Hitchcock, his leading ladies and the monster behind the camera
No one disputes the portly cockney’s cinematic genius, but his record as a director of women leaves much to be desired
Alfred Hitchcock would not have fared well in the MeToo age.
The master of suspense had famously strange attitudes to matters female: he seemed simultaneously terrified and mesmerised by young blonde girls, and was openly antagonistic towards womankind in general.
Were he still alive and working, one could imagine the inevitable first accusation of bullying, harassment or worse, and the steady avalanche of claims that would follow it.
That first accusation might easily have come from June Tripp, a young Lancashire actress who experienced the trials of purgatory on the set of Hitchcock’s 1927 silent movie, The Lodger. Her travails are described in detail in The First True Hitchcock, a new book by Henry K. Miller, which charts the director’s early years.
Based on a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, The Lodger has often been called the first true Hitchcock film. In it, familiar and recurring themes emerged: the blonde victim, wrongful accusations, mercurial authority figures, the madness of the mob.
Hitchcock’s first two films hadn’t made much impact: The Lodger did, and without it, we might never have heard of him.
The plot was typical Hitchcock fare: London is under siege as a killer stalks the streets at night, killing blonde women, but only on Tuesdays. The composer and songwriter Ivor Novello played ‘The Lodger’, a young man mistaken for the murderer, and Tripp was Daisy, a model who falls in love with him.
In her 1960 memoir, The Glass Ladder, Tripp described her treatment during the shoot. “All I had to do,” she wrote, “was carry an iron tray of breakfast dishes up a long flight of stairs, but by the time Hitch was satisfied with the expression of fear on my face... I must have made the trek 20 times, the tray seeming to grow heavier and heavier every passing minute.
“During that exhausting hour and a half, I felt a strange, sickening pain somewhere in the region of my appendix scar, but forbore to complain or ask for a rest because delicate actresses are a bore and a nuisance, and in any case, this scene ended my work on the film.”
It also effectively ended her film career. A few months before the shoot, Tripp had an appendectomy: the constant repetition of that stair scene caused a rupture, and she was lucky to survive a second operation.
Tripp had been a great dancer, but the injury changed all that, and though she returned to the stage, she rarely acted in films again. And in the end, Hitchcock only used a fraction of the scene that had done all that damage.
This type of high-handed behaviour is of course not unusual in a film director, especially one who famously joked that all actors were “cattle”. But the big male stars who regularly worked with Hitchcock when he moved to Hollywood, like Cary Grant and James Stewart, would never be subjected to such bullying: it was the women who endured the director’s ire.
Though he worked within the studio system, and made genre pictures, commercial films, Hitchcock was also an auteur, an artist who used films as canvases on which to work out deep-seated obsessions, recurring themes.
Most of those obsessions stemmed from his austere London childhood. Born in Leytonstone in 1899, Alfred Joseph was the third child of William Hitchcock, a greengrocer, and his wife Nellie Whelan. Both his parents had Irish roots and were devout Roman Catholics who took a dim view of wrong-doing.
On the interview circuit, Hitchcock liked to tell the story of how his father had sent him to the police station with a note when he was five: the policeman read it and put the child in a cell for five minutes, telling him “this is what we do to naughty boys”.
This tale is often used to explain the recurring theme of wrongful accusation in Hitchcock’s work, but it was his mother who had the greatest influence on his developing personality. Austere, severe, obsessed with morality and the importance of sexual continence,
Nellie used to make her son stand at the end of her bed each evening and give an account of his day. This feeling of dread stuck with him and seems to have poisoned his attitude to women.
When he married in 1926, it was to a fellow professional, Alma Reville, a woman he respected, even feared. Alma was a mother figure, his screenwriting guru, a lifelong companion and constant help: but she was more of a mother than a romantic figure for the director, who consciously or otherwise tended to inflict his deeper sexual impulses on his leading ladies.
He certainly was hard on them, and June Tripp was the first of many actresses who came to rue their association with Hitchcock. Pre-war star Madeleine Carroll was given the full treatment on Hitchcock’s 1937 hit The 39 Steps.
At times, it almost seemed as though he was trying to ‘break’ his actresses, as if they were wild horses, and poor Carroll found herself handcuffed to co-star Robert Donat for hours on end during the shoot, being dragged through rivers, ditches and waterfalls. When calling for her, Hitchcock would shout, “Bring on the Birmingham tart!”.
Her portrayal of Pamela in The 39 Steps is often cited as the prototype for the blondes who would become such a distinctive motif in his work. And as the film critic Roger Ebert astutely remarked, these Hitchcock women were “blonde, icy, remote. They were imprisoned in costumes that subtly combined fashion with fetishism. They mesmerised the men, who often had physical or psychological handicaps. Sooner or later, every Hitchcock woman was humiliated”. Sometimes the actress was humiliated as well.
On the set of Rebecca, Joan Fontaine thought she was seeing things when she noticed something ominous protruding from the director’s fly. Happily, it turned out to be a champagne cork. At the time, Hitchcock was free to pass this kind of stuff off as ‘humour’; a different view would be taken now.
Mary Clare, a young actress who worked with him on two films, was given a fruit drink laced with gin to “loosen her up”. She was a teetotaller.
Stars like Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly were well able for Hitchcock’s nonsense, laughing at his dirty jokes and taking his romantic obsessiveness with a pinch of salt. But others were not so lucky.
On Vertigo, Kim Novak was pushed almost to breaking point by Hitchcock’s incessant remodelling of the actress’s appearance, which eerily mirrored the strange behaviour of Jimmy Stewart’s character in the film. But worst of all was the shameful treatment meted out to Tippi Hedren on The Birds.
Hedren was a successful model when Hitchcock cast her in The Birds, his high tempo adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier story. At first, she relished the experience, then came the infamous scene where her character is attacked by birds in an attic.
Hitchcock had assured Hedren that only a few mechanical ravens would be involved in the scene, but he then realised that wouldn’t look realistic enough and decided to use real seagulls instead.
Hedren would spend five days on the floor of a set while prop men wearing thick protective gloves threw gulls at the actress’s head. “It was brutal and ugly and relentless,” she would later recall, and by the end of the week, she was an emotional wreck.
Meanwhile, an unrepentant Hitchcock was growing more and more obsessed with her. According to Donald Spoto’s book The Dark Side Of Genius, the director paid two crew members to follow Hedren everywhere and monitor how she spent her free time.
Things got worse when they started shooting Marnie together: he now claimed he had invented her, would not let others touch her on set and badgered her into spending time alone with him. “He was really isolating me from everyone,” she said later.
Things came to a head when Hitchcock, according to Hedren, threw himself at her in the back of a limo, then cornered her in his office and made an overt sexual proposition. “He stared at me,” she recalled, “and simply said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, that from this time on, he expected me to make myself sexually available to him — however and whenever he wanted.”
Speaking truth to power, she told him where to shove his proposal and never worked with him again.
There have been other accusations — of strange arrangements with studio secretaries — that paint a picture of a man who shamelessly abused his power, though of course he would have been one of hundreds at the time.
Standing 5ft 8in, and weighing more than 300lbs, Hitchcock was nobody’s idea of a matinee idol, and seems to have bitterly resented the flawless beauty that nature had denied him. He was a mess of suppressed complexes and insecurities, and had a disturbing tendency to treat women as playthings.
Of course, the sad truth is that if Alfred Hitchcock hadn’t been such a psychological basket case, he never would have made those perverse and gripping thrillers we all love so much. But pity the poor women who had to work with him.