Alfred Hitchcock and Me

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images. CC0/Public domain

On November 19th I took the train from Portland to Olympia. That night as a guest of the Olympia Film Festival I showed a program of films I had rescued from trash cans. I had also been asked to introduce the screening of the recently found Alfred Hitchcock related film The White Shadow. In the introduction it would have taken much too long to tell the story Mr. Hitchcock and me. Instead I gave some brief biographical information and then told the story of how Werner Herzog was introduced to the crowd at the 2rd Seattle International Film Festival in Seattle in 1977 to illustrate just how dangerous introducing a film at a festival could be. Since there is no time limit here, I now can tell the not as exciting story of my long relationship with the great film maker Alfred Hitchcock.

I was six years old when the film Psycho came out. You had to be there to understand just how exciting it was to just about every sentient being in the world. For what seemed ages it was Psycho, Psycho and more Psycho. At that time my mother was keeping a boarding house where college girls at nearby Clark Jr. College studying nursing lived. It seemed that every one of those girls, and their various boyfriends, had an opinion on Psycho, whether they had seen it or not. Since there was no such thing as the IMDB, and the word “spoiler” was just another word, exactly what happened in the film seemed a big mystery to everyone talking about it. The general consensus was that it was the most terrifying film ever made and very possibly the watching of it might result in death by fright. In other words it was even scarier than the scariest film ever, that had appeared the year before, House On Haunted Hill.

Not much later I met Mr. Hitchcock in person. Or at least as in person his weekly TV show Alfred Hitchock Presents could bring him into our home. His introduction would be preceded by the Charles Gounod music “Funeral March of a Marionette” over a profile line drawing consisting of of just nine strokes that Mr. Hitchcock himself had drawn. He then would come from the left of the screen and fill in the drawn profile. From there he would personally introduce that night’s show with droll comments such as, as well as I remember, “This is a revolver. It can be used to atttain money in towns where one is not well known.” The shows were routinely good, but could never top Mr. Hitchcock’s personal appearances.

A few weeks ago I had to give a deposition in regard to a traffic accident. The one attorney said to the other attorney “I assume you’ve filed a general denial?” I waited a while and then said “You know that he’s not a military man.” The attorney said “Huh?” I said “General Denial.” He just stared at me. Funny guys, attorneys. He laughed nervously after I explained the joke. It was a variation on a joke I got from from Alfred Hitchcock on The Dick Cavett Show.

While still in my teens I saw his 1972 film Frenzy at the Blue Mouse Theater in Portland, Oregon upon its intitial release.

I don’t recall ever watching an Alfred Hitchock film on TV or on video or digitally. I have either seen or shown the large majority of his films in theaters. I began working as a projectionist at the Movie House, an art and revival theater in the University District of Seattle, in 1973. I lived in an apartment above the theater and attended the nearby University of Washington. Early in my projectionist career I ran The 39 Steps. It was a great time for revival screenings with old films being available on the big screen in more than a dozen theaters in the Seattle area. Due to my being a projectionist I got into all of them for free via professional courtesy. I was able to see the more famous of his films; Psycho, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Rebecca, Strangers On a Train, and others in various Seattle theaters. I saw Shadow of a Doubt in a film class at the UW taught by Richard T. Jameson. This was before video. It and other films in the class were screened in 16mm.

After the screening of Shadow of a Doubt I wrote the only fan letter I ever did. It was to Teresa Wright in New York. She was appearing there in a play. I told her I would be taking Spring quarter off from school to ride freight trains around the country and would like to meet her when I got to New York. She sent a very nice reply which did not state out loud she thought I was nuts. I embarked on the freight train riding trip in April of 1976. I spent time in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago but didn’t make it to New York. The security in rail yards increased the farther East I got. I was taken to jail in North Platte, Nebraska, and narrowly avoided the same in Salt Lake City and Laramie, Wyoming.

On that trip I did not see a single Hitchcock film. I should add here that he was not a large interest with me. He was just part of the great history of film I was interested in. In San Francisco I saw Maytime with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy at a nickolodeon era theater on Powell Street near Market. In Los Angeles I saw a great double feature of The Old Dark House and She (Who Must Be Obeyed) at the Nuart Theater in Santa Monica. I saw a Bette Davis double feature of The Letter and Now Voyager.

Back in Seattle I was able to see Dial M For Murder in 3-D. It was included in a 3-D festival in Ballard. Ballard is a neighborhood in Seattle that is most well known for a large Scandinavian population and the most profitible liquor store in the state. I saw a bunch of his somewhat less famous movies in a series at the Seattle Art Museum that included Saboteur, Notorious, Life Boat, Rope, and others.

When I took over operation of the Rose Bud Movie Palace in Seattle in 1979 one of the first films I rented to show was Foreign Correspondent. Soon after that I showed Jamaica Inn. I got them either from Films Incorporated or Kit Parker Films.

In the late eighties I showed films in the Jewel Box Theater, located inside the Rendevous Restaurant, in Seattle. Nearby was the Film Exchange Building. It had been built in 1928 to house the offices of many Hollywood studios including Universal, Columbia, RKO, and others. MGM had its own small building across the street. Paramount Pictures was up the street. The area was called Film Row and through it passed almost all the Hollywood movies that were shown in Washington, Idaho and Montana for the next fifty years. In an effort to save the Film Exchange Building, I employed Mr. Hitchcock in an event. We announced that there would be the public trial and execution of a television set for the crime of murder of the nearby building.

