THE TWELVE LIVES OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK
by Edward White (W.W. Norton £22.99, 400 pp)
In the world of Alfred Hitchcock, ‘nowhere is safe,’ says Edward White in this masterful study. Factories, schools, bathrooms, windmills, motels and music halls are scenes of graphic murder.
There are bombs under the table or on a bus. Garrottings take place in a swanky apartment, next to fresh-cut flowers and antiques. A knife is flung into a diplomat’s back. A woman is pushed from a bell-tower. Janet Leigh was ‘slaughtered while defenceless and naked’ in a shower. People are set alight, suffocated, flung down flights of stairs. Simply put, to Hitchcock, ‘all life is in murder’.
Edward White explores the influences behind Alfred Hitchcock’s (pictured) 53 blockbusters in a new biography about the film director
Audiences loved his vision, too. Subjected to Psycho, they cried, fainted and wet themselves, rather to the consternation of cinema managers and cleaners. In the 53 films he directed, Hitchcock was peerless at tapping the ‘churning, repressed emotions’ in the existence of the outwardly respectable. The ‘emotional engines’ of his work were anxiety, fear, paranoia, guilt and shame.
Of Irish descent, Hitchcock was born in 1899 above the family grocery shop in Leytonstone, Essex. Whether in The Lodger (1927) or Frenzy (1972), it is fair to say the London of Jack the Ripper remained the director’s inspiration — a city of fogs and winding streets, pet shops, boxing matches, tea-rooms, tenements and pubs. (White argues Hitchcock made Chicago, San Francisco and Greenwich Village seem like London.)
He was educated by Jesuits in Stamford Hill and attended art classes at Goldsmiths college. His father having died in 1914 of emphysema, Hitchcock was 15 when he needed to seek paid employment, as an advertising designer for an electrical cabling firm. It was a fascination with engineering and machines that led him towards the pioneering world of the cinema.
Michael Balcon, of Gainsborough Pictures, based in Islington, impressed by Hitchcock’s eagerness to learn, sent him to Berlin to work on Anglo- German co-productions.
Edward White suggests Hitchcock portrayed the ‘violence and menace’ and creep of Fascism rippling through Europe, during the war years in his films. Pictured: Alfred Hitchcock holding up a clapperboard on the set of his film, ‘Psycho’
The future director immediately grasped the imaginative possibilities of ‘shadowy, enigmatic interiors’ and ‘misty, insubstantial landscapes’, and his famous films — Spellbound, Suspicion, Vertigo, North By Northwest among them — would be characterised by technical wizardry, the camera angles, detailed studio sets and mannered editing, where Hitchcock played games with the adjustment of movement, speed and time.
In person, Hitchcock was scared of policemen, strangers, driving, crowds and heights.
He described himself as ‘an alarm clock about to go off’, and his genius was to put all this neurosis on screen, where his heroes — Robert Donat, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Paul Newman, Jon Finch — discover the flimsiness of civilisation, the chimera of certainty. Hitchcock’s plots always revolved around surveillance, conspiracy, distrust of authority. Characters are enmeshed in ‘nightmarish circumstances’, where they are on the run, accused of crimes they did not commit.
Whether or not, as White suggests, Hitchcock was representing the ‘violence and menace’ and creep of Fascism rippling through Europe, during the war years. Or whether his focus was on sex and psychoanalysis, those American obsessions in the 1950s and 1960s, what’s incontrovertible is Hitchcock’s keenness to imperil his female stars, place them in situations on (or over) the edge of extreme danger.
Hitchcock often exposed women to the terror of rape and murder in the name of entertainment. Pictured: Janet Leigh in Psycho
In The 39 Steps, Madeleine Carroll is handcuffed to Robert Donat, whom she believes is a killer; Janet Leigh is famously slashed to death in the shower in Psycho; Tippi Hedren had angry crows flung at her face in The Birds (‘It was brutal, ugly and relentless,’ recalled the actress of the shoot) — and Hitchcock’s attitude towards his women remains problematic, when we realise how often in the name of entertainment he exposed them to the terror of rape and murder. Grace Kelly, at least, eventually grabs a pair of scissors and stabs her assailant in Dial M For Murder; Joan Fontaine is rescued by Laurence Olivier from Mrs Danvers in Rebecca.
Time and again, though, Hitchcock displayed an obsession with shimmering ice-blondes, aloof and decorous, angelic visitations, who nevertheless were ‘quivering with hidden passions’.
Slender and pale, Eva Marie Saint, Ingrid Bergman and Kim Novak were also members of the Hitchcock repertory company. He chose their clothes, invited them out, told them what to eat and how to behave.
Tippi Hedren, however, alleges he went further. During the making of The Birds, in 1963, Hitchcock told her ‘dirty stories and jokes. He threw himself on top of me and tried to kiss me. It was an awful, awful moment I’ll always wish I could erase from my memory … I couldn’t have been more shocked and more repulsed.’
Alfred Hitchcock died of renal failure in 1980, a few months after receiving a very belated knighthood. Pictured: The film director framing a shot with his hands
Hitchcock had married Alma Reville, a native of Nottingham, in 1926. She was his devoted script editor, casting producer and all-around adviser — but the marriage, says White, was blighted by ‘impotent celibacy’, and Hitchcock’s chief physical and sensuous passion was eating. ‘I’ve never seen anyone enjoy a meal more,’ said Grace Kelly. All day Hitchcock would consume ice cream, pancakes and pints of champagne. During seven-course meals, he wolfed down three steaks. For one feast he flew woodcock in from Scotland and beef from Japan at a cost in today’s figures of $40,000 (£28,500).
Hitchcock suffered from back pain, an abdominal hernia, arthritic joints, and his heart was enlarged by 16 per cent.
At home there was a well-stocked walk-in fridge and a cellar containing 1,600 bottles of wine, so at least he wasn’t a massive boozer. Yet he was no slob, despite resembling ‘a tuskless walrus’.
THE TWELVE LIVES OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK by Edward White (W.W. Norton £22.99, 400 pp)
At the table, Hitchcock insisted on crystal glassware and silver asparagus servers and cream ladles. In every area of his life, he needed ‘precision, rigour and efficiency’.
He wore tailored suits, and Cary Grant was Hitchcock’s idealised double or fictional projection, ‘a fantasy of charm and sexual confidence’ — everything Hitchcock was not, despite their ‘shared tastes, manners and sensibilities.’ Each would rather be seen dead than swig beer from a can.
Hitchcock expected his film crews to wear collar and tie. He preferred to surround himself with loyal technicians who automatically understood his approach, who developed ‘a Hitchcock frame of mind’, accepting they were employees not collaborators.
He was impatient, seldom offered praise, and his life was ‘a treadmill of development, production, post-production and publicity’.
There have been thousands of books about Hitchcock. This is the best of the bunch, a brilliant investigation of a man full both of ego and fragile self-esteem, a sour mixture of self-disgust and self-regard. Hitchcock was aware that under anyone’s calm surface, dark forces were ‘springing and swirling within’.
To investigate these notions, White chops up his book into a dozen highly original chapters homing in on such themes as Hitchcock the Fatty, the Dandy, the Voyeur, the Cockney, and so forth.
He died of renal failure in 1980, a few months after receiving a very belated knighthood.