Hitchcock: A Centennial Celebration
First hand report from the NYU Hitchcock Centennial Conference
Wednesday, October 13, 1999 - Conference Director Richard Allen kicked off the program today at the Director's Guild of America Theater. At the time of the conference opening, Professor Allen stated that some 450 people had registered to attend. It is too bad that ticket sales for the Carnegie Hall concert originally scheduled for this evening were so poor. Apparently the concert had to be cancelled since only 160 tickets had been sold.
The first Plenary Session, "Critical Perspectives I", was chaired by Thomas Leitch, author of Find the Director and Other Hitchcock Games. The panel included Lesley Brill (author of The Hitchcock Romance), Laura Mulvey (author of the influential 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema"), and Robin Wood (author of the ground-breaking Hitchcock's Films, which first posed the question "Why should we take Hitchcock seriously?"). William Rothman, author of The Murderous Gaze, was unable to attend due to illness.
Robin Wood prefaced his statements by saying that Hitchcock studies was in a very dangerous state at present, in that it is comprised largely of academics showing off their ingenuity to other academics. This view seemed to be shared by Lesley Brill, who felt that again and again one must go back to the texts (the films) themselves. Wood said that the study of gender politics in Hitchcock has gone too far, and needed rethinking. Wood stated that what he calls the "gender fascism" in Hitchcock's films (citing the treatment of Alice in Blackmail and Judy in Vertigo) is not produced by Hitchcock, but critiqued by the director.
Lesley Brill stated that the future of Hitchcock studies would lie beyond the dozen or so core films, and felt that underrated titles such as Young and Innocent, Under Capricorn and The Trouble with Harry would be key films in Hitchcock scholarship one day. Robin Wood also felt that Under Capricorn was a key film, but wished that Joseph Cotten hadn't been cast. Where Hitchcock had wanted Burt Lancaster for the role of Sam Flusky, Wood would have preferred James Mason. Wood's favorite 'underrated' Hitchcock film is Lifeboat, which he said has been misunderstood. Wood admits that Lifeboat's technical virtuosity is an achievement worthy of the attention it's been given, but that the film offers much more than that, citing that to him the film is a comment on the complicity between American capitalism and fascism (recall the U-Boat Captain Willie's line to millionaire Rittenhouse as he plays the flute while Willie sings German lullabies, "Rit, you're a born accompanist.").
Laura Mulvey spoke of the "death-drive" in Hitchcock's films, and how it often leads to the formation of a couple. She also spoke at length of the shot in Psycho which begins with a close shot of Marion's face, as she's lying on the floor of the bathroom at the Bates Motel, and the camera moves away from her, through the hotel room, and pans to the open window and up to the Bates house on the hill. This single shot, Mulvey stated, is significant in both to the individual film and in a larger context to the history of cinema. Within the film itself, the shot represents a break in the narrative -- a shift from Marion's control of the story to Norman's. In the larger context of cinema, it represents a break in traditional narrative -- in that a protagonist doesn't die forty minutes into the picture. This breaking of tradition could only have come at this period in Hollywood asserts Mulvey, just as the studio system was reaching the peak of its crisis. This crisis led Hitchcock to tackle something completely different from anything he'd done before. Although Mulvey didn't mention it - academics seem to often neglect the 'business-side' of Hollywood - it is important to note that Hitchcock's decision to go ahead with Psycho came immediately after his decision to abandon No Bail for the Judge, a project he'd spent nearly a year and almost $200,000 developing.
The panel had some disagreements. For instance, Robin Wood found the words "romantic" and "ironic" as used by Brill to be inappropriate. Lesley Brill on the other hand disagreed with Wood's assertion that Hitchcock is never optimistic. All in all, an interesting opening session. John Forsythe (The Trouble with Harry, I Saw the Whole Thing, and Topaz) was scheduled to speak at the dinner this evening, but was unable to attend.
Thursday October 14, Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock) chaired the opening Plenary Session, "Biographical and Historical Perspectives", with Charles Barr, Donald Spoto, Leonard Leff, and Patrick McGilligan.
