Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies

Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies

3.6 7
by Donald Spoto

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The inspiration behind BBC2's The Girl starring Toby Jones and Sienna Miller, Spellbound by Beauty examines Hitchcock's relationship with his leading ladies including Tippi Hendren and Grace Kelly. Hitchcock is also the subject of an upcoming film, Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren due for release in 2013.

Spellbound by Beauty


The inspiration behind BBC2's The Girl starring Toby Jones and Sienna Miller, Spellbound by Beauty examines Hitchcock's relationship with his leading ladies including Tippi Hendren and Grace Kelly. Hitchcock is also the subject of an upcoming film, Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren due for release in 2013.

Spellbound by Beauty examines Alfred Hitchcock's well known collaborations with the leading ladies of his day, and, in so doing, delves into his creative life and his uniquely curious professional and personal relationships. The result is a singular kind of life story - a book about film and film stars; business and power; sex and fantasy; romance and derailed psychology.

Drawing on explosive, never-before-published material and details gleaned through his friendship with Hitchcock, along with archival material and personal collections only recently made available, Donald Spoto casts a new light on this most famous of directors. He traces Hitchcock's professional and social rise and deals frankly with his strange marriage to Alma Reville, his distance from his daughter, Patricia, and his obsessive relationships with a number of his leading ladies from Grace Kelly and Kim Novak to Tippi Hedren.

Editorial Reviews

Janet Maslin
…a chronological litany of stories about Hitchcock's actresses…one of this book's odd virtues is Mr. Spoto's doggedness in tracking these actresses' later lives. While it may add little to an understanding of Hitchcock's art, the knowledge of where Nova Pilbeam ("The Man Who Knew Too Much," 1934) was living quietly in 2008 attests to Mr. Spoto's tenacity—and also makes a good story.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In this enthralling third installment of his Hitchcock trilogy (after The Dark Side of Genius and The Art of Alfred Hitchcock), Spoto paints a portrait of a man as talented as he was troubled. Spoto examines each film in terms of its leading lady, but focuses especially on the three cool blondes with whom Hitchcock was famously obsessed: Ingrid Bergman (Spellbound, Notorious and Under Capricorn), Grace Kelly (Dial "M" for Murder, Rear Window and To Catch a Thief) and Tippi Hedren (The Birds and Marnie). While Bergman never returned Hitchcock's romantic advances, the pair struck up a lasting friendship. With Kelly, Hitchcock felt he had molded the young actress into his ideal woman with just the right mix of elegance and sexuality. When Kelly left Hollywood, Hitchcock sought a replacement and found newcomer Tippi Hedren, whom he both fawned over and humiliated during their two films together. Relying on hours of personal interviews with both Hitchcock and his various players, Spoto shines an admiring yet unflinching light on one of the most celebrated directors in history. (Nov.)

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Library Journal

While this could have been a serious study of Hitchcock's obsessions and predilection for filming blondes, best-selling biographer Spoto offers only a few paragraphs on these subjects; the balance of his work chronicles Hitchcock's alleged sadistic treatment of actresses. Whether it's physical torture during filming or sexual harassment behind the scenes, Spoto relates every incident on a film-by-film basis, and his writing becomes repetitious if not tedious. He does a disservice to the master of suspense by ignoring his ability to get award-winning performances out of his stars and his success with bold and innovative cinematic techniques. In Spoto's 1983 The Dark Side of Genius, his meticulous analysis brings out the seldom-seen character of a complex filmmaker. Subsequently, there have been scholarly studies such as Tania Modleski's The Women Who Knew Too Much that provide an in-depth understanding of Hitchcock's misogyny. Unfortunately, this latest effort by Spoto is an unnecessary sequel to his earlier, accomplished work, although it may satisfy readers who have an appetite for scandalous anecdotes. An optional purchase for public libraries.
—Victor Or

