The Women Behind Hitchcock

The Daily — Mar 4, 2020
Joan Harrison

Accepting a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute in 1979, the year before he died, Alfred Hitchcock said that, rather than rattle off the names of the thousands of people he had worked with and would like to thank, he’d narrow his list down to just “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.” Starting today, a thirty-one-film series at New York’s Film Forum will celebrate the under-recognized work of Reville and another of Hitch’s vital collaborators, the producer and screenwriter Joan Harrison.

Three of these screenings will be introduced by Christina Lane, the author of Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, the Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock. Reviewing the new book for Newsday, Gerald Bartell notes that Lane “claims Harrison is ‘one of the last great untold stories of the classical Hollywood era.’ Lane’s keenly observed and illuminating biography backs that assertion.” Harrison was only fifteen when she began seeing her film reviews published in English newspapers. At twenty-six, having studied at the Sorbonne, and then Oxford, she answered an ad Hitchcock had placed for an assistant. The interview went well, and in 1933, she joined the young director at the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation.

Reville first worked with Hitchcock on Woman to Woman (1923); she was the editor and he was the feature’s writer, art director, and assistant director. They married in 1926. In the late 1930s, Harrison “learned from Alma and Hitch the unique notation system that the director employed to translate the pictures that appeared in his mind onto the page,” writes Lane in one of the illuminating posts at her blog. “It was a set of private codes devised by the couple as they came up through the ranks, a way of communicating words and images shared by very few.” The couple was tight. “As many Hitchcock collaborators can attest,” writes Lane, “he would often address a difficult problem by saying, ‘I’ll discuss this with the Madame,’ alluding to the advisory power that Mrs. Hitchcock held.”

Though she worked closely with Hitchcock on The Lady Vanishes (1938), Harrison earned her first screenwriting credit, shared with Reville and two other writers, with Jamaica Inn (1939). When Hitchcock, having signed a seven-year contract with producer David O. Selznick, moved his family to Hollywood in March 1939, he took Harrison with them. By this point, Harrison had already spent half a year working on an adaptation of a best-selling gothic novel by Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca. As Lane points out, Harrison “knew her target audience—young literary-minded women with a bent toward mystery and true crime—because she identified with them.” As cowriter of the screenplay, she was nominated for an Oscar, and a second nomination followed for Foreign Correspondent (1940).

Reviewing Phantom Lady for the Christian Science Monitor, Peter Tonguette notes that Lane “does not gloss over what can only be described as an at-times toxic work environment. Hitchcock could behave boorishly towards Harrison, notably during an incident in which he read off-color passages from James Joyce’s novel Ulysses with the intention of breaking through her seemingly steely demeanor. Lane makes no excuses, writing, ‘His orchestration served no apparent purpose but to provoke a one-sided emotional striptease, intended for his erotic gratification.’”

In the mid-1940s, Harrison began writing and producing for other directors, and she seemed particularly drawn to film noir. Film Forum will be screening the movie that gives Lane’s book its title, Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944). Harrison reunited with Reville and Hitchcock when she began coproducing the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents with Norman Lloyd in the late 1950s. This is the show that would flesh out the persona of the Master of Suspense as a dour yet endearing host, a sort of slow-motion stand-up comedian for whom the punchline of every joke was murder.

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