And in the afternoon, Walter Srebnick (Hitchcock's Rereleased Films) chaired "Working with Hitch: A Screenwriter's Forum" with Evan Hunter, Arthur Laurents and Joseph Stefano. The screenwriters’ forum and the one-on-one between conference director Richard Allen and Jay Presson Allen (Marnie) were particularly interesting and hopefully illuminating to several commentators and scholars who continually disparage the contributions of Hitchcock’s best writers.
For instance in the case of Marnie, Joseph Stefano spoke of how he was engaged by Hitchcock in 1961 to draft a treatment based on Winston Graham’s novel. This of course was no great revelation, John Russell Taylor mentioned this in his 1978 biography Hitch. Nor is it a revelation that Evan Hunter came on board to write a screenplay in late 1962 into 1963. The true revelation here came when Hunter said he had no idea until many years later that Stefano had worked on the project before him. Hitchcock simply had not told Hunter, and never provided him with the Stefano’s notes or treatment. Hunter added that this was clearly in violation of the rules of the Writers’ Guild of America. The plot thickened when three days later Jay Presson Allen offered virtually the same testimony as Hunter, in that she was never told that either Stefano or Hunter had preceded her on the picture. This was not an isolated case, but one that has received less attention since none of the writers involved made any protest.
One of the most interesting presentations of the conference was Sidney Gottlieb’s “Unknown Hitchcock: The Unrealized Projects.” This is an area of Hitchcock’s work that has intrigued me since I read about projects like No Bail for the Judge, Mary Rose and Frenzy (aka Kaleidoscope) in Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius. My curiosity and fascination for Hitchcock’s unproduced projects only grew when I first obtained the screenplays for the three projects I mentioned in 1993.
Rather than go into considerable detail on the handful of projects that Hitchcock developed to at least a first or second draft screenplay, Gottlieb’s presentation took a very broad look at the subject. In an effort to categorize this vast field, Sid coined the phrase, “some [of Hitchcock’s unrealized projects] were born incomplete, some achieved and even aspired to incompletion, and some had incompletion thrust upon them.” Bravo, Sid! I only wish I’d written it myself.
On the final day of the conference, Jay Presson Allen spoke of her collaboration with Hitchcock on Marnie, and very briefly about the ill-fated Mary Rose. When conference director Richard Allen asked what the writer thought of the analysis of Hitchcock’s work that has taken place over the last ten or fifteen years. She replied, “Of course, at least we're able to blame it on the French. I've been in this business, both theater and film, for well over fifty years, and I don't remember ever meeting an intellectual. I meet a lot of very bright people, obviously. But artists do not tend to intellectualize their work. It comes from the gut. It comes from instinct. It comes largely as a surprise to the artists themselves. Very little analysis comes in. So, I think Hitch would have loved all this. I think he would have adored it. But I think it would have made him giggle.”
I’m certain that Jay Presson Allen’s response, in so many ways, disappointed many in the audience with their own theoretical bent, each hoping for something to grasp as Hitchcock’s endorsement of whatever theory or philosophy they espouse. Just a few days earlier, a question was posed to Arthur Laurents about whether Hitchcock had instructed him to inject the discussion of Nietzsche into the screenplay for Rope. Laurents said that all that discussion came from him and that all Hitchcock cared about was where the camera would be. Laurents also added that while he was hired to 'Americanize' Patrick Hamilton’s play, he was undermined by the movie’s co-producer, Hitchcock’s Transatlantic Pictures partner, Sidney Bernstein, who reinserted all the “dear boy” lines for Mrs. Atwater and Mr. Kentley.
If you were at the conference, you may recall the following exchange:
Richard Allen: In the novel there's a scene, and again, this is in Evan's script, there's a scene in a cinema, where Marnie steals money.
Jay Presson Allen: Yeah, I would have liked that, if I had read that script I would have kept that scene. I like scenes in movies.
Richard Allen: Yes, well, my question was, I presume Hitchcock had read the novel, or Peggy Robertson had read the novel, and I wondered whether this scene was ever discussed because somehow it didn't make it's way into the film. It was never discussed?
Jay Presson Allen: No. The sequence in question did make its way into the shooting script.
And we have it here in our Trim Bin. MARNIE’S THEFT AT THE CINEMA