Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Did Not Love Women
Joe Queenan liked to take on sacred cows. We have already scene him scrutinize Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. In the August 1990 issue of Movieline magazine, the columnist took Alfred Hitchcock to task for repetitious themes, lazy plots and his creepy relationship with the fairer sex.
In an early, and not especially good, Alfred Hitchcock movie entitled The Secret Agent, Peter Lorre, playing a mysterious sleazeball nicknamed “The Hairless Mexican,” goes bonkers when he learns that the British Secret Service has left him without a blonde playmate while providing John Gielgud with the comely Madeleine Carroll.
“This is too much, really too much,” Lorre seethes, pounding the walls with his fists. “For you, beautiful women, and what for me? what for me?–nothing!”
Well, that pretty well sums up Hitchcock’s own career, doesn’t it? An extraordinarily unattractive man, he spent his adult life working in close proximity with the most beautiful blondes of his era– but he had to suffer in silence as they snuggled up on the laps of good-looking guys named Grant or Stewart or Fonda, none of whom ever had to lose 100 pounds just to get down to a more manageable 265.
As Donald Spoto has observed in his insightful if dreary book The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, the director often developed an obsessive relationship with his female leads, going so far as to tell Tippi Hedren whom to date. Other critics have dwelled on Hitchcock’s fascination with blondes, even suggesting that Janet Leigh’s brutal murder in the shower scene in Psycho may have been Hitchcock’s perverse little way of getting back at Grace Kelly for abandoning him for the more dashing, and, no doubt, less demented, Prince Rainier of Monaco, while also punishing Vera Miles (demoted to the second string in Psycho) for throwing away her chance to be the next Kelly by going out and, of all things, having a baby. The slut.
Of course, it is possible to make too much of all this, to go too far with the amateur psychologizing, and I think that’s exactly what we should do here. If anyone deserves to be subjected to a bit of Monday morning psychoanalysis, it’s Hitchcock; he himself was an amateur psychologist who always went overboard with this stuff. It’s hard to look at Spellbound without chortling at its pop Freudianism, and the same is true of Vertigo, Rebecca, Notorious, and Suspicion, all of which are wonderful motion pictures whose abiding appeal is not diminished by the fact that they are, at heart, really quite ridiculous stories. So is Gone With the Wind. Just ask black people.
Alfred Hitchcock made 53 movies, of which about 40 are available on video. No one watching these videos over a two-month period of time, as I have, could fail to notice certain recurring elements. The most obvious ones, which do not need to be discussed here, are the claustrophobia, the ambivalent feelings toward policemen, and the fixation with churches, trains, tunnels, heights, and Mom. The elements that will be discussed here include Hitchcock’s willingness to subordinate plot, theme, and character to his passion for visual effects; his penchant for preposterous story lines drawn from trashy paperbacks; his childlike view of politics; his brilliant sense of self-parody; and most of all, his aforementioned fascination with blondes that would become a complete obsession by the early 1950s.
No one could possibly miss that, as the years went by, Hitchcock got more and more into putting the girls through the wringer. Kelly is nearly strangled to death in Dial M for Murder, and again flirts with disaster in Rear Window. Kim Novak plunges to her death in Vertigo, Leigh is hacked to pieces in Psycho, and Hedren is very nearly pecked to death in The Birds. After that, Hitchcock gave it a rest, but having spent the better part of a decade feeding the girls into the meat grinder, he had certainly made it clear that, at least when he was in the neighborhood, blondes did not have more fun.
Of course, it wasn’t just blondes who didn’t have fun. In Notorious, Ingrid Bergman spends two hours being psychologically brutalized by Cary Grant. Joan Fontaine signed on for two years before the mast on the H.M.S. Hitchcock, first playing a woman who is ignored by her husband, preyed upon by her evil housekeeper, haunted by the specter of her husband’s deceased first wife, and humiliated by her servants in Rebecca, and then in Suspicion portraying a character so barmy she finally decides to simply drink what she believes to be a poisoned glass of milk and get the misery over with.
