Alfred Hitchcock’s Collaborators: Alma Reville

26 03 2010

Throughout his extraordinary career, Alfred Hitchcock had the help of several important collaborators in bringing his ideas to the screen. It’s hard to imagine “Psycho” without the musical score of Bernard Hermann, for example. Others, notably female actors like Grace Kelly, inspired Hitchcock to tell a certain type of story.

A shot of Alma Reville around 1920, from the documentary "Dial H for Hitchcock"

The first collaborator we’ll look at is Alma Reville, whose name, my wife would like to say, means “awakening offering.” Born just one day after Hitchcock, on August 14, 1899, Reville joined the British film industry even before her future husband. Her father worked at Twickenham Film Studios, and Reville got a job there at age 15 as a rewind girl in the cutting room. She quickly moved on to film editing at the London Film Company at age 16, while Hitch was designing advertisements for a cable manufacturer. She then moved to Famous Players-Lasky, where she first met Hitchcock; she was credited as saying, with some pleasure, that when they met, her career was more advanced than his, and that he waited until he had more credits to his name before approaching her to edit the movie “Woman to Woman,” on which he served as assistant director.

Wedding day, 1926

She continued working with Hitchcock as his directing career got under way, serving as a film editor, script girl/continuity editor, writer and, most important, sounding board. In his book “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light,” Patrick McGilligan recounts script conferences held over dinners or during long walks in which Hitch, Reville and a third partner – usually the screenwriter of record – would scrutinize every aspect of the story they were trying to tell.

Working on a script, probably mid-1930s

Reville and Hitchcock married in 1926; their one child, Patricia, was born in1928. The couple shared a passion for film, and Reville was credited as a writer on a number of Hitch’s films, including “The Ring,” “Juno and the Paycock,” Murder,” “The Skin Game,” “Rich and Strange,” “Number Seventeen,” “Waltzes from Vienna,” “The 39 Steps,” “The Secret Agent,” “Sabotage,” “Young and Innocent,” “The Lady Vanishes,” “Jamaica Inn,” “Suspicion,” “Shadow of a Doubt,” “The Paradine Case” and “Stage Fright.” She contributed to many other Hitchcock pictures as well, mostly by critiquing the story and editing. Famously, she was the only person to notice that Janet Leigh moved ever so slightly after the shower scene in “Psycho.” (I’ve seen that movement described as either a swallow or the blink of an eye.)

Her career was not restricted to collaborations with her husband, however. She also wrote at least ten non-Hitchcock films from 1928 to 1945, although the time she spent caring for her family limited her career to some degree. It’s thought that Reville would have become a director herself had she not had a child.

According to McGilligan, Reville was devastated by the negative reviews for Hitch’s 1949 picture “Under Capricorn.” After that, she pulled back from direct involvement in the development of the films, although, as mentioned above, she continued to offer her opinions.

Playing along with Hitch's macabre image, late 1950s

During script conferences, Reville would sit quietly nearby, listening, and when a writer made a suggestion that Hitch was unsure of, the director would look to his wife for help. A few words, even a shake of her head, and Hitchcock would tell the writer to try again. Hitchcock never questioned her opinion; any idea or input she offered was put into affect. He trusted and relied on her expertise throughout his career.

Alma Reville Hitchcock died on July 6, 1982, two years after her husband.

Alfred Hitchcock Enters the Sound Era with “Blackmail”

21 03 2010

“It was a rather simple story, but I never did it the way I wanted to.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Whether or not Alfred Hitchcock was satisfied with “Blackmail,” his final film of the 1920s, there’s no denying the impact it had at the time. “Blackmail” has earned its place in cinema history in many ways. It’s the first British sound film, making inventive use of sound; it’s also Hitchcock’s first thriller since “The Lodger,” which I wrote about here.

Legend has it that after filming had begun, Hitch’s producer, John Maxwell, approved adding a few scenes in sound; Hitch thought this was ridiculous and switched over to sound throughout the rest of the movie, although the opening sequence is silent, with the first bit of dialogue heard just after the eight minute mark. Hitch also made a full silent version of the film, with title cards, that reportedly ran in theaters (the ones not yet equipped for sound) longer than the talking version. You can watch the silent version of the murder scene here:

As we saw in the brief camera test here, Hitch’s star, Anny Ondra, had a heavy accent. Since she was playing a Brit, Hitch got around the problem by having another actress, Joan Barry, stand offstage and read the script while Ondra lip-synced on camera.