Kirkus Reviews
Celebrity biographer Spoto settles scores, rehashes feuds and reevaluates reputations in his third addition to the Hitchcock shelf. The author launched his career with two major works on the director: The Art of Alfred Hitchcock (1976), a critical study, and The Dark Side of Genius (1983), a biography. This coda reconsiders the master of suspense against recollections that interviewees requested remain unpublished until they or Hitchcock died. Spoto frequently displays ill humor toward his sources speaking from beyond the grave. He is no longer spellbound, for example, by Joan Fontaine. In The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, he lauded her acting in Rebecca as "extraordinarily delicate and fragile." Now he finds it "a successful example of a one-note performance," makes a gratuitous reference to her failed marriages and unfavorably compares her acting to that of sister Olivia de Havilland, with whom Fontaine feuded for years. Spoto also snipes repeatedly at Patricia Hitchcock, a vocal critic of his biography of her father. He chides her as "acutely unaware of the constant connection that invariably must exist between the storyteller [in this case, Hitchcock] and his story," and then condescendingly terms her "denial" of this link as poignant. Balancing the negatives, Spoto delivers encomiums to Ingrid Bergman, Teresa Wright and Grace Kelly. The author remains steadfast in the belief that Hitchcock was a major filmmaker, but insists he was not the sole auteur of his films, praising the contributions of the director's collaborators. As for the dark side of Hitchcock's genius, Spoto paints it in even darker hues. Tippi Hedren recalls her discomfort with the director, to whom she was under exclusivecontract for seven years. Besides subjecting her to five days of physical and psychic harm in an attic setting for The Birds, Hitchcock stalked her and eventually demanded she grant him sexual favors, she claims. When Hedren refused, the director threatened to destroy her Hollywood career. Given its origins in material no one wanted published while they were alive, it's unsurprising that this is a thoroughly nasty reunion. Agent: Elaine Markson/Elaine Markson Agency
From the Publisher
“Mr. Spoto has enjoyed extraordinary access to Hitchcock’s players over a long period of time, and he has assembled a cavalcade of chatty firsthand impressions.”
The New York Times

“What was behind [Hitchcock’s] talent for turning perverse thematic elements such as voyeurism, bondage and murder fantasies into mainstream entertainment? According to Spellbound by Beauty…it was partly derived from a sexually repressed outcast’s Svengali-like compulsion to manipulate and mistreat a long line of unattainable icy blondes.”
USA Today

"Fascinating . . . probes an even darker side of Hitchcock."

"[Spoto] informs Spellbound by Beauty with his profound knowledge of his subject, years of sound reporting, highly polished prose, and sensible analysis."
Richmond Times-Dispatch

"Expert insights into Hitchcock’s films."
Oregonian (Portland)

"You will never look at a Hitchcock movie the same."
Tampa Tribune

“[F]ocuses on Hitchcock’s sometimes troubled, sometimes perverse, always manipulative relationships with his leading ladies….The chapters on his behavior during the filming of The Birds and Marnie are riveting and deeply troubling, revealing an artist at once losing his touch and losing touch with reality.”
Booklist, starred review

Praise for Donald Spoto
“I am gratified by what Donald Spoto says about my work, and I am impressed by the wit and grace of his writing.”
—Alfred Hitchcock

“Exceptionally thoughtful. Spoto’s total familiarity with the films is manifest throughout. He ably demonstrates that Hitchcock was not only a master of suspense but an artist of the first rank as well.”
Library Journal

“Combines engaging analysis with wit and scholarship.”
Chicago Sun-Times

“Absolutely compulsory reading. A serious and intelligent account, both credible and reasonable.”
New York Times

“A vivid and perceptive portrait. Hitchcock has been well served by a knowledgeable and revealing biography.”

“With unblinking objectivity and insight, Spoto gives a balanced account of a man who shaped his fears and repressions into a powerful and popular art.”

“Sensational in its revelations—but at the same time, a biography of unassailable integrity. I could not put it down.”
—Gregory Peck

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Chapter One  
Love in Handcuffs (1920-1926)  

For five years beginning in 1920, when he was twenty-one, Alfred Hitchcock worked in London for Famous Players-Lasky, the British production branch of Hollywood's Paramount Pictures. Most of the senior technical staff were Americans, imported to work on the two small stages, once a power station in the borough of Islington.  

Hitchcock's first job, illustrating the title cards of silent movies, gave him access to various jobs on an ad hoc basis: designer for this picture, or art director, co-writer or production manager for that one. Unlike the job specialization in the American movie industry, laborers hired by English studios were encouraged to perform multiple tasks, working wher-ever their talents could be exploited-hence the multitalented young Hitchcock became a jack-of-all-work on at least eighteen British silent movies. "All my early training was by Americans," he said years later, "and it was far superior to the British."  

