Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side or the Wrong Man?

by Brent Reid
  • The Trouble with Hitchcock: did his onscreen mistreatment of women extend to real life?
  • Many films had femmes fatale and icy blondes, constantly thrown in danger’s path
  • Now #MeToo movement’s unblinking spotlight gazes into the director’s past
  • Like his best movie characters, the Master finds himself a man accused
  • But is he innocent or guilty? Hearing the case for and against

Note: this is one of 150-odd Hitchcock articles coming over the next few months. Any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.

Alfred Hitchcock, 1964

Alfred Hitchcock, 1964

Hitch continues to be rediscovered, reinvented and made relevant for each new generation, but latterly it hasn’t always been for the right reasons. Now he’s been pushed into the limelight by the long, long overdue #MeToo movement. An appropriate battle cry for it would be the much-paraphrased Victor Hugo quote, “No army can withstand the force of an idea whose time has come.” Nor it seems, can the reputation of perhaps the greatest director of all time. Or can it?

Tippi Hedren in The Birds (1963, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Tippi Hedren in The Birds

While Hitch was an extremely talented and hardworking man, fully deserving of the innumerable accolades afforded him, he has also been repeatedly accused of being a deeply flawed individual. His alleged harassment and abuse of Tippi Hedren, star of The Birds and Marnie, is truly shocking and only serves to reiterate the sad truth that in Hollywood, as in everywhere else, there really is nothing new under the sun. The latter film co-starred Sean Connery who, of course, is a self-confessed and unrepentant misogynist and physical abuser of women:

I saw the bruises Sean Connery left on his wife’s face by Michael Thornton, biographer of Jessie Matthews

Diane Cilento, Connery’s ex-wife, detailed some of the abuse she unquestionably suffered in her memoir My Nine Lives (2006). It makes for pretty harrowing reading.

Marnie (1964, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) Italian poster

Italian poster

It’s all too easy to knock past art and social mores when looking down the other end of the telescope of history. However, it’s been said on many occasions that as brilliant as he was, Hitch was often extremely limited in his depictions of the opposite sex, or as one observer writing in The Guardian put it:

“There’s the vamp, the tramp, the snitch, the witch, the slink, the double-crosser and, best of all, the demon mommy. Don’t worry, they all get punished in the end.”

Which was balanced by a partial rebuttal from another Guardian writer, taking as its cue Hitch’s most famously female-subjugating masterpiece:

Vertigo is not the last word in misogyny, but a feminist deconstruction of it

Renowned cultural theorist and lifelong Hitch fan Camille Paglia made a strong case against over-simplified analysis of insalubrious aspects of his reputation in her 2012 essay Women & Magic in Hitchcock. It was featured in two collections and most recently referenced in the foreword for her reprinted monograph on The Birds:

“I wrote: ‘Misogyny is a hopelessly reductive and simplistic term for the passionately conflicted attitude of major male artists towards women.’ What Hitchcock records in his films is ‘the agonized complexity of men’s relationship to women.’ There is a psychological turbulence going on in sexuality that cannot be fully understood by political paradigms.”

Of course, none of the above necessarily translates to Hitch being a real life abuser, though one wonders at the self-confessed discretion he exercised on numerous occasions to make his female characters such one-dimensional, recurrent victims. It’s especially perplexing when you consider that throughout his career he adapted various female-penned books and plays, as well as working with many talented female scriptwriters, including his own wife, Alma Reville, and Joan Harrison. In their many other works those same women writers created sympathetic, multi-faceted and, most of all, realistic female roles. On the other hand, many advocates point out how the majority of Hitch’s films did, nonetheless, feature female characters who were central to the storyline. This was against the trend of many successful films both then and now, with their male-led, action-orientated plots. It’s his female-centric tendency, along with him largely focusing on populist thrillers, that many hold up as the main reasons for Hitch being consistently overlooked by the Academy for the Best Director Oscar.

