August 13, 1899- Alfred Hitchcock:
“What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out.”
I worry that in our era Hitchcock might get canceled like another of my favorite filmmakers, Woody Allen. Hitchcock can be troubling in our #MeToo times. With a career that spanned six decades, Hitchcock is both the most respected and most maligned directors, whose idolatry of blonde females borders on fetishism.
Madeleine Carroll was the first female actor whose image he truly went ape-shit crazy for in The 39 Steps (1935) and Secret Agent (1936). Hitchcock’s women weren’t all blondes; there were strong, independent, dark-haired leading ladies like Teresa Wright and Margaret Lockwood, and light brunettes Joan Fontaine and Ingrid Bergman. But it was Grace Kelly, whose allure Hitchcock could not resist, that he gave him his questionable reputation. He looked to find other women who could fill her high-heels, such as Vera Miles and Tippi Hedren.
Hitchcock’s women are brave, gutsy, sensual, complicated, obsessive, and especially sympathetic. His films are sometimes considered misogynistic because of the way the women are seemingly punished, yet he takes the female point of view in many of his films including Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946) and The Birds (1963). In Rear Window (1954), Grace Kelly jumps right into the action and places herself in danger while James Stewart is incapacitated. Janet Leigh in Psycho is so likable and appealing that her death is devastating. Hitchcock:
“I believe that the vast majority of women, in all ranks of life, are idealists. They may not live up to their own ideals, often they cannot do so, but they do like to see them personified by their favorite film heroines.”
Bergman considered him a close friend up until his death, someone she enjoyed sharing dinner and martinis. Kelly and Leigh do also. Hedren insists that he became obsessed with her. Fontaine found the filming of Rebecca to be a bad experience, with Hitchcock isolating her from the rest of the cast to enhance her performance. Fontaine:
“He wanted total control over me and seemed to relish the cast not liking one another, actor for actor, by the end of the film.”
Fontaine had only good things to say about him later in life, and about the casting for Suspicion, she wrote that she begged Hitchcock for the role:
“I must do that picture, Oh, please, dear darling Hitch. I am even willing to play the part for no salary if necessary! I’m sure with you at the helm I would not regret it.”
Hitchcock had his best relationships with Carole Lombard and Tallulah Bankhead, strong personalities who shared his sense of humor. Bankhead wrote of filming Lifeboat (1944):
“It was divine. Because Hitchcock was so divine. Every Saturday night I’d dine with him and his wife Alma and his daughter, who were darling, and I was very happy with that.”
Alma Reville possessed a shrewd eye, and she wrote many of the script treatments, in addition to advising on scripts. She was the greatest influence in Hitchcock’s life.
Hitchcock was fascinated by hidden and repressed sexuality, voyeurism, and fantasies about items of clothing such as black heels, blonde hair, and glasses. Did he include them to assuage his kinks, or did he simply make films for the audience? He had an uncanny instinct for what filmgoers wanted. And from the start of his career women were his primary audience. Hitchcock:
“The chief point I keep in mind when selecting my heroine is that she must be fashioned to please women rather than men, for the reason that women form three-quarters of the average cinema audience.”
His influence can be felt in nearly every suspense film made today. Inventing the vocabulary of the thriller, with over 50 films, including action movies, horror films and silent classics; taken as a whole, Hitchcock’s entertainments comprise some of film fans’ most pleasurable mazes (sometimes I get lost just thinking about them).
I recently caught Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941), the only full-on comedy Hitchcock ever made. Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard are classy and gorgeous as a constantly bickering couple that discovers that their marriage isn’t legal. I give it an A. I believe I have seen all of Hitchcock’s Hollywood films, and most of his 1930s British pictures, but I had not seen this bon-bon of a flick.
During the filming of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Lombard brought three cows onto the set wearing the name tags of Lombard, Robert Montgomery, and Gene Raymond, the stars of the film. In 1972, on The Dick Cavett Show, Dick Cavett stated that Hitchcock had once called actors cattle. Hitchcock responded by saying that, at one time, he had been accused of calling actors cattle:
“I said that I would never say such an unfeeling, rude thing about actors at all. What I probably said, was that all actors should be treated like cattle…In a nice way of course.”
In 1974, I took a class, Survey of Hitchcock Films, in college. The course was taught by Charles Champlin, at the time, a film critic for The Los Angeles Times. I loved the class. One of the highlights was a viewing of the not yet released, Family Plot (1976), a darker comedy, after which Hitchcock spoke and took questions from our class. One fervent and overeager Film major asked the famed director: “Mr. Hitchcock, what is your definition of the term ‘THE CINEMA?'”
Hitchcock’s sardonic reply:
“Well… that reminds me of when I was working with Miss Ingrid Bergman… and she was quite distraught with some changes in the script. She became very unhappy with me… and I had to say: ‘Oh, Ingrid…it’s only a movie’.”
Hitchcock has been portrayed on screen by Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock (2012), Toby Jones in The Girl (2012), and by Roger Ashton-Griffiths in Grace Of Monaco (2014). He famously makes cameo appearances in 39 of his films. He can be spotted briefly boarding a bus, crossing in front of a building, standing in an apartment across the courtyard, and even appearing in a newspaper photograph, as in Lifeboat (1944), which otherwise provided no other opportunity for him to appear, I suppose, except maybe as a whale.
This playful gesture became one of Hitchcock’s signatures; with film fans trying to spot the cameos. As a recurring theme, he would be seen carrying a musical instrument. My favorite is the string bass case that he wrestles onto the train at the beginning of Strangers On A Train (1951). In his earliest appearances he filled in as obscure extras in crowds or walking through scenes in long camera shots. His later appearances became more obvious; he turns to see Jane Wyman‘s disguise as she passes him in Stage Fright (1950), or as an imposing silhouette in Family Plot.
Hitchcock’s quick appearances became so popular that he began to put them earlier in the film so as not to distract the audience from the plot, often within the first half-hour of his films. He appears in all 30 features from his first American film, Rebecca onward; before his move to Hollywood, he only occasionally performed cameos. Hitchcock:
“It all started with the shortage of extras in my first picture. I was in for a few seconds as an editor with my back to the cameras. It wasn’t really much, but I played it to the hilt. Since then I have been trying to get into every one of my pictures. It isn’t that I like the business, but it has an impelling fascination that I can’t resist. When I do, the cast, grips, and the camera men and everyone else gather to make it as difficult as possible for me. But I can’t stop now! “
Hitchcock was nominated for five Academy Awards, none of them for writing. He never won as Best Director, but Rebecca was nominated for 11 Oscars, and won for Best Picture, yet the statue went to Selznick International Pictures not to Hitchcock himself. That same year, another Hitchcock film, Foreign Correspondent, was also nominated. Although I think his work with actors is first-rate, Joan Fontaine has the only Academy Award winning performance under Hitchcock’’s direction, taking home the Oscar for for Suspicion.
Vertigo (1958) is not just my favorite Hitchcock film, it’s in my Top Ten Films of All Time.
My Hitchcock Top Ten:
Strangers On A Train
Rear Window (1954)
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Shadow Of A Doubt (1943)
The Birds (1963)
The 39 Steps (1935)
North By Northwest (1959)
“The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”