused of saying that," Hitchcock answered, "but I believe what I said is, 'Actors should be treated like cattle.' Of course, I was joking, but it seems I was taken seriously. If I had been speaking seriously, I would have said, 'Actors are children.'
"I have always been available to my actors for reasonable help. 'Reasonable' is an actor who, when he walks through the door, does not ask me 'why?' but 'how?'"
As we spoke, someone approached Hitchcock for an autograph, and he drew his famous sketch of himself. After the person left, Langlois apologized. "I'm sorry they disturb you here in Paris, even while you are eating."
"They never disturb me," Hitchcock said. "They are the ones who make it all possible. The public."
It brought him great pleasure that audiences in New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, and Buenos Aires could look at his pictures and feel the same emotions.
"Emotions are universal, and art is emotion. Therefore, putting film together and making it have an effect on an audience is for me the main function of film. Otherwise, it is just a record of events.
"In the distant future, they will have what I call 'the Tickles.' People will go into a big darkened auditorium and they will be mass-hypnotized. Instead of identifying themselves with the characters on the screen, they will be that character, and when they buy their ticket, they will be able to choose which character they want to be. They will suffer all of the agonies and enjoy the romance with a beautiful woman or handsome man. I call them 'the Tickles,' because when a character is tickled, the audience will feel it. Then, the lights come up, and it's all over." Hitchcock paused reflectively.
"And it's a good way to dispense with real actors. Walt Disney has the right answer. If he doesn't like his actors, he tears them up!"
"Were there any actors you would like to have worked with?" Langlois asked.
"Of course. Claudette Colbert. Did you know she was French? I would like to have made a Lubitsch-style picture with her. I also would like to have worked with William Holden. Sunset Boulevard was a wonderful film, one of the greatest. And I would like to have worked with Miss Hepburn. Audrey, not Katharine. Katharine Hepburn wouldn't have fit into my films, but I wanted Audrey, and I almost worked with her, but it didn't happen."
"Would Miss Hepburn, Audrey not Katharine, have been a blonde?" Langlois asked.
Hitchcock shook his head. "No. Definitely not."
I mentioned that Claudette Colbert, William Holden, and Audrey Hepburn were all in Billy Wilder films.
"I envy him," Hitchcock said. "A great director, Wilder. He knew how I felt about those actors in his film. I told him, and he said the actor he most wanted to work with was Cary Grant. So there you are.
"I believe directing actors is really only a matter of getting good actors in the first place. Then, you have a chat with them."
As we finished our meal, Langlois said, "You have a career to be very proud of, Mr. Hitchcock."
"Not Mr. Hitchcock. Hitch. Call me Hitch. I am proud, but I've been lucky. Getting the opportunity is the most important part.
"A few times, it looked like I might fail. There is that thin line between success and failure. I managed to survive the tightrope, even though I don't think I'm built for tightrope walking."
As we left the restaurant, Alma said to me, "In all the years we've been together, my husband has never bored me. There aren't many wives who can say that."
I met Hitchcock several times while I was writing about Groucho Marx. Groucho's favorite restaurant in Los Angeles was Chasen's, which was also the favorite of Hitchcock and his wife.
Groucho's preferred night at Chasen's was Thursday, and Thursday night dinner at Chasen's was a ritual for the Hitchcocks, who frequently came to dinner with Lew and Edie Wasserman, and Gregory and Veronique Peck.
Erin Fleming, Groucho's friend, was frequently with us. Groucho and Hitchcock would greet each other. Each had one of the few tables in the small front room of the restaurant.
Groucho's favorite part of the meal was a specialty of Chasen's, banana shortcake. He would say he ate the dinner "to get to the shortcake."
One night, as we finished our banana shortcakes, Groucho said he wished that he could have a second portion of the dessert. The captain heard him and rushed back with some. Groucho wouldn't accept it, because even in his eighties, he had a great deal of discipline. He said if he had one slice, he could enjoy the memory without feeling guilty.
Summoning the captain, Groucho said, "When they get to dessert, send over a round of banana shortcakes to Mr. Hitchcock and his friends, and be sure to put it on my check and not on his. And see what the boys in the back room will have."
We left and didn't see what happened afterward.
At his home, months later, Hitchcock finished the banana shortcake story.
"Everyone at our table that night was on a diet except the Madame and Peck. The Madame doesn't eat much when I'm on a diet, and I'm always on a diet. So Peck got all six of the shortcakes."
Hitchcock indicated the green, grassy view from the window of his Bel Air home. "I own all of that," he said in a mock serious tone.
