Alfred Hitchcock would not have done well in the MeToo era.
he master of suspense had notoriously odd attitudes towards women’s issues: he seemed both terrified and mesmerized by young blonde girls, and was openly hostile to femininity in general.
If he were still alive and working, one could imagine the inevitable first accusation of bullying, harassment or worse, and the constant barrage of complaints that would follow.
This first accusation could easily come from June Tripp, a young actress from Lancashire who experienced the ordeals of purgatory on the set of Hitchcock’s silent film in 1927, The tenant. His troubles are described in detail in The first real Hitchcock, a new book by Henry K. Miller, which traces the director’s early years.
Based on a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, The tenant has often been called Hitchcock’s first real film. Familiar and recurring themes emerged: the blond victim, the unwarranted accusations, the mercurial authority figures, the madness of the mob.
Hitchcock’s first two films didn’t have much of an impact: The tenant fact, and without it, we might never have heard of him.
The plot was typical Hitchcock: London is under siege as a killer prowls the streets at night, killing blonde women, but only on Tuesdays. Composer and songwriter Ivor Novello played “The Lodger”, a young man mistaken for the murderer, and Tripp was Daisy, a model who falls in love with him.
In his 1960 memoirs, The glass scale, Tripp described his treatment while filming. “All I had to do,” she wrote, “was carry an iron tray containing breakfast dishes up a long flight of stairs, but by the time Hitch was satisfied with the expression of fear on my face… I must have done the trek 20 times with the plateau seeming to get heavier and heavier with each passing minute.
“During this exhausting hour and a half, I felt a strange, sickening pain somewhere in the region of my appendicular scar, but I refrained from complaining or asking for rest because delicate actresses are annoying and inconvenient, and anyway, that scene ended my work on the film.
It also ended his film career. A few months before filming, Tripp had an appendectomy: the constant repetition of this staircase scene caused a rupture, and she was lucky to survive a second operation.
Video of the day
Tripp had been a great dancer, but the injury changed all that, and although she returned to the stage, she rarely acted in films again. And in the end, Hitchcock only used a fraction of the scene that caused all that damage.
This type of bossy behavior is of course not unusual for a director, especially one who joked that all the actors were “cattle”. But the big male stars who regularly worked with Hitchcock when he moved to Hollywood, like Cary Grant and James Stewart, never faced such harassment: it was the women who bore the director’s wrath.
If he worked in the studio system and made genre images, commercial films, Hitchcock was also an author, an artist who used films as canvases on which to elaborate deep obsessions, recurring themes.
Most of these obsessions stemmed from his austere childhood in London. Born in Leytonstone in 1899, Alfred Joseph was the third child of William Hitchcock, a greengrocer, and his wife Nellie Whelan. Both of his parents had Irish roots and were devout Roman Catholics who had a low opinion of wrongdoing.
On the interview circuit, Hitchcock liked to recount how his father had sent him to the police station with a note when he was five years old: the policeman read it and put the child in a cell for five minutes, telling him “that’s what we do to naughty boys.”
This tale is often used to explain the recurring theme of wrongful accusation in Hitchcock’s work, but it was his mother who had the greatest influence on the development of his personality. Austere, severe, obsessed with morality and the importance of sexual continence,
Nellie used to hold her son at the end of his bed every night and report to him on his day. This feeling of dread overwhelmed him and seems to have poisoned his attitude towards women.
When he married in 1926, it was with a professional colleague, Alma Reville, a woman he respected, even feared. Alma was a mother figure, his screenwriting guru, lifelong companion and constant helper: but she was more mother than romantic figure to the director, who consciously or unconsciously tended to inflict his deeper sexual urges to his leading ladies.
He was certainly tough on them, and June Tripp was the first of many actresses to regret their association with Hitchcock. Pre-war star Madeleine Carroll got the full treatment for Hitchcock’s 1937 hit The 39 steps.
At times it almost seemed like he was trying to “break” his actresses, like they were wild horses, and poor Carroll found herself handcuffed to co-star Robert Donat for hours during filming, dragged through rivers, ditches and waterfalls. When he called her, Hitchcock would shout, “Bring the pie from Birmingham!”.
Her portrayal of Pamela in The 39 steps is often cited as the prototype of the blondes that would become such a distinctive motif in his work. And as film critic Roger Ebert shrewdly noted, these Hitchcock women were “blonde, icy, aloof. They were imprisoned in costumes subtly mixing fashion and fetishism. They hypnotize men, who are often physically or mentally handicapped. Sooner or later, every Hitchcock woman has been humiliated.” Sometimes the actress was also humiliated.
On the set of Rebecca, Joan Fontaine thought she saw things when she noticed something sinister protruding from the director’s fly. Fortunately, it turned out to be a champagne cork. At the time, Hitchcock was free to pass off such remarks as “humor”; a different point of view would now be adopted.
Mary Clare, a young actress who worked with him on two films, was offered a fruit drink with gin to “relax” her. She was abstinent.
Stars like Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly were well able for Hitchcock’s antics, laughing at his dirty jokes and taking his romantic obsession with a pinch of salt. But others weren’t so lucky.
At fear of heights, Kim Novak was pushed almost to breaking point by Hitchcock’s relentless remodeling of the actress’ appearance, which eerily mirrored Jimmy Stewart’s character’s bizarre behavior in the film. But worst of all was the disgraceful treatment inflicted on Tippi Hedren on The birds.
Hedren was a successful model when Hitchcock cast her as The birds, his rhythmic adaptation of a story by Daphne Du Maurier. At first she savored the experience, then came the infamous scene where her character is attacked by birds in an attic.
Hitchcock had assured Hedren that only a few mechanical crows would be involved in the scene, but then he realized that it wouldn’t look realistic enough and decided to use real seagulls instead.
Hedren spent five days on the floor of a set while props wearing thick protective gloves hurled gulls at the actress’ head. “It was rough and ugly and relentless,” she later recalled, and by the end of the week she was an emotional wreck.
Meanwhile, an unrepentant Hitchcock grew increasingly obsessed with her. Based on the book by Donald Spoto The dark side of Genius, the director paid two crew members to follow Hedren around and monitor how she was spending her free time.
Things got worse when they started shooting Marnie Together: He now claimed he made her up, wouldn’t let others touch her on set, and pestered her to spend time alone with him. “He really isolated me from everyone,” she later said.
Things escalated when Hitchcock, according to Hedren, lunged at her in the back of a limo, then cornered her in his office and made her an overt sexual proposition. “He looked at me,” she recalls, “and just said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, that from that moment on he expected me to surrender. sexually available to him – as he wanted and when he wanted.”
Speaking truth to power, she told him where to push his proposal and never worked with him again.
There were other accusations – of bizarre arrangements with studio secretaries – which paint a picture of a man who shamelessly abused his power, although of course he would have been one of hundreds to the time.
Standing 5ft 8in and weighing over 300lbs, Hitchcock was no one’s idea of a matinee idol and seems to have bitterly resented the flawless beauty that nature had denied him. He was a mess of repressed complexes and insecurities, and had a disturbing tendency to treat women like playthings.
Of course, the sad truth is that if Alfred Hitchcock hadn’t been such a psychological case, he never would have made those twisty, gripping thrillers we all love so much. But pity the poor women who had to work with him.