Alfred Hitchcock, who was born in Leytsonstone, London, on August 13, 1899, was celebrated throughout the world as a genius. Classics such as “Rear Window,” “Vertigo” and “Psycho” have made him one of the most popular and celebrated of all film makers. He was also one of the 20th-century’s most enthusiastic practitioners of the creepy and sometimes warped practical joke.
Hitchcock, who died at the age of 80 on April 29 1980, admitted to Francois Truffaut in 1966 that “I do have a weakness for practical jokes and have played quite a few in my time.” Alfred Joseph Hitchcock’s pranks varied from ostensively harmless japes, through mind games, and on to sadistic humiliation. Some pranks were simply amusing. Hitchcock would often enlist a colleague to whom he would tell a tantalizing story in a loud voice while they were in a packed elevator. He would perfectly time his exit just before the punch line and then bow politely to the eavesdropping, frustrated passengers.
His targets were often people he had privately identified as “phonies” and “big heads.” Pompous guests would be invited to dinner parties where he would slip whoopee cushions on to their chairs before they sat down. Sometimes, the food would be served in the wrong order,starting with dessert. At one lavish meal, guests were disturbed to find all the food laced with coloring. They found it hard to eat blue soup, blue trout, and even blue peaches and ice cream. Hitchcock was fascinated to see how they would react.
Actresses were often the target of his “jokes.” When one unsuspectingly revealed her fear of fire to Hitchcock, he later played an elaborate trick on her, getting a technician to pump smoke into a telephone box after the door had been surreptitiously locked.
All sorts of theories have been aired to explain his behavior. Some suggest he was damaged as a child when – at about the age of five – he was sent by his father William (a greengrocer) with a note to a local police chief, who locked the little boy in a cell. After about 10 minutes, the policeman released Hitchcock, saying: “That’s what we do to naughty boys.” Hitchcock later said he could never forget the fear of such a humiliation.
There was certainly an element of bullying. Assistant cameraman Alfred Roome had been the target of one of his jokes but exacted revenge by putting a fake smoke bomb under Hitchcock’s car. “You never saw a fat man get out of a car quicker,” he recalled. “Hitch never tried anything on me again. He respected you if you hit back. If you didn’t, he’d have another go.”
But what a lady killer. There he is, lurking with rotund grandeur at the very forefront of film greatness. There are lots of reasons to love Hitchcock, of course: the style, the guile, the pace, the pitch. Hitch – as he wanted to be called – knew how to frame a shot. But when it came to the ladies, it’s slim pickings. Indeed, that is literally what his women do. We’ve seen Doris Day, Tippi Hedren, Janet Leigh, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, and Eva Marie Saint pick their way through a range of awful experiences and deceitful pathologies so extreme you’d be howling with laughter, were the art of cinema not so very serious. There’s the vamp, the tramp, the snitch, the witch, the slink, the double-crosser and, best of all, the demon mommy. Don’t worry, they all get punished in the end.
Perhaps he was just an unaccountably strange man. It’s telling that he was a fan of black satirical cartoonist Charles Addams – another man who liked practical jokes – and Hitchcock himself called it the “humor of the macabre.” He believed it was simply a typically London form of humor, and used to say as an example: “It’s like the joke about the man who was being led to the gallows, which was flimsily constructed, and he asked in some alarm, ‘I say, is that thing safe?’”
He was never really pressed in interviews about his behavior. Asked on a TV interview once in 1972 about his pranks, the then 72-year-old Hitchcock became rather defensive, saying that he had never meant to “harm” or “denigrate” anyone. His wife Alma (with whom he had a long but mostly celibate marriage) admitted his practical jokes made her “apprehensive.”
His ill-treatment of Tippi Hedren during the filming of “The Birds” is well documented – using live birds to attack her, and himself behaving like a sexual predator – but he extended the odd behavior to Hedren’s at-the-time six-year-old daughter and future actress, Melanie Griffith. He gave as a gift a painfully accurate wax doll figure of her mother in a miniature coffin, dressed in the same costume she wore in “The Birds.” Years later, a grown-up Griffith said of Hitchcock: “He was a mother–, and you can quote me.”
For a good look at Alfred Hitchcock’s life and work, ZootScoop recommends the following books:
“Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light”
by Patrick McGilligan
“The Alfred Hitchcock Story”
by Ken Mogg
“Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock”
by John Russell Taylor
by François Truffaut
“Spellbound in Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies”
by Donald Spoto
… and the record album, “Alfred Hitchcock – Music to be Murdered By”