In 1923, he was still putting in long hours and learning new, up-to-date production methods. That year, producer Michael Balcon took over the studio when Paramount withdrew; Balcon's goal was to sponsor entertainment for an international (especially an American) audience. Accordingly, Balcon had brought over Hollywood's Betty Compson to star in a picture called Woman to Woman, on which Hitchcock worked, as he said, as "general factotum. I wrote the script. I designed the sets, and I managed the production. It was the first film that I had really got my hands onto."

It was also the first of five films on which he worked for the studio's leading director, Graham Cutts, with whom he had an increasingly hostile relationship. The trouble was caused by Cutts's indiscreet extramarital liaisons, which Hitchcock considered unprofessional, as they invariably necessitated rearrangement of the production schedule. Additionally, Hitchcock may have envied Cutts his easy way with the ladies; in any case, he certainly wanted to supplant Cutts and to secure additional credits, the better to impress Balcon. "I was quite dogmatic," he said. "I would build a set and say to the director, 'Here's where it's shot from!' "  

Cutts resented Hitchcock's assertive style and said so, but Balcon was impressed with the younger man's talent and drive-especially after Cutts returned to London in early 1925, after filming The Blackguard in Berlin. While in Germany, Hitchcock had expeditiously resolved many logistical problems caused by Cutts's ineffective balancing act of work, wife and women on the side. Soon after, Balcon asked Hitchcock to direct a motion picture.  

"I had no intention of becoming a film director," Hitchcock always said of this time in his career. "I was very happy doing the scripts and the art direction. I hadn't thought of myself as a director"-which was evidently not the case. Working on productions six days weekly for almost five years, he was clearly keen for promotion: he was writing scripts, designing sets, working with editors, and was, to his chagrin, paid miserably in comparison with established directors. Eager to perform any task on a picture by dispatching quickly and effectively every challenging aspect of production, Hitchcock indeed, according to Balcon, "wanted to be a director, but it was not easy to get a young man launched in so important a job," because financiers and distributors were wary of promoting an assistant.  

And so Balcon turned to his foreign partners: "I had to arrange to have [Hitchcock direct his first two pictures] in Germany because of the resistance to his becoming a director" in London. With the screenwriter Eliot Stannard, the assistant director Alma Reville, and the cinematographer Gaetano di Ventimiglia, Hitchcock headed for exterior location shooting in northern Italy and then for studio work in Munich, where they were joined by a crew of international technicians and co-producers. Hitchcock absorbed enough rudimentary German to communicate his wishes.  

His assignment was The Pleasure Garden, based on an unexceptional but once popular novel about two London showgirls, their shifting fidelities to the difficult men in their lives, and their dangerous sojourn in the tropics-all of it wrapped up in a dénouement of madness and murder. The principal characters were portrayed by American stars acting in Germany and Italy as if the settings were London and the Far East. Hitchcock had the task of making all this appear realistic and emotionally credible, and for the most part, he succeeded admirably.  

Balcon imported a pair of Hollywood's top glamour girls, Virginia Valli and Carmelita Geraghty. Virginia had already appeared in forty-seven pictures under the direction of John Ford, King Vidor and others. She wanted to hear what Hitchcock planned and how she would look in the finished film. Carmelita had equivalent concerns.  

"I was in a cold sweat," Hitchcock admitted later. "I wanted to disguise the fact that this was my first directorial effort. I dreaded to think what [Virginia Valli], an established Hollywood star, would say if she discovered that she had been brought all the way over to Europe to be directed by a beginner. I was terrified at giving her instructions. I've no idea how many times I asked my future wife [Alma Reville] if I was doing the right thing. She, sweet soul, gave me courage by swearing I was doing marvelously."  

So began a historic collaboration. Alma Reville had a keen eye, she knew how stories should be structured and rendered visually, she had worked as an editor and she was not hesitant to tell Hitchcock just what she thought. Tiny and titian-haired, she gave a first impression of shy gentility, but the real Alma Reville was an acutely intelligent, self-assured woman of steely resolve, quite different from the insecure Hitchcock, who was ever self-conscious about his appearance, his tastes and his modest Cockney background. Whenever a tough decision had to be made in business or private life, Alma acted fearlessly.  

