Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

It’s been said on a couple occasions before -— has it not? —- that he was a master manipulator: of audiences, technology, and actors. And actresses. Notorious for his victimized blondes, it wasn’t so much that Alfred Hitchcock really had anything against blondes. They just photographed in better contrast, that’s all — especially in black-and-white. In this as in so many other aspects of Hitchcock’s work, the personal was most often subservient to the technical. Nevertheless, “One way or another the beautiful woman always suffered.”

That quote comes from Patrick McGilligan, Hitchcock’s latest and only second full-scale biographer — hard as that may be to believe, considering the truly preposterous quantity of books that have been done on the man and all aspects of his work. And while McGilligan’s approach in Alfred Hitchcock is certainly more sympathetic and less salacious than most (his subtitle, A Life in Darkness and Light,” seems to be a conscious corrective to Donald Spoto’s sensationalistic The Dark Side of Genius, as the book itself very certainly is), he is not hagiographic or even shy about those aspects of Hitchcock’s character that were less than palatable.

So we know that he mistreated actors and actresses (most disgracefully Joan Fontaine, on the set of Rebecca), that he tastelessly flirted with his leading ladies for wont of the ability to engage in anything less vicarious (he was a lifelong impotent), that he could be absolutely merciless toward writers who insisted on disagreeing with him, and that (although McGilligan never says so in as many words, and doesn’t seem to consider it the case) he had a very abnormal, even disturbing, zest for the macabre and the downright horrific. We also learn that he loved his wife beyond all logic, was loyal to his friends, and maintained, throughout the course of a career that spanned a half-century, a completely honest devotion to his craft.

He grew up in London, the son of a greengrocer and an only child, in modest circumstances but far from impoverished. He attended concerts and the theater, carnivals and circuses, as well as Mass, where he served briefly as altar boy. At dinner, the family discussed the newspaper’s murder cases, which served as a form of serialized entertainment in the London of those days, and later, when Hitchcock was older, he would hang out at the courtrooms just to gawk and take everything in.

The rigid private school education he received would prepare him very well for the formal, fundamental techniques of his eventual art and craft. He left school at the age of sixteen to become an electrician at Henley’s, a manufacturer of various electronic apparatuses, a job that would prepare him for film even further, as McGilligan so lucidly and convincingly shows: “Hitchcock swiftly graduated to the sales section, where he honed his design and draftsmanship skills. There he would cultivate his habit of diligent planning, with notes, drafts, and multiple revisions. There he would also learn various means of publicity and promotion. No one ever had a better procedural grounding for film than Hitchcock did at Henley’s. The job educated him technically, artistically, and commercially.”

Famous Players-Lasky of England was the one to get him in the door of the film industry. He started out doing lettering and title illustrations, and then moved on to set designing. It was there that he first met Alma Reville, saying hello to her one day and then letting the matter drop for four years. When he was about to direct his second picture, Woman to Woman, he called her up, completely out of the blue, asking if she’d like to work on the film as editor. Thus began a professional and marital partnership that would last until infirmity and death did them part.

Murnau and Lang were his truest examples in those early days, when Hitchcock was still working in silents, and their values would stay with him throughout his career: every scene storyboarded, every shot premeditated, very little or nothing left to chance or improvisation. Hitchcock would become fond of boasting later on that after he made the movie, the only thing left to do was put it on film.

From the very beginning, he was a less-than-shy practitioner of the bravura camera trick. We’re reminded here of just how much contempt many observers have for such practitioners when they don’t understand the supreme technical mastery, the sheer monkish discipline, required to pull off such things. In the beginning, it meant letting the audience see the room through a champagne glass, and later on it meant witnessing a murder reflected in a pair of sunglasses, or communicating Jimmy Stewart’s vertigo when staring down the forbidding heights of that bell tower. Onetime collaborator Raymond Chandler (never accused by anyone of pushing substance over style) once felt it necessary to knock Hitchcock’s willingness “to sacrifice dramatic logic (insofar as it exists) for the sake of a camera effect,” and regretted that he was not working for a director “who realizes that what is said and how it is said is more important than shooting it upside down through a glass of champagne.” McGilligan, on the subject of the famous sunglasses shot, from Strangers on a Train, is somewhat more generous: “Hitchcock put as much effort and planning into that single shot as some directors put into entire films, and how it was done serves as a paradigm of his genius.”

