Wicked, Wicked Hitch

How did Alfred Hitchcock, master of suspense, like to relax after a day at the studio? “He’d come home and eat dinner, often on a tray in front of the television,” says film scholar Dan Auiler, author of the recently published Hitchcock’s Notebooks, “and he would watch Lassie.”

One can only guess what harrowing adventures Hitchcock was imagining for the faithful collie as he sat in his unpretentious home in Bel Air, Calif. Everything about him was so deceptively bland. A heavyset man whose jowls were his most memorable feature, he usually dressed in a black or navy suit and could often be found sitting serenely, hands folded over his belly. But his movies transformed the everyday world into a realm of excitement, fear and occasional flat-out terror that has no equal in movie history.

In 1963’s The Birds, our feathered friends launch an inexplicably bloody assault on a sleepy seaside town north of San Francisco. In 1959’s North by Northwest, a crop-dusting plane sweeping lazily across the sky turns out to be piloted by an assassin gunning for Cary Grant. And of course there’s Psycho, the terrifying 1960 classic that made showering an unnerving experience for millions—including Janet Leigh, who played the unlucky woman brutally slashed to death in a bathroom at the Bates Motel. “It dawned on me how completely vulnerable we are in the shower,” says Leigh. “I only take baths ever since.”

Nineteen years after his death at age 80, Hitchcock, who would have been 100 on Aug. 13, remains the rare director worshipped by both critics and audiences. The centennial celebration has included retrospectives of his 53 feature films, museum exhibits, TV documentaries and, next month, a symposium at New York University. The most exciting event, scheduled for this month’s Venice Film Festival, is the screening of 20 minutes of preliminary footage from Kaleidoscope, a never completed project from the ’60s. Hitchcock abandoned the story of a serial murderer after studio heads at Universal judged the material too violent and sexually graphic.

When it comes to honoring Hitchcock, there’s no such thing as overkill. His brilliant cinematic eye is the envy of most moviemakers, and his keen grasp of psychology—his public’s as well as his characters’—would have impressed Freud. “Little children go on a swing,” he once said, explaining the adrenaline rush he gave his fans. “They go higher and higher, and then they scare themselves at a crucial point. And after they get off the swing, they’re laughing.” In his long career, which produced such masterpieces as Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), he received his own Oscar only once—the honorary statuette he glumly accepted in 1968, murmuring simply, “Thank you.” Nonetheless, says biographer Donald Spoto, “These are great works of art. You can show them in Sicily or Saskatchewan, Toronto or Taiwan, 50 years later, with or without subtitles, and audiences love them.”

The man remains as instantly recognizable as his films. He can be spotted putting in a cameo in nearly all of his thrillers, from 1927’s The Lodger through 1976’s Family Plot. As the host of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, the popular TV anthology programs he hosted from 1955 to 1965, he became probably the only director ever to have his own theme (Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette”) and logo (an eight-stroke sketch of his profile). His artistic genius was nicely complemented by promotional cunning. The public’s anticipation of the terrors in Psycho was heightened when the director appeared in the ad campaign, vowing that no one would be admitted to theaters after the movie began. “He set up the mystique,” says Janet Leigh. As Hitchcock once put it, in the English-accented drawl that became a staple of impersonators, “The name of the director should stay clearly in the mind of the audiences.”

“Hitch” (he insisted on the nickname rather than “Fred” or “Cocky,” which he hated) was born in London on Aug. 13,1899, the son of William Hitchcock, a grocer, and his wife, Emma. He was a solitary boy who didn’t like to play, preferring to hear trials at the Old Bailey, London’s criminal court, or-visit Scotland Yard’s museum. One unforgettable incident occurred when Hitchcock was about 6. He had misbehaved, and his father, rather than punishing him, handed him a note to take to the police station. “The officer on duty read it,” Hitchcock recounted, “and locked me in a jail cell for five minutes, saying, ‘This is what we do to naughty boys.’ ” To the end of his life, “anybody in a uniform freaked him out,” says Bruce Dern, who played a cabbie in Family Plot. “He had a driver, Tony. They got pulled over a couple of times, and Tony told me Hitch just shrunk in the back of the car.”

