Alfred Hitchcock by Peter Ackroyd

Reviewed by Victoria

hitchRear Window is my all-time favourite film and I must have watched it a dozen times or more. I never seem to tire of the spiky relationship between James Stewart and Grace Kelly that melts into admiration as she fearlessly chases down clues that might convict the salesman in the apartment building opposite of the murder they believe he has committed. It’s a tale of two invalids for me, as Stewart, confined to his apartment with his leg in plaster and nothing to do but watch his neighbours going about their daily business, notices the absence of the salesman’s bed-ridden wife and seeks justice for her. When James Stewart hangs up the phone in terror, suddenly aware that he has given himself away as the shadow pursuing the homicidal salesman, he can do nothing but bump his wheelchair back and forth against the walls of his home, waiting for the man to come and silence him. By this point, I’m always holding my breath.

This film was part of the ‘Golden Age’ of Hitchcock, made in America in the 50s with the team that would support him on Vertigo, To Catch A Thief, Dial M for Murder and others. Not a team that Hitchcock himself ever properly acknowledged, Ackroyd points out in his biography. For like many brilliant creative types, Hitchcock was a bit of a nightmare to work with. He unsettled the actors, not giving them the notes and guidance they wanted, sometimes even whispering obscenities in the ears of leading ladies or telling them they were hated by the rest of the cast. He felt it added to the atmosphere of tension and fear he wanted to create. And he was demanding in the details of filming, always drawn to the newest and  most difficult technical effects. In Rope, he shot the film in long takes, ten minutes or more at a time, which had the actors knotted up with nerves, afraid that the smallest error would mean doing the whole thing over once again. James Stewart complained:

if the rest of the cast is perfect and I fluff a line at, say, 895 feet [of film], it becomes the most colossal fluff in screen history.

What Hitchcock didn’t let the actors know was that he also was a terrific bag of nerves, his own anxiety displaced into the tricks and eccentricities that revolved around his legend. On set, after morning or afternoon tea, Hitch would take his cup and throw it over his shoulder with a crash. He said it was  ‘good for the nerves. Relieves the tension. Much better than scolding the players.’ He didn’t need to scold; he had plenty of other strategies for alarming them.

Hitchcock was born to a deeply Catholic lower-middle-class family and lived most of his childhood in London. He was always fat; in fact photos of him as a young man are remarkably similar to the older version of himself, a Humpty-Dumpty figure with a pouting lower lip and a balding head. ‘I have always been uncommonly unattractive. Worse yet, I have always known it,’ he declared. Peter Ackroyd argues that such a lack of self-esteem ‘points the path towards a life filled with anger, sorrow, dismay, despair, anxiety and loneliness.’ His Catholic schooling had left him with a deep-rooted terror of authority and undocumented but powerful hang-ups about sexuality. Out of this unpromising collection of circumstances, Hitch gradually wove his cinematic flair. Truffaut called him ‘an artist of anxiety’, gifted at depicting terror on the screen and inspiring it in his audience. When he married Alma in 1926, it was a union of creative minds and artistic vision as much as a love match. Hitch would claim that after the birth of their daughter, Patricia, he was celibate (he even suggested, playfully, that her conception had been achieved with a fountain pen). But Alma was by his side throughout their long marriage, her eye for a script and a scene as essential to the filmmaking as Hitch’s own imagination and technical expertise.

He began his film career at a very young age, writing captions for the silent movies. Gradually he moved over into directing and then embraced the miracle of sound with enthusiasm. He made his name swiftly and with a series of tense and dramatic black and white films shot in England – The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes — setting the tone for the classic Hitchcock thriller, imbued with what Ackroyd calls his ‘cockney vision of the world as part pantomime and part spectacle.’ The ever-ambitious Hitch was both delighted and dismayed, loving the acclaim but worried about the straitjacketing. He claimed that ‘if he made a film out of Cinderella, a corpse would have to roll out of the golden coach.’ He already had his sights on America, though, where he felt the technology was more advanced, and the Hitchcocks emigrated before the Second World War, a move that left bad feeling in his wake in England.

Hitchcock was too busy to linger over any minor defeats. His productivity was astounding. By the time he left for America in 1939 he had made 24 films in 13 years, and he would go on to make over 60 films in his lifetime. The relentless forward motion was a useful strategy in many ways; he never had time to become depressed by the ones that did badly (and some did – ‘Under Capricorn’ with Ingrid Bergman was called ‘Under Cornycrap’ by Hitch himself), it stifled anxiety about his creativity that rose whenever he was not in the middle of a film, and it gave him no time to think about what he was doing. Hitchcock was inspired by a certain image in his mind, a dramatic visual; he preferred never to analyse what his films might mean.

The highly productive Peter Ackroyd is a good biographer, then, for a portrait of Hitchcock as an industrious craftsman. This is a fine introduction to the director and it moves at a swift no-nonsense pace itself, offering a detail-packed and vivid account of Hitch’s life in a mere 259 pages. The films are covered in satisfying analyses and we get a strong general impression of Hitch that doesn’t linger on his neuroses or his later treatment of his female leads. It’s a little workmanlike in places, but a fair, clear, and astute account that encourages all Hitchcock fans (and definitely me) to learn more about the man.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Peter Ackroyd, Alfred Hitchcock (Chatto & Windus: London, 2015)  978-0701169930, 288pp., hardback.

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