Considering the contribution made
by Alma Reville to filmmaking –
with and without Hitchcock
By Jo Botting
When Alma Reville, wife of Alfred Hitchcock, died in 1982, Charles Champlin wrote in the LA Times that “the Hitchcock touch had four hands and two of them were Alma’s.” This time last year, two contrasting portrayals of Reville attempted to define their relationship, both on a work and personal level.
In the feature film Hitchcock, Helen Mirren played Alma as a forceful and decisive woman, saving the production of Psycho while Hitchcock languished in bed suffering from depression. In the HBO/BBC drama The Girl, Imelda Staunton cut a very different figure – physically more similar to the real Reville, she portrays a rather meek woman; aware of her husband’s infidelities (real or fantasy), she chooses to ignore them.
While the notion of Reville stepping onto the studio floor to direct Psycho is pure fantasy, there is no doubt that Alma was Hitchcock’s key collaborator on every project, a fact that has been generally acknowledged but barely explored in detail. How much of a part did Alma play in Hitchcock’s success? This is a question myself and academic Christina Lane tried to answer in a chapter for a new book, Hitchcock and Adaptation, to be published later this year by Scarecrow Press. We felt strongly that Reville should be represented in the book and given her due.
During her years in British filmmaking, Reville learnt many different skills, which stood her in good stead to offer professional advice during every stage of production on her husband’s films. In fact, when they met in 1920, she had already been in the film business for five years and was well established as a cutter, scenario writer and floor secretary. As a lowly titles artist, he felt compelled to wait three years and work his way up the ladder before he could approach her. She could probably have been a director herself, had she wanted to be. But it seems she was content to concentrate her energies into supporting and promoting her husband’s career. From finding properties to produce, casting, scouting locations, plotting camera angles and checking rushes, there were few areas that Alma’s sharp eye didn’t oversee. After their move to Hollywood in 1939, she was less frequently seen on set but was at work behind the scenes on every project.
While Lane and I felt very strongly that Reville should be represented in the book, as we set out to tackle the task of quantifying her contribution, it quickly became apparent that it was going to be impossible to answer the question with any certainty. The chapter could merely provide a starting point for later writers to flesh out, a step towards defining the scale and shape of the question itself. Reville has had a fairly raw deal from Hitchcock’s biographers until now. While research into his films has been exhaustive, few writers have shown much interest in her side of the story. So much so that factual errors about her own career have crept in and been propagated, such as the repeated assertion that The Constant Nymph (1928) was the last film Reville worked on not directed by Hitchcock. As a glance at her filmography reveals, she co-scripted several non-Hitch films subsequently and it seems to me that these ‘solo’ projects are a good indication of where her interests in filmmaking lay. While she was clearly instrumental in shaping and developing Hitchcock’s association with and eventual domination of the film thriller, her own affinity seems to have been with social dramas featuring strong female characters – titles she co-wrote such as Sally in Our Alley (Maurice Elvey, starring Gracie Fields, 1931), The Water Gipsies (Maurice Elvey, 1932), Nine Till Six (Basil Dean, 1932) and The Passing of the Third Floor Back (Berthold Viertel, 1935) being good examples.
This skill with fleshing out female protagonists is one of the talents Christina Lane and I have highlighted in our chapter. Lane undertakes a detailed analysis of Suspicion, perhaps Hitchcock’s best examination of a woman’s blind devotion to a flawed male. Unpicking the complicated genesis of the script, her reading is undoubtedly a valuable step on the way to trying to fully evaluate Reville’s contribution to Hitchcock’s films.
While Reville continued to be involved on some level with Hitchcock’s films, her last writing credit was on Stage Fright, released in 1949. She was apparently shaken by the negative reaction to Under Capricorn, a property she had pitched for very enthusiastically, and perhaps began to doubt her own judgement, retreating into the shadows, she no longer appeared on any film credits.
In my view, it’s no coincidence that Stage Fright is the last of Hitchcock’s films to feature strong, well-developed female characters. Reville’s absence shows; although Hitchcock’s later films are among his best regarded, their female characters are given less depth and motivation, the action usually driven by the male protagonists. Hitchcock was honest about his lack of empathy with the opposite sex: “I never understood what women wanted,” he once said wistfully. This was just one of the many areas in which Reville was able to complement and supplement his talents; they were a formidable partnership and her role in it deserves to be explored more deeply.
For more information on Alma Reville see Nathalie Morris’ article “The Early Career of Alma Reville” in Hitchcock Annual, Volume 15 (2006) pp. 1-31, and the Alma Reville pages on the ‘Women and Silent British Cinema’ website.
Jo Botting is a Fiction Curator at the BFI National Archive, where she has worked for 15 years. Among the seasons she has programmed at BFI Southbank are Margaret Lockwood, Deborah Kerr, The Boulting Brothers and Vivien Leigh. She is currently doing a PhD on Adrian Brunel.