Interview with Norman Lloyd: Alfred Hitchcock and Saboteur

Lloyd was hand-picked by Alfred Hitchcock to play the title character and villain in 1942’s “Saboteur,” and it was his character who tumbled to his death from the top of the Statue of Liberty in the pic’s iconic conclusion.
Norman Lloyd in 1942’s “Saboteur”

Alfred Hitchcock and Saboteur

It was 1941, and Alfred Hitchcock had a picture about to be released called Suspicion, with Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine. He came to New York for the premiere of the picture at Radio City Music Hall, which was the most desirable place to open. He had been brought to America and put under contract by David O. Selznick, and was preparing a picture called Saboteur, with a script by Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, Joan Harrison and Peter Viertel. Hitchcock was looking for someone to play the title role of the saboteur; he wanted an unknown because of the nature of the story. He mentioned this to John Houseman, who was also working for Selznick, and Houseman suggested to him that I might be right for the part. Houseman also got in touch with me, telling me to call Hitchcock at the St. Regis, which I did, using Houseman’s name to get through to Hitch.

He was very kind and polite and suggested I come to see him.

I did so, and it was the start of a relationship that went on for over thirty-five years. Hitchcock had made only two pictures in America — Suspicion and Rebecca — after his English work, but it impressed me, as I came into his presence, that he was the definition, in one’s imagina­tion, of an international motion picture director. I don’t mean in the cliché Hollywood style, or as in a George S. Kaufman comedy, but in the sense of a director one felt to be a major figure in the contemporary entertainment world. It was more than that; it was an international aura of St. Moritz, trains, the best food, cigars, rare wines — all the fantasies that you saw on the screen, he seemed to em­body in the way he lived. Actually, only part of that was true. He had a great sense of that world but he lived very quietly, like a bourgeois. He projected a professionalism, a big-league quality, immediately, and he was very much at ease. He was then in his early forties. He told me what he had in mind and said that he would have me tested; he didn’t do the tests, because he had to go back to Los Angeles. I was to select a scene with a character who was like the character in the film, which he described to me. We had a chat about Houseman and Hitch’s new picture, Suspicion, and the fact that I had also seen his English work. I had seen the first of his films to be released in America, including The Man Who Knew Too Much, during the run of Noah, because Pierre Fresnay was in it. Then came The Thirty-Nine Steps, and The Girl Was Young. He was considered an arty director then; these were released as art films.

I selected a scene from Blind Alley, a successful play of which variations have since been made — Desperate Hours and Detective Story: people held hostage by the criminal. I played the criminal in a short scene — less than two minutes. It was a single shot, with cues thrown to me from off-stage. There were also other actors testing.

The film was sent off to Hitchcock and he selected me. I was overwhelmed. I was paid three hundred dollars a week to play a title role in a film and was guaranteed four weeks. I had to pay a commission and living expenses out of this. They also had me stay on two extra days, for which they did not pay me, but gave me twenty-five dol­lars a day for expenses. I was given round-trip transpor­tation by plane. That was my first trip to California by air, which in those days was a journey of about twenty- one hours. You slept in a berth on the plane. There were several stops.

Hitch never referred to the test again although he had hired me on the basis of it. The producer, Jack Skirball, did. He was then a theatre exhibitor, financier and in partnership with Bruce Manning. Together, they were producing the film independently at old Universal. Hitchcock was on loan-out from Selznick. Jack Skirball was very kind and hospitable. One day he took me out to dinner and told me, “You know that test? I thought you overdid it.” He was probably right. Theatre acting was then a lot more florid than it is today, and it could well have been that I did a lot of “acting” to make the character of the psychopathic killer convince Hitchcock that I could be a deranged saboteur. In fact, that part was written quite differently.

Saboteur starred Robert Cummings, Priscilla Lane and some very good character actors like Otto Kruger, Egon Brecher, Alma Kruger, Alan Baxter and Ian Wolfe. Hitch was shooting when I arrived. I came on the set and he greeted me most charmingly. I waited. The shooting day was almost over and he invited me for a drink. This was my first experience drinking with Hitchcock; from then on, I was on my guard.

