The Trouble With Alfred Hitchcock

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Every month the Sound On Sight staff bands together to tackle a specific filmmaker, event and/or some sort of movie related theme. This month our focus shifts towards the “Master of Suspense”, Alfred Hitchcock.

The Trouble With Alfred

’I don’t exactly hate women…’

Once you know those words came from the mouth of Alfred Hitchcock, how would you expect the quote to end? Perhaps with something like ‘…I loathe them.’?

Over time, the legend of Hitchcock as kinky, voyeuristic misogynist has gradually accumulated details, like a snowball rolling downhill, until it has become the kind of unstoppable self-perpetuating leviathan that engulfs the truth the way the avalanche destroys an Austrian hamlet.

Google the man and you’re confronted with a list of accusations: his marriage was a sham. He used to expose himself to actresses to get them to react. He tried to blackmail Tippi Hedren into having an affair with him, unleashed the seagulls on her when she refused. He only liked blondes. He used to demonstrate how to strangle a woman with one hand at dinner parties.

But where did it start, this idea that Hitchcock was a woman-hater? How could a man, widely respected during his lifetime, probably one of the world’s most successful film directors, have ended up with this kind of a reputation?

It all started with the films. The films are, after all, his legacy. Over a career which spanned six decades and produced over sixty films, Hitchcock directed hundred or possibly thousands of performances. But the trouble with Alfred, the roots of his reputation as a woman hater, can be traced back to just a handful.

Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder

Based on a successful stage play, this material was natural territory for Hitchcock, who by this point in his career had a solid track record in psychological suspense. But there are two things about Dial M for Murder which single it out as a starting point for the whispers. Firstly, the husband in the story is a spectacularly rotten piece of crap – vengeful, sneaky, slippery and satanically persuasive. Not only does he attempt to have his wife killed, he coolly pins the blame on her when his henchman fouls up. But what really makes the film work (in the sense that you have to watch it from between your fingers) is Hitchcock’s masterly casting of Grace Kelly in the role of the wronged wife. Kelly, as pretty and blonde as the fairy on the top of a sinister Christmas Tree of wickedness, plays the increasingly beleaguered Margot with the innocence of a tiny kitten being slowly strangled. At a time when blondeness was most usually associated with the word ‘bombshell’ (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes came out only a year before Dial M), Hitchcock coolly subverted the public expectation of blonde=trashy and used Kelly’s fairness to win the audience’s sympathy. Never slow on the uptake, Hitchcock noted the success of his ploy and would return to the theme again.


Kim Novak in Vertigo

Kelly starred in two more Hitchcock films during the 1950s, but by the time the director decided to adapt the French novel The Living and the Dead for the screen the actress had quit movies in favor of married life as a princess. In any event, Kelly wouldn’t have been right for the part. Injured innocence was not the quality Hitchcock needed for the female lead in Vertigo, although blondeness is a key element of the plot. Instead he used Kim Novak, at that point up and coming rather than established (picking actresses just as their star began to rise was one of Hitchcock’s skills) who, with her sleepy lynx eyes and biteable bottom lip brought a more earthy presence to the part. Novak’s performance gained mixed reviews and the film was not, by Hitchcock’s standards at least, a commercial success. Audiences disliked the unhappy ending and the emphasis on internal conflict rather than action.

But one thing critics are agreed on is the subtext of the film. James Stewart, damaged, guilt ridden, becomes obsessed with the likeness between his new love and a woman he watched die. He repeatedly forces Novak to dress up (literally become blonde) in order to satisfy this obsession. It’s all about men dominating women, as Stewart bullies his girlfriend into becoming someone else, with Hitchcock throwing in Freudian symbolism (towers, falling) to hint at impotence as the underlying cause of Stewart’s behavior. And in a case of artistic reverse-engineering, some started to suggest that Vertigo wasn’t just a story of obsession and impotence, it actually represented Hitchcock’s own repressed fears and desires.


Janet Leigh in Psycho

With these two acts of subversion: using blondeness as a way to play with society’s ideas of good versus bad women and working the symbols of psychoanalysis to hint at sexual dysfunction (at a time when therapy was the latest must-have for the suburban wealthy) the wheels were set in motion. In a case of art becoming life, Hitchcock’s films became Hitchcock: a direct line to his inner soul, a process which was only accelerated when in 1960, he directed the most notorious film in his oeuvre: Psycho.

