Casting a Shadow – Creating the Alfred Hitchcock Film
29 Jan 09–14 Jun 09
Alfred Hitchcock always presented himself as the sole author of his films and audiences may gain the impression that every formal detail, regardless how small, originated from his visionary creativity. In fact, Hitchcock was a deeply collaborative filmmaker, who worked intensively with actors, producers, camera teams, scriptwriters, costume designers, production designers and composers, in order to do justice to an audience’s expectations for an “Alfred Hitchcock film.” He described the creation of his films as a slow process, which came about “from discussion, arguments, random suggestions, casual, desultory talk and furious intellectual quarrels.”
Born outside of London on August 13, 1899 – just a few years after the invention of film – Alfred Hitchcock directed 53 movies over the course of six decades. He seamlessly made the transition from directing silent films to making sound films. Throughout his career, his movies embraced the possibilities of the medium. By always taking on new technical and artistic risks, he remained innovative up to an advanced age and became a seminal influence for generations of filmmakers. Hitchcock’s films were an expression of his personal vision, but this vision was a collective one, which the director and his collaborators jointly developed. An individual, artistic, signature style – the “Hitchcock Style” – arose from this working process.
Following an excursus about Hitchcock’s relationship to Berlin, the exhibition devotes itself to the various fields of work involved in film production. The most diverse documents are used to illustrate the individual developmental stages in a film’s realization – ranging from those related to content and the aesthetic conception to a film’s concrete scenic conversion.
Hitchcock and Berlin
Alfred Hitchcock visited the Ufa film studios in Babelsberg as early as 1925 – the most modern in the world at that time – where he was given a first-hand opportunity of experiencing Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau during the filming of Der letzte Mann. He had come to Berlin to participate in the German-British co-production The Blackguard / Die Prinzessin und der Geiger (1925). Hitchcock, then in his mid-twenties, took over the tasks of scriptwriter, outfitter and assistant director for this production. As a result, the production company Emelka in Munich offered him the chance to realize his first film as a director. His stay in Germany made lastingly impressions on Hitchcock and the influence of directors like Murnau and Fritz Lang can be clearly recognized in his work. In Germany, he also met his future wife Alma Reville, who was already established as a film editor and would later play a part in several of his films as a scriptwriter, among other responsibilities. Hitchcock shot the espionage film Torn Curtain (1966) in a divided Berlin more than forty years later. Alongside Paul Newmann and Julie Andrews, numerous German actors participated, including Wolfgang Kieling, Günter Strack and Hansjörg Felmy. Documents attest to the film team’s research in Berlin at the time, although, for the most part, the filming took place in a studio in Los Angeles.
Beginning in the 1940s, Hitchcock worked with some of the best-known American writers of his time, among them John Steinbeck, Dorothy Parker, Ben Hecht, Thornton Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Hitchcock’s projects appealed to established writers for several reasons. His reputation was such that marquee names wanted to work with him. Furthermore, Hitchcock never asked writers to share the writing credit with him, even though his movies were developed and written in partnership.
At the start of a project Hitchcock and the appointed writer discussed the story, the themes, the characters and the plot. Later, Hitchcock typically brought in other writers to polish the dialogue or rework scenes. When Hitchcock actually wrote, his contributions were illustrative, describing shots and scenes. The crafting of dialogue was never Hitchcock’s strong point. Instead it was left to the talented writers he employed. Since the film script meetings were frequently recorded, audio tapes and transcripts have been preserved that document the discussions between Hitchcock, the authors and other employees.
Contrary to some of his claims, Hitchcock did not start working on a film with the final cut already envisioned in his mind. However, through the close exchange with his assistants, his ability to visualize a movie during its planning stages was highly developed. Generally, Hitchcock and his cinematographers turned their attention to composing the individual shots after Hitchcock and his team had worked out most of the more basic questions concerning the story, the locations and the characters in the script.
