The master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic legacy is unparalleled. Over the course of his illustrious career that spanned more than 60 years, he made over 50 feature films, with many of those, including North by Northwest, Vertigo and Psycho, are now considered an indispensable part of filmmaking history. His time in the industry didn’t come without its own controversies, however, and was tarnished by several questionable decisions and archaic attitudes.
Whilst questions were raised about Alfred Hitchcock’s behaviour throughout his career, including claims of racial stereotyping in his 1944 film Lifeboat, it was his infamous attitude on the set of 1963s horror film The Birds that caused the most concern.
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s final feature films before his death in 1980, The Birds was a fantastical horror following a wealthy socialite who pursues a potential boyfriend to a small town in California where without warning birds of all kinds begin to brutally attack people. Starring newcomer Tippi Hedren in the lead role, the young actor was delighted to be cast as the protagonist in the films of one of the world’s most famous directors.
While she initially felt welcome on the set of the film, the relationship between Hedren and Hitchcock distorted and grew into something far more unsightly, with the actor becoming increasingly uncomfortable by his behaviour. This came to a head during the filming of The Birds’ final sequence in which her character is attacked by a flock of ravenous birds.
As Hedren recalls in an interview with The Inquirer, “There was a cage with four boxes of ravens, gulls and a few pigeons thrown in. Bird trainers with gauntlets up to their shoulders hurled birds, one after the other, at me for one week. As days went by, it just became worse and worse”.
Relentlessly pecking at her face to leave her with numerous nasty scars, the actor recalls, “It was a nightmare! I ended up in a doctor’s care for a week”, with the health professional finding her condition so bad that they exclaimed to Hitchcock, “What are you trying to do, kill her?”. Allegedly Alfred Hitchcock did nothing to alleviate her fear or apologise, with rumours suggesting that his apparent resentment of her came as a result of her constant rejection of his sexual advances.
Such is outlined in the autobiography, Tippi: A Memoir, in which the actor reveals how the director allegedly sexually assaulted her whilst on set of The Birds. Suspecting that the director was attempting to punish her for not submitting to his sexual advances, Hedren claimed that Hitchcock would “find some way to express his obsession with me, as if I owed it to him to reciprocate somehow”.
The actor even recalls a time when Hitchcock invited the actor to his office where “he suddenly grabbed me and put his hands on me. It was sexual, it was perverse and it was ugly,” she writes.
Whilst he may be responsible for some of cinema’s finest ever films, it seems as though the legacy of this great director may have to be questioned in a new light.