Hitchcock admitted his fears, which were linked to a childhood sense of insecurity. "Fear? It has influenced my life and my career, and I've known it since my childhood. I remember when I was five or six. It was a Sunday evening, the only time my parents did not have to work. They put me to bed and went to Hyde Park for a stroll"-then a ninety-minute tram and train ride from the Hitchcock home. "They were sure I would be asleep until their return. But I woke up, called out, and no one answered. Nothing but night all around me. Shaking, I got up, wandered around the empty, dark house and, finally arriving in the kitchen, found a piece of cold meat which I ate while drying my tears."

Hitchcock was uncomfortable around his two American stars, but he knew how much he needed them. He also resented their enormous salaries, and his budget forestalled their expectations of the kind of Hollywood-style luxury they had there. "Valli was big stuff and knew it," according to Hitchcock. "She expected a brass band. She expected the red carpet. But she didn't get them. Valli was peeved, but she turned out to be sweet enough."  

Filming began in June 1925 in northern Italy, before moving to the studio interiors in Munich, which were suffocatingly hot that summer, for the ceilings were glass and air-conditioning was unknown. Everything seemed to go wrong: there were numerous delays from uncooperative extra players, and then a trained dog simply wandered off and his replacement insistently licked off the makeup applied to him to replicate his predecessor. After that, a woman hired to play a native girl arrived on the day of her swimming scene and promptly announced that her monthly period would prevent her going into the water.  

This bit of news, Hitchcock claimed, was an educational experience for him. He insisted that he had never heard of the menstrual cycle because it had not been included in his schoolboy education-nor, one might add, had production design or scriptwriting. But like his assertion that he had no thought of becoming a director, this statement of ignorance simply cannot be taken at face value. He was twenty-six, had an older sister and brother, certainly must have noticed discreet advertisements for feminine hygiene products and had worked at a movie studio during the freewheeling 1920s-not generally a place and time of polite discourse. Sexually inexperienced though he claims to have been, he was not a backward, preadolescent country boy from an earlier century. Ordinary curiosity surely must have supplemented his formal education.  

But word circulated that Hitchcock was an unsophisticated innocent, which (as he may have intended) evoked the benignly maternal, protective reactions of Valli and Geraghty and much improved both the tone of the production and their pliancy in his hands. Thus, he won them over not by exhibiting his sophistication, but by feigning ignorance. He employed, in other words, whatever it took to achieve the desired effect-including his demand that Virginia Valli wear a blond wig for her role.  

When Balcon arrived in Munich to have a look at Hitchcock's first cut of the picture, he agreed with the director that rearrangements were called for, but for marketing purposes, he also said he liked the American look of the picture. The Pleasure Garden revealed, too, Hitchcock's skillful use of hallucinatory cinematic techniques (dissolves and double printing, for example)-and, for commercial appeal, the emphasis on fast-paced action alternating with scenes of violence and boudoir sex.  

The final form of The Pleasure Garden contains several elements that would intrigue Hitchcock throughout his career: the theatrical setting (which recurs in The Ring, Murder!, The 39 Steps, Sabotage, Young and Innocent, Saboteur, Stage Fright, North by Northwest and Torn Curtain); the motif of voyeurism (especially in Rear Window and Psycho); the experience of emotional breakdown (in, for example, Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, Under Capricorn, Stage Fright, the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds and Marnie); and the psychological torture and physical pain inflicted on women by violent men (which runs from Blackmail through Family Plot). The last element is not peculiar to Hitchcock's entertainments, of course: the damsel in distress is virtually an ancient archetype, long a staple of literature, poetry, theater, opera and movies. But Hitchcock showed the world, in stark closeup, that misogyny was part of a pandemic social pathology. He was neither moralist nor preacher, but his work consistently reveals that the fine arts of human exploitation and cruelty are symptoms of a deep fissure in the human spirit.  

The Pleasure Garden opens with a close shot of women's legs, hastening down a spiral staircase toward the stage of the eponymous theater, where the women dance with wild abandon typical of the Jazz Age; the movement is so animated that this silent film suddenly becomes a kind of vivid flipbook. Hitchcock then shows the men in the audience, formally dressed and leering as they gaze at the dancers through their opera glasses. These will become mainstream themes and images for Hitchcock-characters in the world of make-believe drawn into bizarre real-life dramas; voyeurism; the camera observing an observer; the rapid transitions from the watcher to the watched; the dizzying staircase-and mischievous humor. "What every chorus girl knows," announces a title card-and the movie then shows a woman washing her stockings in a basin. Hitchcock's bedroom scenes occur later in the movie, and there is nothing coy, bashful or boyish about them.  

