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The Times (19/May/1983) - Hitch hatchet job

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(c) The Times (19/May/1983)

Notes

  • due to a typesetting or editorial error, Spoto's name was given as "Spote" throughout the review

Article

Hitch hatchet job

The Life of Alfred Hitchcock - The Dark Side of Genius

By Donald Spote

Donald Spote is that uncomfortable, but not after all so uncommon, combination, scholar and sensationalist. The scholar side drives him to compile a seemingly endless collection of quotations from those who worked with Hitchcock, all saying much the same things, because research, having been done, must be seen to be done. The sensationalist side leads to a lot of breathless inference about Hitchcock's real sexual interests and the gleeful display of everything which might, seen in a certain light, look vaguely like dirty linen. In the circumstances, one can only be amazed at how little the book manages to come up with.

A lot of this sort of writing is in the tone of voice. For some writers a taste for farting cushions and the like might seem merely childish and perhaps therefore rather lovable; for the Spotes of this world it excites speculation as to what strange sadistic impulse drove the perpetrator of such tricks to degrade and humiliate guests (particularly, of course, cool, poised blondes) by concealing obscenities in apparently innocent pieces of furniture. Hitchcock's famous practical jokes all tend to get this treatment. Whether one finds them funny or not. it has to be faced that they all belong to a general tradition of hearty Edwardian humour; to read Mr Spote, who concentrates on the slightly cruel jokes to the virtual exclusion of the whimsical and surrealistic, one might suppose that Hitchcock had personaly invented the practical joke as a vehicle for his own suppressed sadism.

There are, of course, interesting things in the book. There could hardly fail to be in nearly 600 pages. Mr Spote has unearthed a surprising amount of early family history for the Hitchcocks, and the seemingly inexhaustible Selznick papers have come up with more goodies about the financial and other transactions between the producer and his contract director. Naturally some of the comments quoted from workmates are revealing, though they tend to emphasize the hostility, so that one starts to wonder why, if Hitchcock was such a monster, so many of his professional associates stayed with him for so long. There are also a few inaccuracies, especially where Mr Spote's American vagueness about English habits and history leads him astray: the first picture in the book, for example, is not, as claimed, of the young; Alfred Hitchcock and his father, but, fairly evidently even from internal evidence, Hitchcock père and Alfred's elder brother William celebrating the Diamond Jubilee two years before Alfred was born.

The way the book is presented inevitably makes its major issue Hitchcock's relations with women. Anyone who has been close to Hitchcock, or indeed studied his films attentively, will have come to the conclusion that he had some kind of unacknowledged sexual yen for his famously cool, famously blonde leading ladies. Mr Spote comes to that conclusion at great length, very emphatically, as though no one has ever had an inkling of it before. The next question is, did this yen ever find any kind of physical expression? Hitchcock always insisted on his "celibacy" for going on 50 years. And that seems believable - not for the reasons he implied (devout Catholicism), but because he shared to the full the invincible vanity of the physically ill-favoured: he would surely never have risked a refusal, or even a reservation behind the eyes. Most of the sex in the films has a voyeuristic, masturbatory quality, the film-maker mumbling the game he dare not bite, which only adds to its potency - since the man was a voyeur of genius. Mr Spote does not, for all his dark mutterings. about twisted sexuality, come up with any clear evidence to counter this view, except for one alleged sexual proposition to Tippi Hedren (nature unspecified) during the shooting of Marnie. Again, it is no surprise to suggest that Tippi Hedren was the hopeless devotion of Hitchcock's declining years, but if the mysterious incident actually occurred it seems like a sad occasion for sympathy rather than a gasp of puritan horror.

Perhaps we should psychoanalyse Mr Spote. Why has he suddenly turned against films he praised to the skies in his earlier book on Hitchcock? Was it because, when he finally met the great man in 1975, Hitchcock proved elusive, and after his death the family were (understandably) puzzled about the idea of "authorizing'" a second biography? What strange, sadistic impulse is it..? But no: the tone, though catching must not be caught.

John Russell Taylor