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The Baffling Cruelty of Alfred Hitchcock

Anyone who’s ever watched an Alfred Hitchcock film—seen Tippi Hedren clawed to pieces by dozens of gulls and ravens or Janet Leigh repeatedly stabbed in the shower—would have to wonder about the director’s attitude toward women. When it came to his leading actresses, he was known to have walked a line between stringent and outright sadistic. And yet the particular nature of Hitchcock’s collaborations with these women continues to serve as fodder for study and debate, despite the fact that the details of these relationships are more or less undisputed: With Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Kim Novak, and Leigh, the director would veer between the courtly and the coarse, at one moment inviting them to dine with his wife at his house in Bel Air, the next peppering them with filthy jokes in his trailer. And at least one allegation indicates that his behavior may have moved from the volatility long associated with Hollywood directors into something we today would call abuse. In a 2016 memoir, Hedren says that Hitchcock sexually assaulted her twice, while working on The Birds and Marnie, and that she experienced retaliation from him on set after she rebuffed him.

Hitchcock’s dynamics with women have been amply examined in the multiple biographies of the man. The director blended paternalism and cruelty as he tried to shape the appearance and performance of his lead actresses, and subjected their characters to varying but always intense degrees of psychosexual torment. During filming of The 39 Steps, for example, he shackled his two leads, Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, together in handcuffs and refused to release them between takes when Carroll needed to use the bathroom. Before shooting Vertigo, he invited Novak over for dinner, where he proceeded to humiliate her by holding forth on fine art and wine, knowing full well that she might be uncomfortable given her working-class background. These were techniques for getting what he wanted to see on the screen, with seemingly little regard for how they would affect the actresses.

Laurence Leamer’s Hitchcock’s Blondes arrives then to address a question that remains unanswered—why did Hitchcock insist on torturing his lead women?—while also inviting the reader to see his films through the lens of these relationships.

Leamer’s new book follows on the heels of the author’s enormously successful, and enjoyable, Capote’s Women, which traces Truman Capote’s complex and often cruel relationships with a series of high-society women, whom Capote called his “swans.” In a sense, Leamer, a journalist who has written convincingly on such varied subjects as Johnny Carson and the rise of the underground press in the 1960s, seems a perfect match for this topic. Despite a title that may come off as objectifying, Leamer’s book is in many ways empathic and thoughtful, and he seems ready to train a generous eye on these actresses, to extract them from Hitchcock’s shadow without shoving the director under the wheels of his own limousine. The Hitchcock depicted in these pages is lonely and remote, yet also controlling and often vicious, at once fearful of and fixated upon sex, a devoted caregiver to his wife during her later years and, as Leamer is not the first to speculate, possibly undiagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. The intention here is not so much to redraw our understanding of Hitchcock as it is to shift the emphasis altogether: to provide a new picture, or rather a series of pictures, of the actresses whose lives and careers are too often viewed in relation to the director’s.

The problem is, Leamer doesn’t quite bring enough to the table. He doesn’t have much in the way of new information, and however nobly he strives to foreground the women in Hitchcock’s orbit, the book comes to life only when the director emerges from the wings to reclaim the stage. Leamer’s attention to the details of the actresses’ erotic lives can also give off a whiff of misogyny. In between, the reader is treated to a competent but not wildly enlightening history of how Hitchcock shifted his focus from one leading actress to another, from Bergman (who in Leamer’s telling sets the template for future leads with her blend of coolness and open sexuality) to Kelly (with whom the director rebounded after Bergman decamped to Italy to work with Roberto Rossellini) to Novak (who escaped from her unhappy contractual arrangement at Columbia Pictures to give her brilliant, career-defining performance in Vertigo) and so on. This approach starts out solidly enough, but as Leamer follows each figure through the contours of her upbringing, early career, work with Hitchcock (dutifully recapping the plot of each film along the way), and subsequent events, before returning to the director’s next film and next star, one’s attention begins to flag.

