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An Interview with Tony Lee Moral, expert on all things Hitchcock

10 July 2018 Suzanne Frost

In celebration of ‘Vertigo’, which was released 60 years ago and recently been named as the greatest film of all time - according to Sight & Sound’s 10-year poll of 846 critics, programmers, academics and distributors - Regent Street Cinema along with the BFI is embarking on a Hitchcock Summer Season, a week of films from the master of suspense and perhaps Britain’s greatest ever director. Tony Lee Moral is the leading expert on all things Hitchcock, author of several books about the man and will be introducing some of the films such as Vertigo, Marnie and Psycho, revealing some of his fascinating insights to the audience. We chatted to Tony and delved deep into some of the psychology and technicality of Vertigo and other masterpieces.

London Calling: When did you first discover Hitchcock?
Tony Lee Moral: I was 12 years old and I watched I confess with Montgomery Clift and Ann Baxter. I got wrapped up in the story and the mystery and I think even at that age, I knew that Hitchcock was a master storyteller because of the moral ambiguity. Montgomery Clift plays a priest who is conflicted because an acquaintance confesses to him that he’s murdered someone and then Montgomery Clift becomes a suspect in the murder but because he is a priest he can’t break his vow and reveal what he heard in confession. So I was very intrigued by Hitchcock as a storyteller and how he manipulates his audience.
 
LC: The Hitchcock season at the Regent Street Cinema is in celebration of the 60th anniversary and re-release of Vertigo. The film has been voted the greatest film of all time by Sight and Sound but back in the days when it first came out it was actually a flop!
TLM: Yes it was, a lot of the critics thought the storyline was very farfetched. They didn't appreciate the multiple layers of the film. Everyone knew there was no question about Hitchcock’s technical artistry, but I remember them saying it was ‘farfetched nonsense’! The plot revolves around a twist about a dual identity but that was essentially just a MacGuffin [a Hitchcock term for a distracting plot device], the film is really about romantic love and obsession and male patriarchy and also male perception of women. Hitchcock was more fascinated about that than plausibility. He liked things which were unusual, he described Jimmy Stewart’s character as almost a necrophiliac, someone obsessed about a woman who died. But Vertigo is also a homage to San Francisco and the beauty and the gothic mystery of that city.

 Kim Novak in Vertigo, Universal Pictures, 1958

LC: Something very striking in all Hitchcock films, but maybe especially in Vertigo, is the use of colour and the symbolism of the red and the green. What does it mean?
TLM: Yes! The green is very much like a ghost. Hitchcock’s favourite colour was actually green, he decorated his house in shades of green and he deliberately chose the Empire Hotel towards the end of the film because it had a green neon light and Madeleine/Judy emerges from the bathroom looking like the woman who had died. He bathed her in that green light, she is almost a bit transparent, shot through a special filter. When we first see Madeleine she is wearing this very gorgeous emerald dark green dress that enhances her ethereal nature. That scene is shot at Ernie’s which was Hitchcock’s favourite restaurant in San Francisco.

 Vertigo, Universal Pictures, 1958

LC: In Marnie, the colour red is actually part of the storyline.
TLM: Yes, very symbolic of womanhood and blood and the trauma Marnie has experienced in her childhood. Colour is very important to Hitchcock, he experiments with the psychological use of colour.
 
LC: And there is also the famous ‘Vertigo’ shot, which is a camera trick!
TLM: He invented it for the staircase sequence and it’s been replicated by other directors many times since, most famously in Jaws. When we see the shark for the first time, Steven Spielberg recreates that shot that Hitchcock did. Hitchcock wanted to create this very designed effect of feeling dizzy when Jimmy Stewart looks down the stairs. It’s a combination of the camera zooming in while the actual camera on the dolly tracks out, so you get a very disorientating effect for the viewer.

 Vertigo, Universal Pictures, 1958

LC: The subject of Hitchcock and women - it is very controversial, a lot has been written and argued about it. Many of his female characters and his depiction of women is very troubling. With the #MeToo movement we are looking very critically even at older works. What is your stance on it?
TLM: I interviewed many of Hitchcock’s colleagues, practically all who were still alive in the last 20 years, and many of his female staff, his secretaries, his assistants, say they loved working with him. I think he had great empathy for women. Stories like Notorious, Vertigo and Marnie are told through the woman’s perspective more so than the man’s. I think he had more empathy for the female character, partly because I think he understood the abjection of women in society because he was very fat as a child, he was teased and bullied and I think those were traits within himself which he identified, when women are victims. In no way do I think he was a misogynist. With regards to what is happening in the industry today, lots of women - apart from Tippi Hedren - said that Hitchcock never touched them or made a pass at them.

 Tippi Hedren in Marnie,Universal Pictures, 1964

LC: Just because a film is showing abuse or misogyny doesn’t automatically mean it is celebrating or absolving it. He is showing something that exist.
TLM: I agree, it is a portrayal of what happens to women in society. I think he uses his camera to show he is completely on the woman’s side. Marnie was the first ever female compulsive thief he portrayed and he was criticised for the film, but he is very sympathetic to the female character. Similarly, you have great sympathy for Janet Leigh when she is killed in the shower. Grace Kelly in Rear Window is very much an active woman who solves the mystery. I think Hitchcock celebrates women rather than portraying them unfavourably.
 
The Hitchcock Summer Season at Regent Street Cinema kicks off with 'Vertigo' on 13 & 14 July. For the full programme please visit https://www.regentstreetcinema.com/hitchcock-week/.
 
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