The virtually silent opening sequence makes me think that Hitch must have known that sound was coming – the opening of the sequence takes place in a police van, with one officer wearing a headset and listening intently as he receives information. The sequence doesn’t have much to do with the plot, although it does introduce our cast and the New Scotland Yard setting. There’s a tone of modern crime detection set as the man the cops caught is booked and fingerprinted, while we see the arresting officers chatting about their evenings’ plans. (There’s something odd in that opening eight minutes, before the cops begin chatting, about the way we hear music and sound effects, but no dialogue.)

One of the officers meets his girlfriend, Alice, to go out for the evening, although she is annoyed that he kept her waiting. In a crowded restaurant, Alice spots another man she knows. She and the officer, Frank, quarrel, and Frank storms out, leaving Alice to meet the other man, an artist.

The artist talks Alice into coming up to his studio, and there he tries to seduce her by getting her to pose for him in costume. When he kisses her, she says she has to leave, but he’s hidden her own clothes. She asks him to give them back, but instead he tries to kiss her again. She turns away, and he attacks her, pushing her onto a bed behind a curtain. As she screams, we see her hand groping for a weapon – a knife. The screams stop, and his lifeless hand falls out from behind the curtain. Alice steps out of the curtain, knife in hand. She defaces one of the paintings she had praised only minutes before, then changes her clothes and leaves.

Dazed, Alice wanders the city through the night, oblivious to the crowds but horrified when she imagines a neon sign with a cocktail shaker on it having a hand with a knife in it instead. Finally, she gets home, where she helps her parents run a small shop.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood is abuzz with news of the murder. A woman hangs around the shop, talking on and on about how she could never kill someone with a knife until all Alice hears is the word “knife” over and over.

Frank flexes his fists while the blackmailer relaxes

On the crime scene, Frank finds one of Alice’s gloves and realizes what’s happened. He goes to the shop and tries to talk to her, but just then an unsavory character named Tracy enters the shop. He pulls them aside and says that he saw her at the murder scene. In not so many words, he starts demanding money to keep quiet. But Frank receives a phone call saying that the artist’s landlady has identified a possible suspect named Tracy.

Frank sees his opportunity – he’s going to pin the murder on Tracy. Alice is horrified, and Tracy tries to talk his way out of it, but when more officers arrive, Tracy jumps out a window.

"Look! A fabulous relic of the ancient world!"

This leads to the famous sequence in which Tracy takes refuge in the British Museum  with the cops hot on his trail. They weave through halls crowded with antiquities, until Tracy ends up cornered on the museum’s dome. With nowhere to run, he tries to talk his way out, but instead falls to his death.

While all this goes on, though, Alice decides to turn herself in. She arrives at Scotland Yard and is shown into an inspector’s office, where Frank is discussing the case with his boss. When the inspector gets a call, Frank is asked to take Alice’s statement. Frank leads her away, explaining what happened. Alice realizes that she won’t have to go to prison after all, but on her way out she sees some of the artist’s paintings being carried inside as evidence. The haunted look on her face speaks volumes.

“Blackmail” features plot elements that would become major themes running through Hitch’s career, including a blonde woman in danger, death by stabbing, an action sequence in a visually interesting setting, and my favorite, crooked and/or inept cops – in this case, it’s Frank, who is ready to frame Tracy for murder the moment it becomes a convenient way to save his girlfriend. Just for fun, here’s the British Museum sequence, with Hebrew subtitles for some reason…

Along with the innovations in sound, like the knife-y conversation in the shop, the camera work in “Blackmail” is terrific. There are more panning shots, shots where the camera had to have been mounted on a moving vehicle, and a powerful montage of criminals as the landlady reviews mugbooks, where wanted posters and mugshots fade in and out as the pages turns.


Hitchcock had made six pictures since “The Lodger,” his last thriller. This was the genre that would boost him to international fame as “The Master of Suspense,” and it’s worth considering whether he chose this picture and subject matter knowing that he was at a turning point with the start of the sound era. He was already the top director in England; he certainly must have wanted to make a splash with his first sound film, and “Blackmail” did just that. Although Hitch made quite a few movies in other genres and styles in the 1930s and 40s, he would always come back to crime, action and suspense.