We went across the street from the lovely old Univer­sal lot to a bar and restaurant run by one of the prop men, Eddie Keyes. Hitch ordered a martini, and I said I would have the same. When Hitch’s “usual” arrived, it was in a goblet the size of those used to serve grapefruit, when the grapefruit is surrounded by ice. Mine, of course, was the same. I looked at it with fear. At no time in my life have I been much of a drinker; I was also not accustomed to driving, having learned when I was in Hollywood in 1939 with Orson, and not having driven in New York since. The drink made me fear for my safety; on the other hand, I was afraid that if I didn’t drink it, I might lose the part. I just sipped while Hitch drank one, then another. He never got drunk; it was his normal appetite.

Before I came to Hollywood, I had done some second unit work on the picture in New York. Once I was cast in the part, Hitch sent John Fulton to New York to direct the unit. He was the foremost trick cameraman in Hol­lywood; if you needed effects shot, he was the best man in town and, in his own way, a star.

The Statue of Liberty sequence has become one of the most famous Hitchcock ever made, and in the years since Saboteur I have often been asked how it was done. Audiences seem to know more about technical matters these days, perhaps because of the proliferation of all kinds of cameras. But at that time, audiences couldn’t understand how the sequence was shot. That was precisely the effect that Hitchcock desired because as a director, as a man of great visual power, he looked for a style that would not only give the audience the emotional kick that he hoped for but would also leave them puz­zled. I will get to the specifics of that as I lay out the se­quence, which is probably my claim to fame, for people always say, “Oh yes — you fell off the Statue of Liberty.”

In the story of Saboteur, my character commits the crime at the beginning of the film and the entire picture is a chase. Bob Cummings, the hero, tries to find and cap­ture me. Two or three reels from the end, he finds me just as I’m about to blow up a boat — a Liberty ship carrying goods for the war.

At one point I run into Radio City Music Hall. I find my way onto the stage, and behind me a picture is play­ing on an enormous screen. A gunfight ensues between Bob Cummings, the detectives, and me. They are shoot­ing from the audience; I’m shooting from the stage. At the same time, a gun-fight is in progress on the screen, so it is never clear where the sound of revolvers is coming from; you’re not sure if it’s from the screen, my revolver, or Cummings’s. A man in the audience falls over dead, clearly shot by me from the stage, with only the woman next to him aware of it.

The essence of the Hitchcock touch in that sequence was not only the intermingling of reality, so to speak, with film, but also the humor of the situation, in which the audience continued to think all the shots being fired were on the screen; they were laughing. They were never aware of the real gun battle.

From there — in the continuity of the story, not in the order in which the film was shot (the Radio City Music Hall sequence was done in Hollywood) — I take a cab going down the West Side Highway. This, too, was done in Hollywood as a process shot. While we were shooting in California, news reached us that the Normandie was burning. This French ship was at that time the largest in the world; it was being prepared for the troops to use when it was sabotaged. In flames, the ship had keeled over. Hitch asked Universal Newsreel division, which existed at that time, to get some footage of the boat burn­ing. He also had them shoot plates of a car going down the West Side Highway — an elevated structure which bordered the west side of Manhattan along the docks. He put me in a mock-up of a taxi and said, “When I cue you, look to your right as if you see the Normandie.” He wanted a look that would be used as a cut — the jux­taposition of going down the highway, then a turn of the head with a slight smile, and the cut of the boat burning; it all tied together, indicating I had something to do with the burning boat. It is remembered as a chilling moment.

From a directorial point of view, it shows a man who was really on his toes and aware of any opportunity to create something for his film: to take history at the mo­ment and incorporate it into a script — in character, story and action. Hitch always claimed the contrary: “I lay out the script shot for shot. It’s boring to shoot a picture be­cause I’ve done it all in the script.” But that was an ex­ample of his not having done this. It was history and ab­solutely memorable.

The cab arrived at the Battery at the tip of Manhattan. In those days an aquarium was there, and the docks from which boats left for the Statue of Liberty, on Bedloe’s Is­land.

