My adolescence was measured out in the films of Renoir, Fellini, Antonioni, Malle, Bergman, Kurosawa, Ozu, Rossellini, Welles, Godard and Wilder. But I only met a great artist for the first time when I was 19, in 1966. Dick Arnell, the president of the film society, invited Alfred Hitchcock to Cambridge.
Because Hitchcock arrived five hours before the event, three or four of us were able to sit all afternoon, eating cold roast beef and baked potatoes and asking him anything we wanted. He was courteous, lucid and funny. When he felt he had failed, he was honest about it, but he had no false modesty about being the man who had made Vertigo and Rear Window.
A couple of philistine biopics have recently tried to make out Hitchcock was creepy, peddling the idea that you can’t be an artist without being warped. It’s also claimed he was misogynist. He certainly didn’t seem remotely misogynist to the woman at our table, nor to any woman he encountered later in the day. The death of serious cinema, sometimes attributed to Jaws and sometimes to Star Wars, is more often blamed on Psycho. It is, my friends say, the moment at which cinema replaced thoughtful psychology with unmotivated shock effect. But what they forget is how full of joy the film is – paradoxically since its subject is so dark. Janet Leigh is fully alive, as few heroines are. That’s the only reason the shower sequence is something more than technique.
I was being taught at university by Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton, so I had met people who were genuinely clever. But Hitchcock was something different. He was wise. He offered me
the very model of what an artist should be – the person who listens and watches, misses nothing and is open to every aspect of experience.
I met Hitchcock a few times more when I was making films myself – he asked me to a party for Frenzy – and he was always gorgeous company. But the long, sunlit afternoon at the Garden House Hotel is the one that showed me that an artist might hold instinct and analysis in a near-perfect balance.
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special