Anny Ondra, meanwhile, retired from screen acting after only a couple more films, a victim of the sound era and her own accent.

Hitchcock puts in an appearance toward the start of “Blackmail,” as a man being bothered by a small boy on a subway. There’s a line of dialogue at the end of the movie said by someone off camera that I’m convinced is Hitch, too – he says something like “You can come along now.”

Next up, Hitch puts aside suspense for the 1930 movie “Juno and The Paycock.”

Alfred Hitchcock Preps for “Blackmail”

18 03 2010

Before we look at “Blackmail,” Alfred Hitchcock’s historic first sound picture, here’s a treat. It’s a sound test Hitch made with his star, Anny Ondra…

This fantastic snippet was posted on the youtube by Dave Pattern, who runs the indispensible Alfred Hitchcock Wiki page and also writes the Hitchcock-related blog “It’s Only a Movie.”

Even though this is only a brief clip, there’s a lot going on here. For starters, he’s already using the nickname Hitch, as he would throughout his life. Hitch was known to introduce himself by saying, “Call me Hitch, never mind the cock.”

He’s flirting shamelessly with Anny Ondra, and mugging for the camera while he’s at it, something he claimed to do to break actresses of their stage habits – although he’s clearly enjoying himself. After all, he hardly needed to be on camera with Ondra. The question, “Have you been a bad woman?” is one he’s credited with asking actresses many times during screen tests and auditions – it’s intended to provoke a response, whether it’s embarrassment or something else.

Ondra, born in what’s now Poland, had a heavy accent, and even remarks on it in this test, and while Hitch doesn’t seem to care about it one way or another, she did not speak in “Blackmail.” Rather, she lip-synched on camera while Joan Barry stood to the side, saying her lines with a more acceptable accent.


One more note tonight: To the right, there’s a box from which you can download my Hitchcock film schedule. That will remain there for anyone who wants to see it – so tell your friends!

Alfred Hitchcock leaves the silent era behind with “The Manxman”

14 03 2010

“The only point of interest about that movie is that it was my last silent one . . . it was a very banal picture.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Late in 1929 Hitch went back to a rustic setting like that of “The Farmer’s Wife” for his final silent movie, “The Manxman.” Set on the Isle of Man (thus the title), it’s another tale of marriage, divorce and infidelity, themes he had been playing with in “Downhill” and “Easy Virtue.”

“The Manxman” is based on a novel by Sir Hall Caine, and stars Carl Brisson, previously seen in “The Ring,” as Pete, a fisherman, as well as Malcolm Keen (“The Lodger”) as Philip, a lawyer, and Anny Ondra as Kate, daughter of the local saloon’s owner. Pete is infatuated with Kate, but when he gets Philip to speak to her father on his behalf, the father throws Pete out of his home, calling him “a penniless lout.”

With Philip in tow, Pete sneaks back to Kate’s home and talks to her at her window. He says he’s going to leave the island and make his fortune, then come back for her, if she’ll wait for him. She doesn’t take him very seriously, but finally promises that she’ll be faithful. Pete asks Philip to watch Kate while he’s gone, but of course, Philip and Kate fall in love.

Hitchcock reveals Philip and Kate's growing relationship by showing entries in her diary

Philip, meanwhile, is advised by his aunt to break things off with Kate, as she is so low-born she could ruin his career. Philip finds Kate, but just as he’s about to carry out his aunt’s wishes, they receive word that Pete is dead – and Kate takes this as permission to go ahead and openly pursue her relationship with Philip. Naturally, Pete turns up a few weeks later, not only alive but also with enough money to marry Kate. There’s no way out of her promise, so marry they do.

Kate soon learns that she is pregnant, and realizes that the baby must be Philip’s. She tries to get Philip to tell Pete the truth, but neither of them can reveal their betrayal of Pete’s trust. The baby is born, and Philip goes on to become the chief judge on the island, while Kate walks out on Pete and the baby. She asks Philip to let her stay with him, but then goes back for the baby – but when Pete won’t give the baby to her, she tries to kill herself. A policeman saves her, though, and she winds up in court – in front of Philip, sitting on the bench for the first time. Pete arrives in court to speak on behalf of his estranged wife, along with her parents.

