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Alfred Hitchcock: Fact and Fiction by John Russell Taylor

A rare photograph of Hitchcock smiling, sitting alongside our author, John Russell Taylor

A rare photograph of Hitchcock smiling, sitting alongside our author, John Russell Taylor

Bloomsbury Reader are thrilled to be publishing Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock by legendary film critic, John Russell Taylor on 16th April 2013. Updated with a new introduction by the author, and available as an ebook for the first time, Hitch is available for preorder now.

Below, John Russell Taylor examines, using his expert professional and personal knowledge, the recent tidal wave of Alfred Hichcock films and documentaries.

Representations of Alfred Hitchcock: The Girl (Julian Jarrold) vs. Hitchcock (Sasha Gervasi) by John Russell Taylor

Back in the days before the “teenager” had been invented, when Judy Garland sang resentfully about being too young for boys, too old for toys, movie idols like Laurel and Hardy, or Judy herself, were frequently fictionalised as the protagonists of juvenile novels and strip cartoons, involved in the sort of action associated with the characters they normally played on screen. Recently a similar fate seems to have overtaken Alfred Hitchcock.

Fact or fiction? Presumably the makers of Hitchcock (on the big screen) and The Girl (on television) would say in each case that they have lightly fictionalised Hitchcock’s life in the cause of drama. I’m not so sure. After all, I knew pretty well all the characters personally, some of them very well indeed. In the Seventies I was teaching Film in Los Angeles, so I got to know Hitch and his wife Alma very well, and consequently those around them, and then, when I was researching my biography of him, virtually all the actors, writers and others still alive who had worked with him, including of course, Tippi Hedren. So, I would suggest, I am uniquely well placed to judge.

Am I biased? Not really: I am a scholar and biographer, not a hagiographer. I must say at once that I found Hitchcock incomparably the more accurate and believable of the two films. It has its flaws, inevitably. Anthony Hopkins looks and sounds much less like Hitchcock than Toby Jones. Both films, no doubt for dramatic effect, have Hitch behaving on set in a way he never, never did: yelling obscenities, horsing around, intervening somnambulistically in the action of the film. I have known directors who liked to keep their shooting on a very loose rein, and the sequence in Hitchcock where Hitch assumes the killer’s role in the Psycho shower scene is quite ludicrous, not only if you know something about Hitch, but even if you have only a hazy idea of how such a scene would be shot (actually it seems to be derived from a story, quite possibly apocryphal, of Tarentino on set).

The Girl has much more of the same, particularly in the scenes of Hitchcock’s alleged aggression against Hedren arising, apparently, from her failure to submit to his openly expressed lusts. Take the telephone box incident: is it conceivable for a moment that any director, however crazed, (and Hitch certainly was not that) would risk disfiguring and incapacitating his new star in the middle of shooting a very expensive film? And as for the scene with the live birds in the attic: if it started with a nervous but immaculate heroine going through a door and being instantly, for the purposes of the film, reduced to a bleeding, quivering wreck, how would it be possible to do forty-some takes without the intervention of Costume and Make-Up, returning her to immaculate for take two, let alone each of the subsequent takes?

But beyond these obvious technicalities, the real issue in both films is their reading of the character and attitudes of Hitch himself. Here Hitchcock is much less controversial. Arguable in places, of course, for who ever knows exactly what goes on within a marriage? However, I believe in the film’s essential image of Alma and their married relationship. Hitch always said that he was a timid man, frightened of everyone and everything. If so, he had dealt with it brilliantly, arranging that life around him was a game played by his rules. The only exception, the only person he remained really frightened of, was Alma, who was stubbornly unpredictable, and to whose judgment he finally deferred in everything. Bernard Herrmann said when he first met her that she was “consumed by jealousy”. Whether Hitch was the same towards her, and whether he had any reason to be, I have no way of judging.

The Girl I find much worse than merely speculative: it is a tissue of melodramatic invention. I do not altogether blame Tippi Hedren for this. She is, after all, now 83, still working, has been consistently busy since her break with Hitchcock but, apart from Chaplin’s A Countess from Hong Kong and her “family film” Roar, has done little of note. How else is she going to stay in the eye of the public than by coming up with increasingly sensational stories about Hitchcock? I first met her in 1966 on the set of A Countess from Hong Kong, and got to know her better in Los Angeles in the mid-Seventies. At that time she had little but praise for “Mr Hitchcock”, who, she said, had given her an incomparable education in film and her everything she then was.

The only objection was that he had been, she felt, too possessive when it came to her private life: she told me the circumstances of their row on set in the middle of Marnie (her account agreeing exactly with those of Hitch himself and Peggy Robertson, his personal assistant) and suggested that after a week of “Would you ask Miss Hedren?”/”Would you tell Mr Hitchcock?” it had all blown over. Her story seems to change exponentially in the later writings of Donald Spoto. In The Dark Side of Genius (1983) she suggests that Hitch propositioned her sexually, though (exceptionally) we are not told exactly what he said. By the time we get to Spellbound by Beauty (2008) she gives us to understand that during the shooting of The Birds he virtually raped her in a limo under the horrified gaze of Peggy Robertson, Jim Brown (the assistant director) and other members of the unit – strange that neither of them, both by this time dead, had ever mentioned it. And in 2013, in an article on The Girl in the London Times, she went so far as to call him a “pervert” and “an evil man”. And that attitude is illustrated in The Girl, script said to be based on Spellbound by Beauty – make of that what you will.

Also, the claim that Hitch deliberately ruined her career by refusing to let her do anything else while under contract to him and having her blackballed by the rest of Hollywood, much insisted on in The Girl, is arrant nonsense, as may be checked instantly on IMDB: in fact, the only reason she did not make a third film with Hitchcock, his “horror film” version of Mary Rose, was that Universal told him his two attempts to make her a star had clearly failed, and they would not finance a third attempt – indeed, forbade him from making Mary Rose for them at all.

Why have there been two films about Hitchcock at this late date, more than twenty years after his death, and why have they given rise to so much controversy? Not only because he was a complicated and intriguing personality – many such are completely forgotten today – but because he was a great – arguably the greatest – film maker, his films are constantly with us, one of them having just been voted by the critics of the world the greatest film of all time, and, perhaps crucially, because everyone still knows, from the television series, original and new versions, what he looks like and what fun he was. Great entertainers never die, and he was one of the greatest.

Read John’s book here!

A never before snap of Alfred Hitchcock, yawning inside Grace Cathedral, San Francisco on the set of Frenzy

A never-before-seen snap of Hitchcock, yawning inside Grace Cathedral, San Francisco on the set of Frenzy.

One thought on “Alfred Hitchcock: Fact and Fiction by John Russell Taylor

  1. Pingback: John Russell Taylor compares “Hitchcock” and “The Girl” | save hitchcock

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