Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Did Not Love Women
Was Alfred Hitchcock a sadist? Yes. So, let's move on to the next question: What kind of sadist was he? Joe Queenan gives us his thoughts on the matter after holding his own two-month Hitchcock video festival.
In an early, and not especially good, Alfred Hitchcock movie entitled The Secret Agent, Peter Lorre, playing a mysterious sleazeball nicknamed "The Hairless Mexican," goes bonkers when he learns that the British Secret Service has left him without a blonde playmate while providing. John Gielgud with the comely Madeleine Carroll.
"This is too much, really too much," Lorre seethes, pounding the walls with his fists. "For you, beautiful women, and what for me? what for me?--nothing!"
Well, that pretty well sums up Hitchcock's own career, doesn't it? An extraordinarily unattractive man, he spent his adult life working in close proximity with the most beautiful blondes of his era-- but he had to suffer in silence as they snuggled up on the laps of good-looking guys named Grant or Stewart or Fonda, none of whom ever had to lose 100 pounds just to get down to a more manageable 265.
As Donald Spoto has observed in his insightful if dreary book The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, the director often developed an obsessive relationship with his female leads, going so far as to tell Tippi Hedren whom to date. Other critics have dwelled on Hitchcock's fascination with blondes, even suggesting that Janet Leigh's brutal murder in the shower scene in Psycho may have been Hitchcock's perverse little way of getting back at Grace Kelly for abandoning him for the more dashing, and, no doubt, less demented, Prince Rainier of Monaco, while also punishing Vera Miles (demoted to the second string in Psycho) for throwing away her chance to be the next Kelly by going out and, of all things, having a baby. The slut.
Of course, it is possible to make too much of all this, to go too far with the amateur psychologizing, and I think that's exactly what we should do here. If anyone deserves to be subjected to a bit of Monday morning psychoanalysis, it's Hitchcock; he himself was an amateur psychologist who always went overboard with this stuff. It's hard to look at Spellbound without chortling at its pop Freudianism, and the same is true of Vertigo, Rebecca, Notorious, and Suspicion, all of which are wonderful motion pictures whose abiding appeal is not diminished by the fact that they are, at heart, really quite ridiculous stories. So is Gone With the Wind. Just ask black people.
Alfred Hitchcock made 53 movies, of which about 40 are available on video. No one watching these videos over a two-month period of time, as I have, could fail to notice certain recurring elements. The most obvious ones, which do not need to be discussed here, are the claustrophobia, the ambivalent feelings toward policemen, and the fixation with churches, trains, tunnels, heights, and Mom. The elements that will be discussed here include Hitchcock's willingness to subordinate plot, theme, and character to his passion for visual effects; his penchant for preposterous story lines drawn from trashy paperbacks; his childlike view of politics; his brilliant sense of self-parody; and most of all, his aforementioned fascination with blondes that would become a complete obsession by the early 1950s.
No one could possibly miss that, as the years went by, Hitchcock got more and more into putting the girls through the wringer. Kelly is nearly strangled to death in Dial M for Murder, and again flirts with disaster in Rear Window. Kim Novak plunges to her death in Vertigo, Leigh is hacked to pieces in Psycho, and Hedren is very nearly pecked to death in The Birds. After that, Hitchcock gave it a rest, but having spent the better part of a decade feeding the girls into the meat grinder, he had certainly made it clear that, at least when he was in the neighborhood, blondes did not have more fun.
Of course, it wasn't just blondes who didn't have fun. In Notorious, Ingrid Bergman spends two hours being psychologically brutalized by Cary Grant. Joan Fontaine signed on for two years before the mast on the H.M.S. Hitchcock, first playing a woman who is ignored by her husband, preyed upon by her evil house¬keeper, haunted by the specter of her husband's deceased first wife, and humiliated by her servants in Rebecca, and then in Suspicion portraying a character so barmy she finally decides to simply drink what she believes to be a poisoned glass of milk and get the misery over with.
One of the interesting things you pick up on when you watch the full gamut of Hitchcock films is that when the girls wouldn't go along with the gag, they were not invited back. Tallulah Bank-head didn't let herself get pushed around in Lifeboat, nor did Marlene Dietrich in Stage Fright, and Hitch never worked with either again. Carole Lombard was given a dry run in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but she must not have been docile enough, because Hitchcock never used her again, and so she was forced to move on to more fertile fields. Had Kelly and Hedren not decided to pursue other interests, there's really no telling what Hitchcock might have had in store for them. Chainsaws? Famished rodents? Obstetrical equipment?
Vertigo, in which a trashy brunette is transformed into an elegant blonde, goes back to being a trashy brunette and is again transformed into an elegant blonde--before meeting her unpleasant fate--is probably the most autobiographical of Hitchcock's films. At the very end of this Pygmalion the 13th, a deranged Jimmy Stewart shrieks at Novak: "You played the wife very well, Judy. He made you over just like I made you over, only better. Not only the clothes and the hair, but the look and the manner and the words... And then what did he do? Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you exactly what to do? And what to say? You were an apt pupil, too, weren't you? You were a very apt pupil. But why did you pick on me? Why me?"
Coming, as it did, three years after Amazing Grace had concluded her trio of great films (Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and To Catch a Thief), only to desert Hitchcock, and just one year after Vera Miles's debut for Hitchcock in The Wrong Man, it's not hard to figure out what was going on in the director's mind. Hell, it was right there on the screen. The ladies vanish.