How like Alfred Hitchcock, that droll master of the macabre, to make his biggest movie splash three years after his death. The portly perpetrator of gooseflesh may have breathed his last at age 80, but he never carried more weight at the box office. First came a homage in the form of a sequel to his classic Psycho. Now, alone among directors, he has two films (Rear Window, Vertigo) in current release and three others (Rope, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Trouble With Harry) lined up back-to-back to follow. These pictures, made between 1948 and 1958, have been out of circulation for two decades—not by accident, but according to Hitch’s careful plan. Back in 1953 he negotiated a deal with Paramount to produce, direct and eventually own the rights to the five films. Once they had run their course in theaters, Hitchcock would then hoard them to increase their value.
He’ll never know how well his plan worked. Rear Window, with James Stewart and an astonishingly sexy Grace Kelly opened this fall for what its distributor, Universal Classics, figured to be a modest run. The gross is already $3.2 million and growing, and the just-released Vertigo, with Stewart and Kim Novak, may surpass it. The industry was stunned by this success, but not Stewart, now 75, who starred in four of the films. “The pictures I made for Hitch don’t date,” says Stewart. “He made his impact visually, not with words.”
Another Hitchcock surprise emerged in the form of Donald Spoto’s 1983 Hitchcock biography, The Dark Side of Genius. Spoto’s Hitchcock, created from interviews with the director’s friends and colleagues, is a figure of uncommon perversity, a man who played cruel practical jokes on actors, whom he called “cattle,” and who became pathologically obsessed with creating the ideal beauty.
The cool, blond elegance that he sought he found in Grace Kelly, the star of three Hitchcock films. When Kelly deserted Hollywood—and by extension Hitchcock—to marry her Prince, the director was devastated, says Spoto. He set about recreating her through such actresses as Kim Novak, Vera (Psycho) Miles and Tippi (Marnie, The Birds) Hedren. Sadly, the Byronic heart of this fat, balding man (he carried an average 300 pounds on his 5’8″ frame) could find expression only in his films. By his own admission Hitchcock and Alma, his late wife, had lived chastely for the last 30 years of their 53-year marriage. Marnie screenwriter Jay Presson Allen said Hitchcock “would go off and have his fantasy romances, and Alma dealt with it. She didn’t understand it, but she dealt with it.” The Kelly clones found detachment a bit harder to come by. When Hedren rebuffed an unprecedented (for him) overt sexual advance from her director, he threatened to cancel the film and destroy her career. “I was agonizingly sorry for both of them,” said Allen.
Perhaps inadvertently, Spoto’s revelations have at last given Hitchcock a kind of romantic image in death that, in life, he could conjure up only onscreen through such actors as Stewart, Cary Grant and Sean Connery. Shirley MacLaine, who made her movie debut in The Trouble With Harry in 1955, seems a little disappointed she didn’t know that Hitchcock. “The whole time we shot the film he didn’t say one word to me.”
Who was the real Hitchcock? No doubt Hitch would have loved keeping us guessing. “Suspense,” he said, “is like a woman. The more left to the imagination, the more the excitement.”