After the release of Family Plot, Alfred Hitchcock wrote François Truffaut a letter.
“Now, as you realize, you are a free person to make whatever you want,” Hitch told the French filmmaker and critic. “I, on the other hand, can only make what is expected of me; that is, a thriller or a suspense story, and that I find hard to do.”
The letter from October of 1976 reveals a frustrated filmmaker without a clue as to where to turn next. He would luckily recover his sense of direction by the time Truffaut visited him in December of 1976, excitedly informing his friend of plans for his next motion picture: The Short Night.
Hitchcock was basing his picture on the novel of the same name by Robert Kirkbride and a non-fiction piece entitled The Springing of George Blake by Sean Bourke. He acquired the rights to both works and, after tossing the idea of adapting Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man: No. 89, moved on putting together The Short Night.
Screenwriter Ernest Lehman wrote several drafts, but none of them pleased Hitchcock.
In the meantime, the director’s wife Alma required nursing care around the clock. Plans to shoot The Short Night in Finland – a location scouted around the time of Topaz – were hard to conceive. Eventually a screenplay was delivered, but Hitchcock’s own health was a barrier. Universal Pictures scrapped the movie in 1979.
That same year, the American Film Institute gave Hitchcock a “Life Achievement Award.” Ingrid Bergman, who hosted the proceedings, wondered backstage as to why “they always organize this kind of ceremony when it’s too late.”
And Truffaut, set to “deliver a cheerful tribute,” agreed. “Alfred and Alma Hitchcock appeared to be present, but their souls were missing,” he wrote. “They were hardly more alive than Anthony Perkins’ stuffed mother in the cellar of the gothic house.”
By this point, it was clear that Hitchcock wasn’t going to make another film. He closed his offices, dismissed his staff, called it a day. He was knighted by the Queen of England and died on April 29, 1980.
It’s not surprising that Hitchcock died not long after he was unable to make movies. He lived to construct pictures. He lived to manipulate and torture audiences. But he also lived in fear, which made him into one hell of an artist. After all, what good is art without burdens to shake off?
“The only way to get rid of my fears is to make films about them,” he (probably) said once. Without his early fear of authority, it may perhaps have been true that Hitch would’ve merely been “one of the slower waiters on the floor.” And without the love of his wife, he’d no doubt suggest he’d even suffer to have been one of them.
In one of the most compelling passages of writing from Truffaut’s essential interview with Hitch, the French filmmaker offers his own form of tribute and perhaps sums up the director better than anyone:
“This man who was impelled by fear to relate the most terrifying stories; this man who was a virgin when he married at the age of 25 and never had any woman except for his wife; this man who was indeed the only one who was able to portray murder and adultery as scandals, the only man who knew how to do so – in fact, the only man who had the right to do so.”
In examining the pictures of Alfred Hitchcock over the last year, I have to insist that what was expected of him was what he was best at. Hitch never identified with the leading man; he identified with the rejects on the contours of society, those in the shadows still bound by fear and, to borrow from Truffaut yet again, “lack of balance.”
Through the course of Hitchmania, I have clumsily attempted to take a good first pass at the career of a genius. I have discovered a treasure trove of films. I sat in darkened rooms, completely in awe of the beautiful collection of images floating across the screen and completely immersed in the power of pure cinema. I rediscovered old favourites and made new friends.
Hitchmania has influenced what I look for – and don’t look for – as a critic. It has inspired what I write – and don’t write – as a writer. It has helped the process of my own storytelling and it has, if only for a little less than a year, cut some of the many “dull bits” out of my life.
For that, I can only say that I have so little to offer as a critic. It is, as Anton Ego notes in Ratatouille, a “bitter truth” to concede that “the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism denigrating it.”
But the critic can take risks and go out on limbs, especially in these ephemeral times. As “new needs friends,” so does the old. And so do the classics, every one of them, because they epitomize history and time and, best of all, love. If Hitchmania conveyed at least some sense of the love I have for the films of Alfred Hitchcock, I am content.
And I am grateful for Mr. Hitchcock, his fear, his humour, his art, his MacGuffins, his darkness, and his light.
Thank you for reading.