The Death of Hitchcock
Get out your handkerchiefs, this could get pretty emotional. I’m not kidding.
Filming in England again for FRENZY, Hitch remarked, “When I enter the studios — be it in Hollywood or in London — and the heavy doors close behind me, there is no difference. A salt mine is always a salt mine.”
I’m fascinated by this turn of phrase, equating the Master’s life work with a penal sentence, and tying the image of the movie studio to the central image of the police cell, Hitch’s primal scene, harking back to the time he was locked in a cell as a small boy with no idea of when he would be released. I happen to believe that story, which is mentioned by a character in MURDER long before Hitch seems to have told it to the press as a simplistic Freudian explanation of why he was fascinated by crime and suspense.
We shall return to that cell later…
After FAMILY PLOT was completed and had been publicized, Hitch started work on THE SHORT NIGHT a spy thriller he had acquired ten years before. He worked on a treatment with Norman Lloyd for a time, then snubbed him when Lloyd balked at the idea of jumping straight into a screenplay. Hitch tried writing by himself, but he’d always used collaborators, and nothing got done. It must have been lonely and depressing. Then came Ernest Lehman again, despite Hitchcock’s having been rather tired by Lehman on FAMILY PLOT. Work went well, but Lehman resisted a rape-murder scene from Ronald Kirkbride’s source novel, and Hitch decided he needed another writer.
Universal fixed him up with David Freeman, who wrote about the collaboration later in The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock. Despite the fact that the action played out in England and Finland, they proceeded as if the film would get made: Hitch would simply have a second unit shoot background plates and he’d make the thing in the studio. Lew Wasserman, Hitch’s old agent and now head of Universal, let it be known that Hitch had made a fortune for the studio and if keeping him happy in his declining years cost them a couple of million, it was money well spent.
Hitchcock was arthritic, overweight, had a heart condition and a pacemaker, but the thought of making another film kept him going.
Meanwhile, Alma’s health was in decline: strokes left her disabled and confused. She resented Hitch’s going to work and leaving her, and some mornings she would spew obscenities at him as he left the house. A stroke can have a disinhibiting effect on language: even little old ladies often say “Fucking hell,” as their first words upon recovering the power of speech. Robert Bolt though this was because the words sound so good, but it’s also due to the internal censor being knocked out of action. Alma Reville’s brain was behaving like Hollywood after the collapse of the Hays Code.
Charlotte Chandler’s “personal biography” of Hitchcock, It’s Only a Movie, ends in this unbearably moving fashion:
‘Near the end of his life, Hitchcock said that when he and Alma realized they couldn’t travel anymore, it was then that they really felt old. “We could have traveled,” he said, but it would have been like trying to make movies when you really can’t.
‘Hitchcock was a romantic, as was his wife. They had spoken about just one more trip to the Palace Hotel in St. Moritz, perhaps for Christmas, their favourite time to be there to celebrate their wedding anniversary.
‘”Neither of us wanted to disappoint the other,” he said, “by admitting to not believing the possibility existed. Then, Alma and I stopped talking about our next trip to St. Moritz. Each of us had come to understand that it wasn’t a place we wanted to return to, but a time.
‘”The worst thing, you know, is when you cannot go back to a place where you have always been happy,” he said, “because you are afraid that if you go back, you won’t be happy–not because the place has changed, but because you have changed.”
Finally, Hitch called a producer in and asked him to tell Lew Wasserman that THE SHORT NIGHT was off. “I can’t face him.” Within a day, Hitch’s office had been cleared. His staff were resentful that they’d had no warning of their approaching redundancy, but Hitch hadn’t known himself. For a while he still came into the empty office and had his haircut. Then he stopped coming.
Hitchcock went to bed. He refused food. If visitors came, he swore at them and drove them out. Hitchcock, whose brother had committed suicide, willed himself to die. His doctor said later that his system was still basically strong, and he could have gone on a few years, but he didn’t want to. It wasn’t exactly suicide, Hitchcock didn’t do anything to bring about his death. He just avoided doing the things that would keep him alive. If there was no movie, there was no point.
Jay Presson Allen’s screenplay for MARY ROSE, perhaps the most fascinating of Hitchcock’s unmade films, ends with a slow pull-back from a remote, magical, and sinister island, with this voice-over, quoted in Bill Krohn’s seminal Hitchcock at Work:
Well, that’s it. Let’s go back home now.
There, of course, it’s raining…
THE CAMERA begins to retreat. The Island grows smaller, smaller.
…as usual. And there’s a naughty boy waiting for punishment and an old villager who had the fatal combination of weak heart and bad temper. He’s waiting to be buried. All the usual, dependable, un-islandy things.
(He sighs deeply.)
I think I do. It’s raining back home because it always seems to be raining when we leave a movie, doesn’t it? (Plus, the movie is set in Scotland.) The naughty boy awaiting punishment (in a police cell?) and the old man with the weak heart are both Hitchcock, at opposite ends of his life, aren’t they? (The Tralfamadorians see human beings as long centipedes, with baby legs at one end and old arthritic ones at the other). On the Island That Likes to be Visited, imagination rules. It’s a frightening, mysterious place, and Hitch had the power to go there in his mind and return at will.
Alma lived on for two years, “as happy as a clam,” according to daughter Pat. Although she attended Hitch’s funeral, she had no idea he was gone. “Hitch is in the next room,” she would whisper, confidentially.
I wondered what 2010 would be like now Hitchcock Year is done — odd, not having him around. But Hitchcock is always around when you’re talking about film.
“Hitch is in the next room.”
Best wishes to all Shadowplayers in the New Year!