‘I’m sure that’s the way Hitchcock thought,’ says Patrick McGilligan, who knew Hitchcock and wrote a definitive biography of the man. ‘Her final word on editing was the final word on editing.’
Few beyond film historians and the notoriously tight-knit Hitchcock inner circle are aware of Mrs Hitchcock’s role in his 50-year career.
Alma Reville, as she called herself even after they wed, has 19 credits – from assistant director to scriptwriter – in Hitchcock-directed pictures, and several on non-Hitchcock films.
More than that, she was his constant collaborator and sounding-board.
The Hitchcocks on location for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955) (REX FEATURES)
‘I hadn’t realised what an important figure Alma was in the creation of Hitchcock’s movies,’ says Mirren. ‘She was very happy to be in the shadows. But they had an incredibly close and creative relationship on every level.’
Stephen Rebello, on whose book Hitchcock is based, gives me two examples of her contribution to Psycho alone.
‘Hitchcock wanted no music in the shower scene [in which the heroine, Janet Leigh, is stabbed to death]. He just wanted the screams of Janet Leigh and the sound of the water running. He was adamant about it.’
Meanwhile, the composer Bernard Herrmann had created the now-legendary score of screaming strings for the scene – which Reville thought was rather good.
‘Hitch and Bernie were at loggerheads. Alma was extremely diplomatic, seductive and charming, and you’d want to please her because she was so smart.
‘Alma persuaded Hitchcock to listen to what Herrmann was doing with that sequence, not just to reject it out of hand.
‘She really had a major impact on the film, by just persuading Hitch to back off from his own ego and listen to the idea of somebody else. In this case, a brilliant idea.’
And she saved Psycho from the ultimate goof by spotting Leigh swallowing while lying ‘dead’ on the floor.
‘We must have run that sequence back and forth a couple of hundred times – we completely missed it,’ says Psycho’s script supervisor, Marshall Schlom.
Outraged by the lack of recognition for Reville on her death in 1982, the film critic Charles Champlin wrote an article in the Los Angeles Timesentitled ‘Alma Reville Hitchcock – The Unsung Partner’.
‘The Hitchcock touch has four hands,’ he wrote. ‘And two of them are Alma’s.’
Reville and Hitchcock at work (1963) (PICTORIAL PRESS)
Somehow, in the subsequent retellings of the Hitchcock story, Reville has been pushed to the edge of the frame. Or, worse, been recast as an enabler of Hitchcock’s obsessive Pygmalion-like impulses towards his leading ladies.
A much-repeated anecdote – one that is reproduced in the BBC’s recent Hitchcock drama, The Girl – concerns Tippi Hedren, the star of The Birds.
‘He was developing this obsession for me and I began to feel very uncomfortable,’ Hedren told the writer Donald Spoto, in 2007. ‘He tried to control everything – what I wore and ate and drank.’
Spoto, whose biography of Hitchcock, The Dark Side of Genius, is behind the popular notion of the director as a socially inept, sadistic voyeur, tells me, ‘Tippi said to her, “Alma, you could stop this with a word. Why don’t you?”
‘And Alma just looked at Tippi and walked away.’
Does Spoto believe Reville really could have stopped it? ‘Oh, absolutely. Hitchcock was terrified of her.’
To illustrate this, Spoto tells me a story: he and Hitchcock were enjoying a private screening of a film in Los Angeles in 1976.
‘All of a sudden the telephone rings. Hitchcock picked it up – only for about five seconds – then he put the phone down and drew himself out of his chair and said, “I have to go home immediately. Madame wants me at home.”
‘He left at once. You see, when she said, “Come home,” he went home.’
Hitchcock’s granddaughter, Mary Stone, has attested to her grandmother’s formidable personality.
‘She was an extremely strong and proud woman,’ she has said. ‘I adored her, and occasionally feared her.’
When Stone was caught smoking at the Hitchcock home, ‘My parents gave me the worst possible punishment – I had to tell my grandmother what I had done.’
Helen Mirren as Alma Reville and Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh in Hitchcock(ALAMY)
‘Hitchcock himself said that he feared Alma’s opinion,’ McGilligan tells me. ‘But you have to understand that he said almost everything with humour.
‘Does that mean he thought of her as a mother who was going to rap him on the knuckles? No. He feared her opinion because he respected it. If she said, “I don’t like it,” that was the worst thing he could hear.’
But if a cast or crew member was told, ‘Alma loves it,’ it was the highest compliment they could hope for.
Reville was working for Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount) at Islington Studios in London when she met Hitchcock.
It was 1921 and, though they were both 22, she already had several years’ experience as a ‘cutter’ and continuity girl under her belt whereas Hitchcock was on his first job.