The huge expanse of property was actually a golf course.
Hitchcock began our meeting by telling me, "To interview me, you would have to interview my films."
"I already have," I said, "and they told me many of their secrets -- but not all."
No visit to the Hitchcock home would have been complete without seeing the kitchen, the most important room in the house for Hitchcock and his wife. It had taken him many years to remake the kitchen and create the wine cellar, all exactly to their specifications.
He showed me the giant refrigerator, of which he was justifiably proud. As I looked in, he stood behind me and put his hand on my shoulder, as if to push me in.
"Just joking," he said.
No matter. It was so full of food, there wouldn't have been room for me.
"This food is our luxury," he said. "We don't have a swimming pool or a tennis court. We don't live to impress anyone else.
"We fly in fish and meat weekly from England," he said. "Dover sole, beef, and lamb."
The lamb reminded him of one of his favorite stories, "Lamb to the Slaughter," by Roald Dahl, done on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, an episode he directed in 1958.
"A woman, played by Barbara Bel Geddes," he said, "learns from her unsympathetic husband of many years that he is leaving her. She kills him with a frozen leg of lamb, the most perfect murder weapon of my entire career. Then she cooks that leg of lamb while policemen are searching for the murder weapon, and she serves them the delicious leg of lamb. That's one murder weapon they will never find. I call that my 'ticking lamb' story, which is a variation on my 'ticking bomb' theory.
"The idea is that you want to let the audience in on everything so they know that a ticking bomb is there while the characters don't know it. That is the suspense, waiting for the bomb to explode, only they are waiting for the leg of lamb to be discovered as the murder weapon."
He said that he never ate leg of lamb without thinking of that story.
"Are you able to distinguish between English Dover sole and French Dover sole?" he asked me.
I'd never given it any thought. I considered that the question might be what Hitchcock referred to as "a leg pull."
I answered, "Only if I saw the fish's passport."
"I only eat Dover sole caught by a net, not by a hook," he said. "Have you ever seen a fish with a hook in its mouth?" He squeezed his lips together and twisted his face like a fish with a hook in its mouth. I assumed he was referring to the pain inflicted on the fish, but I wondered, how did he know if the fish was really caught in a net?
Hitchcock was extremely proud of his wine cellar. He enjoyed the acquisition of great wine and brandy, some of it bought to drink, and some of it to have and hold with the instinct of the passionate collector.
He told me that he had "authentic Napoleonic brandy, bottles of wine from the nineteenth century, and dazzling vintages from the 1920s."
"Do you drink these?" I asked.
"Oh, no," he said, "I could never do that. Those bottles are really irreplaceable. The responsibility for drinking one is too great. It might be the last bottle in the world of its kind. Then, there is the possibility that the actual taste would not live up to the taste buds in my mind. And then, too, perhaps I don't feel I deserve it."
I was shown around the rest of the house, a lovely home, but considered modest by Bel Air standards. I recognized Liberty of London fabrics. "We don't have to move to a bigger house," Hitchcock said. "I do not enjoy the process of moving. I find it like enduring a sickness.
"It's the work that's important. I've made films people enjoyed, and I didn't wish to prove myself with a bigger house. I like to use words such as cozy and snug when I describe my home."
Hitchcock's art collection was impressive, including paintings by artists who hung not only in the Hitchcock home, but also in the great museums of the world. His favorite artist was Klee, and Alma's, Utrillo. His favorite sculptor was Rodin, and he was proud to own a work of his. Hitchcock's own drawings bore a certain resemblance to those of Klee.
During his teens and early twenties, Hitchcock had eagerly visited art museums. At first he went to museums as an art school assignment, but very quickly these visits became one of his favorite pastimes on a Sunday or whenever he had a few hours free. "They also sent us to a railway terminal to sketch people, which I liked even better."
Hitchcock said that if he had become an artist rather than having gone into films, he would have been an abstract painter only because he didn't feel he would have been able to master the technique required by representational art. Ideally, he would have liked to have been a sculptor, like Rodin.
Being interested in dream and fantasy in art, he was fascinated by the idea of having Salvador Dali create a fantasy dream sequence in Spellbound. As it turned out, most of Dali's work was not used in the film.
"Very early, I was immensely struck by the Symbolists. For a time, I had Symbolist dreams."
Hitchcock said he felt privileged to be able to afford the work of Rouault, Dufy, Vlaminck, Rodin, Klee, de Chirico, and other famous twentieth-century artists, but he selected only pictures he enjoyed living with, the kind about which he could make up stories. "Klee could have made good storyboards, you know.
