Alfred Hitchcock’s groundbreaking work had a ubiquitous effect on the film industry – there isn’t a scary movie today that has not in some way been influenced by the English director’s vision. The famed horror/mystery/thriller/suspense director was a rotund 73-year-old little boy when he appeared on The Dick Cavett show in June, 1972. The episode opens with the recognizable opening theme to the ever-popular The Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62), with Cavett and Hitchcock appearing in silhouette from opposite sides of the screen. Though Cavett struggles to keep a straight face through his introduction, Hitch maintains an expression of bored indifference like a pro.
However, Hitchcock’s 90 minute interview with Cavett is anything but boring. The audience is treated to an hour and a half of the directors maudlin sense of humour, as well as insight into his production methods and motivations.
On the source of his fascination with fear
Hitch: “I was Jesuit-educated, and that’s where I learned about fear.”
Cavett: “You were terrorised by your teachers?”
Hitch: “They scared the hell out of me.”
“When I was a child of five, my father sent me with a note to the local chief of police for a minor, I must admit, a minor misdemeanor, and I was placed in a cell for five minutes. Now, psychiatrists say if you can trace the origin of your fear, it will disappear – the whole thing is a confounded lie, because I still have it. Never left me.”
On making scary movies
“What is funny? For me: making a picture like PSYCHO (1960). That’s hilarious to me. It has to be. If we’re designing the film, I’m sitting with the writer, and I say, “Wouldn’t it be fun to kill them this way?” And then you say, “Well, this scene will make them scream.” So, you do it with a sort of lushness of enjoyment. It’s no different to the main who’s driving the nails into the scaffolding who’s making the roller coaster. He knows they’re going to scream eventually. There’s a fine line between what is fear and what is comic.”
“If you put the audience through the mill like that, you must relieve it. The bomb must be found and quickly thrown out of the window. Then it goes off out there, and the audience are relieved.”
“A ‘Macguffin‘ is a thing you see in most films about spies. It is the thing the spies are after… It’s always called the thing that the characters on the screen worry about but the audience don’t care.”
[It’s not from a Hitchcock film, but the statuette from THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) is the perfect example of a MacGuffin.]
On actors, “that necessary evil”
“That’s how actors earn their money – by not having to do the things they’re supposed to do.”
On being accused of calling actors cattle:
Hitch: “I would never say such an unfeeling, rude thing about actors at all. What I probably said was that all actors should be treated liked cattle.”
Cavett: “I see. And you went on to do that.”
Hitch: “In a nice way, of course.”
“Walt Disney had the right idea – if he didn’t like the actors, he tore them up!”
Why did you never make a costume film?
“Nobody in a costume picture ever goes to the toilet.”
Favorite film you ever made?
SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943), because it’s a true, character picture.
Favorite contemporary directors?
Biography, never fiction
The humorous side of Alfred Hitchcock
“Puns are the highest form of literature.”
Hitch: “I’m generalizing, and he’s not an army man, either.”
Hitch: “General Ising.”
“I had a letter from a man who said that ‘My daughter, after she say the French film DIABOLIQUE (1954) wouldn’t take a tub any more,’ because they had a scene with a man coming out of a tub and taking his eyes out, some horror scene… He said, ‘and after seeing this she’d never take a tub. Now, having seen PSYCHO (1960) she won’t take a shower! As a result, she’s very unpleasant to be around.’ So I replied, ‘Dear Sir, send her to the dry cleaners.’”
“They allow a certain amount of nudity over there [on English television]. Considering the weather over there, I’m surprised!”
Cavett: “You have the most odd sense of humor.”
Hitch: “How do you mean odd? Do you mean 1-5-7-9-11…?”