One of the interesting things you pick up on when you watch the full gamut of Hitchcock films is that when the girls wouldn’t go along with the gag, they were not invited back. Tallulah Bankhead didn’t let herself get pushed around in Lifeboat, nor did Marlene Dietrich in Stage Fright, and Hitch never worked with either again. Carole Lombard was given a dry run in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but she must not have been docile enough, because Hitchcock never used her again, and so she was forced to move on to more fertile fields. Had Kelly and Hedren not decided to pursue other interests, there’s really no telling what Hitchcock might have had in store for them. Chainsaws? Famished rodents? Obstetrical equipment?
Vertigo, in which a trashy brunette is transformed into an elegant blonde, goes back to being a trashy brunette and is again transformed into an elegant blonde–before meeting her unpleasant fate–is probably the most autobiographical of Hitchcock’s films. At the very end of this Pygmalion the 13th, a deranged Jimmy Stewart shrieks at Novak: “You played the wife very well, Judy. He made you over just like I made you over, only better. Not only the clothes and the hair, but the look and the manner and the words… And then what did he do? Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you exactly what to do? And what to say? You were an apt pupil, too, weren’t you? You were a very apt pupil. But why did you pick on me? Why me?”
Coming, as it did, three years after Amazing Grace had concluded her trio of great films (Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and To Catch a Thief), only to desert Hitchcock, and just one year after Vera Miles’s debut for Hitchcock in The Wrong Man, it’s not hard to figure out what was going on in the director’s mind. Hell, it was right there on the screen. The ladies vanish.
Was Alfred Hitchcock a sadist? Yes, so now let’s move on to the next question: What kind of sadist was he? Certainly not a sadist of the traditional British variety; otherwise we would have seen Bergman and Kelly in white knee socks and frilly knickers hauled over stern teachers’ knees for firm, well-deserved spankings. No, Hitchcock camouflaged his fascination with seeing women suffer by channeling it into more conventional and acceptable sadomasochistic practices: butcher knives in the abdomen, school ties coiled around the neck. Had he gone in for canes or whips (he did have a bit of a thing with handcuffs) people would have said he was a trifle kinky. Butcher knives and neckties were more acceptable. Still are. And in a pinch, try seagulls.
We mustn’t forget that Hitchcock choreographed his heroines’ predicaments so as to suggest that the girls had brought some of their misfortune upon themselves. With the exception of the unnamed wimp in Rebecca, Hitchcock usually depicted his female victims as ladies of, if not the evening, certainly the late afternoon. In Notorious, Bergman is a party girl who has slept around while Dad was busy being a Nazi, and who is persuaded by secret agent Grant to sleep around some more, marrying the authentically creepy Claude Rains, also a Nazi. In Vertigo, Novak is a willing accomplice to a murder. Dial M for Murder opens with Kelly cheating on her husband with Robert Cummings. But the obsessive naughtiness of these dolls reaches its apogee in Psycho, where Leigh, who has embezzled $40,000 from her employer, atones for her fiscal indiscretions by having a transvestite fruitcake hack her to ribbons. The moral of all this is clear: Bad girls will be sent to their rooms. And the rooms will be at the Bates Motel.
Hitchcock’s treatment of Kelly in Dial M for Murder gives the whole show away. The very idea of enlisting the audience in her murder (the camera approaches her neck from behind the murderer’s shoulder, making the viewer a co-conspirator in the attack) is bad enough, but more to the point, what kind of audience really and truly wants to see Grace Kelly–the quintessence of 1950s quintessitude–with her eyes bulging out and her tongue turning purple? Probably the same folks who would like to see Shirley Temple boiled in pitch.
Strange as Dial M for Misogynist may be, Rear Window takes the cake for sexual perversity. This is the film in which Jimmy Stewart frankly admits that he doesn’t want to marry Kelly because “she’s too perfect.” Yes, every man’s nightmare. What Stewart does enjoy is checking out the derriere on the surprisingly full-figured ballerina across the courtyard, whose volatile wiggling as she peers into the refrigerator may have inspired the film’s title. To ensure that Stewart cannot consummate his odd relationship with Kelly, Hitchcock has him start the movie with one broken leg and end the movie with two.
