Alfred Hitchcock held to a longstanding filmmaking belief: “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” And what exquisite tortures he crafted.
Over the course of his five-decade-plus career in cinema, the British-born Hitchcock emerged as one of the preeminent film directors of the 20th Century who had an extraordinary ability to tap basic everyday interpersonal and societal anxieties and twist and turn them into the fodder for some of most absorbing, enduring thrillers the medium has ever seen.
His formalized, funereal public persona is now firmly back on the pop culture landscape with the cinema release of "Hitchcock" on Nov. 23, HBO's "The Girl" (which chronicled the director's obsession with his leading lady Tippi Hedren) and a new Blu-Ray limited edition set titled “Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection” that includes "Vertigo," "The Birds," "Psycho" (the making of which inspired the new film release starring Anthony Hopkins in the titular role), "North by Northwest" and "Rear Window" among other well known releases from the master of suspense.
“I'm a massive fan of Hitchcock's films,” says actor Toby Jones, who played the filmmaker with uncanny acuity in “The Girl.” “I think he had a huge sense of what was beautiful as well as what was suspenseful and scary…The thing about Hitchcock, which is so extraordinary for a director at that time, is that he had a very strong sense of his own image and publicizing himself.”
With both Hitchcock and his iconic films proving to be the subjects of eternal fascination on the screen, a quartet of actors who starred in a sampling of Hitchcock’s most unforgettable films early in their careers – Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau in “North By Northwest” and Tippi Hedren and Veronica Cartwright in “The Birds,” with Hedren also headlining the polarizing “Marnie” – shared their personal memories of the man behind the seemingly impenetrable image.
Eva Marie Saint: Hitchcock wanted to meet me, so he invited me to lunch to his house with his wife Alma in Bel Air, right on the golf course, and we had this beautiful, wonderful lunch. My mom had read somewhere that Hitchcock liked women in beige, so I said, ‘Oh, that's a nice tip, Mom.’ I used to live in beige, so I had a beige dress. And she said, ‘Well, honey, he also likes women wearing little white gloves, so I said, ‘Oh, well, I'm from New York, and we always wore little white gloves.’ I can't imagine that now, by the way! So I wore the white gloves and the beige dress, had this lovely lunch, and the part was mine.
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He put me at ease. It was lovely. I asked, ‘Why would you live on a golf course? Were there ever any balls coming through the window?’ And he said, ‘No, but there were a lot in the garden, and we would throw them back.’ He didn't ask me many questions either, actually, when I think back. Not that sort of thing: ‘Who are you? What have you done?’ It was just really, inviting a stranger – me – to their house and making me feel very comfortable.
Martin Landau: I was new in California, and I was in a play at The Biltmore Theater. He came opening night. It's a play I did on Broadway called 'Middle of the Night,' Paddy Chayefsky's first play on Broadway, and Edward G. Robinson was the star and Gena Rowlands played my wife. I toured with it, came to California and Hitchcock came opening night and saw me in the play. The next thing I know I got a telephone call from an agent who said, 'Do you know Alfred Hitchcock?' I said, 'Well, know him or know of him? There's a difference. I know of him.' He said, 'He seems to know you, and he wants you to come to MGM tomorrow afternoon.'
My agent and I drive out to Culver City and I'm ushered into his office, takes my hand and welcomes me. We would go around his numbers of offices in his complex and the whole picture is storyboarded on the walls of these offices – the whole picture, every cut from the first to the last shot. But in the course of showing me this, he says, 'Oh, Martin, this is where your character comes into the picture.' He said, 'Here you are on Mount Rushmore.' This is how I was introduced to Alfred Hitchcock and this is how I learned I was working for him, which was a bit of a shock, frankly. That's how I discovered that I was in 'North by Northwest.'
Tippi Hedren: This call came on Friday the 13th of October, 1961, asking me if I was the girl in the Sego [diet soda] commercials, and they said, 'A producer is interested in you.' And I said, 'Who? Who?' And they said, 'Well, come over and have a meeting with us.' So I did, and they wouldn't tell me at that meeting. They asked if I would leave my reel of 12 or so commercials and my photo book over the weekend, which I did. And I went back on Monday and I met more executives.
Nobody would tell me who this was. It became kind of a game - it was kind of fun. And on Tuesday I was asked to go to MCA, which was then the biggest agency in the United States, and it was then that I was told that Alfred Hitchcock wanted to sign me to a contract, if I would look at it. They handed me the contract and said, 'Look it over, and if you approve, and sign it, we will go over to meet him.' And I was under contract before I met him.
Veronica Cartwright: He requested meeting me – I think he saw me in ‘The Children's Hour,’ which I did with Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn. I went over to the Universal Lot to his bungalow to talk to him. He found out that I was born in Bristol, England, which was where his favorite wine cellar was. He proceeded to tell me about wines, which I didn't have a clue about when I was12 years old, and he taught me how to cook a steak, because one day I would get married and I would need to know how to do that.
