Spellbound by Beauty (2008)

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Hitchcock was not a nice man.


That is the dictum of Donald Spoto’s third and latest (2008) book on the British film director, Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies. The first, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock (1976), still in print, is a straightforward survey of Hitch’s fifty-three feature films, from the silents, beginning with The Pleasure Garden in 1925, to his last feature, Family Plot, four years before his death in 1980.

In 1983 came The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, also still in print. One of the finest biographies about a film personality, it combines an intimate life story with the preparation, production and post-première life of each of his films. It more than hints at the other side of the apparent congenial, rotund father figure who made seemingly harmless remarks about movie-making and provided droll introductions and epilogues in his popular TV program of the 1950’s and ’60s, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Here, related brilliantly in Dark Side, was a director who, in a mostly unpublicized double life, abused his women stars, wishing to remake, reclothe and rule them; who suppressed sexual longings, which grew more and more overt with each leading lady; who could not tolerate being in public unless he was the center of attention; and who was evasive and indirect in complimenting those who worked for him.

More horrific, more graphic in some cases, Spellbound by Beauty is an explosive elaboration on material covered in Dark Side. A relatively short book at around 300 pages—shortest of the three—it, indeed, seems to document each and every dark corner of this genius’ less than admirable character. Spoto states early on that, even at the time of the second book, he was asked by certain individuals to suppress various details until after their deaths. Now, apparently, all restraints have been lifted.

Quite correctly, the author admonishes readers for assuming that people, great or not so great, live ideal, pristine lives and cites Richard Wagner and Pablo Picasso as examples of great artists, from among many he could have chosen, whose characters and personal lives were less than admirable, often miserable and despicable. The French poet Arthur Rimbaud, whom Victor Hugo called “an infant Shakespeare,” has asked the question, “What soul is without flaws?” Well, none—obviously; or, as the Bard himself had Cassius say, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/But in ourselves . . . ” But why is it necessary for Spoto to so elaborate, to delve into a dark side already adequately explored? The reader must decide. . . .

Familiar from the Dark Side are the stories of Hitch’s insensitivity, perverse humor, cruelty, sadism, feelings of self-loathing. One of the most famous examples among the early films was the handcuffing of Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat. For an extended part of The 39 Steps (1935) the two stars are so linked, and it was this scene which Hitch chose to rehearse first and, also, as a get-to-know-one-another exercise, as they were meeting for the first time. After a while, the director left the set under the pretense of a problem elsewhere and did not return, and the key could not be found. Shackled to each other, as Donat later wrote, the camera followed them as they were “ . . . dragged along roads, through ravines and across moors . . . ”

When Hitchcock finally returned, seeing Carroll and Donat had broken the ice between them, as it were, he produced the key from his pocket. The director was intrigued by the drama of being handcuffed. As he later said, handcuffs “bring out all kinds of thoughts in [the audience’s] minds—for example, how do they go to the toilet was one natural, obvious question. And the linking together relates more to sex than anything else.”

This seemingly harmless and humorous bit of impishness—not so harmless and humorous, of course, to the two principals, who were shackled for a considerable time—was to become more frequent, more cruel, more injurious as time passed. In Rebecca (1940), Hitch would repeatedly suggest to Joan Fontaine that none of the cast liked her (it was true that Olivier didn’t) and keep her on edge with little direction, so to get, he said, the wimpish, insecure performance he wanted from her.

Doris Day, in filming the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956, was made to feel so insecure by Hitchcock’s total neglect of her that, in a private meeting, she said he could replace her if she were not pleasing him. “He was astonished!” Doris related. “He told me . . . he thought I was doing everything right—and that if I hadn’t been doing everything right, he would have told me.”

After seeing Vera Miles in a TV commercial, Hitch set out to turn her into another Grace Kelly, giving her the co-starring role as Henry Fonda’s wife in The Wrong Man (1957). But when Miles became pregnant, as he felt without his permission, interfering with his plans, he gave her a minor role in her next film (Psycho), dressed and coiffured her unflatteringly and photographed her mostly from the back.

In Dark Side, Spoto’s quote of Hitch’s reaction to this situation is worth repeating: “Vera, instead of leaping at the chance of her life [appearing in his projected film From Amongst the Dead], got pregnant! . . . she couldn’t resist her Tarzan of a husband, Gordon Scott. She should have taken a jungle pill! . . . It was her third child, and I told her that one child was expected, two was sufficient, but that three was really obscene. She didn’t care for this sort of comment.”

