All in the family

Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell recalls working with her father, Alfred, on "Strangers on a Train" and "Psycho."

Published August 13, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) was known as the master of suspense. But he should have been known as the father of suspense. He didn't merely master the movie thriller -- he just about invented it. Virtuosic in his use of counterpoint and rhythm, he made pictures that resembled mercurial pieces of music. Born on Aug. 13 a hundred years ago to a grocer in the East End of London, he became the quintessential international filmmaker. He began his career directing silent films in Munich for a British producer, and ended it on the lot at Universal Pictures. (He arrived in Hollywood in 1939, and became a U.S. citizen in 1955.) From deft English classics like "The Thirty-Nine Steps" and "The Lady Vanishes" to the mad American adventures of "North By Northwest" and "Psycho," Hitchcock kept upping the level of visceral excitement a film could deliver to an audience. He brought off violent spectacle with cunning and artistry -- often without showing a smidgen of gore. So he attracted all audiences, including aesthetes who would never have ventured into a Grand Guignol theater of blood.

When Hitchcock received his AFI Life Achievement Award in 1979, one Los Angeles TV commentator expressed shock that a man who devoted his professional career to depicting aberrant behavior had taken home an august "establishment" award. Of course, that glorious incongruity is what most fans enjoyed about the evening. Despite his other honors and success, Hitchcock, who never won an Oscar, was the least "respectable" of beloved directors.

British critic Raymond Durgnat sees the world of Hitchcock's English films as "that of [Graham] Greene -- of Orwell, with his vision of the semidetached houses as so many 'cells of fear.'" In his emotionally tumultuous, too-little-known British film, "Sabotage" -- which conveys the horror of terrorism with spellbinding intimacy -- he conjures a stifling lower-middle-class claustrophobia, then disrupts it with a bang.

The first American Hitchcock film to jump from keenly observed realistic settings to phantasmagoric murders was the droll and tingling "Shadow of a Doubt." In this precursor to David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," Hitchcock frames such an indelible and hilarious portrait of a complaisant California bourgeoisie that James Agee hailed "its clever observations of rabbity white-collar life" as "the best since W.C. Fields' "It's a Gift."" It was followed (and equaled or surpassed) by "Strangers on a Train," "Rear Window," "Vertigo" and of course "Psycho." These movies bring a stark, electrifying cackle -- a sense of inescapable, if not original, sin -- to the thriller-maker's eternal boast that things are not as they seem.

Hitchcock's mid-career milestone, "Notorious," a voluptuous espionage romance set in post-World War II South America, has a fearless, grown-up view of sexuality and of moral and amorous compromise that Hitchcock himself would never match. But a decade later, Hitchcock perfected a lighter style of international thriller in "To Catch a Thief" and "North By Northwest" -- films set in an upper-crust fantasy land, filled with courageous men and women who exchange suave, bitchy banter between showdowns and clinches. With apologies to James Bond, nobody did it better.

Hitchcock appealed to teenagers because his pictures rarely spouted the positive-minded cant of other movies of the '40s and the '50s. He may have gotten tired later in his career, but at least he didn't turn sentimental. "Psycho" told middle-class rebels that they were right not to share their parents' security -- even when they were in the shower.

So what was it like to be Patricia Hitchcock (now Pat Hitchcock O'Connell), the daughter of the father of suspense -- and not just the daughter, but also an actor with parts in three of his films and nine episodes of his TV show? And why should we be interested in the answers? Because a balance needs to be righted. Ever since psychohistory took over criticism and celebrity took over journalism, movie lovers have been too apt to presume that the dark strains of an artist's personality are more crucial to his genius than the ingenuity, craftsmanship and wit that give those strains form and fiber.

We've become too willing to believe that hidden obsessions can overwhelm an artist's working life. That would be disastrous for a movie director, who must operate like a master manipulator every day, hiding fights with the suits when he's with his cast and crew -- and fights with his cast and crew when he's with the suits. Repressed sexual demons may have driven Hitchcock to play Svengali to Grace Kelly (in the mid-'50s of "Dial M for Murder," "Rear Window" and "To Catch a Thief") and, catastrophically, to Tippi Hendren (in the mid-'60s of "The Birds" and "Marnie"). But that doesn't mean he wasn't, in general, a genial taskmaster -- and a considerate father.