At the time of his death Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed a huge but curiously muddled reputation. To the American public he was the master of shock, a reputation that probably derived more from Psycho and his enduringly clever television programs–most of which he did not direct himself–than from the rest of his movies. To serious critics–no, not you, Roger and Gene–he was either an incomparable technician who failed to address truly important issues, or a vastly underrated genius. It should be noted, however, that Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol were the guys who got the Hitchcock-as-vastly-underrated-director bandwagon rolling, and Chabrol is and Truffaut was French. (French people, after all, think Jerry Lewis is a genius. French people hold Don Siegel film festivals. French people are very impressed by heartless technicians, which is why they produce gifted but sterile musicians like Claude Bolling and Jean-Pierre Rampal, but have never produced a single rock star of any consequence. French people think that anyone who pokes fun at policemen or the CIA is really a subversive at heart, because the French, subversives at heart, collaborated with the Nazis even though they really didn’t like them, which made it okay. French people are very, very strange.)
Yet, the truth is, all of these people–the French, the public, the hard-core artsy types who never really liked Hitchcock–were on to something. He not only struck a nerve, but he kept on striking it for four decades until he burned out midway through The Birds. He knew that people lived in fear–of government, of each other, and of themselves–and he knew that no matter how many times he went to that same well, it would never run dry.
On the other hand, did he absolutely, positively have to keep on going to that same well? Wasn’t he ever tempted to make a great movie about a broader theme: injustice, class warfare, anti-Semitism, the betrayal of one’s youthful ideals, politics? Politics is an especially baffling one, because, although Hitchcock made a whole slew of films with some political component, the treatment is uniformly sophomoric. The Secret Agent, Sabotage, The 39 Steps, North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Saboteur, Torn Curtain, Foreign Correspondent, and yes, even the abysmal Topaz all deal with spies, but the political component is, without exception, merely a mechanism to get the manhunt underway. To make a real political film like The Conversation, Z, or The Conformist, you have to have genuine political beliefs, to believe that the Right is bad and the Left good, or vice versa. Hitchcock had no such beliefs. The closest he ever came to making a political movie was Lifeboat, in which he seemed to admire the Nazis because they made the boats run on time. This was one odd chap.
On the other hand, so were Pasolini, Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, Roman Polanski, Georges Simenon, Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, and H.P. Lovecraft, the artists Hitchcock most resembles. To a man, these were strange guys with a highly personal, idiosyncratic view of the world, artists who were largely contemptuous of conventional, bourgeois values. “There’s nothing like a love song to give you a good laugh,” Hitchcock has Bergman say in Notorious. Frank Capra he wasn’t.
So, yes, Truffaut was right, Hitchcock was a great artist and a great moviemaker, one of the 25 greatest of all time. But after watching him non-stop for a couple of months, I think he’s almost certainly not one of the five greatest. Why? Frankly, because he let his talents run away with him, constantly focusing on technical problems to the detriment of other elements: character, plot, theme. For one thing, Hitchcock started out with writers like Daphne du Maurier and worked his way down. Well, of course, bad books were what Hitchcock made his good movies from because Hitchcock was in the alchemy business, taking what the English call “penny dreadfuls”–heavily plotted, convoluted thrillers–and turning them into visual masterpieces. Why did he like them? Because they were easy for the audience to sink their teeth into. Bad fiction writers churn out plot, plot, plot, replete with tricks, gimmicks, tricks, mistaken identities, tricks, subterfuges, and more tricks–anything to keep the action moving. You can film that stuff.
Hitchcock’s decision to give the masterpieces of literary history a wide berth may have been a wise one, for, with rare exception, the great books have stymied the great directors. That’s because it is virtually impossible to externalize internal activity, as David Lean found out in his elegant but unsuccessful A Passage to India. John Huston made a bunch of great movies, but Moby Dick is not one of them. Moby Dick is a mess. So are the The Castle, The Scarlet Letter, and any number of War and Peaces.
To his everlasting credit, Alfred Hitchcock made movies that were supposed to be looked at. Watching those two score films I was amazed by how many specific scenes from Hitchcock’s movies are riveted inside my brain, including movies I had not seen in 20 years. They include the bell tower scenes from Vertigo, the strangling in Dial M for Murder, the shower scene from Psycho, the playground scene from The Birds, and the Mount Rushmore scene from North by Northwest.