When we shot there with John Fulton’s second unit, it was December 15th, 1941, a few days after Pearl Harbor, but it was supposed to be spring. It was very cold, but I could not wear my hat and coat for the scene. I went into the warmth of the little office where tickets for the Statue of Liberty boats were sold. Thirty-five extras were wait­ing. Coffee and doughnuts were being served while the first shots of my arriving at the ticket office, then ascend­ing the gangplank of the boat, were being prepared. John Fulton was also going to shoot plates to be used on Stage 12 at Universal when we went to California.

We had a big problem that day with clouds; it was overcast, so John did not have the light that he wanted much of the time. We did a lot of waiting; we would do two or three takes and wait again. After the scene at the gangplank, which we did two or three times, we did the scene on the boat, going across the water. I went out on deck to the railing at the front of the boat to look at Pris­cilla Lane, whom I was trying to pick up, at the opposite railing. Fulton also had to shoot plates for Priscilla Lane, who wasn’t there, as well as my plates and shots of me looking into the bay.

The extras were in these scenes, which we shot several times. Next, we landed on Bedloe’s Island where we shot coming off the boat four times, again waiting for the right light. From there, we did a shot walking from the land­ing up to the base of the Statue of Liberty, also requiring several takes. It was then time to eat, and box lunches ar­rived.

One little old lady who was obediently repeating all these actions with the extras finally turned to one of them and said, “Do you have to do this every time you want to see the Statue of Liberty?” She had come from Virginia and had decided to see the statue the first thing in the morning» Wandering into the nice group of people who were having coffee and doughnuts, she had thought, “My goodness, what are all of these terrible stories I hear about New York? They’ve made me feel welcome with coffee and doughnuts, although they have this curious way of making you repeat all these things to see the statue.”

It was explained to her that she was actually in the middle of thirty extras making pictures. She disap­peared; to this day the mystery has never been solved. It’s my own conclusion that she jumped in the bay, though they tell me that’s not the case. Whatever hap­pened to her, no one knows, because they were looking for her to sign a release. This was needed for anyone who was going to be seen on film — which she was.

Finally, we did the scene going into the base of the Statue of Liberty. This was it for the day; Fulton had his plates and live-action of me. John then went to the top of the statue, to shoot plates from there to the base, the bay, the harbor and so on. This done, I went to California to perform in the picture.

Saboteur is remembered chiefly for the Statue of Liber­ty sequence. In the story, after my character has gone into the base of the statue, Bob Cummings and the FBI men arrive. Priscilla Lane had been on the boat with me. I go up to the crown of the statue and she follows me. Her job is to detain me long enough for the FBI to reach me. I have a scene with her in which I go on the make and she goes along with it to hold me there. At the end of the scene, she speaks my name and I realize that I have been trapped. I look out and see speedboats arriving, which would not normally happen at Bedloe’s Island. I move out of the inside of the crown and onto its balcony.

I did not do this on the real Statue of Liberty, of course. Hitchcock had the hand, torch and balcony built to scale on stage twelve of Universal. It was enormous. Parallels had been built out to the balcony with mattres­ses.

The inside of the crown was also built to scale, as all the dialogue scenes were done by Hitch at Universal.

Bob Cummings came out onto the balcony, following me. As we moved around, he pulled a gun and made a gesture towards me with it, I panicked and went over the balcony railing onto the parallel covered with mattres­ses, where I was caught by a grip named Scotty who was stationed to make sure I wouldn’t go off the parapet.

At this point, Hitch switched to doubles. For the long shot, Davey Sharp, one of the greatest of stuntmen, repeated my fall backwards over the railing, through the air. He then caught the crotch of the thumb and forefinger on the statue and held on with both hands. Bob Cummings’s stunt double, also in long shot, climbed down the forefinger to try to rescue me; Fry, the character I played, had to be taken alive to be persuaded to talk.

When Hitch returned to close-ups, he disassembled the torch piece. He put the thumb and forefinger piece of the torch, and the crotch of the thumb and the forefinger, down on the floor of the stage. The camera was angled at me lying on my stomach on the set piece, and 1 did all the close-up reactions there. Bob Cummings came down the forefinger, but could only reach the sleeve of my jacket. There were then intercuts between my close-up, Bob Cummings’s close-up and the seam where the sleeve was stitched to the jacket, which began to tear.