Hitchcock's influential biographer, Donald Spoto, interprets his choice of his daughter for a small role in the minor but engaging "Stage Fright" as "a benevolent gesture not undiluted with a certain sarcasm." To Spoto, Hitchcock was taking a dig at her when he cast her as a jolly acting student named "Chubby Bannister." But Patricia Hitchcock has just the kind of unusual yet real presence in "Stage Fright" that her father (in his prime) loved to have in his supporting casts. I think calling her "Chubby Bannister" -- a girl, Hitchcock quipped, "you could always lean on" -- was a sign, not of mockery, but of identification on the part of a director who was, after all, more portly than his daughter and known for his reliability.

That thought was confirmed when I re-watched "Strangers on a Train," in which Patricia Hitchcock plays the critical role of hero Farley Granger's future sister-in-law. Of course, she is the comic relief in the tense, morbid tale of how Robert Walker, as Granger's malignant alter ego, murders Granger's estranged wife in hopes that Granger will commit a murder for him. But what's funny about her is her inveterate truth-telling and the way she stays rooted when Granger and her sister (his fiancee) drift into a whirlpool. "One doesn't always have to say what one thinks," says her fictional father, a senator (played by the redoubtable Leo G. Carroll); "Father, I am not a politician," she blithely replies. And in "Psycho," she brings a forthright comic touch to Janet Leigh's plain-Jane office-mate, who generously offers to share tranquilizers that her mother gave her for her wedding night.

Patricia Hitchcock enjoyed working for Jean Negulesco on "The Mudlark" and John Frankenheimer on TV's "Playhouse 90." But acting for her dad remained the high point of her acting career (which she interrupted to raise three daughters). When I spoke to her by phone a month ago, she was matter-of-fact, humorous and eager to jump to the chase. "As a girl, I knew I wanted to be an actress," she told me. "I had done two plays on Broadway by the time I was 16. There were only a few good drama schools in the U.S.; the best one was at the Catholic University in Washington, but that was for theologians, and to get in you needed credits for theology, which I didn't have. Kenneth MacGowan was just starting his school over at UCLA and I went over there and then went home to get the registration fee, which at that time was $12. My father said, 'Would you rather go to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London?' You bet I would."

Was she ever tempted to join the method acting schools that were taking root in New York? "I'm not an Actors Studio type of actor; I don't really think you have to feel anything to act it. As my father used to say, 'If it doesn't get on the screen, I don't care if you feel it or not.'" And did her enrollment in the Royal Academy give him the idea of setting part of "Stage Fright" there? "I don't know, but he wouldn't have done it if he didn't think it would be fun."

"Stage Fright" was the first feature Hitchcock made in Britain since he came to Hollywood to do "Rebecca." "We came over in '39 in March, and war was declared in September. My mother went back once to pick up her sister and her mother. My father went back once to do two short films supporting the Free French for Sidney Bernstein and the Ministry of Information in London: 'Bon Voyage' and 'Aventure Malgache.' After the war, his mother had died, his brother had died; I just had cousins there. But my mother and father had friends there; they got on. I went over in January of '48 to study at the Royal Academy, and things were very austere. It was hard to find meat, all sorts of things. I missed white bread the most, and when my parents asked what they should bring over, I told them to just bring me some white rolls off the ship."

She didn't know she was getting a walk-on in "Stage Fright" until her parents arrived. Because she bore a resemblance to the star, Jane Wyman (she played one of Wyman's acting-school chums), her father asked Pat if she'd mind doubling for her in the scenes that required "danger driving." She loved it. She also participated in the most complicated sequence in the film, a garden party for the Royal Academy. "My father hated location work, just hated it; he said it was a waste of time because you have to come back to the studio and re-dub, and it costs a fortune. But the garden party had to be outdoors, for at least part of it. He had everything so well planned. When he had a finished script he took a pad with three rectangles on it and drew every single scene in the picture and went over it again with the cinematographer. By the time he stepped on the set he knew what the movie was going to look like because he'd drawn it; it was not 'Let's try this, let's try that.'"