Hitchcock started off by making visually arresting silent movies and he kept making them the rest of his life. Oh, the dialogue is great–superb, hilarious, pick your encomium–but it’s what the viewer sees that makes these films so unforgettable. Thus, all that Freudian chatter in Spellbound doesn’t amount to a row of beans next to the scene where Gregory Peck drinks the milk while holding a razor blade. (In fact, there is genuine irony in the fact that Hitchcock hired Dali for Spellbound‘s cornball dream sequences, because Dali enjoys much the same reputation as Hitchcock: a stunning visual artist with an aggressive self-promotional streak who has always been criticized for pandering to the masses by going heavy on the special effects but light on the subject matter.)
The visuals were ever so important because they got the audience over some of the rough patches. The plots, for example. Yes, one aspect of Hitchcock’s movies that has not received sufficient critical attention is the fundamentally idiotic nature of his stories. Come on, now–if you were Ingrid Bergman and your boss, the head of the Green Manors loony bin, told you that he was stepping down and handing over the reins to a famous psychoanalyst no one had ever met or even seen a photograph of, wouldn’t you find that a bit strange? If you were a timid dumpling being slowly driven insane by a psychotic housekeeper with overtly lesbian tendencies, mightn’t it occur to you to corner Laurence Olivier and say, “Look, honey, if it’s all the same to you, couldn’t we just can that bitch?” Hitchcock simply had no equal in making the most absurd plot lines seem plausible, perhaps even realistic.
Of course, we musn’t overlook the distinct possibility that Hitchcock himself thought this was all one big joke. He was a master of self-parody; his very last film, Family Plot, is a small jewel of self-mockery largely centering on the fact that Bruce Dern has to keep going to work as a taxi driver. But there are many other moments of delicious winking. When Claude Rains’s mother in Notorious lights a cigarette after learning that Ingrid Bergman is a spy, Hitchcock gave us one of the crowning Oedipal shots of all time: Jocasta with a Lucky Strike. (She was one of the few blondes Hitchcock didn’t get to rough up.) In The 39 Steps, when Mister Memory, who knows just about everything, appears before the audience, the question that keeps getting hollered out is, “How old is Mae West?” In Rear Window, when one of Stewart’s neighbors discovers that her dog has been killed, she delivers a hilarious soliloquy, concluding with the lines, “Why would anyone want to kill a little dog? Because it knew too much?” And for major-league chuckles, how about the scene in Lifeboat, where, after the Nazi captain has blown up an unarmed vessel, torpedoed the lifeboats, caused a baby to freeze to death and its mother to commit suicide, and has murdered William Bendix, one character wonders, “What do you do with people like that?” Well, gee, let’s think about that a minute. You know, destroying Dresden might be a start.
Hitchcock also knew that his movies were going to be seen more than once, and that the jokes people didn’t get the first time around would be hootfests the second. “There are plenty of motels in this area,” the sinister state trooper tells Janet Leigh when he finds her dozing in her car early in Psycho, “Just to be safe.” Tony Perkins mentions, “My mother…she isn’t quite herself today…”
Alfred Hitchcock was one sick pup. Nevertheless, he had the goods, because when God gives out talent, He doesn’t care who He gives it to. Hitchcock was so good, and was good for so long, that his achievement calls into question the very notion of what art actually is. Because, no two ways about it, looking at those 36 movies for two months was a whole lot more uplifting than locking myself in with the complete works of Merchant and Ivory or Michelangelo Antonioni. But what does it all mean? When unknown actresses get slashed to ribbons in Friday the 13th movies we recognize the films as the trash they are. But we think they’re trash not because of the sadistic element but because the films have low production values. When hack directors butcher females in slasher movies it’s called garbage, but when Hitchcock does it with style in Psycho it’s called art. And it is art. It’s weird, creepy art. It taps into something primal: the need to have the bejesus scared out of us, the need to be reminded that this is a very strange planet where unexpected things can happen. As Tippi Hedren says to Rod Taylor after the first brutal onslaught on the kids in The Birds: “Mitch, this isn’t usual, is it?”
It was in Alfred Hitchcock’s neighborhood.
Joe Queenan writes for Rolling Stone, The New Republic, and The Wall Street Journal. He wrote our April feature on Martin Scorsese.