"Mrs. H. and I never acquired a painting unless it was liked by both of us." For a time, they had a mystery drawing hanging on their wall. "It was much admired. There was no signature. It was the work of our daughter, Pat, when she was a child."
As a young man standing in long queues to see a painting, he never dreamed that one day he would simply look up in his own home and enjoy a glance at a great painting. "They become a part of you."
Along with the paintings, there were first editions by George Bernard Shaw and James Barrie, the complete works of William Shakespeare and of Somerset Maugham. He prized an edition of Juno and the Paycock, which had been given to him by Sean O'Casey when Hitchcock was making a film version of the play.
He showed me some dishes.
"Do you remember these?"
I did, because I also had admired the dishes at the Plaza Athénée hotel when we had dinner there.
"I asked at the hotel if I could buy some of the dishes from them,"
Hitchcock continued. "I had in mind a demitasse or two. A few weeks after we returned home, several cartons arrived from Paris. They had sent a whole set, and no bill. They said it was their gift to us."
When my taxi arrived, Hitchcock walked with me to the door, where the driver was waiting. Raising his voice so the driver could hear, Hitchcock said, "Don't worry about the blood. I'll wash off what's left, and then I'll get rid of the knife. Don't worry about the body. I'll see that it's discreetly disposed of. But do check your clothes for bloodstains. Blood spattered on the wall like catsup on a hamburger bun."
The driver showed no concern. I wondered if he recognized Alfred Hitchcock.
When the taxi dropped me off, I gave the driver the fare and a tip. He returned the tip. I said, "That's for you!" When there was no response, I realized that Hitchcock's performance had been wasted. The driver wasn't really English-speaking.
"Every day is a gift, which is why we call it the present."
Alfred Hitchcock said this to director King Vidor and me just before the March 7, 1979, American Film Institute gala honoring Hitchcock. We had stopped to speak with him as he waited to enter the Beverly Hilton ballroom for his tribute evening.
Vidor and I sat down next to Hitchcock, who apologized for not rising, because he couldn't. "Please accept that I have risen in spirit," he said.
"It's your night, Hitch," Vidor said. "You ought to be feeling great."
"Knees. It's all about knees. My knees aren't what they used to be -- even what they were yesterday.
"The problem is, I had to bring along a friend. Well, not exactly a friend, more of a constant companion. Arthur Ritis."
Besides the pain, Hitchcock was apprehensive about his entrance, afraid his knees would fail him at the moment he had to walk through the audience to his table, that he would fall and be mortified. "Worse than dying," he said. "Worse even than forgetting to button your fly. I shouldn't have accepted. It's like Jamaica Inn. Walking the plank, you know."
"But if you felt this way, why did you accept?" Vidor asked.
"I didn't feel like this on the day I accepted. I did it for Alma. I wanted her to see all of these people here because of our films. I wanted to go home with her afterwards and see the look in her eyes. That was what I most looked forward to. The best part of the evening will be when we are back at home together and all of this is behind us. We'll sit and talk about it in the old way, sharing. Another memory for our old age.
"I want to tell everyone how important she has been, not only in my life, but to the Hitchcock films. They are hers, too. And I thought it might be the last time Alma and I could go together to an event like this, my last opportunity to pay public tribute to her."
"You're lucky to have had that kind of marriage," Vidor said. "It didn't work out that way for me."
"I hope I won't embarrass the Madame by not being able to stand up."
"I wish they'd do it for me, an evening like this," Vidor said, trying to cheer Hitchcock, and also telling the truth.
"I hope they do it for you while you're still able to enjoy it."
rd"They'd better hurry!" Vidor, though in better health, was even older than Hitchcock. "Well, at least you'll get a good dinner."
"I could never eat at a time like this, with everyone watching me. I had a ground steak earlier at home with Mrs. H."
"It's my favorite meal," Vidor said. "Do you know where you can get the best hamburger in town?"
"My house," Hitchcock answered.
"I'd like to invite you for lunch, Hitch, at my favorite restaurant, Hamburger Hamlet. And they have a good roll and French fries."
"I'd like to invite you to my house for the greatest beef you ever tasted, but Alma hasn't been well. When she feels better, we can go to Chasen's. That's our favorite restaurant."
Alma was seated with Cary Grant at the honoree's table as Hitchcock entered. Grant was there to assist Hitchcock, should it be necessary. Everyone in the ballroom rose except Alma, who was so small, she could scarcely be seen. Her hair and makeup artfully done, she had hoped to wear high heels, but needed the support of heavier shoes.