By then, interestingly, Hitchcock had abandoned the Freudian in favor of a much more direct approach. Although filmed in black and white, Psycho is a very modern film. The camera work is offhand, almost abrupt. Janet Leigh, officially the star of the film, is killed before the movie is even halfway through. It contains nudity, overt voyeurism and an unmarried couple in bed together (the horror!) and although that might sound tame now, at the time this was all ground breaking stuff. But Hitchcock’s almost casual disposal of Leigh, (who again wasn’t Grace Kelly, but who did have some of the same fragile charm) in the infamous shower scene, grated on the collective psyche. Even though slasher movies, while not a staple, were no rarity, Psycho was a slasher which made the audience unsure who they identified with, who was at fault for all the bloodletting (it’s hard to pin the blame on a mummy in a wheelchair). So it seemed natural to blame Hitchcock for it all. His perverted fantasies were what we saw played out on the screen. If we felt dirty when we left the cinema that was because we sensed the director’s unhealthy enjoyment of seeing his female characters murdered. Or so the argument went.


Tippi Hedren in The Birds

And the idea that Hitchcock’s films were not only populated with his own fantasies, but that one of said fantasies was torturing hapless females, became even more strongly rooted when he adapted Daphne du Maurier’s novel in 1963. He cast the then-unknown Tippi Hedren as the female lead (remarking on her resemblance to Grace Kelly in interviews at the time) and signed her to an exclusive contract. Hedren did not enjoy the shoot, claiming later that she was told that the iconic scene where she is attacked by seagulls would be filmed using mechanical birds. In fact she spent five days having ravens, gulls and other avian species thrown at her head. We’ll get to Hedren and Hitchcock in a moment, but in terms of this film, once again Hitchcock excelled at combining the psychological with the actual – using Hedren’s pursuit of a non-committal Rod Taylor and his cloying relationship with his mother to make the bird attacks seem like the physical manifestation of repressed female sexuality. Another blonde in peril. Notes were taken. The legend grew.


Tippi Hedren in Marnie

But the final argument for the prosecution in the case of Alfred Hitchcock vs Public Opinion has to be this film. Hedren starred for the second (and last) time. The story concerns a disturbed young woman, the Marnie of the title, who when caught stealing is blackmailed into marriage by her victim. The fact that the blackmailer is Sean Connery helps us not to feel too sorry for Hedren in her predicament as unwilling bride. Again, Hitchcock knew how to play with our expectations. He has Connery force Hedren into sex (as it would have been termed in those days – now we would call it rape), but because it’s Connery, we don’t recoil from the act. The conflict between our reactions – how could he! vs lucky cow!- unsettles us deeply. Again, the moral compass spins.

And it spins all the more violently when we hear what happened next between Hedren and Hitchcock. Silent for years on the subject, in an interview with the BBC in 2010 Hedren claims that she refused to work with Hitchcock after Marnie because he had become obsessed with her. She describes how the director had her followed and had her handwriting analyzed. When she tried to get out of her contract with him she says Hitchcock’s response was to say that he would ‘ruin her’. When asked if this was because he wanted a relationship with her, Hedren says ‘I would imagine that was what it was all about.’

Which isn’t exactly the same as saying you’ve been groped and Hedren, though given ample opportunity, has never claimed he laid a finger on her, only that he wanted to, or so she believes. Other actresses – in this interview: Susan Pleshette, Janet Leigh, Eve Marie Saint and Karen Black – paint a picture of a man who was meticulous, thoughtful, funny and highly talented. Hedren, interestingly, was also present during the interview. Her contributions are few and far between, although she does scotch one tale about Hitchcock giving her daughter Melanie Griffiths a doll in a coffin, which presents her as fair-minded, if not exactly bursting with indignation over her treatment.

But it’s a long way from a dispute over a contract and a possible infatuation to a creepy misogynist who secretly wanted to murder his female co workers. When we say these things about Alfred, are we picking on the Wrong Man?

We’ll probably never know. But when you hear the ending of the quote which begins this article, it does seem a little clearer.

What Hitchcock actually said was, ‘I don’t exactly hate women. But I certainly don’t think they are as good actors as men.’ 

Good old fashioned sexism? As Alfred would have put it, certainly. But Psycho?

Maybe not.

– Cath Murphy


  1. Brian says

    Thanks for that, a far more balanced view of Hitchcock and his attitude towards women than in another article I read in the Guardian on the subject.

    That particular journalist was clearly a feminist, but in the worst sense of the word. She uses her column as a platform to utterly rip to shreds any man she feels has done women a disservice in the slightest way, whether he deserves even a fraction of the abuse or not. I’ve never read such stereotypical man hating garbage in all my life, my mum read it too and was really laughing at it! Course I shouldn’t say that or she’ll accuse me of having mother issues like she did Hitchcock, concluding her rant by implying he actually identified with and approved of Norman Bate’s behaviour in Psycho! Apparently that was the icing on the cake and proved once and for all what a raging misogynist he really was, but why would he call the movie Psycho then? And have every character at the end of the movie calmly horrified by Norman’s atrocious acts and his uniquely perverse mental issues, before bundling him into an institution for the rest of his life?

