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Dick Cavett: Alfred Hitchcock
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The Dick Cavett Show: Alfred Hitchcock

An hour spent in the company of legendary director Alfred Hitchcock goes by as fast as his films. It's a rare treat to watch an interview with him, because, as Cavett said, "he loved to talk about his own movies." Taped in 1972 when he was promoting his newest film Frenzy (1972), the show began with Hitchcock's theme song and Cavett and Hitchcock both walking into the frame from different directions, posing in silhouette, just as Hitchcock did at the beginning of his television show. Hitchcock, wearing his usual deadpan expression, was greeted with a thunderous ovation by the audience.

The interview touched on Hitchcock's childhood, in which he claimed that his talent for scaring people was developed because his mother scared him at three months by saying, "boo" to get rid of his hiccups. Whether that's true or not, it is widely known that Hitchcock had a lifelong fear of the police, because his father sent him to the station for "a minor misdemeanor" when he was five years old and was put in a cell for a few minutes. The experience left him with the feeling of "mild apprehension" when he saw a police officer.

One element of an Alfred Hitchcock film is the "maguffin", which he described as being the thing you see in most films about spies. "In the days of Rudyard Kipling it would be the plans for the fort in the Khyber Pass; it would be the plans of an airplane engine and the plans of an atom bomb." It's always called the thing the audience wouldn't care about but the actor in the film does, like uranium in Notorious (1946). Hitchcock claimed to have gone to Caltech in 1944 with the writer Ben Hecht to ask if an atom bomb was possible. After that, he was followed by the FBI for several months.

The talk moved to one of his most famous films, The Birds (1963). "I purposely didn't advise the technical department what would be necessary, otherwise they would have said it was impossible." The film required 3200 trained birds, of which he found the ravens the cleverest and the seagulls the most vicious. "The hardest was to try to get them not to be so vicious." The psychology he employed: birdseed. The shot of the bird pecking off part of the girl's head was done by having a tube of compressed air running up the girl's back and into her air. The air blew her hair up and a process shot of a bird swooping down was laid over it.

Another famous Hitchcock scene was Martin Balsam's fall down the stairs in Psycho (1960). "The point is that if a person falls, they are fighting the fall, they don't just drop back. There's an effort to prevent and you get that effect there. It was a double printed thing. He didn't fall down a single stair, he sat in a very comfortable chair and lay back. We made the background first. That's how actors earn their money - by not having to do the things they're supposed to do."

Hitchcock is famous for speaking of his dislike of working with actors, and Cavett asked if it was true that he had once said that actors were cattle. "I would never say such an unfeeling, rude thing at all. What I probably said was that all actors should be treated as cattle. In a nice way of course." Carole Lombard, who he described as "a woman with a great sense of humor" got him back for that remark. On the first day of shooting Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), he arrived to find that Lombard had a corral built on the set that held three live calves with the names of the three leading actors hung around their necks.

Hitchcock spoke of his own reputation for being a practical joker, which he said he gave up because "I find people don't have the same sense of humor anymore." He once held a dinner party where all the food was blue. "Everything was blue. Full meal, chicken soup - blue, blue trout, blue chicken, blue ice cream. And when you broke open your roll, the bread was blue inside. I didn't comment on it at all." Another dinner party was held for his wife at the famed Chasen's restaurant in which he got Central Casting to send over an actress made up as a very wealthy, elegant woman, and had her placed at the head of the table. People kept asking Hitchcock, "Who's the old lady?" He said he didn't know her, "which was the truth, I'd never met her before. And the proprietor kept out of the way and guests continued to arrive and always asked the same question" to which he replied, "I don't know; we're trying to find out." Dave Chasen came back and said, "She says she's with Mr. Hitchcock's party." The old lady remained the entire dinner, "drinking martini's by the way. Apparently, she had to be helped to the car."

Cavett asked if there was a scene he wouldn't do again and Hitchcock spoke of the scene in Sabotage (1936) in which a boy was blown up. "I made a terrible mistake having the boy carry a bomb across the city. The audience knew it was a bomb and I built it up and up." The bomb was set to go off at one o'clock, but Hitchcock let it go a few minutes after one and instead of having the bomb found and thrown away and explode harmlessly, he let it go off. The anger from the critics - including one woman who came at him with raised fists at the premiere, was not because he blew up the boy, but because he didn't relieve them at the end of the suspense. He compared it to a roller coaster. "They scream, it goes down a big dip and up and they scream, but they get off giggling. [...] Why do people pay money to be scared? I don't know why. I earn my living doing it. What would my starving wife and child do without it?"

When asked what was fun about making a film, he said "Making a picture like Psycho. That's hilarious to me. It has to be. If we're designing the film, I'm sitting with the writer and you say, 'Well, wouldn't it be fun to kill them this way or that way?' And then you say, 'Well this scene will make them scream', so you do it with a sort of lushness of enjoyment and it's no different than the man who's driving the nails in that scaffolding who's making the roller coaster. He knows they'll get a scream eventually. [...] There is a streak of cruelty in everyone. It's a kind of enjoyment in knowing that they'll enjoy themselves in that peculiar way, in that time. I call it dipping their toe in the cold waters of fear."

Hitchcock particularly enjoyed planning the scene in Foreign Correspondent (1940) in which the airplane dives into the ocean and the water splashes over it. The audience didn't question it. "They didn't say 'What happened to the camera crew or anything. Did they drown and were never seen again?' They just took it for granted." The scene was done by having a test pilot put a camera on the nose of his plane and go out over the ocean in Santa Monica and dive, but pull out at the last moment. They then went into the studio and had six 8x6 screens made out of rice paper with 2700 gallon water tanks behind them. By pushing a button, Hitchcock sent the water through the rice paper and over the actors playing the pilots.

Perhaps the most famous scene of any Hitchcock film is the shower scene in Psycho in which Janet Leigh is stabbed to death. As Hitchcock explained, the knife never touched the body. There were 78 shots in 45 seconds and the cuts were made so quickly that it gave the illusion of a murder. Women were so frightened after seeing the film that they wouldn't take showers alone in the house. Hitchcock claimed a man wrote to him saying that after watching the French film Diabolique (1955), his daughter wouldn't take a tub bath. After watching Psycho, she refused to take a shower. "As a result she is very unpleasant to be around. I replied, 'Dear Sir, send her to the dry cleaners.'"

By Lorraine LoBianco

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