Weakened after a series of strokes, it was only with great force of will that she had succeeded in being there at all. Unlike her nervous husband, she had looked forward with enthusiasm to the evening. She watched intently as he entered and inched his way toward her through an audience that included some of the most famous and powerful names in Hollywood. It was as if she were taking every step with him, so great was her empathy.
John Houseman introduced Ingrid Bergman, who was the mistress of ceremonies for the evening. Speaking from the stage were Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, James Stewart, and François Truffaut, and from the audience, Teresa Wright, Pat Hitchcock O'Connell, Norman Lloyd, Sidney Bernstein, Victor Saville, Jane Wyman, Edith Head, Rod Taylor, Vera Miles, Ernest Lehman, Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery, Judith Anderson, and Cary Grant.
During the program, some of the tension Hitchcock had been feeling seemed to lift, and he and Alma appeared to enjoy the evening, especially as the end drew near. The strain of the intense scrutiny was nearly over.
Ingrid Bergman came onstage and spoke directly to Hitchcock. "Now, there's just one little thing I'd like to add before we finish this evening. Do you remember that agonizing shot when you had built some kind of elevator? It was a basket or something with you and the cameraman, and you were shooting this vast party in Notorious, and you came zooming down with your elevator and your poor pull-focus man, all the way down, into my hand, where you saw the key in a close-up. So, that was from an extreme long shot to close-up, just the key that we saw. You know what? Cary stole that key after the scene, and then he kept it for about ten years. And one day, he put it in my hand, and he said, 'I've kept this long enough. Now, it's for you for good luck.' I have kept it for twenty years, and in this very same hand, there is the key.
"It has given me a lot of good luck and quite a few good movies, too. And now, I'm going to give it to you with a prayer that it will open some very good doors for you, too. God bless you, dear Hitch. I'm coming to give you the key."
Bergman left the stage and walked past the tables to where Hitchcock was seated. When she reached him, he rose, unassisted, though not without difficulty. He accepted the key, and they embraced tenderly in what was an emotional moment for both.
Ingrid Bergman was also ill, and there was only a little time remaining for them to be together.
After the show ended, I was standing near Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant as they chatted. "Was that really the same key we used in the film?" I heard her ask him.
Grant smiled and shrugged.
Hilton Green, longtime professional associate of Hitchcock, was there with his wife. Although Green had worked on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Psycho, and Marnie, his wife had never met the great director.
"I kept my family away," Green told me. "I thought that was the right thing to do. But the AFI function was all over, and my wife said, 'I want to meet him.'
"I said, 'No, this is not the appropriate time.' Mr. H. was at a table, ringside, down there with Mr. and Mrs. Wasserman, and Cary Grant, and Alma. They were all at the same table, and I said, 'You're not going down there with that group.'
"She said, 'I'm going to go and meet him.' I didn't know what to do.
"I'll never forget. Cary Grant was in the middle of telling a story. Hitchcock was seated and I walked up behind him, and all I did was put my hand on his shoulder. He turned and looked up, and he interrupted Cary Grant, and said, 'Hilton.'
"I said, 'I don't want to interrupt,' and he said, 'Please, please.' I said, 'No, I just want you to meet my wife.'
"And he said, 'The Madame is here? Ah! you've kept me away from her for so long!' And he struggled to get up, with a great effort.
"I said, 'Don't get up, don't get up.'
"He said, 'Of course I'm going to get up.' And he did. He turned and kissed my wife's hand and said it was a wonderful pleasure to finally meet the Madame."
The lunch with King Vidor at Hamburger Hamlet never happened.
The AFI event was the last time I saw Alfred Hitchcock.
Copyright © 2005 by Charlotte Chandler
Meet the Author
Charlotte Chandler is the author of several biographies of actors and directors, including Groucho Marx, Federico Fellini, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Crawford, and Mae West, all of whom she interviewed extensively. She is a member of the board of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and lives in New York City.
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There have been many past biographies published about the master filmmaker, but this very personal memior about the legendary man is a perceptive study of his private life with warm and glowing rememberences by those who knew him, not just as one of the world's most accomplished and revered film directors, but as a very special human being who continues to amaze and impress a future generation of filmmakers and moviegoers. Charlotte Chandler's detailed research and her insightful interviews with his friends and family, collaborators, casts and crews have paid off handsomely with this wonderfully entertaining and informative book that I most highly recommend.