Marnie (1964, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) US programme

US programme

There are countless writings concerning Hitch’s attitude towards women using his films themselves as primary evidence. But they all fall short by being based on a reading of only a limited number of said works. A compelling case can be made for or against by using a select few examples. I hope one day someone will tackle Hitch’s entire oeuvre in this context on a case-by-case basis, to form an overarching perspective. Of course, it would require commencing with his first, The Pleasure Garden, continuing on with all his British films, in their original or best-possible versions, before going on to the widely available American films. Cherry picking from Hitch’s catalogue to establish any and every theory concerning his modus operandi is incredibly commonplace. Ultimately it’s just more lazy scholarship, many past examples of which I’ve highlighted throughout this series of articles.

BFI: In Conversation | HuffPost Live | Larry King Now

Hedren first revealed her allegations publicly to author Donald Spoto, who published them in his 1983 biography. She claimed he first tried to grope her in a taxi, as they pulling up outside a hotel. “And there were about three more of those incidents, and I said, ‘I want to get out of the contract.'” Ever since, she’s reiterated them in numerous interviews and her 2016 autobiography.

“I’ve never gone into detail on this, and I never will, I’ll simply say that he suddenly grabbed me and put his hands on me. It was sexual, it was perverse, and it was ugly, and I couldn’t have been more shocked and repulsed. The harder I fought him, the more aggressive he became. Then he started adding threats, as if he could do anything to me that was worse than what he was trying to do at that moment.”

She said she fought him off and told him she’d never make another film with him again, at which he swore, “I’ll ruin your career.” Hitch had her signed to a seven-year contract and despite the fact she’d just starred in two consecutive hit films, throughout the remainder of its term he kept her on the payroll whilst essentially doing nothing. During the next three years, Hedren’s only onscreen appearances were one-off guest spots in a couple of 1965 TV programmes and it eventually took the leverage of Charlie Chaplin to secure her a support spot in his 1967 film, A Countess from Hong Kong. But that was it; she didn’t begin acting regularly again in films and on TV until 1970 when her contract expired. She claims to have later found out that various other directors, including François Truffaut, approached Hitch for permission to cast her in the interim but he turned them all down.

The Revenge of Alfred Hitchcock’s Muse – New York Times, 5.10.12

Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock at a 1963 Cannes Film Festival screening of The Birds

Attending a 1963 Cannes Film Festival screening of The Birds

Hedren spoke most recently in Tippi Hedren and the Wild Animals (2021), a 52-minute documentary focusing on her experiences with Hitch. It’s in English and German, with optional English, German, French, Spanish, Polish and Italian subtitles.

One argument often set against Hedren is why did she wait so long (the early 1980s, soon after Hitch’s death) to go on the record with her claims? Please. The power dynamics between abusers and their victims are often complex and varied, as are the very good reasons for the latter’s belated reporting of abuse. If this puzzles you, I strongly suggest doing some (open-minded) research into the common phenomenon and remember: if you don’t understand the problem, you’re part of the problem. Whatever your own viewpoint, in this particular instance the arguments continue to rage both for and against.

Distinctly on the flip side, many experts, friends and colleagues of Hitch have rallied to his defence, especially via author Tony Lee Moral’s Save Hitchcock blog. It’s an impressive collection of well-researched articles and personal testimonies that are, in their own way, also quite compelling.

Clip | trailer #2/altNPR

Hedren acted as consultant on The Girl (2012), a highly acclaimed BBC/HBO TV movie, spotlighting the complicated dynamic between the director and his star during the making of The Birds. The title refers to the way Hitch addressed Hedren after she refused to continue working for him, though naturally again many contest its version of events. It’s not to be confused with the near-simultaneously released Hitchcock (2012), which gives an acknowledged fanciful account of the making of Psycho. The Girl was based on a further book by Spoto and though the film gives the final word to Hedren, it does ultimately portray Hitch quite sympathetically.

Another argument commonly levelled against Hedren’s allegations is that no one else who ever worked with Hitch reported similar experiences or corroborated her version of events. Wrong: numerous cast and crew members who worked on both of her films have done so including Rod Taylor, her co-star in The Birds; and Diane Baker, third-billed in Marnie and also propositioned by Hitch. Like Hedren, Baker is still with us and has spoken very emotionally but articulately about the issue on several occasions.

