In 1962, before audiences ever saw a flock of killer birds encircle Tippi Hedren, the film studio making The Birds circulated a memo that outlined marketing strategy. “The star of this picture, as with Psycho, is Alfred Hitchcock,” it said. Neither critics nor Hollywood ever challenged the idea of “Hitch” as auteur-sole creator of such iconic images as Cary Grant fleeing an attacking crop-duster and Janet Leigh slashed while showering.
Then Will Schmenner, a young film curator at Northwestern University’s Block Museum, came up with another take after talking with his boss, museum director David Robertson. “David said even great artists of the Renaissance maintained large studios and employed a ‘Guild Workshop,'” recalls Schmenner, 29, who hypothesized that Hitchcock employed a comparable system.
So Schmenner, a Boston-bred curator who once headed DOC Films at the University of Chicago, visited the Hitchcock archives at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences library in Los Angeles. His discovery of eerie, foreboding drawings for The Birds by Robert Boyle, a production designer, quickly showed he was on the right track. After reading the Daphne du Maurier novella on which the movie is based, Hitchcock had asked Boyle to sketch his visual impressions; the drawings, Schmenner believes, heavily influenced the film’s final tone and look.
In all, the young curator unearthed 160 preliminary drawings, working scripts, letters, and audio conversations-gems that will be on display in “Casting a Shadow,” the art exhibition and film fest that opens September 28th at the Block. Hitchcock’s crowning achievement, Schmenner now argues, was his masterful shaping of every film’s collective vision. Hitchcock’s visual powers were as rich as those of Monet, Miró, and Matisse-which is why, Schmenner believes, film deserves to be studied in museums alongside paintings. “To be a great filmmaker you must not only be a great visualizer; you have to be good at directing the whole movie team.” Such collaboration, Hitchcock implied in a 1972 interview, is the heart of moviemaking: “I wish I didn’t have to shoot the picture. When I’ve gone through the script and created [it] on paper, for me the creative job is done and the rest is just a bore.”
Photograph: Lisa Predko