Two new films present opposing portraits of the Master of Suspense. Which one is closer to the truth? We talked to three of Hitchcock's legendary leading ladies to find an answer

By Keith Staskiewicz
November 30, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST

Alfred Hitchcock was an icon in his own lifetime — and so canny at self-advertisement he could be evoked by a few mischievous musical notes and nine quick, convex strokes of a caricaturist’s pen. The director has reemerged this year thanks to two films with differing characterizations. The first, HBO’s The Girl, recounts actress Tippi Hedren’s extended harassment at Hitchcock’s hands and casts him as a lecherous Svengali. Hitchcock, a lighter affair, finds Anthony Hopkins hewing closer to the figure we all think we know: a creative genius who, despite a fixation on his leading ladies, was a devoted husband. But which Hitch is the real one? The director always kept scraps of self-analysis handy for interviews, but there’s still a big question mark contained within that famous silhouette.

”Hitchcock tried to ruin my career, and he succeeded,” Hedren says. ”But he didn’t ruin my life.” After spying the actress in a commercial, the director cast her in The Birds and set about turning her into the only kind of movie star he ever seemed comfortable with: blond, withholding, mysterious. In the process, he exerted systematic control over her life. ”He had me followed, he analyzed my handwriting,” she recalls. ”He was obsessed.”

Vera Miles weathered similar behavior, but other stars have said their experiences were entirely pleasant. ”I know everybody has a different take on Mr. Hitchcock,” says Eva Marie Saint, ”and I don’t mean to be Pollyanna, but I had a wonderful time working for him.” Hitchcock did take Saint to Bergdorf Goodman for a new wardrobe, but then he played dress-up with many of his leading ladies. Kim Novak butted up against the filmmaker’s sartorial wishes when she protested a smoky gray suit and black pumps her character was to wear in Vertigo. Hitchcock, of course, won out.

Novak says that while Hitchcock could be distant, he was always professional. Only one incident perhaps stands as an exception — the time she returned to her dressing room to find a dead, plucked chicken hanging by its legs in front of her three-way mirror. Behind her, Hitchcock, James Stewart, and a crew member stood laughing in the doorway. Novak still doesn’t understand the joke. ”If the chicken had black shoes on and a gray suit, I’d understand,” she says. ”He did love mysteries that were unanswered, though. He believed that not everything had to make sense. Not all the clues have to add up.” As far as the man himself goes, the clues never have.