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Hitchcock: "Never mess about with a dead body -- you may be one..."

Have you ever committed a murder?

Alfred Hitchcock waited in a deep chair by the window, like a judge in chambers preparing for a last word with a strangler. The pale morning sunlight struggled into the room and collapsed at his feet. It was a grey morning, a foggy Chicago morning. On such mornings, he said, he is reminded sometimes of the Acid Bath Murders...

"Committed by a man named Haig, I believe his name was. Did his jobs in a little garage halfway between London and the coast. He was tripped up when the undermanageress of the Hounslow Court Hotel, Kensington, noticed him going out with women and not coming back in with them, or something of the sort. "Of course once the police had a look into that garage, they'd solved their case. They found everything: the bills for the acid, the tub where he did his work, and even some plastic dentures that hadn't been eaten up by the acid...

"In court, Haig claimed he drank his victim's blood. Of course he did nothing of the sort. Those tales are always...ah, unlikely. He was tried before Mr. Justice Humphries and brought in guilty."

Hitchcock leaned forward slightly, his hands still crossed on his paunch, and his voice lowered.

"The touch that fascinated me didn't take place until years afterward. Mr. Justice Humphries finally retired, and then his wife died, and so he closed up his big house and moved into...the Hounslow Court Hotel!"

Hitchcock bounced back in his chair and beamed with satisfaction.

"I read his biography," Hitchcock said. "It tells us that when he was informed of the coincidence, Mr. Justice Humphries laughed sardonically."

Hitchcock permitted himself a small sardonic laugh in demonstration.

Have you ever committed a murder? I asked him.

"No, he said soberly, and shook his head. "Too scared. But I do believe the perfect crime is being committed at this minute. It would have to be, of course, totally without emotion. So few crimes are. We all of us have emotion stirring about there somewhere. That was the case in 'Marnie,' of course, which was about a man who wanted to go to bed with a thief."

Hitchcock pursed his lips.

"Reminds me," he said, "of the case reported in the British papers about a one-armed woman who sued a woman with no legs for the alienation of her husband's affections. Of course, as it turned out, the poor man had a proclivity for maimed women. His wife had no recourse, really, except perhaps to cut off her other arm...

Hitchcock smiled, and it was a warm and benign smile. You had the feeling he would helpfully have assisted the woman with her saw.

"If I had not been what I am," he said, "I think I would have preferred to have been a criminal lawyer. That would have been fascinating, finding out about criminals and their crimes, and being a ham actor in court! I have such a dread of the law, you know. Of policemen. I did not drive a car for 11 years after coming to this country for fear of being stopped and given a ticket. Psychiatrists tell me my phobia can be cured, but I doubt it. So many of my pictures have been about wrongly accused men on the run." He shuddered. "That's the most dreadful thing of all." Hitchcock was in Chicago to promote his latest picture, "Topaz," which opens here after the first of the year. Unfortunately, it was not previewed for any of the critics before his visit, and so it was impossible to ask specific questions about it.

"No matter," he said. "You'll see it soon enough. You'll only like it the second time...that's what I think. My pictures become classics, magically, with age. The critics never like them first time around. I remember when 'Psycho' first came out, one of the London critics called it a blot on an honorable career. And Time magazine panned it so badly that I was surprised, a year later, to find them referring to someone else's thriller as being 'in the classic "Psycho" tradition,'

"Still, some of my pictures have never quite been accepted, I'm afraid. To this day I'm disappointed by the reception for 'The Trouble with Harry.' It was an English-type comedy of the macabre, which I made in 1955. All about a body that gets dug up and buried about four times. I shot it in Vermont, during the fall, to get all the autumn colors: yellow, red, there was beauty in the trees. And then a French intellectual asked me why I shot it in the autumn. His theory was that I was using the season of decay as a counterpoint to poor Harry's own decay."

Hitchcock snuffled to show how ridiculous that was. "The only message in the picture," he said, "was that you should never mess about with a dead body - you may be one yourself someday."

The French intellectual in question was doubtless Francois Truffaut, who conducted 50 hours of meticulously detailed interviews with Hitchcock and compiled them in the fascinating book "Hitchcock/Truffaut." Not content, Truffaut then made a film in homage to Hitchcock: "The Bride Wore Black" (1968), in which he deliberately tried to copy Hitchcock's style in a story of a widow who set out to murder the five killers of her husband. I asked Hitchcock how he liked Truffaut's film.

"Very much," he said. "Very much yes. Of course, I worried a little bit as to how the bride knew there were five men. That's never explained, you know. Certain things, of course, you do leave out in order not to give the story away. But you should never leave out your basic premise, I should think...

"Still, Truffaut understood very well that I depend on style more than plot. It is how you do it, and not your content that makes you an artist. A story is simply a motif, just as a painter might paint a bowl of fruit just to give him something to be painting." Hitchcock said his own primary contribution to a film occurs while the script is being written. "Once the screenplay is finished," he said, "I'd just as soon not make the film at all. All the fun is over. I have a strongly visual mind. I visualize a picture right down to the final cuts. I write all this out in the greatest detail in the script, and then I don't look at the script while I'm shooting. I know it off by heart, just as an orchestra conductor needs not look at the score. It's melancholy to shoot a picture. When you finish the script, the film is perfect. But in shooting it you lose perhaps 40 per cent of your original conception."

He sighed. "Still, there are challenges. In 'The Birds,' for example, we solved some delightful technical problems. Remember that scene where the gulls swoop down on the town? That was actually three separate elements of film, brought together.

"First we shot a parking lot with people hurrying across it. Then we had an artist paint an aerial view of the town, which we superimposed over the people. Then we went out to a cliff and threw a lot of garbage off it, and pointed our camera straight down to catch the gulls swooping down for it. Then two women went to work for three months, copying the gulls from the rest of those pictures, frame by frame. Then we added them to our other pictures, and we had gulls swooping down on the town - or so it seemed. It used to enrage me when people suggested those were mechanical birds. "But times have changed in Hollywood. I remember in the old days we had more fun writing movies. You could bring in three or four writers and have them polish a script. Now they all want credit, Robert Benchley did some of the dialog for 'Foreign Correspondent,' I recall. And Dorothy Parker, of course, contributed some very funny lines to 'Saboteur,' including the quarrel between the thin man and the midget.

He smiled. "Dorothy Parker. Now there was an extraordinary woman. I remember once we were all sitting in the Stork Club in New York, conducting some perfectly ridiculous argument about whether the word 'ski' should be pronounced 'ski' or 'she.' Somebody took the position that skiing was a Norwegian sport, and that in Norway they pronounced it 'she' and so we should too. The argument went on forever, until Dorothy finally wearied of it, She pounded on the table and shouted out: 'Oh, skit!'" Hitchcock enjoyed his joke enormously, and was still laughing as he put on his overcoat and headed for a limousine that would deliver him to a taping session for Kup's Show.

"I remember once I was on Kup's Show," he said, "and I agreed to appear on condition I not say one single word for a full hour. Jack Paar was on the same program, and I didn't want to have to compete with him. So for a full hour I sat there in stony silence, saying not a single word. Of course I obtained my objective. I drove Paar utterly crazy."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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