Hedren: It never occurred to me that I would even be considered [to star in one of Hitchcock’s films]. I thought I would be doing the 'Hitchcock Presents' weekly TV shows. The Hitchcocks invited me to Chasen's and he presented me with this jeweled bird pin and said, 'We want you to play Melanie Daniels in "The Birds."' I was stunned – truly stunned – and I got kind of teary eyed. I looked over at Alma and she had tears in her eyes, and Hitch looked very pleased with himself.
And then, of course, the work began, which was fabulous because although I had the technical education, I didn't know how to break down a script, how to develop the character, look at the script and the relationships of the different actors. I mean I didn't know. I didn't have any of those tools. So he became not only my director but my drama coach…It was a gift to be able to listen to him talk about the films, about his past films – and there was so much talk about his past films – and the way he would be able to manipulate the audience. There was such an incredible fountain of information that I received about making film that it was thrilling. It was empowering.
Cartwright: I would ask him questions. I wanted to know why, on the jungle gym and on the wires, there were just cardboard cut-out birds, but they were mixed in with real birds. I said, ‘Won't an audience know that?’ And he said, ‘Your eyes see movement, and you assume that everything is alive.’ And it's absolutely true – you don't find yourself looking at the ones that are stationary. You're looking at the movement, and your eye takes it in as if everything’s moving. And the scene at the end when we go to go out of the door: there was no door there and I wondered how it was going to look like a door. He said, ‘Well, if I had a door there, I wouldn't be able to see you.’ So he said, ‘Rod, show them how it's done,’ and Rod Taylor pantomimes opening up a door, and he pulls it, and then this shaft of light cuts across our faces so it looks like he is inside of the door. It was amazing. He said, ‘You see: that is the magic of movies.’
Saint: He knew exactly what he wanted, and that showed. ‘Eva Marie, you sit here. Cary [Grant], you sit here.’ That was the most direction as I remember, but I was from The Actors Studio and Lee Strasberg there said, ‘The actor is the instrument’ – I love that vision – ‘and the director is the conductor. He conducts you and you figure out what he means and how he means and make it your own performance.’ Hitchcock didn't give much direction…He was editing as he went along. I'm not sure how the other directors work, but I have a feeling this was a very special kind of way of making a movie.
Cartwright: He used to tell bad jokes all the time. I would laugh because everybody else was laughing – I had imagined they were quite rude, but the adults seemed to get a kick out of it. When we did the stuff running down the hill in Bodega Bay, they had marionettes or mobiles of birds on a thing that would swoop down. We were all on this enormous treadmill, and I think he got a little carried away. He kept having us speed it up. We were hanging on – you just had to do your best to stay in the front, because otherwise if one kid went, you all went flying off at the end onto this huge mattress. The sheer look of terror, the faster he made it go, you couldn't miss it. These kids were just like, ‘Oh my God – I have to keep up!’ It was hysterical, and I'm sure he did that on purpose.
Landau: He said ‘I want your character to be better dressed than Cary Grant,’ so he took me to a tailor called Quintino’s on Wilshire Boulevard and had certain suits fitted for me. He accompanied me, and they were lovely suits that fit me impeccably. Then I went to Chicago when we started shooting. He called me – I wasn't working that day – and said, 'Martin, I'd like you to put the blue suit on which you're going to wear tomorrow, because I'd like to see it in the environment.' So I put the blue suit on and I went to the La Salle Street Station where they were shooting.
There was a large crowd cordoned off watching the shooting. I stood with that crowd, waiting for the shot to stop, when I'm tapped on the shoulder. There's a Cockney guy standing there who I later find out is Ray Austin, who happens to be Cary Grant's bodyguard, valet, and general practitioner – whatever. He says, 'Excuse me. Mr. Grant would like to know where you got that suit? Only two people in the world make a suit like that. One is in Beverly Hills and one is Hong Kong.'
I'm standing with a crowd of Chicagoans, and Cary Grant, who I've not met yet, spots my suit. I realize what's going on: Hitchcock took me to Cary’s tailor and my character is going to be better dressed: Cary wears one suit in the entire movie because he's absconded – they made like eight versions of that suit in various disrepair as the picture goes on; it's one suit but eight versions of that suit. I'm wearing his suit, made to his specifications, and I realize with that little introduction what Hitchcock has done. He loved practical jokes. So wisely, I said, 'I think Mr. Grant should have this conversation with Mr. Hitchcock and not with me.' Austin says 'Oh, I see,' and he leaves. The shot is over, and Hitchcock looks at me in the suit. I said, 'I think Cary wants to talk to you.' He said 'I know.' It's a great story and absolutely true.