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Poughkeepsie Journal (16/Nov/2008) - Hitchcock bio swoops in on leading ladies

(c) Poughkeepsie Journal (16/Nov/2008)

Hitchcock bio swoops in on leading ladies

In the history of cinema, few films have proven as durable as those that sprang from the warped psyche of Alfred Hitchcock.

The rotund British-born director, whose 60-plus features included such nerve-racking thrillers as "Strangers on a Train," "Rear Window" and "Psycho," possessed an unerring ability to distill humanity's deepest fears and darkest desires into exquisitely crafted popular art.

What was behind this talent for turning such perverse thematic elements as voyeurism, bondage and murder fantasies into mainstream entertainment?

According to "Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies," celebrity biographer Donald Spoto's latest dissection of the master of suspense's work, it was partly derived from a sexually repressed outcast's Svengali-like compulsion to manipulate and mistreat a long line of unattainable icy blondes.

This observation won't be particularly shocking to those who have read Spoto's previous Hitchcock tomes or other accounts that have theorized about the director's kinky side. Besides, anyone who has witnessed the shower stabbing in "Psycho" could guess the guy had more than a few hang-ups about women.

Actors got off easy. Hitchcock barely paid attention to such male leads as Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart. Instead he zeroed in on his actresses, especially the green ones.

He pecked away at their insecurities, whispered filthy remarks right before they faced the camera and forced them to do countless takes of physically demanding scenes. Hitchcock might have been trying to summon a certain expression or reaction, but he regularly went too far. As he once said, "Nothing pleases me more than to knock the ladylikeness out of them."

Whether it was the battering suffered by Madeleine Carroll after being handcuffed to Robert Donat in 1935's "The 39 Steps" or the hosing-down endured by Anne Baxter during a storm scene in 1953's "I Confess," Hitch kept true to his word.

The author temptingly suggests that this volume contains material that was to be released only after several years had passed or the sources had died.

What juicy new facts are afoot? Not all that many. Among the more astonishing revelations is that the filmmaker, who wed lifelong collaborator Alma Reveille in 1926, experienced sex but once in his life - and that occasion produced their only child, Patricia. This, the writer suggests, resulted in Hitchcock's compensating need to harass many of his lovely leading ladies.

One of his healthier relationships was with Ingrid Bergman, who appeared in "Spellbound" and "Notorious" in the 1940s. But their mutual respect was more the result of her efforts to keep the love-struck director at bay than his own self-control.

The most tortured was in the early '60s with then-novice Tippi Hedren. The aging auteur tutored her, dressed her and even had her handwriting analyzed. But nothing topped a week spent being attacked by live versions of her winged co-stars during filming of "The Birds," which sent her into clinical shock - except for when he demanded that Hedren be at his sexual beck and call during "Marnie," which she refused.

There is no excuse for such behavior, as Spoto says. But if his research is right, Hitchcock's failings helped produce some of the most memorable films ever made. That means the audience is an unwitting accomplice, the ultimate voyeur - a situation that would have delighted the troubled genius himself.