Hitchmania: Partners in Crime

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Leave it to François Truffaut to push auteur theory to the hilt. The theory uplifts the concept of the director as “author” of a piece of film, meaning that the movie is primarily his or her creative vision. This idea was heavily picked up during the French New Wave and almost inevitably was applied to Alfred Hitchcock once Cahiers du Cinema took hold of his work.

Of course, it’s hard to argue the director as having sole authority over a piece of work and it’s even harder to argue that a director goes it alone. That’s probably why auteur theory now only exists in small doses.

In the case of Hitchcock, there are clear elements that make a Hitchcock film. But as the great film critic Pauline Kael would doubtlessly contend, the Master of Suspense did not go it alone. His frequent collaborators were fundamental in crafting the Hitchcock touch.

In this piece, the behind-the-scenes collaborators will be explored. Actors were part of the setting. “The chief requisite for an actor is to do nothing well,” Hitchcock said.

Here, then, is a brief look at some of Hitchcock’s most frequent collaborators. Yes, there will be oversights.

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Michael Balcon

Of Hitchcock’s collaborators, perhaps Balcon is the first to come to mind in a chronological sense. The Birmingham-born film producer gave Hitch his first directing opportunity, The Pleasure Garden, and was integral to many of his other early successes.

Balcon was also integral to the forming of Gainsborough Pictures. When Gainsborough was snapped up by French studio Gaumont Film Company, Balcon remained and helped produce Hitchcock classics like The 39 Steps.

Without question, it was Balcon who nurtured Hitchcock’s talent and helped push him into various opportunities. Prior to The Pleasure Garden, the young director had worked as an assistant director, title designer, art director, writer, and so on over the course of nearly 20 features. Balcon was to thank.

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Saul Bass

The American graphic designer and director had a 40-year career in Hollywood and worked with such directors as Otto Preminger and Stanley Kubrick, but it was his work with Alfred Hitchcock that really turned heads.

Bass first became known in the industry for creating the title sequence on Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm. From there, he went on to work with Hitch on crafting the designs for films like North by Northwest, Psycho and Vertigo.

Bass revolutionized titling in movies, with his moving text representing a major shift from how titles were usually done. He created something unique in his presentations and the opening credits have become an art form in and of themselves in large part because of his legacy.

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Robert Burks

Burks began his career in the 1930s as a special effects technician, but his cinematography provided the most acclaim. He became a director of photography in the 1940s and worked with Hitchcock on a dozen films.

Burks won an Oscar for To Catch a Thief and added his touch to such features as Strangers on a Train, I Confess, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. His lens is behind many of Hitchcock’s most prominent moments, including the famed plane sequence in North by Northwest and the murder scene in Dial M for Murder.

Burks’ cinematography is also a huge part of what makes Rear Window so special, as the camera’s placement and movements create a uniquely claustrophobic effect.

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Jack E. Cox

This English cinematographer worked with Hitch on several of his early films, including The Farmer’s Wife, Champagne, The Manxman, The Skin Game, Blackmail, and The Lady Vanishes. Cox shot 85 films over the course of a 33-year career.

Cox was vital in terms of helping Hitchcock develop some of the intricate camerawork that would infuse his pictures. Consider how things move in The Ring, for instance. Cox’s coverage of the boxing sequences is stupendous, with fluid movements and superimpositions included in crafting the aesthetic of the 1927 film.

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Bernard Herrmann

One of Hollywood’s most popular and acclaimed composers, Herrmann’s work with Hitch came after his work with Orson Welles. Herrmann conducted the live broadcasts of Welles’ adaptation of The War of the Worlds and wrote his first film score for the one and only Citizen Kane.

But it was with Hitchcock that he worked most closely. Herrmann scored nearly every Hitch picture from 1955 to 1964, even producing the sound design on The Birds. His score for Psycho is the stuff of legend, with its screeching string section during the shower scene proving one of the most iconic musical moments in history.

For Herrmann, he had the final say in the music department or he didn’t do it. This led to the clash over Torn Curtain’s score, which sadly and finally terminated his working relationship with Hitchcock. Said Herrmann, “Hitch, what’s the use of my doing more with you? I had a career before you and I will afterwards.”

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Alma Reville

Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville married in 1926 and began one of the most lasting creative and personal relationships the film world has ever seen. Alma and Hitch met working together at Famous Players-Lasky. She worked as an editor for many directors.

With Hitchcock, Alma did a lot more. She became more than a sounding board and an editor; she became his lifeline in many ways. She was the first to spot Janet Leigh’s post-death breathing in Psycho and she polished up scripts from The Ring to Stage Fright.

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David O. Selznick

The super-producer gave Hitchcock his shot in the United States. The head of production at RKO provided George Cukor his break as a director and produced a series of films that included 1933’s King Kong. By 1935, however, Selznick went independent and set up his own studio to distribute films through United Artists. Enter Hitchcock.

Looking for a way to follow up the mammoth 1939 film Gone with the Wind, Selznick paired with Hitch for Rebecca in 1940. This became the only Hitchcock movie to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but his relationship with Selznick was not all wine and roses.

The two clashed frequently, with the producer always looking for a way to surpass Gone with the Wind and Hitchcock looking for a way to stay true to his artistic self. Selznick developed films and sold them off, too, which is how Notorious became the property of RKO with Hitch as producer.

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George Tomasini

This Massachusetts-born editor toiled with Hitch for about a decade, working on many of his most well-known pictures. They first paired together on Rear Window in 1954 and cooperated on flicks like To Catch a Thief and Vertigo on the road to what would be perhaps Tomasini’s most crowning moment: Psycho.

Tomasini was known for his use of jump cuts, an inadvertent finding of Georges Méliès that can be a rather exciting effect when pulled off properly. He also skillfully presented dialogue, but his work on Psycho is astonishing.

As Paul Monaco explains in The Sixties, the shower scene was as much the creation of the editor as it was the director. Tomasini compiled the 45-second sequence from several days of footage, using Hitch’s meticulous storyboard as a guide and selecting 60 different shots. Consider also that the body being hacked up belonged to Marli Renfro and not Janet Leigh and the mastery of the job becomes clearer.

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Others

There are naturally many more collaborators to discuss, from art directors like Henry Bumstead and Hal Pereira to editors like Ivor Montagu and Emile de Ruelle. Matte artist Albert Whitlock is also worth mentioning for his work in designing miniatures on the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much and his signage in The 39 Steps.

A lot went in to Hitchcock’s stated goal of providing the public with “beneficial shocks” and the list of collaborators and partners in crime is long. The director’s use of the usual suspects serves as a testament to his loyalty and his ability to sniff out the very best in the business with which to entrust his artistic vision.

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