Kate starts to explain that she had been in love with another man before she was married, and her father suddenly puts two and two together, accusing Philip of betraying Pete’s friendship. Philip admits the truth, resigns his new position as judge, and slips away with Kate, looking absolutely miserably, and leaving Pete to his own misery.

Although “The Manxman” isn’t much of a picture – the story is melodramatic and predictable – it still has more going for it than Hitch’s previous few pictures. Much of it was shot on location on the Isle of Man, and it’s obvious that Hitch enjoyed the location, spotlighting the wild terrain and rough fishing village. The production got underway just a couple of weeks after the birth of Hitch’s daughter, Patricia, and Hitch’s delight at the event is reflected in the scene where Pete gives his own baby daughter a bath.

From a technical standpoint, there are also a few panning shots unlike any I’ve seen in one of Hitch’s movies before.

Still, Hitch was about to undertake a much greater technical challenge with his first sound picture, “Blackmail.” We’ll look at that picture on March 21.

Alfred Hitchcock on “What’s My Line?”

13 03 2010

Alfred Hitchcock shows off his cheeky wit in this funny appearance on the very popular game show “What’s My Line?”

The clip is almost certainly from 1954, given the fact that “Rear Window” is playing on theaters near Broadway at the time.

Of course, even though he puts on a silly French accent, it doesn’t take too long for the panelists to figure out who Hitch is. I love Dorothy Kilgallen’s very odd question about Harry’s Bar; I also loved Hitch’s mock disdain for Biblical epics, and his self-deprecating answer to the question about his movie cameos.


This post is not only a small treat for a Saturday afternoon. It’s also my chance to show off the updated look on my Hitchblog, with new art at the top and buttons on the right that will take you to my Facebook and Twitter pages. Please leave me a comment if you like the new look!

Psych Pays Tribute to Alfred Hitchcock

11 03 2010

Last night, Psych paid tribute to Alfred Hitchcock in its entertaining fourth season finale. The episode is called “Mr. Yin Presents,” so the Hitch references are there from the git-go.

The episode begins with Shawn arriving late at a Hitchcock film festival – but just in time for the shower scene from “Psycho.” As the story unfolds, they visit their nemesis, Yang (played by Ally Sheedy!), in a scene that borrows from “Silence of the Lambs.” The boys learn that there’s a Yin to her Yang, and Yin has been busy – he’s set up an elaborate trap inspired by Hitchcock movies, in which Shawn, Gus and the police are forced to play out brief moments from Hitchcock movies including “Frenzy,” “Vertigo,” “The Birds,” “Rear Window” and “Marnie,” with references to “Life Boat” and “Topaz.”

My favorite bit in the episode may have been when one of the cops is chased across a park by a biplane…an RC biplane, that is, operated by a 12 year old. There was more “North by Northwest” in the story, though; it’s one of the clues Yin leaves for the team to follow. I also dug Shawn’s discussion of Hitch’s love of Japanese house slippers – which was completely made up, of course.

If you want to see it, it’s being rerun next at midnight on Friday night/Saturday morning, and I’m sure it’ll be rerun again a bunch of times after that.

Also, if you visit the USA Network website, there’s a commentary on the episode here from writers Andy Berman and James Roday (who stars as Shawn and also directed this episode) that talks about Hitchcock some.

Oh, and special thanks to my buddy J.C. Vaughn, who pointed the episode out to me!

Alfred Hitchcock’s Wasted “Champagne”

7 03 2010

“That was probably the lowest ebb of my output.” — Alfred Hitchcock

British International Pictures released “Champagne,” Alfred Hitchcock’s second to last silent picture, in 1928, a film that should have been bubbly but turned out flat.

Based on a story by Walter Mycroft and adapted for the screen by scenarist Eliot Stannard, “Champagne” starred vivacious Betty Balfour, then reknowned as the British Mary Pickford, with Gordon Harker, back for his third and final film with Hitch, as her father.

