Alfred Hitchcock by Peter Ackroyd. Chatto & Windus. H/B. ISBN 9780701169930
The virtuous man, according to Plato (in a passage frequently cited by Freud) is the one who’s content to dream what the wicked man actually does. If this is true of us regular folk, how much more so of those possessed by “Genius”?
Freud also opened a hotly contested can of worms when he declared that “Biology is Destiny.” Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) was cursed by physiognomy, doubly so by the strictures of a Catholic education. Making a virtue of necessity, he presented himself as a desireless creature, even joking that his daughter Patricia had been conceived in the sort of turkey basting scenario subsequently celebrated in Sunset Beach. On the silver screen he subjected the blonde ice goddesses of his dreams (Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Tippi Hedren) to his sublimated resentment and revenge.
On the studio lots they had to suffer his smutty jokes. In later life, encroaching senility (and possibly alcoholism) reportedly reduced him to the level of a sex pest. Critics who are fond of berating the successors to Psycho for explicit violence that Hitchcock would never have countenanced have obviously never watched the maestro’s 1972 effort Frenzy, certain scenes in which pay perverse and explicit tribute to John Reginald Halliday Christie and his misdeeds at 10 Rillington Place and elsewhere, towards which Hitchcock maintained an unabashed fanboy attitude.
Hitch, encircled by his own fears and insecurities, found fame and fortune exploiting those of others. Uneasy with people, he turned himself into a brand, the avatar of which was the physical appearance that so dismayed him. A voyeur, he hated people looking at him. A card carrying cockney, he became a U.S. citizen, then a Knight Of The Realm…rich pickings there for any biographer.
Although Ackroyd is a respected practitioner of that craft, who’s previously tackled Chaplin, Dickens, William Blake, Wilkie Collins, Thomas More, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, alarm bells started ringing when I noted the slimness of this volume (a mere 259 pages to cover a figure so massive – in every way – as Hitchcock?) and registered the misuse of certain terms (e.g. “neuralgia”) within the first few of those pages. Happily, Ackroyd’s proof readers wake up as he commences a worthy, economical handling of Hitchcock’s life that concentrates on the filmography but manages to pack a lot of personal stuff around it, revealing (if not fully illuminating) the substratum of dark dreams upon which the cinematic wonders were erected. Initially I was tempted to dismiss this biography as “Hitchcock at half cock” but it’s really a lot better than that, a useful primer that might well inspire the reader to seek out weightier tomes by Truffaut, Spoto (“The Dark Side Of Genius”, indeed) et al.