After studying art and technical drawing, Hitchcock began work in 1920 as a draftsman for a film studio in London. He slowly advanced into directing. His first hit, The Lodger, a Jack the Ripper story, was followed by The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938)—witty, visually innovative thrillers that established his style. But the career was guided by a second hand: Alma Reville, a film editor who became his wife in 1926 and remained so for almost 54 years. Deceptively wrenlike, “She had much more influence than people realized,” says their daughter Pat Hitchcock, now 71, who appeared in Psycho, Stage Fright and Strangers on a Train. “He would bring back a story and say, ‘Do you think it’ll make a picture?’ If she said no, he didn’t touch it. He didn’t move without her.”

The most significant move of Hitch’s career came in 1939, when Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick lured him to Hollywood, where he directed the eerie romantic drama Rebecca, the only one of his movies to win a Best Picture Oscar. Hollywood’s dream factory, with its enormous resources, was the perfect home for a man who assembled his movies with habitual precision. Hitchcock loved expensive wines and food—”He used to send to England for Dover sole,” says Martin Landau, a spy in North by Northwest—but on the set self-indulgence was not allowed. Hitchcock pictures rarely went over budget or schedule. “He had his shots planned before anyone was even assigned to the picture,” says Leigh. British decorum prevailed. “He wouldn’t even let me drink coffee out of a Styrofoam’ cup on the set,” says Eva Marie Saint, who played a classy lady spy in North by Northwest. “He had somebody bring it to me in a china cup.”

Despite his sense of propriety, Hitchcock’s jokes could be cruelly perverse. When Kim Novak was to begin shooting Vertigo, she said in. 1996, “I entered my dressing room and found a freshly killed, plucked chicken hanging over my dressing table. Then he appeared behind me, laughing hysterically.” Shooting a scene between Landau and James Mason in North by Northwest, Hitchcock sat next to Landau’s then-wife, actress Barbara Bain. Recalls Landau: “He said to the assistant director, ‘We’ve rehearsed this a number of times, now I would like James to actually connect to Martin’s jaw.’ He scared the hell out of her.”

He also liked telling dirty jokes to shock his leading ladies. Those women tended to be of the type Hitch admiringly called “cool blonde”—the elegant beauty epitomized by Grace Kelly, who starred in Rear Window, Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief. “If sex is too blatant or obvious,” he told director Francois Truffaut, “there’s no suspense.” He seems to have been happily infatuated with Kelly, who refused to blush at his off-color remarks. Says Donald Spoto: “Grace would turn to him and say, ‘I went to a convent school. I heard all those years ago.’ He loved it. They were great friends after that.”

But his feelings for his other cool blondes could overheat. He complained for years that Vera Miles, groomed to be a new Grace Kelly, ruined his plans by marrying Gordon Scott, one of filmdom’s many Tarzans, and having children. “She couldn’t resist her Tarzan of a husband,” he said in an interview. “She should have taken a jungle pill!”

After he cast his next protégée, Tippi Hedren, in 1963’s The Birds, he referred to himself, with cause, as “Svengali Hitch.” Says Hedren, mother of actress Melanie Griffith: “He wanted to control who I saw, where I went, what I ate, what I drank, everything. Why? Obsession is a good word. I didn’t like it.” Although she always gave him credit as a great director, her resistance infuriated him. By the time they finished their second film, 1964’s Marnie, he no longer spoke directly to her, referring to her as “that girl.”

And yet, says Spoto, “These are all fantasy romances. He never touched them.” The great love of his life, after all, was Alma. “They were as good a little-buddy couple as I ever saw,” says Bruce Dern. “Here’s two people who’d been married 50 years, and they would hold hands walking down the street.” In the 1970s, Alma was felled by a series of strokes “that just devastated him,” says their daughter. His own health failing—he had a pacemaker implanted in 1974—Hitchcock finally retired in 1979, shortly before he was knighted. He died on April 29,1980. Alma lived until 1982.

When Martin Landau had his last conversation with the director, two years before his death, Hitch couldn’t help ruminating on old age. “But he was still talking about cinema,” says Landau, “and the fact that so many films today were just radio shows with pictures—they didn’t understand the essence of cinema. He hoped [that essence] was something that wouldn’t die.” And in Hitch’s own work, of course, it has not.

Tom Gliatto

Tom Cunneff and Elizabeth Leonard in Los Angeles, Joseph V. Tirella in New York City and Ellen Tumposky in London

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