Bob tried to get my hand to prevent me from falling, pulling the sleeve to bring me closer to him. But my hand was clinging to the statue, and he couldn’t get a grip on me.

Eventually the sleeve came off and I fell, from a big close-up. I fell without a cut to the base of the statue, one continuous scream all the way down. That is what Hitch was building up to; that is the problem he had set for himself. The fall had to be done without a cut from a close-up.

People have wondered how we did that to this day. When Ben Hecht saw the sequence — referring to the sleeve that parted from my jacket — he told Hitchcock he thought I should have had a better tailor. Hitch himself decided that the only problem with the sequence, which is technically supreme, was that the story had the wrong man in jeopardy. It should have been the hero, he thought. He concluded that the scene on the hand of the statue, with all the technical and cinematic wizardry to hype up the audience, would have been more affecting had Bob Cummings been in jeopardy. John Fulton designed the falling scene in consultation with Hitch. Hitch knew a great deal about art direction; he had worked as an art director in silent films in London when he was young. He also knew more about trick photog­raphy than most people, so he could talk to Johnny Fulton as a peer.

This is how they did it. The removable piece of the statue — the thumb and forefinger — was taken to another stage and attached to a platform six feet high. The platform was on counterweights and rigged to the top of the stage. A hole was cut in the platform, with a camera placed to shoot down through the hole, towards the set piece fixed below it. Underneath the whole thing was a saddle-like affair on which I sat, on a pipe about four-and-a-half feet high, based on a black cloth. On a cue, the camera, on the counterweight system, starting from a close-up of me, would go up in the air to the grid, together with the set piece of the thumb and forefinger, leaving me behind; thus giving the effect of falling.

This was shot at different speeds, while I did move­ments of falling rather slowly and balletically. By the time the camera got to the top of its move, it had gone from an extreme close-up to a very long shot of my ap­parently falling figure. The small saddle was not visible; the pipe and black cloth, which were seen, were later painted out in a traveling matte shot. Hitch succeeded in achieving what he wanted, which was to do the fall in one cut.

I was so fortunate to make my first picture with Hitchcock. I started at the top, and was introduced to a way of picture-making, a way of conducting oneself on the set—a way of life regarding a picture—that of an in­ternational star director. Not only was he an artist, but there was a very special world which he projected. Hitch always dressed in a black suit, white shirt and black tie. He looked like either a banker or an undertaker. He ac­tually had twenty-eight of these suits, all the same. The coats and trousers were marked with corresponding num­bers, so they wouldn’t get matched in the wrong way; this was done for dry cleaning purposes. It was characteristic of his mind — so well organized. He would walk on the set and conduct it as if it were a fine banking firm in England — very quiet and masterful. But he had great humor and a sense of fun. He still had remnants of his gift for practical jokes at that time, and sometimes played them; they were always very funny. He left an indelible mark on me of what it means to be a director and how to conduct oneself on the set.

Chaplin and Renoir, with whom I worked later, each had a unique genius. Chaplin was a nineteenth-century romantic; he still had the flavor of silent pictures which caused him to work the way he did in my experience on Limelight. Renoir was a man of enormous personal charm, a humanist, erudite and witty. He was a prince of the human race. My friendship with Jean was a very loving and close one quite apart from pictures.

Hitch was really what you dreamed about when you picked up chic magazines — Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar or Vogue, and saw international salons with motion pic­ture directors. He was St. Moritz and the Orient Express — all the fantasies a New York actor without any money would savor.

PARKER: Why was Saboteur made as an independent production?

LLOYD: Jack Skirball had bought the property. He had done a few pictures previously, and went on to do Shadow of a Doubt with Hitchcock later. Hitch actually developed Saboteur. I don’t know whether or not Selznick turned down the story, but he loaned Hitch to Skirball for this production.

As a director, Hitch often used the phrase “camera logic.” He believed in a simple camera: it is exactly in the right place at the right time to tell the story. Joe Valen­tine, one of the top cameramen in Hollywood, shot Saboteur in black and white. Early on he asked Hitch if he would like to look at a shot through the camera. Hitch told him no, thank you; he had looked through a camera before. He never looked through the camera. He knew exactly the image that he wanted; he would ask the cameraman what lens he was using and where he was cutting the actor, at the knees or at the chest, etc. Upon receiving this information, he was ready to shoot. His chair was put alongside the camera.