She stayed at the academy for the full two years, then appeared as a palace maid with Irene Dunne and Alec Guinness in "The Mudlark." Next came "Strangers on a Train." Spoto relates the story that Pat's agent called her to see if she'd formally audition for the part. She tells it differently. "My father was working on the script with Whitfield Cook, who had written the second play I did in New York. Casting me may have been Whit's idea. But my dad called because he knew I was going to go do rep in England. And he asked, would you rather come and do a part in the next picture? And I said sure." Just as she resembles Wyman in "Stage Fright," in "Strangers on a Train" she looks remarkably like Laura Elliott, who plays Farley Granger's wife -- the one Walker strangles. In one of the film's most startling scenes, that physical kinship nearly drives Walker to commit a second murder.

Psychobiographers to the contrary, Pat Hitchcock O'Connell finds the strangulation motif amusing, not unsettling. "Somebody said to me just a few months ago -- did you play both parts in 'Strangers on a Train'? I looked too young then -- even though I was 21, I've always looked so much younger -- but it would have been a great idea. Still, it comes across strongly anyway, it was part of the design of the whole thing." Was it freaky to be a surrogate strangulation victim? "Not at all. I enjoyed doing the part." But what about working with such an exacting father? "Before he shot he would go over a scene and explain what he wanted and then do it. Dad kept it very low-key. Working on his sets was so easy, because he knew what he wanted. He got it across to the actors; they either did it or they didn't do it. And if they didn't do it they knew he wasn't happy. He'd just go over and over and over until he got it. But we didn't have that problem."

That persisted even in the most complex scenes, like the tennis match that Granger races to complete in time to prevent Walker from framing him for his wife's murder. "We went out to some place out in L.A. where they had courts, and then did other parts down in studio with back projection." There were no surprises in the finished film: "If you read the script and knew what was going on, you knew what he was going to do, and you'd have to be pretty stupid to be surprised." On the other hand, Pat Hitchcock agrees that for all her father's wizardry, it was Walker's daring performance as a warped homosexual killer that "made the picture. I had known Walker since he first came out to Hollywood; so I was delighted to be working with him. He was such a sweet person, one of the nicest people I've ever known."

She continued to do theater and TV, and got married in New York about a year later to businessman Joseph E. O'Connell, the grandnephew of a renowned Boston cardinal. They lived in New York for a year, then moved to California, where Pat kept acting sporadically on TV. She worked on "Climax" and "Playhouse 90" -- live shows -- as well as "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." Her dad's shows "were easier" because "they were half-hours, and they were not live. He did get close to the TV crew, which is one of the reasons he used them for 'Psycho.' We had no clue that the movie was going to be the success it was. It didn't get good reviews, especially in New York, because the reviewers were used to seeing films in projection rooms, and he wouldn't let them see it that way. He made them go to the theater; and they had to be there on time or they wouldn't get in. Also, it was black and white, there was nothing glamorous about it, and he killed off the leading lady after the first couple of reels. But it wasn't seen as an experiment by any of us who worked on it. I was used to the TV show anyway."

Pat Hitchcock says she "would have played anything" for her dad after "Psycho," but "he would never cast anybody unless they were right for a part." Does this suggest that he practiced a shrewd variety of typecasting? "Sure." And does this fit in with his legendary remark that actors were cattle? "But he didn't say actors were cattle -- he said actors should be treated like cattle. That all started on a movie he made called 'Mr. and Mrs. Smith,' with Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery. He happened to say to Carole, who had a great sense of humor, 'Actors should be treated like cattle.' The next day she brought three calves on the set, one name Carole, one named Bob and one named Hitch. And that's how it started -- because he loved Carole Lombard's sense of humor."

In Pat's experience, her father "was patient with actors. His sets were very quiet; there was never any yelling. I did a bit in 'The Ten Commandments,' and there was quite a difference between his sets and Mr. DeMille's. My father believed that there should be no histrionics for the set, that it should all be saved for the screen. And most people loved working for him. You know, when it was first brought up that he introduce the TV shows, one of the producers, Norman Lloyd, said he'd never do it. But James Allardice brought the stuff he wrote to him, and he loved it. Oh, he had a great time with that stuff. It was so playful. When he was getting an honorary degree he said that the most important thing you can have in life is a sense of humor -- to be able to stand back during hard times and laugh."

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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