She was editor on the silent picture Appearances; Hitchcock was designing dialogue cards for the film.
They worked in the same studios for two years, during which time the red-haired Reville claimed she wasn’t aware of him even glancing at her. In later life, he hinted that he’d felt he couldn’t approach her until he held a better position.
Then, in 1923, she received a phone-call from Hitchcock inviting her to a meeting. Hitchcock had been made assistant director on Woman to Woman and he needed an editor. Would she join the crew?
According to their daughter, Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell, ‘The interview was brief, for Alma politely informed her future husband that the salary he was offering was inadequate.’
She left the room only to find Hitchcock racing down the corridor after her. He made her a better offer, and a partnership that would last half a century was born.
Until the age of 15, Reville lived in Nottingham where her parents worked in lace production. When they moved to London her father took a job in the costume department of Twickenham Studios.
Spellbound, Reville would cycle over after school to watch the actors at work. At 16 she got a position in the ‘cutting room’ where she would cut and glue pieces of film together, transforming scores of separate scenes into a seamless story.
She climbed the ranks so quickly that articles about her appeared in the press.
In 1925, the year Hitchcock’s directorial debut, The Pleasure Garden, was released with Reville as assistant director, The Picturegoer ran a piece headlined, ‘Alma in Wonderland – An interesting article, proving that a woman’s place is not always the home.’
They married a year later (Hitchcock proposed at sea during a storm) and over the next decade and a half worked together on classics such as The 39 Steps, Suspicion and Shadow of a Doubt.
Just a regular day in the Hitchcock household… Reville at home in 1974 (Philippe Halsman/Magnum)
Alma Reville was tiny and girlish. Photographs of her relaxing in her California homes in middle age show her reading with knees drawn up to her chest like a child, hair swept off her high forehead, horn-rimmed spectacles resting on her nose.
Like Hitchcock, she was always impeccably dressed with an enviable wardrobe custom-made by Edith Head. But unlike her ingeniously self-promoting husband (whom his daughter called ‘a born celebrity’), Reville shied away from the limelight.
After the family’s move to America in 1939, Reville’s name appeared in credits less and less often.
Rebello wonders if her confidence was shaken after some badly received screenplays or perhaps she was just falling into the more traditional role of a supportive wife and mother.
What is certain is that she remained Hitchcock’s closest and constant collaborator.
‘She would still occasionally be present on set,’ remembers their daughter in her book, Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man, ‘but it was in the evening that my parents would discuss the current film.’
Reville would read and rewrite scripts, give her opinion on casting – ‘If she didn’t like an actor, they wouldn’t get the film,’ says Rebello – and watch the first cut of a film with her husband.
‘She would comment when she thought something was off, and she was usually right. Had she been born a man, or had she had a different nature,’ continues Rebello, ‘she would have been a director herself.’
Hitchcock’s film sets were famously orderly places. He was a man of routine – Reville said he hated suspense in real life – and every day at five o’clock he’d call ‘cut’ and be chauffeured home for dinner with his wife.
On Thursdays, they’d go to their favourite restaurant, Chasen’s, where they’d order steak for their adored dogs and where Alma was often overheard urging her portly husband to forgo the second pudding.
They weren’t Hollywood’s most sociable couple but they loved to have small dinner parties, and Reville’s cooking was legendary.
Their daughter’s book contains pages of handwritten menus: dinner for Tippi Hedren’s birthday; dinner with Sean Connery (they had caviar with vodka followed by saddle of lamb).
Film and food is where the passion in the Hitchcock marriage lay. It was a sexless relationship. Hitchcock was open about his impotence and often quipped that they’d only had sex once, when they’d conceived Patricia.
In Hitchcock, Reville comes perilously close to having an affair with the bisexual writer Whitfield Cook. McGilligan has read Cook’s journals and says he and Reville ‘certainly’ had a romantic relationship, possibly a sexual one.
There is a scene in the film that is lifted straight from Cook’s journal, in which the pair are about to kiss when a phone-call from Hitchcock interrupts them.
As for Hitchcock, much has been written about his hopeless longing for the cool blondes in his films.
‘I think that’s quite normal for a director,’ says McGilligan. ‘Was Alma upset by it? I doubt it. She was an utter professional. Did she occasionally roll her eyes as Helen Mirren does in the film? Maybe.’
Remarkably, Hitchcock never won an Oscar for his directing. But, at 79, he did receive the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
When he accepted it, he said, ‘I beg to mention by name only four people who have given me the most affection, appreciation, encouragement and constant collaboration.
‘The first of the four is a film editor, the second is a scriptwriter, the third is the mother of my daughter, Pat, and the fourth is as fine a cook as ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen. And their names are Alma Reville.’