I began to learn about the camera from Hitch — then, and also later, when we worked together on the television series. It was a source of pride that major directors sel­dom moved the camera, and would only move it if there was a real motivation for doing so, in the case of an actor moving — from a sofa to a chair across the room. If a character was going away from you, you had to follow him, or perhaps you were setting up a scene and needed a large panoramic shot on a crane. But for the most part, movement was kept to a minimum by the major directors. All that changed with! the introduction of zoom lenses and other sophisticated equipment, such as the crab dolly and its variations.

Hitchcock sparked the invention of the crab dolly be­cause of his demand for it; he wanted a camera that could not only dolly but could also move the way a crab moved — backward, forward, sideways and all the ways in be­tween.

With the sophisticated technical improvements, and particularly with the expansion of television and its new techniques, many directors arrived from film schools, where they had become proficient with the equipment. They had become so enamored of the zoom that it became a thing in itself after a while. It can dilute staging and staging skill and result in the actor being ignored. It reached its zenith with the directors of commercials, who are full of tricks because they have to be; they have thirty seconds to catch the eye of the audience with zooms, tricks, dissolves, fast pans and curious dollies. All this moved into story-telling from commercials, which it must be admitted, did produce some good directors, particular­ly in England; they come into pictures with a strong visual sense, but for the most part, the effect becomes an end in itself.

In the final analysis, one must remember the director is the storyteller. He may not be the creator of it, but he is telling it, and it is his gifts as a storyteller that hold the audience. I remember Bertolt Brecht telling me, “Even a poem must have a story.” What distinguishes people in this business, one from another, is the story he or she has to tell. An actor walking on stage, whether it be theatre or film, should carry a story with him — a personal story. To the extent to which that story is attractive or unique is the extent to which an audience will be interested in him.

John Ford always subscribed to the idea of telling a story and was very good at it. He used very little film; there are tales of his coming back after completing a day’s work and not having used up one reel of film. He’d got everything he’d wanted. Hitch would shoot a scene and say, “Cut — that’s all you need.” It was a phrase of his, when he had all he wanted; he was seeing it as a piece of the story. Renoir said, later, that the most important ele­ment is the actor and what he is doing. What is impor­tant is what is happening in front of the camera and not behind it. When directors became enamored of the tech­nical razzle-dazzle they became enamored with what was happening behind the camera, not in front of it. I think this is being tempered again. We are seeing simple, good camera work, and beautiful lighting and a great sense of visual strength.

After Saboteur, I left California; I would have loved to have stayed and to this day I don’t know if I did the right thing. Peggy had remained in New York with our daughter, who was age two. I could have brought them to Hollywood. My agent, the William Morris office, wanted me to go back to New York. I have always believed it was because they didn’t want another actor on their hands. It’s true I didn’t have the prospect of imme­diate work, and the picture was not due to come out until May, when it would open at Radio City Music Hall, so there would be a few months to wait. That would mean that the William Morris office would have to find me work to bridge that time, and it was in their interest, since I was not known as a picture actor but was known back on Broadway, to have me return there.

PARKER: Why would William Morris want you to go back to the East Coast when you had just starred in a film under a major director? It doesn’t seem to be a smart move.

LLOYD: I wish I could answer that; I can’t, not from a creative and positive point of view. From a negative point of view, as I explained, they were really interested in people who got immediate work or who were offered things immediately. They had no way of selling me until the picture came out. I always thought that if I had been in Hollywood when the picture was released, things might have been a little better. But I was in New York and nothing really happened as a result of Saboteur. I made the lists of best performances and a list of the ten future stars in the business in magazines, but I was not on the scene to take advantage of it.

There was another element: in those days, Broadway was the thing. I was a New Yorker — an actor, and New York was my city. I was raised there. Those of us who were serious actors, and I believed myself a serious actor, were truly committed to being New York actors — Broad­way actors.