A problem that at first seems merely structural grows worse as the book proceeds without offering any deeper insight into the creative struggles of the actresses in question, whose work deserves more profound attention, or into Hitchcock and his films, which Leamer examines capably but without much penetration or fire. Perhaps if the director himself were better illuminated by these capsule biographies, or by analysis of his films, the book might gain in momentum, but he appears here in his familiar austere and emotionally impenetrable guise. Still, there are moments throughout where Leamer’s writing spreads toward epiphany—the image of Eva Marie Saint, who starred in North by Northwest, alone in her Wilshire Boulevard apartment with only the sound of the gardeners working outside for company evokes a world of loneliness, the silence that is left when fame fades away.

image of Alfred Hitchcock and Grace Kelly on set
American film star Grace Kelly (1929-1982) starred in three of director Alfred Hitchcock’s (1899-1980) films: Rear Window and Dial M for Murder (1954), and To
Catch a Thief (1955) (SSPL / Getty).

In another scene, Leamer writes poignantly of Hitchcock, lifted out of his late-in-life, alcohol-filled isolation and reunited with his leading actors, as he receives a Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1979. Of the somewhat rote, ghostwritten speech Hitchcock gave upon accepting the award, Leamer writes, “The fault did not lie in the writer, but in the director himself. His art was often brilliant and always limited. He rarely reached out to tragedy or profound love, to passionate, singular emotions. He touched that neither in his art nor in his personal life, and he was not going to expose his feelings in this public arena.” An analogous fault might be located in Leamer’s book, which, lacking critical depth or an impassioned, motivating argument, arrives, instead, at a somewhat bland middle ground.

Of course, Hitchcock’s work may be “limited,” at least in its emotional expressiveness, but it is also, at its best, inexhaustible, as rich in its spectrum of interpretation as the writings of Henry James. After the French actress Brigitte Auber rejected Hitchcock when he forced a kiss on her, a few years after she’d appeared in 1955’s To Catch a Thief, she remarked, “It is difficult when someone is so ugly, like him. That turned-out lower lip. When someone is ugly, it isn’t their fault. The poor cabbage had a wonderful soul, I know.” I like to imagine that wonderful not in a charitable sense (it’s difficult to imagine Hitchcock as an exemplary soul) but in the ambiguous one in which James himself frequently deployed the term to mean, also, its opposite. That very doubleness is the thing, after all, that gives Hitchcock’s best work its charge, that gives Vertigo the wallop of tragedy while flooding it, too, with the most delicious current of irony. It isn’t that his people aren’t just criminals or voyeurs or monsters but rather that they are entirely so that makes them so pitiable. For Hitchcock to feel himself, the unattractive child of emotionally withholding parents, to be a monster, and for him to strive for a measure of revenge against the kind of exquisite beauties who might have spurned him in real life is one thing. But his ability to turn, say, James Stewart, the all-American star of It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, into the emotionally disfigured Quasimodo of Vertigo and the Ahab-like obsessive of Rear Window—to take this monstrousness and invite the audience to identify with it—is in part what gives his films their psychological depth.

One wishes Hitchcock’s Blondes had a trace more venom in it, or some of the arch wit with which the director approached his own subjects. As it stands, Leamer’s attempts to paint the actresses in Hitchcock’s films in all their complexity (Kelly’s exuberant sensuality, Novak’s class insecurities, what he terms Hedren’s “narcissism”) have the opposite effect, flattening the women out until each one seems weirdly diminished. Though Hitchcock’s Blondes is an interesting-enough guide to accompany his films, I still can’t help but think the time reading it might be better spent rewatching Psycho or Strangers on a Train. Hitchcock’s relationship with the actresses in his films might have been complicated, but the characters they played never fell into easy categories: For every hapless and miserable figure like Barbara Bel Geddes’s Midge in Vertigo there is a confident, capable one like Teresa Wright’s Charlie Newton in Shadow of a Doubt. It’s this very richness that helps render Hitchcock’s body of work unfathomable, and indeed inexhaustible.

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