Film

'Torture the women!' Hitchcock said – and he wasn’t really joking

Alex von Tunzelmann

Two new biopics of the master of suspense depict him as abusive towards his leading ladies. But, asks Alex von Tunzelmann, where does the truth lie?

Toby Jones as Alfred Hitchcock in 'The Girl'. (Supplied)

The appearance of two new films about Alfred Hitchcock, one of the greatest of all filmmakers, is a reminder that there was a time when he was also considered lovable. His unmistakable profile, his deadpan style and his sense of humour helped to make Hitch a star in a way other directors were not.

Then, in 1983, came Donald Spoto’s biography, The Dark Side of Genius. Spoto revealed that Hitchcock had harassed actor Tippi Hedren on the set of The Birds (1963) to the point of physical and psychological collapse. Hedren claimed that during the filming of Marnie, a year later, Hitch also “made an overt sexual proposition” and when she resisted “became threatening”, saying he would ruin her career.

He never forgave her for turning him down, and refused thereafter to call her anything but “that girl”. This seemed to be the most extreme example of a pattern: he had controlling obsessions with many of his leading ladies, including Madeleine Carroll, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Eva Marie Saint and Vera Miles.

Two movies, Hitchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi, and The Girl, directed by Julian Jarrold for the BBC and Home Box Office, take on Hitchcock’s relationships with women. Both have provoked controversy over whether they fairly depict what happened in real life, and whether some of Hitchcock’s films, including Psycho, The Birds and Marnie, were deliberate exercises in sadistic misogyny. In the background, the eternal debate over whether the art can or should be separated from the artist rumbles on, no closer to a satisfactory conclusion than it has ever been.

In Hitchcock, set around the making of Psycho in 1959-60, Anthony Hopkins plays Hitch, with Helen Mirren as a sexed-up version of his long-suffering wife and creative collaborator, Alma Reville. The film focuses on their marriage, tested by Hitch’s penchant for young blondes, and Alma’s friendship with a male writer.

Devil on his shoulder.
The Hitch of Hitchcock is certainly troubled. This is represented somewhat forcefully in the film when Ed Gein, the murderer whose disgusting creativity with women’s corpses inspired both Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs, materialises as a sort of devil on his shoulder. The impression is not lessened by the casting of Hopkins, who twice goes all-out Hannibal Lecter at the terrified Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson). “Even your boss, strait-laced, hatchet-faced Mr George Lowery, why even he can smell the rancid, pungent scent of sex all over you,” he barks at her during one scene. While filming the shower scene, he wields the knife. The rest of the time, this Hitch keeps his dark side in check. Ultimately, he is shown to be a man who is capable of loving women with respect and kindness, even if he is a bit of a weirdo.

Not so the Hitch of The Girl, which retells the making of the two movies after Psycho: The Birds and Marnie. In The Girl, Hitchcock, played by Toby Jones, is a full-blown sexual predator. The Alma (Imelda Staunton) portrayed here also suffers more and fights back less than Mirren’s version. Unfortunately, she is probably closer to the truth.

The most striking scene in The Girl has Hedren (Sienna Miller) cowering in an attic set while handlers throw live birds, squawking and pecking, at her. This scene, which lasts two minutes in The Birds, was supposed to be filmed within a few takes. It took five days. On the final day, a bird attacked Hedren’s left eye, leaving a deep cut in the lower lid. She broke down and had to be taken home. Filming was held up while she recovered, under medical care and partly under sedation.

The film depicts this accurately, though Jones’s Hitchcock appears to be more gratified by the spectacle than the real Hitch was. “He was terribly upset by all this,” Hedren told Spoto for his 1983 book. Screenwriter Evan Hunter concurred: “He wanted to shoot it, but something in him didn’t want to shoot it, and everybody could hear how nervous he was.”

Even so, he made her do it, and she was physically and emotionally damaged as a result. “I always believe in following the advice of the playwright [Victorien] Sardou,” said the real Hitchcock at the time. “He said: ‘Torture the women!’ ... The trouble today is that we don’t torture women enough.” As Spoto, quoting this comment, rightly points out, the director often made provocative remarks for effect. If this was a joke, though, it was one that his behaviour on The Birds rendered unfunny.

A weird character
Both films have their merits beyond merely keeping the prosthetic-jowl industry in business, yet both could be accused of not telling the full story. The Girl is a more effective piece of filmmaking than Hitchcock, though it is also more questionable in its portrayal of the director. Both Hedren and Spoto advised on the production, but others dispute their account.

“I feel bad about all the stuff people are saying about him now, that he was a weird character,” another Hitchcock blonde, Kim Novak, told an interviewer last year. “I did not find him to be weird at all. I never saw him make a pass at anybody or act strange to anybody.”

That would, of course, depend on the definition of “act[ing] strange”. When Hitchcock selected a new blonde, he would restyle her hair and makeup. He commissioned costume designer Edith Head to create wardrobes to his precise specifications for Grace Kelly, Vera Miles and Hedren — to be worn all the time, not just for filming.

Not only did he make these women look like dolls, he also used them to play dress-up. Indeed, after The Birds, Hitchcock gave Hedren’s daughter Melanie Griffith, then five years old, a specially made doll designed to look like her mother, dressed in the green suit she wore in the attic scene. It was frighteningly realistic, and little Melanie, says Hedren, “freaked out”. In 2008, a similar doll was more widely marketed when toy company Mattel released a special-edition “Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds” Barbie. It came complete with detachable crows. As yet, Mattel has not followed it up with an “Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho” Barbie, hacked up and wrapped in a shower curtain.

“I had always heard that his idea was to take a woman — usually a blonde — and break her apart, to see her shyness and reserve broken down, but I thought this was only in the plots of his films,” Hedren said. Or, as Miles (played by Jessica Biel) puts it in Hitchcock: “You know that poor, tortured soul Jimmy Stewart played in Vertigo? Well, that’s Hitch.”

A lot of Hitchcock’s male leads were in effect Hitch, including another Stewart character — the voyeuristic, impotent photographer Jeff in Rear Window. According to Spoto, Hitchcock himself told people at this point that it had been more than 30 years since he’d had sex. In Marnie, too, there is a disquieting parallel between the controlling, abusive treatment of Marnie (Hedren) by Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), and what Hedren says Hitchcock did to her.

The Girl is right: the film’s infamous rape scene upset many on set. Hunter argued with Hitch about it — and was fired. Spoto described the scene as “weird in its incomprehensible mixture of the male character’s initial tenderness that ... becomes crude exploitation”. In fact, Rutland is a jerk throughout, but that duality does seem to have echoed Hitch’s. “He could be two different men,” Hedren said.

Unquestionably, the portraits of the director in Hitchcock and The Girl diminish him. Perhaps he needs diminishing. Our culture has a history of excusing or ignoring the excesses of famous, powerful men. Hedren should not be obliged to shut up just because Hitchcock was a great artist, or because he did not do to other women what she says he did to her, or because other people didn’t see what went on, or because he is dead.

Neither Hitchcock nor The Girl necessarily diminish his films, but by this phase in his career Hitchcock was doing that himself. Marnie is a terrible movie, and a cruel one: the idea that a woman sexually traumatised by her childhood can be saved by submitting to a controlling rapist is offensive, as well as plain wrong. The Girl puts its case more strongly, but as far as both biopics are concerned, the real monster on Hitchcock’s sets was behind the camera.  — © Guardian News & Media 2013 

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