When Hitchcock’s Camera Lies: An Interview with Dan Callahan

By Ben ShieldsNovember 25, 2020

When Hitchcock’s Camera Lies: An Interview with Dan Callahan
BESIDES PENNING STAR BIOGRAPHIES of Vanessa Redgrave and Barbara Stanwyck, Dan Callahan is the author of two volumes on the art of American screen acting from 1912 to today available from McFarland & Company. In other words, Callahan is the Plutarch of American film critics. His latest work is a study of acting in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, The Camera Lies: Acting for Hitchcock (Oxford University Press, 2020). Callahan, a graduate of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting himself, debunks the cliché that, for Hitchcock, actors were nothing but bovine creatures and that his real genius lay in the storyboard side of filmmaking. Instead, The Camera Lies is a definitive guide to how the master of suspense employed thespians in his cagey, delicate style. The book moves chronologically through Hitchcock’s six-decade career, making provocative cases along the way (“The finest performance in Hitchcock’s work” goes to Robert Walker as Bruno Antony in Strangers on a Train) and gives the Callahan treatment to lesser-known works such as Blackmail and Mr. & Mrs. Smith.

I video-called Callahan from my home in Jerusalem, and endless stacks of books, DVDs, and movie memorabilia glistened behind him. Despite the Zoom-ification of all our lives, Callahan’s obsessive cinephilia somehow revives the magic of the screen. Here is our chat, including but not limited to doppelgängers, Tippi Hedren’s voice, and why The Wrong Man may be Hitchcock’s best film.


BEN SHIELDS: The first thing I want to talk about is Family Plot. I feel that if Family Plot had appeared in a different period in the Hitchcock chronology, it would be seen and talked about more. It has a great deal to offer. It has suspense, humor — there’s the wonderful sequence at the beginning with Karen Black in disguise. It’s heaven! I love the performances, though no one in the film is what one would call a classic Hitchcock actor.

DAN CALLAHAN: There was talk of Al Pacino playing the William Devane part, I believe. And Faye Dunaway was offered Family Plot. I think we can agree that Al Pacino and Faye Dunaway would make it a totally different thing. The problem with that film is [that Hitchcock is] older, he’d been ill, it’s a lack of energy. It’s very much a last film. And, of course, there’s something beautiful about a last film just as there is about a first film.

Well, there are some hokey scenes I admit. But I believe that Family Plot deserves as much attention as Hitchcock’s Hedren period. I’ve never connected with The Birds or Marnie compared to Hitchcock’s other films. What do you make of the Hedren pictures and her performances in them?

I have to disagree. You know what I love about her? She has the most distinctive, expressive speaking voice. Something sweet and sour. And in both films, she’s feeling it very deeply and yet not expressing all of it at once. Remember in The Birds toward the end she’s sitting with her legs up on the couch and the birds are coming? [They] aren’t in yet, but she’s hearing them all around and she starts climbing up the wall behind her. Hitchcock had been in an air raid in World War II. He heard bombs and it was this awful thing of, what the hell do you do when you know danger is coming but you can’t run? He said he started to kind of climb up the wall behind him. I find Tippi very expressive and I like her acting a great deal.

Well, I don’t pass Robin Wood’s litmus test regarding the film Marnie: “If you don’t love Marnie, you’re not a Hitchcock fan.”

I understand rejecting Marnie. I didn’t like it very much when I was younger, but when I was writing the book I thought it was touching and unusual. Through the years, I’ve had times where I’ve watched Marnie and thought it was a little like Spellbound: a lame Freudian thing. But then the last time I watched it for the book, maybe because I watched all the films chronologically before it, that fell away. What was left was her mother. Marnie wants her mother, and the mother has this other little girl that she’s nice to and Marnie is jealous of it. It’s such an unusual situation, and yet I’m sure it’s happened in life. It’s so rich and troubling.

Hitchcock’s films have an existential preoccupation with the Double, a favorite theme of the psychoanalyst Otto Rank. Family Plot has it: William Devane is the son who faked his own death. There’s Judy and Madeleine in Vertigo. There’s the Uncle Charlie and the niece Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt. There’s Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, where he’s the jewel thief known as The Cat but, all of a sudden, he’s reading in the newspaper about someone who’s committing all his old crimes —

It’s all about transference of guilt from one person to the other, like Christ did.

Exactly what’s going on in I Confess — first, Montgomery Clift is the confessor, but then, for the rest of the film, he becomes the sinner.

[Hitchcock] couldn’t really get rid of it. One of my favorite things that he said, it’s toward the end of my book, “We don’t know what happens after we die because God knows that life would be very dull without suspense.” The Camera Lies is the title … I had to think: what is this all about for him, the camera lying? I think maybe [Hitchcock] thought he could be Cary Grant, because Cary Grant wasn’t really Cary Grant. Cary Grant put together this thing for the camera and became Cary Grant. It’s this romantic hope. That kind of romance based in fantasy can be very destructive.

Now, let’s talk about doppelgängers. Have you ever met someone or seen someone who you felt might be your doppelgänger?

One time I saw a poster for a missing person. The man looked so much like me I almost collapsed.

What age were you?