Cinematographers control placement and movement of the camera, as well as lighting, depth of field, film speed and film stock, among other things. This versatility created a nearly endless number of possibilities to visually create a scene. Therefore, different alternatives were frequently tried out. Camera angle diagrams, continuity memos, storyboards and sketches were the tools for planning shots. Some camera angle diagrams were drawn by Hitchcock and others were drawn by the cinematographers Thomas J. Wright and Robert Burks. Hitchcock had an especially close working relationship with the latter cinematographer. Except for Psycho (1960), which Hitchcock shot with the crew from his television program Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Burks worked as Director of Photography on all of Hitchcock’s films from Strangers on a Train (1951) to Marnie (1964).
Fashion was not Hitchcock’s strength or abiding interest. From Hitchcock’s papers and notes, it seems that more often than not he delegated this aspect to the costume design department. Hitchcock would merely share with them the central idea of the planned film and then left to them to work out the nature of the costumes in detail. Thus, the costume design department often operated with more independence than most other departments. Edith Head, one of the most renowned costume designers in her field, who received several Academy Awards, was responsible for the costumes on eleven of Hitchcock’s films, including Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), Vertigo (1958) and The Birds (1963). Through her elegant costumes for Grace Kelly and Kim Novak, she characterized the style of the “cool Hitchcock blonde” in particular. She also designed Tippi Hedren’s private wardrobe at the director’s request.
When Alfred Hitchcock filmed Stage Fright with Marlene Dietrich in 1950, he left the choice of the designer up to her. Dietrich decided in favor of Christian Dior and traveled to Paris where she ordered numerous expensive outfits. Afterwards, the production company tried to use the name Dior for advertising purposes.
Hitchcock himself had been an art director in the early 1920s. Accordingly, he felt particularly connected to the art department. In Great Britain, Hitchcock repeatedly collaborated with the set designer Alfred Junge; in Hollywood, the production designers Henry Bumstead and Robert F. Boyle significantly influenced the look of his films. In each case, rough sketches and outline drawings were made at the beginning of a project, to which detailed sequences of images would normally follow as a rule. Hitchcock particularly appreciated working with a storyboard. Situated between an artistic design and a technical drawing, it consists of a sequence of images that is reminiscent of a comic strip. With the help of a storyboard it is possible to visually record camera settings and motion sequences before filming and to test various settings during later editing. Illustrators mostly create a storyboard using the specifications from the director, the cinematographer and the production designer. The later conversions into motion pictures can be very specifically recognized in John DeCuir’s production designs for Saboteur (1942), as well as in Harold Michelson’s drawings for The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964). Moreover, detailed production designs convey much of the later atmosphere of the interiors. Since Hitchcock preferred to work in the studio, large-scale, so-called “Matte Paintings” were frequently produced as display backgrounds used to replace the real, original locations.
From the beginning of Hitchcock’s career, producers had a hand in shaping the “Alfred Hitchcock film.” Michael Balcon, a producer at Islington Studios in London, gave Hitchcock his first opportunity to direct in 1925. David O. Selznick brought Hitchcock to Hollywood in 1939, giving his career its decisive impulse. However, the director was generally at odds with Selznick and struggled against interference on the part of the producer. At the same time Hitchcock was dependent on this complex infrastructure for the realization of his films, because it provided him with a large studio and its various departments. At the end of the 1940s, Hitchcock ultimately decided to take on the role of producing his films himself.
The casting of actors also falls into the field of studio production. Hitchcock often varied the type of the “cool blonde,” the “aggressive brunette” or the “unerotic ‘four-eyes’”; however, he preferred to collaborate with certain actors, such as Cary Grant and James Stewart, and actresses, such as Ingrid Bergman or Grace Kelly. The casting of Tippi Hedren for The Birds (1963) is legendary. Hedren, who at that time was still a photo model without any acting experience, had to audition or re-enact scenes from three different Hitchcock films in costumes especially tailor-made for this purpose before she was given the role.
