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The Independent (30/Jul/1999) - Film: Hitchcock's other leading lady

(c) The Independent (30/Jul/1999)


Hitchcock's other leading lady

Hitchock kept casting his daughter in his films. All part of his cunning plan, or good old-fashioned nepotism?

Question: What do John Huston, Francis Coppola and Clint Eastwood have in common? Answer: They're all Oscar-winning directors - and they've all given plum roles to their own children. It could be sheer nepotism - Huston was only half-joking when he boasted that his undistinguished period love story A Walk With Love and Death was made solely to launch the career of his teenage daughter Anjelica. Or a mixture of nepotism and convenience - as when Sofia Coppola was on hand to step into the role vacated by an indisposed Winona Ryder in The Godfather Part III. But sometimes there are more mysterious, personal motives at play. Why, for instance, did Michael Powell cast his son Columba as the little boy who grows up to be a voyeuristic serial killer in Peeping Tom - and himself as the father whose experiments in fear, lovingly recorded in home movies, warped the boy so horribly?

So what are we to make of Patricia Hitchcock and her brief but memorable performances in three of her father's films? Hitchcock doesn't seem to have been motivated by nepotism: "How relieved we were," he wrote in The Woman Who Knows Too Much, a rather ominously titled 1956 magazine article about his devoted wife and script editor Alma, "when our daughter settled her movie career {sic} for one part in Strangers on a Train, then decided that being a mother of sticky-fingered children required all her creative attention."

Now 71, busy promoting the Hitchcock centenary, and writing a book about her mother's overlooked contribution to his oeuvre, Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell dismisses any suggestion of psychological motives on her father's part, remembering her acting career in brisk, no-nonsense terms. "I was at boarding school in England when I was eight, I did two school plays there and I just loved it, so I kept it up. I was 13 when I did my first play (John Van Druten's Solitaire, on Broadway), then I did another when I was 16, and then I came to RADA." It was while she was there that her father used the school as one of the settings for his 1950 film Stage Fright, a distinctly minor thriller about a drama student (a very improbable Jane Wyman) who sets out to clear her ex-boyfriend of murder. Patricia's small role, as one of Wyman's friends, is notable only for her character's name, Chubby Bannister - perhaps not the kindest name a father ever gave a plump daughter.

Patricia credits screenwriter Whitfield Cook, whose play Violet had provided her second Broadway outing, with persuading her father to give her a more significant role in his next film, Strangers on a Train (re-released in the UK on 13 August). As Barbara Morton, who helps her elder sister's boyfriend Guy (Farley Granger) clear his name after he's been framed for the murder of his no-good wife, Patricia is unmistakably Hitchcock's daughter - not just physically, with her doughy face and slightly sagging jaw, but also temperamentally: Barbara has a morbid fascination with murder, gleefully reeling off information about motives, alibis and police methods. Fifth-billed, Patricia effortlessly steals every scene she's in from the nominal female lead, Ruth Roman (no doubt to the satisfaction of her father, who was unhappy about having Roman foisted on him by Warner Bros).

But in her key moment, all she has to do is watch. At a party, Barbara sees the real killer, Bruno (Robert Walker), pretending to strangle a society lady. As Barbara watches, horror-struck, Bruno catches sight of her; provoked by Barbara's glasses, a haunting reminder of the ones Guy's wife was wearing when he killed her, he starts strangling the society lady for real. By the very act of watching, Barbara involuntarily eggs him on. It's a moment that encapsulates one of Hitchcock's most deep-rooted themes - that simply by looking on, the viewer is somehow implicated (see Rear Window, for starters). And casting his very own daughter as the voyeur was surely no accident.

Marriage and the advent of "sticky-fingered children" didn't quite finish off Patricia's acting career. She continued to work on television, including episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, before re-appearing almost a decade later in Psycho, a film which, partly because of its risky subject matter, Hitchcock shot on a low budget with many of his TV crew. Again, her role is small but crucial. In the early scene in the real-estate office where Janet Leigh's Marion works, Patricia plays the other secretary, Caroline, who confesses that she took tranquillisers on her wedding day and never told her husband - the first secret in a film where everyone has something to conceal. When a rich client flirts with Marion, thus setting the plot in motion (Marion is about to steal his $40,000 deposit), Caroline looks on, miffed at being left out ("I guess he must have noticed my wedding ring!"), but strangely titillated all the same.

"Chubby" in one film, voyeuristically fascinated by murder in another, and by sex in the third - in each of her three appearances, Patricia Hitchcock served in some sense as her father's surrogate. It might seem like stretching a point, but as someone who pre-planned his films down to the tiniest detail, and who exploited the potency of his own regular walk-on appearances - a way of winking at the audience, and making them sit up and pay attention - Hitchcock can hardly have been blind to the frisson he created by casting his own flesh and blood. If only all Hollywood nepotism was such a thoughtful business.