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The Telegraph (27/Jun/2008) - The itch in Hitchcock

(c) Telegraph (27/Jun/2008)

The itch in Hitchcock

Tim Ecott reviews Spellbound by Beauty by Donald Spoto

It is safe to assume that Alfred Hitchcock may have been bitter at never winning an Oscar, although as a director he was nominated for the award five times. The son of a greengrocer from Leytonstone, 'Hitch' felt socially disadvantaged in Britain and, according to this book, physically awkward in Hollywood, where his obesity and sexual hang-ups were at odds with the glamour of Tinseltown.

In Spellbound by Beauty Donald Spoto sets out to reveal a dark side to Hitchcock's complex personality. As the subtitle suggests, Hitchcock's relationship with actresses sometimes bordered on the pathological. The strength of Spoto's narrative is that it treats Hitchcock's body of work in chronological order, allowing film buffs to develop a clear appreciation of the director's development from early silent movies such as The Pleasure Garden (1926), and thrillers such as The Lodger (1927). In such work, some of Hitchcock's trademark visual themes emerge clearly - blonde heroines, chases up or down a staircase, an element of bondage and a true inventiveness when it comes to unusual camera angles.

It is useful to be reminded of some of Hitchcock's more subtle films, works which don't easily fit into the thriller genre, including Lifeboat (1944), with screenplay by John Steinbeck and starring Tallulah Bankhead and William Bendix. Bankhead, who was known for outrageous behaviour, apparently took to parading around the set without her knickers, claiming that because the film required her to be perpetually soaking wet, she was suffering from painful chaffing.

A visiting reporter complained at the site of Ms Bankhead hitching her dress above her waist and revealing all, and the studio bosses asked Hitchcock to put a stop to it. He replied with a note saying that he couldn't work out which department should address the problem - 'make-up, wardrobe or hair?'

Hitchcock's wit was not normally so subtle. During the making of The 39 Steps (1934), he is said to have elicited a look of surprise from Madeleine Carroll in one scene by walking towards her with his flies unbuttoned. Far more interesting, to me, was the revelation that Carroll worked incognito during the Second World War as a Red Cross nurse, and received the Légion d'Honneur for her work supporting hundreds of orphans at a château she owned near Paris.

Another snippet revealed by Spoto is that Anne Baxter, cast in Hitchcock's I Confess (1953) was the granddaughter of Frank Lloyd Wright. Baxter's verdict on Hitchcock is one of the most cruelly articulate: 'He was ugly and unpresentable in polite society... with a schoolboy's obsession with sex and an endless supply of very nasty, vulgar and naughty stories and jokes.'

The main thesis of Spellbound by Beauty is that Hitchcock was sexually inadequate, prone to inappropriate ribaldry and that he developed an unhealthy obsession with several of his leading ladies, notably Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly and more dangerously, Tippi Hedren.

Spoto quotes Hitchcock as saying that when it came to actresses, 'Nothing pleases me more than to knock the ladylikeness out of them.' If this were true then it goes against what most filmgoers will recall when they think of Kelly in To Catch a Thief (1955), or Bergman in Notorious (1946).

And while it is true that Hedren is terrorised and physically abused in The Birds (1963), her physical beauty and immaculate style are the dominant images that remain for most fans. On the subject of style, Spoto quotes the costume designer Edith Head, whom he instructed to make Grace Kelly (Rear Window, 1954) 'appear like a piece of Dresden china, something slightly untouchable'.

The main thrust of Spoto's dissection of Hitchcock's dark side comes from interviews with Tippi Hedren, whom the director plucked from a career as a minor model to star in The Birds, and then Marnie (1964). Several Hollywood sources support Spoto's claim, backed by quotes from Hedren herself, that Hitchcock became obsessively jealous of the actress, and demanded that she make herself 'sexually available, wherever and whenever [Hitchcock] wanted'.

The evidence in the case of Hedren is compelling, but it is thin material for the basis of a whole book. Hitchcock died in 1980, and seems to have forged few close relationships in his life, remaining married to his wife Alma from 1926 until his death. He claimed that their marriage was unconsummated for over a year, and it seems likely that he had little interest in sex.

The weakness of this book is that little of the material is fresh (Spoto has written two previous books on Hitchcock), and few of the sources have added anything new and interesting in the past 20 years. Obsessive or otherwise, Hitchcock's legacy is in his singular attention to detail and a collection of truly iconic heroines who epitomise what we now think of as high classic.