    You really summed him up well at the end of your article I thought; yes he was extremely old fashioned and to a large extent a product of his generation so definitely a sexist, but you wouldn’t go as far as calling him a psycho or a misogynist (a word which gets banded around too much by over zealous, over critical feminists). Like ReplyWorld said, he loved women and got on very well with them. Doesn’t mean he wasn’t sexist but he still loved them, and took advantage of all the bad press against him because of the old expression ‘no publicity is bad publicity’ – as long as people were talking about his movies and watching them he was succeeding in his job as a director.

    Out of interest it was only really in his film Frenzy the viewer saw any female nudity, and by that much later point in Hitchcock’s career Dario Argento had become well established and his style of murder mystery/slasher movie (“giallo”) had really taken off and gained much influence, because Argento was such a legendary director himself. That was the way thrillers and movies in general were going, becoming much more gritty and graphic and how the slasher movie emerged as its own genre of horror movie.

    Congratulations on a very well written and thought out piece of journalism.

  2. […] most grotesquely venal women ever committed to film. Hitchcock’s misogyny is often discussed in relation to his sound films and some possibly apocryphal pranks and fallings-out on set, but Downhill suggests the rot set in a […]

  3. […] Hitchcock has always been something of a controversial figure when it came to women. That ground has been covered by film writers with far more experience than myself. “Hitchcock’s women are outwardly immaculate, but full of treachery and weakness,” Bidisha writes in The Guardian. “But, hurrah, he doesn’t kill them all. He just teaches them a thoroughly good lesson.” Discussing the treatment of his actresses, USA Today suggests, “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.” There are apocryphal tales about Hitchcock boasting at dinner parties about being able to strangle a woman with one arm. […]

  4. ReplyWorld says

    Hitchcock loved women . He played people and he played the press like an organ. It is the world and the press and the people that smack their lips at these comments and he knew it and that is why he said it. He was a very sophisticated man , unlike most of the general public. 99 percent of Hitchcock’s comments to the mainstream media were to GET PRESS FOR HIS FILMS and these kinds of comments did it. Obviously it still works. In his REAL LIFE , he worked with women constantly and loved them. He and his wife designed the car chase in “To Catch A Thief” , she advised him on some script problems in “Marnie”, Jay Presson Allen (woman) wrote the screenplay for “Marnie” (she is on the record as never liking Hedren) Joan Harrison was a devoted writer/producer/director, close to Hitch for decades. I could go on and on but seriously it reminds me of the people that say to me “Marilyn Monroe ? wow she was really dumb wasn’t she??” My response is always to question who is the dumb one. A blonde in peril in films goes right back to the silents. Simple as that. These are scripts people – stories people have made up to entertain and in some cases, enlighten. Did James Whale want real life human beings and cities to be terrorized and ripped apart by A Frankie monster or did Cameron want an repulsive hideous Alien to murder all space explorers because he made the movie ? ??? Nice article thanks.

  5. Nikki Guerlain says

    Great article. Thx!

  6. Cath Murphy says

    Thanks! I feel Hitchcock gets an undeservedly bad press over his treatment of women, both on and off screen. There’s no doubt that his attitudes were old fashioned, but this was a man born while Victoria was still on the British throne – you couldn’t expect him to be a feminist.

    As Hitchcock himself said – all his films are basically Little Red Riding Hood. Grimm’s fairy tales do much worse things to little girls than Hitch does to the women in his films.

  7. Staindslaved says

    Wow. Cath I must applaud you for a truly great article. I’ve done a lot of film study at college about Hitchcock and the underlining elements in his films. I’ve discussed the role of woman in his films at length but never heard of these off-screen antics you state in your article. I must say it was quite an eye-opening thing to hear. I agree almost entirely with the points you raise and I think I now finally understand Hitchcock’s quote about Vertigo being his “most personal film”.

    Strangely enough though this might lessen ones opinion of Hitchcock “The Man” it only strengthens my opinion of Hitchcock “The Filmmaker”. Woody Allen and Roman Polanski have made far worse acts against women and I never think less of them as filmmakers. Speaking as a man, the desire to “posses” woman is inherent in just about everyone of us. It is easily the biggest reason why “sex sells”. The fact that Hitchcock unabashedly displays this in his films make them all the more interesting and provocative. Again, thank you for the article I loved it.

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