The event involved the slow hoisting of a working TV set to the top of a not very tall building as scenes of detruction were shown on it through a video of Koyaanisqatsi. At the top of the improvised gibbet we changed the video to the climactic scene of Saboteur starting where Norman Lloyd, as the character Fry, is hanging off the edge of the hand of the Statue of Liberty. Barry, played by Robert Cummings, tries to save him but is left just holding Fry’s empty sleeve. As Fry fell we dropped the TV.

It was a sunny day so it was darned hard to see anything on the TV set. In hindsight I can see how that made the point of how crummy a TV image is in comparison to the big screen. We gave away free popcorn and everyone had a good time. One defender of the TV set did appear, a drunken man who said he didn’t own a TV and wanted to give it home. He was ignored.

At the Pike Street Cinema, a storefront movie theater that was created for six hundred dollars with the help of Beth Rozier and Doug Stewart in 1992 in Seattle, I showed as many of Hitchock’s British films as I could find to rent. Most of them came from The Em Gee Film Library in Reseda, California. Among them were The Lodger, Easy Virtue, The Manxman, Blackmail, and most of the sound British films that followed.

In 1995 I dismantled the Pike Street Cinema and loaded it into a truck that I drove to New York. There in 1996 I created The Lighthouse Theater for somewhat more than six hundred bucks and the help of several friends. During the short life of the Lighthouse I did not show a single Hitchcock film. Living in New York on and off over the next ten years I did see more Hitchcock films, many for the second or third time, at the Film Forum and other venues.

Now the ability to see Hitchcock on the big screen has pretty much vanished. It is piquant to consider that I first saw his work from the end of his career as new product and then was able to watch the earlier films as revivals until the revial business was replaced by home theater systems. (This may be off-topic, but I saw an outdoor screening of The Wizard of Oz last year on a huge screen in a park. Unfortunately the image had been stretched to wide screen making poor Judy Garland and all the others look like they had put on forty pounds. I wonder how much more of that will occur with Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window looking more like Laird Cregar than himself.)

Which at last gets us to last fall and me standing on the stage of the Capitol Theater in Olympia to introduce The White Shadow to the packed house. I hope you are wondering just what happened to Werner Herzog in a similar situation in 1977. Here is that story.

The 2rd Seattle International Film Festival was the biggest ever and could not have been successful without the hard work of dozens of people. One of the most important was a young man named James. He was an unpaid intern who was always available to do any task asked of him, and do it well. During the festival he spent many nights sleeping on a sofa in the basement of the theater. He worked himself into a position of hierarchy just below Darryl MacDonald and Dan Ireland who had come from Canada three years earlier to turn the old Moore Theater (1907) into the 1975 Moore Egyptian Theater and the first home of the SIFF.

On the night of Werner Herzog’s appearance at the festival he asked for his reward. All he wanted was to introduce Werner Herzog to the audience. Dan Ireland denied the request. He told James that Rajeev Gupta would introduce Werner. Rajeev was the third wheel of the Moore Egyptian tricycle that included Dan and Darryl. He had come to Seattle earlier to attend the University of Washington. As a child he had appeared in Satyajit Ray films. He had international contacts with filmmakers and was responsible for a large part of the success of the first festivals. James stood stunned as Dan walked off. After a minute or so he walked to the concession bar and filled a large cup up with Coke, no ice.

The lobby of the Moore can correctly be called cavernous. Where Werner was standing at the door to the stage he could not see Rajeev standing thirty feet away around a corner. James walked up behind Rajeev and called his name. As Rajeev turned, James threw the large cup of Coke at him. The Coke caught Rajeev in the face and chest and seemed to enevelope him in sticky carbonated wetness. James left the astonished Rajeev gasping and walked to the stage door. He took Werner by the arm and escorted him onto the stage. The audience greeted them warmly with James giving a very good introduction. He then walked Werner back to the lobby, left him there, and exited through the front doors, never to be seen again.

After telling this story to the crowd I sat down to watch The White Shadow.

Just how Hitchcockian was it? Not a lot. He was credited as a writer, production designer, art director, and set designer. The direction by Graham Cutts showed nothing of originality, much less Hitchock’s flair. Betty Compson appears in a duel role with Clive Brook as the man caught between. The story is told competently for a couple of reels and then a couple of reels are missing and then there is most of the ending, which finally reveals something of Hitchcock’s genius. A long scene takes place in a nightclub. Here is where Hitchcock the set designer could shine. The nightclub is a crackerjack wonderful art deco place. In it are dozens of characters in fabulous outfits. It is too bad the creaky plot gets in the way of enjoying Hitchock’s vision of what decadent night clubbing could be. Putting that aside one can just revel in the vision and realize it is just the beginning of a long career of thrilling cinema yet to come by one of the greatest practitioners. I am so happy I was able to know him.

Categories Cinema

Dennis Nyback is a legendary independent film archivist and historian. Formerly of Seattle, he now resides in Portland, OR with his 13,000 film collection and a clear conscience.

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, the content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.