Life within and outside this pleasure garden, from London's Piccadilly to the tropics, is a perilous paradise-thus the ominous snake entwined around a tree on the title card designs Hitchcock devised, adding another layer of meaning to the film's title. The chase and nick-of-time rescue at the finale reveal his familiarity with filmmakers such as D. W. Griffith, and Hitchcock was certainly inspired by Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton as much as by Germans such as F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, whom he had met in Berlin. One stylistic conceit particularly marked the Hitchcock style from 1925 forward: characters often gaze directly at the camera, thus making the audience a corresponding player, a participant in the drama.  

Hitchcock boldly added his initials (and sometimes his full signature) to the intertitle designs. In this regard, he was again taking a page from Chaplin and Griffith, who were among the first to understand that the marketing of their own names was as critical as the selling of the properties or presenting an attractive leading lady. "Actors come and go," Hitchcock told his colleagues at London's Film Society that year, "but the name of the director should stay clearly in the mind of the audiences." That attitude led to his cameo appearances in his films: he became the artist signing his canvas, reminding viewers that this was an Alfred J. Hitchcock production.  

When Balcon screened The Pleasure Garden in London for the press, journalists were enthusiastic-"a powerful and interesting story [that] promises well for Hitchcock's future efforts," proclaimed the trade journal Bioscope on March 25, 1926. But the financiers working with Balcon would not distribute the picture, claiming that its content and style would alienate British audiences accustomed to more straightforward and less visually inventive movies. Hence Balcon decided to shelve The Pleasure Garden for a while-but he had not lost faith in Hitchcock, to whom he gave another crack at directing. (Later, American journalists were scathing, calling the picture "sappy" and "a Wiener schnitzel," and banishing it straightaway.)  

As for Virginia Valli and Carmelita Geraghty, they apparently never spoke on the record about Hitchcock, even after his international fame was secure. That was perhaps due to the dramatic changes in their lives, which led them to reject all later requests for interviews about their days as movie stars. Carmelita worked in an additional fifty-three pictures during the next decade, but then, at thirty-four, she retired and became a successful professional artist whose paintings were sold at galleries across America; she died in 1966.  

Virginia turned her back on Hollywood after appearing in eighteen more movies. Real-life romance replaced the imaginary sort when she met the dashing actor Charles Farrell, whom she married in 1931, when she was thirty-three. For the next thirty-seven years, until her death in 1968, she lived more happily than any heroine she portrayed. For her as for Carmelita, glamour-girl vanity was no longer important.  

On his side, Hitchcock referred to his first leading ladies only to cite the costs of their excess personal baggage and their refusal to eat the food served on European trains.  

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

Donald Spoto was born near New York City in 1941 and received his PhD degree from Fordham University in 1970. He is the author of 27 books, including internationally bestselling biographies of Alfred Hitchcock, Tennessee Williams, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe and Ingrid Bergman. He is married to the Danish school administrator and artist Ole Flemming Larsen. They live in a quiet village an hour's drive from Copenhagen.

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Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author put in too much detail about films, sets, designs, etc. The personal side could have been expounded more fully and would have been a more interesting read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was just an ok book. Something to fill in the time with.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
emmi331 More than 1 year ago
Who doesn't love an Alfred Hitchcock movie? His unique style of directing thrillers, mysteries, and character studies has enthralled millions worldwide. But there was a darker side of A.H., one that many of his leading ladies came to dread. The director was extremely possessive, and was obsessed by many of the beautiful women he directed. His behavior often amounted to sexual harrassment so grievous that today he'd find himself facing charges in court. Tippi Hedren's experience was particularly harrowing when she worked with him in "The Birds" and "Marnie" - he made the actress's career but almost broke her spirit. Told in a linear fashion, starting with his earliest films, the book discusses each film and how he related to the leading lady - also fascinating are the follow-up stories for the women's lives and careers.
edwPA More than 1 year ago
Great read. What a complexperson Hitchcock was