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Following in footsteps of Alfred Hitchcock

ARGUABLY THE GREATEST CITY in the world to explore on foot, London brims with organized “walks” that offer views of the town as seen through eyes of certain historical, artistic and even fictional figures. You can take the Shakespeare or Charles Dickens walks, hop on “The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour,” tour George Orwell’s Islington, investigate Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street, even explore the life and death of Joe Orton on the “Prick Up Your Ears” walk.

Two of the most popular jaunts are the “Apparitions, Graveyards and Alleyways Sinister Ghost Walk” and the “Jack the Ripper Haunt,” both of which have a tangential as well as atmospheric affiliation with the memorable little tour I took last month. Having attended school there, I know London pretty well, but was nonetheless intrigued by a magazine listing I noticed for “The Alfred Hitchcock Walk.” Fortunately, I was in town on a Monday, the only day of the week the tour is given (it was also the day that Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs was returned to England, a touch Hitchcock might have appreciated). When I called, a chipper female voice instructed me to be at the Queensway tube stop in Bayswater at 11 a.m. sharp.

Arriving on time, I found six women impatiently waiting for me, and with no ado we set off for our first destination, a hotel around the corner that’s now a Hilton but as the Cobury was a haunt of Hitchcock’s in the 1920s and was used by him in “Frenzy,” his last British picture. The woman conducting the tour, an energetic, middle-aged American named Sandra Shevey who has lived in London for many years, admitted she found it odd that the Covent Garden-based characters in “Frenzy” would travel all the way across town to Bayswater to come to this hotel. But then Hitchcock, like many other filmmakers, never hesitated to make this sort of transposition when he wanted to use a particular location. And his choice of locations very often was motivated by personal memories and associations.

“He was as much in love with locations as he was with plots,” Shevey rightly commented about the man who made such landmarks as Mount Rushmore, the Royal Albert Hall, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and the British Museum part of his own personal artistic landscape. “He was a travelogue auteur.” Working mostly inside studios, especially during his “British period,” which ended in 1939, Hitchcock never exploited actual London locations as much as he did American (and even French) settings later on. But there remain corners of London that still bear traces of the master’s fingerprints.

AS SHE LED TWO older English ladies, a couple of young female French Canadian film buffs and me toward our next destination, Sandra, who as a journalist met Hitchcock in connection with the release of “Frenzy” in 1972, claimed, “You know, he wasn’t a particularly good interview.” I raised an eyebrow at this dismissal of one of the great raconteurs of the 20th century, but kept any remarks to myself, granting that perhaps the director and my guide simply hadn’t hit it off.

However, after explaining that the flat we were about to see was where Hitchcock and his wife Alma moved in when they wed in 1926 and mentioning that Hitchcock had never slept with a woman before marrying, Sandra assured us that Hitchcock later on “was actually a real romancer. He had affairs with Ingrid, Kim, Tippi and several of his other leading ladies.” While not wishing to be rude to our guide, I couldn’t let this rather significant bit of misinformation slide. He certainly wished he could have dallied with these beautiful actresses, I ventured, but all Hitchcock biographers and associates agree that he never dared go beyond boyish flirtation, naughty jokes and the occasional psychological cruelty.

“Oh, but you don’t see it from the female point-of-view,” Sandra argued, pointing out that Hitch was a witty, seductive and powerful man, and adding, “Ingrid Bergman slept with all her directors. She never said no in her life.” Musing that, if I saw it from the female perspective, I would feel even more strongly that Hitchcock never had any actual affairs, given that he sometimes weighed upward of 300 pounds and was a prim Roman Catholic to boot, I backed off in the interests of group congeniality as we reached the building where Hitchcock’s daughter was born and the family lived until leaving for Hollywood in 1939.

The Hitchcocks occupied the top two floors of 153 Cromwell Road, then a fashionable address but now part of a rather dismal stretch in Earls Court. The building, which Sandra said is owned by the government and is used sporadically to house refugees and asylum seekers, looked unoccupied and quite forlorn. The only distinguishing trait of Turner House, as it is called, is a blue English Heritage plaque that states: “Sir Alfred Hitchcock 1899-1980 Film Director Lived Here 1926-1939.”

As sad a sight as this is, it’s apparently nothing compared to Hitchcock’s birthplace in Leytonstone, a respectable East End working-class area when Hitchcock was born but “a hideous neighborhood” now, according to our guide; Sandra will take intrepid visitors there by appointment, but it is too far away to easily include on the regular tour.

INSTEAD, WE VENTURED ON to the site of Alfred and Alma’s wedding, the Brompton Oratory at the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Knightsbridge. Sandra said, despite having attended the same modest parish church all his life, the social-climbing Hitchcock finally decided to be married in the “poshest” Catholic church in England. It is, indeed, magnificent, but its most salient feature is something I had never seen in a church before — a large clock, on the right side of the basilica. Again, it’s something Hitchcock might have found amusing.

There were more stops along the way: From “The Paradine Case,” the original St. Paul’s Church in Belgravia and the Valli character’s home at 21-22 Wilton Crescent, both faithfully reproduced in Hollywood; Forbes House, a magnificent building that served as the Eastern European embassy where Doris Day partially sang “Que Sera Sera” in the 1956 “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and which is now a motor manufacturing association; and Simpson’s, a venerable restaurant in the Strand whose Hitchcock connection is marked by a photograph of John Loder and Sylvia Sidney in a booth there from the 1937 film “Sabotage.”

Our tour’s well-known final destination, Covent Garden, has been completely transformed from the working-class produce market it was when little Alfred accompanied his food-trader father there nearly a century ago, an environment that Hitchcock, in “Frenzy,” was likely the last to capture on film. But amid the trendy clothing stores and restaurants and performance artists and crowds of tourists, one can still visit 3 Henrietta St., the residence of Barry Foster’s seducer and serial strangler in Hitchcock’s final first-rate film, as well as the Globe, a pub in Bow Street at Drury Lane that opened in 1806, also seen in the picture.

All in all, as a way to spend half a day and soak up some unusual movie lore, it beat standing around staring at some footprints in concrete.

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