There is much to relish in this very big book, which at 750 pages is plenty long enough, yet nevertheless feels somehow abridged, so busy was its subject for so many years. Many of Hitchcock’s films are dealt with cursorily, hardly at all, while some of the best are not given nearly their due, and that’s obviously not the author’s fault. It seems that McGilligan has gotten in here anything that could possibly be of personal interest about a man so consumed by his job: We know that Hitchcock liked to bellydance and striptease for family and friends, quite in contrast to the “mask of jovial sangfroid” he perfected for the public; that he a gave a low-level production gig to a young and unknown Michael Powell; that he was very visibly horrified of police officers, and made them dupes and cowards in just about every picture he ever made; that Torn Curtain may just have been the inspiration for Reagan’s Star Wars missile-defense program (in ways far more eerie than anything happening in the film itself); that he was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar five times, yet never won, not even once, not even when Psycho was up against The Apartment, which starred Shirley MacLaine, who, incidentally, Hitchcock had discovered as a screen actress, providing her debut role in The Trouble with Harry; and that when he first came to America and began working for David Selznick, he was asked to provide some critical remarks on a rough cut of Gone with the Wind, and did so, in a manner that will remind anyone who still needs reminding that Alfred Hitchcock knew as much about how a good film gets made as anyone who has ever attempted to make one.

And even given all his attempts, he still succeeded on a shocking number of occasions. In 1998, when the American Film Institute generated a list of the 100 best films of all time, Hitchcock was represented by four movies: Psycho, North by Northwest, Rear Window, and Vertigo. Only Billy Wilder had as many, and only Steven Spielberg had more (5). Unfortunately, McGilligan has the common tendency to overrate many of the lesser films — because for all of the great and good films Hitchcock made, there are many more, embarrassing in their bathos and primitive in their special effects, that are (if you’ll pardon me) simply for the birds, and are impossible to be taken seriously by anyone who began watching movies in the late 1970s or early 1980s. And if you prefer good examples over bad puns, you can start with the preposterously tedious psychoanalyzing in Marnie, move on to the jaw-droppingly inept special effects of Spellbound, linger for a while on the obtuse political-backroom wheeling and dealing at work in Topaz, and finish up by gazing in awe at the truly astonishing wretchedness of The Trouble with Harry — then contemplate for a moment all that silly rear projection in all the driving scenes in film after film after film, all the way throughout Hitchcock’s career.

And that’s not going anywhere near the notorious implausibility of so many of Hitchcock’s movies, which has always seemed to rankle non-Hitchcock fans no end, and has rankled true Hitchcock fans (this one included) not at all. One early critic of his work noted how unfortunate it is that Hitchcock, “a clever director, is allowed to produce and even to write his own films, though as a producer he has no sense of continuity and as a writer he has no sense of life.” That this critic would go on to become a successful novelist, famous to the world as Graham Greene, should matter not at all, since movies aren’t novels because they’re too busy being movies, the good ones are anyway. In fact, it’s the most implausible of Hitchcock’s films — Rebecca, Notorious, Rope, To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest — that seem most vital and engaging today. It’s great fun to watch Hitchcock wrestle with The Wrong Man, his first and, alas, his final “true crime” movie: too boring in places to be entertaining, too sensational in others to be believable. No wonder it was his last. On the matter of plausibility, Hitchcock was downright pseudo-philosophical: “Must a picture be logical, when life is not?”

And besides, how could he have found the time and the energy? In reading Alfred Hitchcock, it seems that his greatest creative battles were fought merely subverting the censors and getting his vision approved by the studio. That he remained so consistent, for so long, delivering so many movies, of the highest aesthetic order, is nothing less than astonishing, even if you are a little skeptical of McGilligan’s ultra-flattering remark: “[E]ven if he had quit in 1928, he would still be remembered for remarkable achievements.” When you consider that he quit in the late 1970s, just before his body itself quit, this may be the most flattering thing anyone has ever said about Hitchcock.

Not content to merely praise Hitchcock’s “persistence of vision,” McGilligan must also defend Hitchcock the man, while evoking the persistence of that vision, lecturing us (apropos Donald Spoto) on how it is so much “easier to imagine a manipulative egoist and monster, a shriveled soul inside a grossly fat man, than to understand the practical artist who gave his life to film.” But not any easier than it is to imagine an unquestionably great artist whose every flaw should be excused, or at least passed lightly over, in the interest of that artist. Who but “a manipulative egoist” could have created so much enthralling cinema? And who but “a shriveled soul” would have wanted to? Hitchcock the man deserves no excuse any more than Hitchcock the artist needs one. Or maybe you just don’t believe Reggie Nalder, who played the assassin in the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, who was given this bit of acting direction from the Master of Suspense: Gaze at your victim as if you’re gazing at a beautiful woman.


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