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Daily Express (24/Dec/2012) - The woman behind Alfred Hitchcock




The woman behind Alfred Hitchcock

Enough has been written about Hitchcock and his unusual peccadilloes to fill several bookshelves. Many actresses have called him a monster of lewdness, a strange, warped figure who took a childish delight in rude and inappropriate behaviour. Evidently it would have taken a saint to put up with such a wayward husband.

Alma Reville Hitchcock has yet to be canonised but she is about to receive the acknowledgment she deserves. And given that she remained Hitch's loyal wife for 54 years, one might be forgiven for believing that she merits some attention. For most of their married life she remained in her husband's considerable shadow, shunning publicity as a vampire shuns daylight and circulating within a very close society of friends and relations.

Now two movies about the director will put Alma in the spotlight for the first time and reveal her contribution to her husband's work.

"She worked side by side with him for his whole career," says John J McLaughlin, screenwriter of the film Hitchcock which stars Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren. "It's very common in this business if you have a spouse to run your work by them. You let them read the script before it goes out, you ask them questions as you're editing. You want their feedback."

The Hitchcocks' only child Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell says that her mother's opinion of her father's films was not only crucial to their success but also determined whether they were made at all.

"He was controlling. He knew exactly how every scene should be," she says. "When he got a story he took it to my mother and asked, ‘Do you think it will make a picture?' If she said no, he wouldn't touch it."

Alma was more than Hitchcock's wife. She was his muse, his assistant and editor with several credits on her husband's films, including Shadow Of A Doubt. But it was her input into Hitchcock's most notorious film that is her most lasting legacy. There is little doubt that Psycho was all the better for her contribution. She was instrumental in refining and enhancing the famous shower scene, even going against her husband's almost infallible filmmaking instincts.

First she insisted that the scene required music to heighten its effect. Hitchcock had intended the scene to be played without music and was adamant it would work without it but Alma convinced him that Bernard Hermann's score was essential and her husband eventually relented.

In addition she spotted something in the shower scene that even Hitchcock had failed to notice - a slight movement in Janet Leigh's throat after the fatal stabbing.

"They were showing Psycho to the cast and crew and producers before the final print," recalls Patricia. "They were all raving about it and my mother said, ‘You can't send it out. Janet Leigh swallows when she is supposed to be dead.' She was the only one who noticed. She did the cutting so her eye was incredible."

Alfred Hitchcock was born in London on August 13, 1899. Alma Reville was born on August 14 the same year. Although she was younger by just one day it often seemed that Hitchcock viewed Alma as his superior, deferring to her in many aspects of his films and seeking her approval as a schoolboy does from a teacher.

After leaving school Hitchcock worked for a company making electrical cables while taking courses in art. He never had a girlfriend and was, by his own later admission, ignorant of "the mechanics of sex".

Alma Reville was a pretty, vivacious tomboy only 5ft tall, with bobbed reddish hair and hazel eyes. She was an editor at the film studio Famous Players-Lasky where Hitchcock worked writing titles while studying engineering at London University.

She had entered the movie trade five years before him. While he still felt little better than an errand boy, she was already an experienced film cutter and script editor.

According to Patrick Gilligan in his book Alfred Hitchcock: A Life In Darkness And Light, their first encounter was unpromising. Alma recalled how he strolled across the set with his characteristic deadpan expression, paused to ask directions from her before disappearing without a word. Some time afterwards he admitted that he found her "a trifle snooty" and clearly resented her higher status. He waited four years before speaking to her again.

In the intervening period Hitchcock had risen through the ranks and was on the verge of directing his first film, thus making him Alma's superior. They started going out together in a manner that was restrained, even by the moral codes of the era. Hitchcock later confessed that he "never so much as touched her little finger".

His sexuality, hampered by his appearance and weight, was more complex than most. Although his interest in sex was clear, it was as a spectator rather than a participant. The voyeur and the embryonic director were beginning to merge.

Gilligan records that Alfred proposed to Alma on a storm-tossed ferry while returning from another shoot in Germany. Alma was lying in a bunk, so seasick that she could barely speak, when he produced an engagement ring. "I thought I'd catch you when you were too weak to say no," he told her.

They were married at London's Brompton Oratory in 1926. From then on they worked as a double act, with Alma standing intently at his shoulder, script in hand, monitoring every second of the action. Following each take on set he would turn to her and ask: "Was it all right?" Upon receiving a nod of approval he would move on to the next shot.

The success of their enduring relationship was based on professional respect. Their personal lives were infinitely more complex and shadowy. When quizzed on his dall­iances with starlets Hitchcock implied that he suffered from chronic impotence, describing himself to interviewers as "chaste" or "celibate" and admitting privately that he and his wife didn't have sexual "relations".

There is more than enough testimony to suggest that he had a compulsive interest in other people's sex lives, a fixation with lavatories, a love of "talking dirty" and a taste for heartless practical jokes. Tippi Hedren, Janet Leigh and Kim Novak have all said that his treatment of the stars who worked for him (especially blondes) could be ruthless.

Yet he was also charming, kindhearted, self-sacrificing and above all a dedicated romantic. Why Alma tolerated his other behaviour is open to endless speculation, although the two latest films purport to explain the intricacies of their alliance.

Now, being played by two prominent actresses (Helen Mirren and Imelda Staunton) Alma is emerging from the shadow of her celebrated husband. But as played by Mirren in Hitchcock she is as much a thorn in the director's side as a loyal supporter. For one thing he is convinced she is having an affair - an accusation based on a widely-held but unproven conjecture.

In spite of Patricia's protestations to the contrary there is some recorded evidence that her mother had an illicit love affair. This should surprise no one given that Hitchcock admitted sex was an embarrassing chore to him; he often claimed to have had sex only once, to conceive his daughter Pat and that he found the act unpleasant and almost impossible to execute as he was so overweight.

But according to the diary of Hitchcock's friend and screenwriter Whitfield Cook, Alma found an outlet for her desires. After the Hitchcocks moved to Hollywood, she developed a passionate friendship with Cook, who contributed to the script of Strangers On A Train.

Cook was a frequent visitor to the Hitchcock country estate overlooking Monterey Bay in California, enjoying what he remembered as "hilariously funny" weekends which often involved him and Alma setting off alone for long walks or sitting gazing at the ocean. Before long they were dining at discreet Los Angeles restaurants - ostens­ibly to discuss scripts.

When Alma suffered two debilitating strokes in later life, Alfred would weep and tremble, abandoning his work to be at her side. As she slowly drifted away from him and his career ground to a halt, he seemed to be willing his own death.

He died in April 1980, three months short of his 81st birthday. Physically crippled and mentally impaired, Alma attended his funeral in a wheelchair. For two more years she lived in a dream world, "happy as a clam" and telling visitors that Hitchcock was working at the studio and would "be home soon".

Hitchcock's greatest ally, protector and co-conspirator died in 1982, a willing martyr to the genius she married.