Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Alfred Hitchcock

I’ve been reading a newish book on Alfred Hitchcock over the last few weeks (yes, that long, because it’s a chunky book of some 860 pages and it’s full of detail).
The book’s called Alfred Hitchcock: a Life in Darkness and Light, by Patrick McGilligan. I’ve read books on Hitchcock before, including the Francois Truffaut book that came out years ago – it was one of the first to really focus on Hitchcock’s genius, but I’ve forgotten much of what it said. And it’s not that long since I read another one – It’s Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock, a personal biography, by Charlotte Chandler. That book is much more of a reminiscence, anecdotal book rather than one that covers the ground well. It’s interesting, because are always new angles on the backgrounds to the films, but it tends to focus on stories told by people who are still alive.
McGilligan has done his homework to a remarkable degree, and when he hasn’t got the facts before him he makes commonsense assumptions – but let’s us know that he’s doing so. When you’ve read a number of bios of Hitchcock, certain stories tend to turn up again and again, but in fact, McGilligan’s book is surprising in the amount of new material that’s offered. Furthermore, Hitchcock himself comes across as an even more complex figure than ever. Though it would seem he hardly directed at all, at times, because he knew exactly what he wanted and pretty much got it, and though we’ve heard the hoary old chestnut about him not having much time for actors, in fact he had a great deal of time for them – and for technicians and writers. He often seems to have been happiest when he was planning a movie, but there were certainly many times when he enjoyed the actual process of moviemaking.
And he was a master negotiator; he had to be, to deal with the endless restrictions and deals and undercurrents and difficulties that stood in the way of him making the films he wanted to make. That he got as much on the screen as he did is tribute to his ability to manage affairs to his own satisfaction in spite of what the producers often imposed on him.
The darker side of Hitchcock: his obsession with real-life murders, with the ways people could be mutilated and killed; his curious building-up of blonde actresses – only some of whom came up to his expectations; his sometimes petty revenges on actors who spoke out of turn; the crude jokes he seemed to revel in; his drinking and eating problems and his strange phobias are all catalogued in this book.
But so are his triumphs: the marvellous movies he did actually make; the way he could bring life to a film even when it wasn’t necessarily his choice of subject; his tireless energy that lasted well into his sixties; his imagination and inventiveness; his wonderful sense of humour; his devotion to his wife (when she became chronically ill he himself went downhill rapidly); his generosity to his family and to his many friends and his work in wartime (much of which hasn’t previously been noted).
Hitchcock was something of an enigma, something of a genius. He seemed curiously uptight in some aspects of his personality, and boundlessly free in others. In filmmaking he truly came alive, and his legacy of movies lives on and on.
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