Sound design and film music take on a special importance in Alfred Hitchcock’s films, because they make a substantial contribution to generating tension – and creating the renowned suspense. The film composer Bernard Herrmann wrote the scores for eight Hitchcock films, including classics such as Vertigo (1958), North By Northwest (1959) and Marnie (1964). His soundtrack for Psycho (1960) became the best known, in which he abstained from using a large orchestra and worked exclusively with strings. In the famous shower scene, the violins sound like knives scratching over tiles. For The Birds, Herrmann only took on the function of a consultant. The electronically distorted sounds for the bird cries were created in a studio in Berlin-Charlottenburg. Oskar Sala produced them together with Remi Gassmann on his “Mixtur-Trautonium,” a type of early synthesizer.
Hitchcock had a falling out with Herrmann during the work on Torn Curtain (1966) and two different soundtracks were composed for the shocking killing scene with Wolfgang Kieling, who plays the Stasi man Gromek. However, in the end, Hitchcock decided against using music in this scene and subsequently for a particularly insistent soundtrack, in which only fighting noises can be heard.
Throughout his career Hitchcock worked closely with numerous publicists to market his image. A master self-promoter, he created the recognizable silhouette line drawing of himself – a type of visual signature – in 1927. Due to the unpredictability of press reactions to his films, he felt particularly challenged to continually develop new marketing strategies, which led to the fact that journalists occasionally wrote more about Hitchcock’s love for food and drink than his films. Always a good sport, Hitchcock shrewdly played along, hiring writers to help him fashion self-deprecating jokes about his weight and girth. His cameo appearances (where he can be seen as an extra in the background of a scene), as well as in movie trailers and his own television series (where he appeared as an introductory host), turned him into the biggest star of his productions. Even the myth that Alfred Hitchcock was behind all of the creative details of his films was used for marketing purposes. Consequently, in the case of North By Northwest (1959), scenic designs attributed to the director were later produced for the advertising campaign and were intended to substantiate his brilliant visual imagination.
“Casting a Shadow: Creating the Alfred Hitchcock Film” was conceived by the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, in conjunction with the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and was enhanced by the Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen. The exhibition was generously supported in the USA by James B. Pick and Rosalyn M. Laudati, the Alfred J. Hitchcock Foundation, the Rubens Family Foundation and American Airlines.
Block Museum of Art:
Curator of the exhibition: Will Schmenner
Registrar: Kristina Bottomley
Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen
Curators: Kristina Jaspers, Nils Warnecke
Project management: Peter Mänz
Coordination: Vera Thomas
Research assistants: Annika Milz, Anja Göbel
Editing: Karin Herbst-Meßlinger
Translations into German: Ralph Eue
Translations into English: Wendy Wallis
Marlene Dietrich Collection: Silke Ronneburg
Textile conservator: Barbara Schröter
Conservation: Sabina Fernandez
Audio visual editing: Stanislaw Milkowski
Editing suite: Concept AV, Berlin
Scans: Peter Latta, Wolfgang Theis
Technical support: Frank Köppke, Roberti Siefert, Stephan Werner
Press and public relations: Katrin Kahlefeld, Christa Schahbaz, Heidi Berit Zapke
Museum education: Jurek Sehrt
Film series: Annette Lingg
Exhibition graphic design: Felder KölnBerlin
Exhibition space: Camillo Kuschel, Berlin
Advertising art: Pentagram Design, Berlin
Special thanks to
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: Ellen Harrington, Linda Harris Mehr, Anne Coco, Barbara Hall
British Film Institute: Michael Caldwell
Deutsches Filminstitut – DIF / Deutsches Filmmuseum Frankfurt am Main: Beate Dannhorn, Hans-Peter Reichmann
Filmmuseum Düsseldorf: Andreas Thein
as well as all of our colleagues at the Deutsche Kinemathek
We wish to thank for the generous support
Turner Entertainment Co., Atlanta
Twentieth Century Fox, Beverly Hills
Universal Studios Licensing, Los Angeles
The ARD legend Alfred Hitchcock by Michael Strauven will be broadcast as a production of WDR on German television's first channel in early summer 2009.
arsenal – institut für film und videokunst e.V.
KW Institute for Contemporary Art