The actress who suffered most under Hitchcock—in two films—was Tippi Hedren. In The Birds (1963), she was subjected to endless attacks by birds—not stuffed, mechanical or special effects creatures as she was led to believe, but real birds, which were thrown at her by off-screen handlers. Some were even attached to her clothes by invisible wires so that they couldn’t escape. She was pecked and bitten repeatedly, in endless retakes, until she was finally traumatized and shooting stopped.

In early Hollywood there was the joke—a reality—of the director’s or studio head’s “casting couch” through whose use young starlets acquired parts. In Marnie (1964), Hitch had, literally, taken total possession of Hedren. His risqué jokes, as always, were the standard procedure, which most actresses found offensive—except for Carole Lombard and Marlene Dietrich. This was Hitch’s way of lightening up the set and, he thought, ingratiating himself to the cast.

But now, beyond dressing his actress to suit himself and the needs of the film, he sent Hedren flowers and gifts, prevented her from talking to cast and crew, had her followed and even made overt sexual advances. It was an embarrassment to all and, as Spoto points out, the kind of sexual harassment that would not be permitted today. As punishment for her having rejected him, he kept her under contract without casting her and refused loan outs to other studios.

To be sure, there were favorite actresses toward whom inappropriate behavior was reduced or suppressed—Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly above all, but also Teresa Wright, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint and Janet Leigh. Diane Baker and Mariette Hartley, who worked with Hedren on Marnie, were somehow singled out for various forms of Hitch’s abuse. Toward others, who were fostered unwanted on him by studios, or those who just didn’t “interest” him, he was coldly indifferent—Julie Andrews, Priscilla Lane, Ruth Roman, Laraine Day and Jane Wyman.

Hitchcock had a problem with complimenting or thanking any one. He felt that stars, writers and composers—these especially—should become subservient, planning their lives accordingly, that working for him was compliment enough. Reinforcing this reticence, John Michael Hayes, who wrote the scripts for Rear Window and To Catch a Thief, among others, has said, “He never once congratulated me or thanked me for anything I did. In his mind, if you did well, he thought it was just expected of you.” Often a compliment was second hand, saying that his wife, Alma, thought a script or performance was good.

For his leading ladies, including Bergman and Kelly, his favorites above all others, he rarely had a half way decent compliment, or so Spoto points out. At best, Shirley MacLaine “was very good” in The Trouble with Harry (1955) and Sylvia Sidney “had nice understatement” in Sabotage (1936). Spoto relates how, during a series of interviews in 1975, he asked the master how he achieved such great performances from his actresses. “I think,” Hitch replied, “it has to do with the way in which one photographs them.”

Not to say—to make the portrait accurate—that Hitchcock couldn’t be kind and thoughtful on occasions. He could be. When, for example, the director learned that screen writer Hayes had never been to the south of France, he was sent, along with his wife, to research the locales for To Catch a Thief at studio expense. When Gregory Peck (Spellbound) revealed he was a novice about wine, Hitch sent him a case.

Except for The Lodger (1926) and The 39 Steps, Spoto hurries through the leading ladies of the British films and concentrates on Hitch’s most productive and creative periods—the ’40s (Foreign Correspondent, Shadow of a Doubt and Notorious) and ’50s (Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest). But, as Spoto aptly writes, “After Marnie . . . something died in him. There was nothing more for him to say in art or life . . . ”

The remaining films were more spaced out than any series in Hitch’s canon—after Marnie, only four films in twelve years. From the beginning, Torn Curtain (1966) was a loser, the biggest problem being method actor Paul Newman, whom Hitch didn’t understand. Topaz (1969), allotted only one paragraph in the book, was “cold and remote.” Full of unlikable people, Frenzy (1972) was an ugly film, combining two of the director’s favorite obsessions, sex and eating. And last, perhaps most memorable for John Williams’ score, came Family Plot in 1976, an inoffensive and, as Spoto wrote, “quiet coda” to Hitchcock’s once illustrious career.

The verdict about Spellbound by Beauty? First, there are, in fact, a few Hitchcockian compliments about his leading ladies which Spoto failed to excise, not meaning, however, to question the writer’s premise. Though well written, as are all of Spoto’s biographies, it’s a rehash, a largely negative elaboration of what has gone before.

For someone wishing a generous blend of a detailed study of those fifty-three movies and a comprehensive biography, including what should be for anyone a healthy enough dose of the unhappy, angry Hitch, of Spoto’s three books on his subject, The Dark Side of Genius is the one to take home.

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