Much has been written about Alfred Hitchcock’s relationships as a director with his leading women, and rightly so. I’d like to go into that at some point, but I think I would have to hold advanced degrees in psychology and feminist studies before I was fully confident I could take on that topic with any surety. (From what I’ve read about Hitchcock’s relationships with his leading ladies, however, it probably could be summarized with one word—weird.)
So, let’s look today at a topic I’m much more equipped to discuss in a meaningful way—Hitchcock and his leading men. With 61 years under my belt as a man, I feel I’m on terra firma discussing this topic. Hitchcock’s leading men are invariably urbane, sophisticated, well-dressed, and handsome. They are generally unmarried, and find themselves caught up in a web of intrigue, menace, and deceit they can neither understand nor control. They are usually wrongfully accused, frequently have mother issues, and are wary of the police or authority figures of all types.
I’m guessing that unless you’ve already seen this movie, you’ve never heard of Robert Donat. Donat was quite the leading man in his day. In 1939, for instance, he won the Academy Award for his leading role in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, beating out—get this—Clark Gable (Gone With the Wind), Laurence Olivier (Wuthering Heights), James Stewart (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and Mickey Rooney (Babes in Arms). Not bad, huh? The 39 Steps is flat-out great. One of Hitchcock’s finest, it’s about an innocent man who gets caught up in a spy ring in pre-war Britain. It’s witty, suspenseful and fun. Don’t miss this one.
If you’re looking for an eerie and relentless psychodrama (and you don’t want to spend an afternoon with me shopping for used dress shirts with French cuffs at thrift stores in San Francisco), you have got to check out this movie. This was Hitchcock’s first American film, and it won Best Picture. Olivier is fantastic as the brooding widower Maxim de Winter, who can’t seem to get over the death of his first wife, Rebecca. This is despite the fact that he has remarried to Joan Fontaine, who is stunningly beautiful in this movie. Judith Anderson as Maxim’s evil housemistress, Mrs. Danvers, is, as they say in 8th grade classrooms across America, “super creepy.”
In a flip-flop of the usual positioning, the leading man here is…well, if you’ve never seen this excellent thriller I won’t say anything more, except: What have you been waiting for?! This is one of Hitchcock’s most relentlessly suspenseful movies. As an actor, Joseph Cotten has been a bit forgotten lately. He appeared in Orson Welles’ two best movies, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, and frequently plays the character trying to understand the web into which he has stumbled, and now finds himself trapped. Cotten was particularly masterful in this type of role in The Third Man, one of the great noir films of all time. The screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt is by Thornton Wilder (of Our Town fame) as well as Sally Benson (whose autobiographical short story collection, Meet Me in St. Louis, was turned into a wonderful MGM musical) and Alma Reville, who was married to Hitchcock himself, which can’t have been an easy job.
Two complete strangers meet on a train. One (Farley Granger) complains bitterly about his fiancé and the other (Robert Walker) about his mother. The latter proposes that they each kill the other’s troublesome woman. Why not? It’s the perfect crime! Granger laughs off the proposal. Big mistake. Unsettling psychological and murderous hijinks ensue. Granger is perfect as a guy in way over his head.
I remember watching this movie on TV with my mom and her raving about how scary it was. I was blasé until Cary Grant gets off a bus in the middle of nowhere and is immediately chased by a murderous crop duster. I was completely terrified. Grant is perfect in this remarkably witty and clever thriller that ends up on the top of Mt. Rushmore, and Eva Marie Saint is about as sexy as a woman can get. Screenplay by Ernst Lehman, who was nominated for six Academy Awards, including one for this film, but unfortunately never took one home. Included in his oeuvre are screenplays for The Sound of Music, West Side Story, Hello Dolly!, Sabrina, and The Sweet Smell of Success. But not a single Oscar. Now that was the real crime.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times is awaiting publication.