Sixteen or 17. I remember I got dizzy. It’s like the premise for an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

When I was in grade school, we went to Burger King one day, and I saw this boy who looked exactly like me. Same facial structure, same curly hair, same everything. The one large difference was he was severely, severely handicapped. He couldn’t quite talk, couldn’t quite feed himself, and I was very, very unsettled. Hitchcock looked the way he did, but he thought maybe it can be like a magic act. Part of that is the camera. The camera can make us into something that perhaps we aren’t if it’s cut in the right way, lit in the right way. And then there’s a class thing. What must have amused him was that any British person was classy to Americans, even if they’re a British person like his family that owned a grocery store. In England, they know with every vowel sound exactly what street you come from.

Why is Cary Grant such an ideal actor for Hitchcock? Why is Montgomery Clift — even though I love I Confess — emphatically not a Hitchcock actor? (If I were going to choose an actor as my fantasy about what I could look like one day, I’d go with Clift.)

Cary Grant, playfully, perversely, is always on the cusp — he never settles on anything. Montgomery Clift wanted everything explained to him. He wanted all the motivations of the role to be clear in his mind, whereas Hitchcock is the auteur and Cary Grant is the star fitting himself into this. Montgomery Clift wanted to think about everything. Cary Grant was the opposite. He was above that — far above that. Hitchcock wanted pure ambiguity, which is what he got from Cary Grant, and what he got from Ingrid Bergman, who is the great female Hitchcock actor. If you look at Judith Anderson in Rebecca — that’s one of the great Hitchcock performances — what Montgomery Clift in I Confess is doing is very similar yet it’s totally different. He was a mask to the camera, in theory the height of ambiguity, but wanted everything definite underneath. Judith Anderson presents a mask to her new mistress, and she’s servile yet dominant, contemptuous, yet interested, she’s perplexed, she is 10 different things at once all under this mask. Montgomery Clift wants to be 10 different things at once under the mask, but the difference is he’s thought about it too much.

In French literature, it was passé to use psychological explanations in the 1950s, as in Nathalie Sarraute or Alain Robbe-Grillet. That may be why Hitchcock resonated in the French intelligentsia.

The surrealists, the nouveau roman, yes, they were against that. I think that’s why Americans took a while longer, particularly because of the Method, the kitchen sink, and all that. He said to Eva Marie Saint, “No more kitchen sinks for you.” When he was making his greatest films, the [American] style was naturalism, psychological explanations, realism. The intelligentsia in America didn’t take him seriously because of that. There’s all kinds of negative writing about Hitchcock up to fairly recently.

Sarris got Hitchcock — Kael didn’t.

For instance, in 5001 Nights at the Movies, Notorious, [Kael] says, is “great trash, great fun.” [Trash] is a high term of endearment for her. But would anyone call Notorious great trash now?

There’s a moment in Notorious where Cary Grant has brought Ingrid Bergman a glass of Bromo Seltzer that gets more attention than Bergman. Sometimes in Hitchcock, the actors are subordinate to the objects. In a way, he’s always making a talkie and a silent picture at the same time.

It’s almost like the glass is a person. When he does a close-up of a supposedly inanimate object, somehow it seems like it’s more than an inanimate object. And that’s very surrealist. Even though he was brought up religious, he’s sensuously attached to objects.

And that could be another reason why he couldn’t work with actors like Bette Davis or Marlon Brando. Their personalities would shatter that glass of seltzer the moment they walked on screen.

Bette Davis would look at the glass and you would only be looking at her eyes.

How did you make the stratigraphy of the table of contents? For example, why is The Wrong Man paired with Psycho, Vertigo, the Hedren period, etc., and not with Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, and The Man Who Knew Too Much?

To my way of thinking, The Wrong Man is the start of this unprecedented series of masterpieces one after the other. I think that The Wrong Man might be his greatest film. People would probably pick Notorious or Rear Window because they’re so pleasurable. There’s no pleasure in The Wrong Man. It’s all this thing of this man who is persecuted and it’s no frills, and it’s a nightmare. It’s a nightmare that could happen to any person. I think it’s particularly interesting because of the time we are living in right now — a false accusation and what it can do to someone’s life. There’s a passivity to Henry Fonda in the movie, but there’s nobility too. That movie is more and more important to me as time goes on. It’s a very convincing nightmare. Like for instance when he’s going down in the subway — maybe because it’s a pandemic and I haven’t gone on the subway in months — it’s exactly what going down the stairs to the subway is like. There are these moments of realism where he gets what it’s like to be in a certain spot. And yet it’s expressionist, too. You said you watched Shadow of a Doubt?

I love that movie.

The one who I love in that movie is the waitress at the Til Two club. It’s so David Lynch, so Twin Peaks. She’s only onscreen for a few minutes, only a few lines of dialogue, and yet he gives you more in those few lines of dialogue and that scene than people give in their entire careers. That’s what is so great about his movies. There are small-part players that you wonder about. He wanted a whole life and whole world … He knew that you have to be as absurd and unnatural as possible. That’s the only way you can be really true to life.


Ben Shields is a writer and MA candidate at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.


Banner image: "Alfred Hitchcock, San Francisco, Summer 1975" by Stan Osborne is licensed under CC BY 3.0.

LARB Contributor

Ben Shields is a writer and MA candidate at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. He lives in Jerusalem. Photo by Wayne Koestenbaum.


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