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.)

You understand.

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!

24 Responses to “The Death of Hitchcock”

  1. A song for year’s end:

    Happy New Year

  2. Many many many thanks, David. Have a wonderful new year.

  3. He is always in the room!

    “Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash – the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. “Be of good heart,” cry the dead artists out of the living past. “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.”
    (I think we all know which movie this is from, at least over here)

    When I started getting into film-makers I always found looking at the later films however great depressing because it’s near the end, but then immediately you look at an earlier film and you are back in time when he was younger and just starting out. So maybe after Hitchcock year, we should re-re-visit The Lodger or Blackmail or Sabotage.

  4. Beautiful, Peter (and Liam). Beautiful Arthur (and Orson). Thanks, Simon.

  5. AnneBillson Says:

    Well done and thank you. I’ve enjoyed your Hitchcock blogging enormously (and haven’t even read them all, but will undoubtedly go back to browse the ones I missed).

    So who’s next on the agenda?

  6. A lovely curtain call Mr. Cairns!

  7. Tony Williams Says:

    The end is very sad. I second David E. in his above comment.

  8. Thank you.

    No plans for 2010 as yet, except that Fiona and I have a feature film to write. So blogging in January may be lighter than usual. (Early symptom of that: no Forgotten today.)

  9. Christopher Says:

    All the best to you David and everyone in the New Year!..THis remains the coziest little film blog in cyber space!

  10. I raise a glass of mulled wine in all your directions! Staying home and watching Lon Chaney in Maurice Tourneur’s Victory turned out to be a very good New Year’s plan!

  11. A wonderful finale – only you could link Hitch and Vonnegut like that. We tried to watch The Hourglass Sanatorium (too glum, Kakfaesque) then went for last year’s NYE choice, The Good Fairy (wonderful) with a side order of Chimes at Midnight. During the middle film we noticed it had started snowing. We went out into the street, there was another family right down the other end throwing snowballs – otherwise, nothing, and my daughter had her first experience of snow, looking upwards at the moon. She slept through the Welles. Thanks for Hitch Year.

  12. That sounds magical! The best moment in Me & Orson Welles is a recitation of “We have heard the chimes at mignight…” Goosebumps.

    I love The Good Fairy to bits. “Did you see his eyes? Like angry marbles!”

  13. It is good, but has he confused Mogambo with Hatari!? I can’t recall if there are baby elephants in Mogambo. Oh, there probably are.

    Richard Lester went on a double date with Grace Kelly and her sister, and considered himself lucky he got the pretty one, which wasn’t Grace.

  14. Hank Moonjean told me the great thing about Grace Kelly was “she wasn’t a snob. She’d sleep with the actor, she’d sleep with the director, she’d sleep with the producer, she’d sleep with the grip.”

  15. Yeah, I think Lester missed out. Fiona speculated that Grace’s seduction technique, as demonstrated in To Catch a Thief (where she just moves in on Grant and kisses him apropos of nothing) was probably true to life.

  16. Hogmanay Greetings DAvid and Fiona !

    Just watched the Glorious 39 a BAFTA DVD with Miss b- truly appauling – despite masterly cat acting in it….

  17. Ben Slater Says:

    Bravo. It’s been a fantastic series. More proof, if it were needed, that there’s always something else to say about Hitch.

  18. Thanks! There’s certainly tons I haven’t even begun to touch upon, and another writer would have whole different responses. It’s a bottomless well of genius!

  19. Bravo indeed. Your last line gave me chills.

    It beats the Doctor Who farewell.

  20. Thank you sir. The Dr Who at least had Bernard “Frenzy” Cribbins, I’ll give it that! And his involvement was a nice plot twist.

  21. I’m sad to see the Hitchcock series come to an end, and wish Hitch would come back in zombie form to make further films for you to write on. Thanks to your work I ended up buying Barrie’s Mary Rose and printing out and reading the unmade screenplay. Strangely, I felt that Cameron’s last lines seemed like an inappropriately sardonic way of closing the film. But that might indicate that the script was a transition point between Barrie’s fey poignancy and the more horror-inflected approach Hitchcock and Allen would have brought out in the final product. If so, it leaves one not only sad that the film was never made, but also that a final script was never written.

  22. I like to think of the VO, though whimsical, being delivered with a certain bitter sadness that might work. At any rate, it’s certainly sad and beautiful to think of the film that might have been.

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