Like so many of Hitch’s pictures, “Champagne” opens boldly enough with Harker impatiently flipping through one newspaper after another as he reads the society pages for news of his wayward daughter. The papers report that she is thumbing her nose at her father by disobeying him and flying to sea to meet the cruise ship with her fiance, who her father does not approve of. On board the ship, the bold images continue with closeups of bottles of champagne being opened as one mustached man surveys a crowd of dancers through the stem of a champagne glass.

Balfour’s seaplane reaches the ship, and she is ferried by rowboat between the two vessels, changing into evening clothes on the way, although her face is like a raccoon mask of grime under her aviator’s goggles. Before long, she’s reunited with her boyfriend and causing a sensation on the ship, as everyone wants to be near her, including the mustached man.

The ship arrives in Paris, and Balfour takes up residence near the Eiffel Tower, where she throws a party, during which she keeps disappearing into a back room where two or three servants change her into one fancy outfit after another. Although her guests applaud every time she emerges, her fiance doesn’t appreciate her ostentatious ways. She responds to this by changing into a plain black frock and kerchief and posing like the little match girl.

Balfour’s gaeity is shattered when her father joins the party; he pulls her aside to tell her that he’s lost all their money, and they are ruined. Balfour is stunned by the news, but soon bounces back, deciding to find a job for herself. She winds up a flower girl at a night club, where she continually displeases her boss with her naivete – for example, she gives flowers to the club’s band.

Hitch purposely undercuts a serious conversation by staging a wild dance behind it.

Our mustached friend finds Balfour at the club and invites her to join him for dinner. Despite her misgivings over sitting with this mysterious character, Balfour goes ahead anyway. But when her fiance shows up as well, the situation becomes tense. The fiance leaves, then returns with Balfour’s father, who is incensed that she has taken such a job. Balfour is angry with both her father and fiance, and finds the mustached man. He is getting ready to leave for the United States, and Balfour begs him to take her with him.

On the train, Balfour’s fiance finds her alone in the other man’s cabin. He says that he would have taken care of both Balfour and her father; just then, the father and the mustached man enter the cabin, and the father admits that it was all a hoax (one worthy of a Lois Lane comic): They were never broke after all, but the father said they were to teach Balfour the value of money. He’s also pleased at the boyfriend’s loyalty, and now approves of their marriage. Oh, and the man with the mustache had been hired by Balfour’s father to stop her from eloping with her fiance. Somehow none of this upsets Balfour, who laughs with relief that they’re no longer broke.

“Champagne” was poorly received on release; it was billed as a comedy, but it wasn’t very funny; the story was thin, the situations unbelievable, and the characters one-note. Balfour is charming, and Harker is as funny as he can be given the limitations of the story, but there really isn’t much for him to work with.

Hitch revisted the shot through the stem of a champagne glass from the start of the movie in its final moments.

What almost saves the film is Hitchcock’s continued visual inventiveness, such as the great sequences on the ship where he uses camera movement to express motion sickness, followed by blurry multiple images to put the viewer in the head of someone experiencing motion sickness. Later, in a rundown Parisian apartment, there are lovely moments where Harker attempts to lecture his daughter while doing knee bends. After that, there’s a nice moment where Balfour is making a bed; she lifts the flat sheet up so that all you can see is the sheet; when it comes down, it’s a checked tablecloth that she’s using to set the table.

“Champagne” also suffers from what I’m starting to think of as “silent movie syndrome.” The characters barely have names, let alone back stories or motivations – they’re types more than anything else. They don’t behave like real people, either. Betty Balfour’s character’s reaction to the awful way in which her father has manipulated her is simply not believable. Hitch was always more interested in technical challenges than character, and sometimes he seems to just let the latter slide, as though hoping that his technical virtuosity and instinct for plot would carry the film. But without believable characters, neither plot nor flashy camera tricks count for much.

That said, “Champagne” also feels more modern than any other of Hitch’s silent films; its costumes would work in a 1930s musical, as would the art deco sets, particularly on the ship.

By the time “Champagne” was released it had been ten months since the opening of “The Jazz Singer” in the U.S. The British film industry was abuzz about it. The two major questions were: Would talkies be a fad or actually catch on, and how could the relatively small British business pay to outfit theaters and film studios with sound equipment? The question had to be looming large in Hitch’s mind as he worked on his 1928 films. His next movie, “The Manxman,” would be his final silent picture. We’ll look at that film next Sunday, March 14.

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