Brigitte Auber and Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief (1955, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Brigitte Auber and Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief

Hitch was also alleged to have employed the exact same modus operandi as he did on Hedren by Brigitte Auber, who played Danielle Foussard in To Catch a Thief. While being interviewed for Patrick McGilligan’s 2003 biography, she said they were in her car when she gave him a lift to his hotel and “He jumped me” then tried to kiss her on the mouth. Auber was only able to dissuade Hitch by claiming she had a boyfriend to whom she wished to remain faithful but their friendship was spoiled and she could never look at him the same way again.

Going back years earlier, Hitch’s long-time collaborator Joan Harrison was frequently the butt of his sense of ‘humour’. In her recent biography of the pioneering screenwriter and producer, Christine Lane writes of an occasion the director sought to embarrass his employee: “The director picked up a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which he kept handy on his desk for just this occasion, and turned to an earmarked section—the vulgar toilet scene.” As he recited the passage matter-of-factly, Joan couldn’t help but lose her composure, even though she must have known she was playing into his hands… His orchestration served no apparent purpose but to provoke a one-sided emotional striptease, intended for his erotic gratification.” Simple high jinks or a boss abusing his power over an underling?

Madeleine Carroll, star of The 39 Steps and Secret Agent, also spoke disparagingly of Hitch’s working methods to film historian Brian McFarlane. For one scene, most likely this one, in order to provoke the requisite look of disgust, Hitch turned his back on her with the camera rolling then, suddenly turning around again, “exposed himself” to her.

Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps (1935, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps

Hitch’s mild tormenting of Anny Ondra, star of Blackmail, during a sound test is rightly hilarious but was he going too far when during filming and on camera, he tried to “tickle” her and “peek under her skirt“? It would appear to be sheer wish fulfilment; after all, Charles Bennett, Hitch’s good friend and screenwriter of his six British talkies from Blackmail to Young and Innocent, and Foreign Correspondent, spoke candidly of how much both men “wanted her.” Then there’s Hitch’s unquestionably harsh way of dealing with at least one of his child actors.

Of course, Hitch’s bawdy sense of humour is legendary and, when appropriate, is part of what makes him so endlessly appealing. But many of his famous so-called pranks so take on an entirely different complexion when one remembers they were inflicted on people who were working for a very powerful boss, and who depended on him for their livelihoods. Sound familiar?

Did Hitch actually behave with impropriety towards Hedren and other female actors he worked with? The alleged events happened a long time ago and unless new, irrefutable evidence comes to light, the jury looks like remaining permanently out. In an ironic twist, in the final act Hitch himself seems destined to be forever relegated to playing his own most enduring role: that of a wronged man accused of a heinous crime and unable to prove his innocence. Or otherwise.

Tippi Hedren, Diane Baker, Alfred Hitchcock and Sean Connery in Marnie (1964, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Tippi, Diane Baker, Hitch and Sean Connery on the set of Marnie

For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This article is regularly updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.

Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren: The Birds (1963) illustration by Daniel Mitchell, 2013

Illustration by Daniel Mitchell, 2013

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Pete Flyhead
Pete Flyhead
2nd May 2020 00:30

Did Hitch abuse his leading ladies? Well of all the actresses that worked with Hitchcock, only Tippi accused him. Others even defended him, if I’m not wrong, including Kim Novak, Doris Day and Eva Marie Saint. Plus others like Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman continued to be friends with Hitchcock until his death.

21st January 2022 09:33

Women of that era were really unrealistic , uninformed , and really fearful in their view of sexual harassment and sexist treatment in Hollywood . Some felt that it must be tolerated because it was a man’s world and that it came with the territory especially in filmmaking. I just read that Jamie Lee Curtis said that her own mother, Janet Leigh, would not understand women bringing such treatment out in the public eye and having their accusers arrested and tried for it. It’s very sad that women were afraid to say anything because they didn’t want their career ruined… Read more »

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