We had an inner confusion; we all really wanted to go out and do Hollywood movies. We all really wanted to be picture stars. We would never admit it to anyone, be­cause we also wanted to be artists in the theatre — to be in the Mercury, the Group, the Federal Theatre— and later on I did the first production, as a co-director and actor, with the Phoenix. In 1942, one felt curiously guilty about not working in the theatre.

On the other hand, I was terribly drawn to staying in Hollywood. For one thing, I was a good tennis player, and tennis was not so common as it is now. While play­ing tennis at the homes of people in the business, I thought, “What a marvelous way to live, with tennis courts and swimming pools.” Back at 123rd Street around Morningside Drive it was dreary.

I returned and did a few undistinguished plays, among them a musical for the CIO called Marching with Johnny. It was directed by Phil Loeb. Zero Mostel was around, because he was a friend of both Phil’s and mine. I didn’t want to do many of the comedy sketches; I at­tempted to get Zero to do them. While we were trying it out in Newark, he kept saying, “This stuff is so funny, Norman, you’re all wrong about it.” Phil Loeb said the same thing. Finally, I quit. I said to Zero, “If it’s so funny, you do it.” Zero said, “Oh, no. It’s no good.” Phil finally went into the show himself, because he couldn’t find anyone else to do if; they went on to Philadelphia, where they closed.

It was typical of the shows I did in 1942 and 1943. Then in 1944 I got an offer from John Houseman, who was producing at Paramount Pictures, to come to Hol­lywood to do a film called The Unseen, with Joel McCrea, Gail Russell and Herbert Marshall. It was a sequel to a successful ghost picture called The Uninvited with Ray Milland; Lewis Allen directed both of them.

I had come out alone, while Peggy and Susanna stayed in New York When shooting was over, I decided to see if I could get work in Hollywood as an actor.

A few weeks later, Hitchcock offered me a part, in Spellbound. It was a scene early in the film, with Ingrid Bergman; it established her as a psychiatrist, and I would be her first patient. Hitchcock wanted a certain quality, though it was a very small part; today if would be called a cameo. It was an honor to do it for him; I enjoyed it, and I played in the first scene that Hitchcock ever directed with Ingrid.

Ingrid was a woman of great strength and charm. I worked with her later, over a longer period of time, on Arch of Triumph as Lewis Milestone’s associate. At the time of Spellbound, she was still rising to the top of her profession. She was a very well-known actress and was about to become the top star in the business. She was under contract to Selznick, as was Hitchcock; Selznick was making Spellbound.

Hitch laid out this first scene in a certain way, though Ingrid had other ideas — something to do with the move­ment, I think; it was not to do with character or inter­pretation. But Flitch had a definite concept of the shot and I assume that what Ingrid wanted would have altered it. Hitch, having made up his mind, would not alter any­thing — that was not his way. He had a great sense of himself and he was a vain man; he wasn’t going to change a shot because an actor or actress had something else in mind.

It was certainly true then, and perhaps to a certain ex­tent it still is, that the director had to give off an air of in­fallibility. Today, there is a little more give and take, though we still have directors who are God figures. Then, directors ruled by fear, by command, by their posi­tion. With John Ford, you took your life in your hands if you suggested anything. Betty Field once told me that when she did Cheyenne Autumn with Ford, she made a suggestion about what kind of dress she would wear. It was just an ordinary house dress. He said, “You really think so?” On the set, he always addressed her as “the wardrobe mistress,” because she had the effrontery to suggest what she would wear.

Source: Stages: Norman Lloyd. Interviewed by Francine Parker; 1990


1 thought on “Interview with Norman Lloyd: Alfred Hitchcock and Saboteur”

  1. joseph gretsch

    The diegesis is the world of the story; it has its own laws, its own creatures, its own perspectives and its own persons, all related by a particular kind of gravity, specific to that world. All digeses are garments made from scraps of the “real” world by authors, by directors, by artists; all are reporters of the imagination. Gravity is in their telling of each story, it orchestrates the physics of the tale and its contents. To the extent that this gravity is generated from the heart, the digesis achieves a kind of g-force, diastolic and systolic, waxing and waning. Hitchcock was in this sense a master of the planets.

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