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Film Quarterly (1983) - The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock




Review of "The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock" - by Donald Spoto


Donald Spoto's new book makes fascinating reading not because of its central argument but in spite of it. Since several of the claims he advances about Hitchcock do not – and cannot – stand up to scrutiny, The Dark Side of Genius is at its strongest where Spoto brackets them and contents himself with providing a straightforward narrative, anecdotal account of what people who worked with or for Hitchcock remembered or chose to remember about him. It is at this impressionistic level that Spoto, who collates and recounts with real skill, is utterly absorbing; he has written a hard book to put down. And if this is not accomplishment enough, Spoto also deserves credit for chronicling the ups and downs of Hitchcock's career, which was by no means the steady, onwards-and-upwards progression of legend.

Hitchcock died in 1980 a very rich and celebrated man, having risen from inauspicious origins in the East End of London, humble beginnings from which nobody, certainly not Hitchcock himself, could ever really shake him free. (Spoto points out what some of us had long suspected, that Hitchcock in 1971 insisted on insinuating anachronistic phrases from the London of his childhood into Frenzy, over the heated objections of his British cast and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer.) But how are the effects of this itinerary on Hitchcock to be judged? The producer and writer John Houseman said of Hitchcock that "I had heard of him as a fat man given to scabrous jokes – a gourmet and an ostentatious connoisseur of fine wines. What I was unprepared for was a man of exaggeratedly delicate sensibilities, marked by a harsh Catholic education and the scars from a social system against which he was in perpetual revolt and which had left him suspicious and vulnerable, alternately docile and defiant." Even though this is as good a short characterization as Spoto's book contains, Spoto himself is remarkably fixated on "the fat man given to scabrous [and sometimes cruel] jokes"; it is Houseman who poses the more searching question of whether this is the man behind the mask (as Spoto seems to think) or whether this is the mask itself. One can certainly see why Hitchcock might have wanted to wear it. Spoto at one point, and in all innocence, quotes Joan Fontaine – "Hitchcock's origins were within the sound of Bow Bells, so he didn't get around much socially" – without noticing the social snub these words contain, a snub which to my mind pays back Hitchcock with interest for Rebecca's Mrs. Danvers.

Be all this as it may, Spoto's chronicle indicates how uneven Hitchcock's career was. He directed 23 features from 1925-1938; 24 from 1939-1959 (along with 15 TV programs after 1955); and only 6 (with 5 TV shows) from 1960 to his death. And as Spoto's sensible periodization shows, even within his productive phases Hitchcock's career had its setbacks, its make-or-break points, its troughs and depressions. To pick one of many examples, how many of us choose to recall Hitchcock's period of "personal and professional inactivity" after Stage Fright in 1950, or that the TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, was to mark such an upturn in his fortunes and reputation?

Even if it does so almost by default, The Dark Side of Genius casts light on Hitchcock not only by the sheer volume of information it provides, but also by puncturing many cherished myths about him. The myth of the inexorable, steady unfolding of genius, a myth Hitchcock himself helped orchestrate, is a case in point, but there are others. There is for example the related notion of the solitary artist, misunderstood but ploughing his lonely furrow. Hitchcock himself once opined that his "films went from failures to masterpieces without ever being successes ... They seem to take about a year to sink in," which is one of his pardonable exaggerations. As to solitude, prior to his declining years, when reclusion set in, Hitchcock appears to have been convivial, sociable and well-connected. It may be lonely at the top, but Hitchcock did not lack for company on his way there. And there is the myth of Hitchcock who, absorbed in his belief that "photographs of people talking are not films," was contemptuous and disdainful of other film-makers. Spoto has Robert Boyle point out, quite to the contrary, that Hitchcock "could easily discuss Eisenstein's Potemkin or Pudovkin's Mother" with anyone who raised them, and he recounts Hitchcock's excited telephone call to Howard Fast: "My God, Howard! I've just seen Antonioni's Blow-Up. These Italian directors are a century ahead of me in terms of technique! What have I been doing all this time?"

As for the myth of Hitchcock's treating actors "like cattle," here again the record Spoto produces is mixed. He may have said of Kim Novak in Vertigo that "at least I got the chance to throw her in the water" – it's fascinating to learn that Hitchcock was never sure she was right for the part – and he may have treated poor Tippi Hedren abominably. But many (if not all) actors and actresses seem not to have felt badly treated. Jimmy Stewart's outburst on the set of Rope – "The really important thing being rehearsed here is the camera, not the actors" – is understandable enough under the circumstances; and Thelma Ritter's recollections of Rear Window are straightforward enough. "If Hitchcock liked what you did," she recalled, "he said nothing. If he didn't, he looked like he was going to throw up." Perhaps the best witness of all was Ingrid Bergman. "To irritate us, he would say, 'Well, all my fun is over now that you actors are here.' Because all his fun had been in the preparation, the writing, the camera set-ups, the fantasy of his mind, he regarded us as intruders to his fantasy. But he was always very controlled. He never lost his temper or screamed at anyone. And yet he always got what he wanted." Spoto reports Hitchcock as saying to Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho that "if you don't come up with what I need, I'll bring it out of you – and if you give too much, I'll tone it down. What you do has to fit into my framework and within my camera angle." She too got drenched, for an entire week of shooting.

Hitchcock's reputation for control on the set emerges unscathed from Spoto's account (even if Hitchcock himself does not). Teresa Wright, recalling Shadow of a Doubt, puts it in a nutshell: "It's as though [Hitchcock] had a little projection room in his head . . . He really scored [even] the sound effects the way a musician writes for his instruments." (Spoto, incidentally, is very good on the stunning examples of sound-mix to be found in Frenzy – who could forget the chill of silence that surrounds Bob Rusk's "Got a place to stay?" I only wish Spoto could have followed Teresa Wright's lead and said more about this.) We can learn a lot from The Dark Side of Genius about what went into Hitchcock's usually meticulous pre-production. "The most enjoyable part," in Hitchcock's own words, "is in that little office, with the writer, when we are discussing story lines and what we're going to put on the screen ... I do not let the writer go off on his own and just write a script that I will interpret. I stay involved with him and get him involved in the direction of the picture." Samuel Taylor, who worked with Hitchcock on Vertigo bears him out: "Working with him meant writing with him ... Hitchcock never claimed to be a writer, but actually he did write his screenplays insofar as he visualized every scene in his mind and knew exactly where he wanted to go." More evidence on this comes from the costume designer, Edith Head, who remembers what went into Dial M for Murder: "Every costume was indicated when he sent me the finished script. There was a reason for every color, every style, and he was absolutely certain about everything he settled on ... He was really putting a dream together in the studio."

One of Spoto's more sensational disclosures is that Hitchcock's dream, once he tried to put it into practice, turned into Tippi Hedren's nightmare. The trouble with such a revelation is that of distinguishing where Hitchcock's prurient interest in Hedren ends and Spoto's prurient interest (and ours) in Hitchcock-and-Hedren begins. For, even though Spoto comes close to tracing Hitchcock's personal and professional decline to his rebuff by Tippi Hedren on the set of Marnie, what interests him most about Hitchcock's advances is that they traversed some barrier between "art" and "life." He never uses this incident to cast new light on Hitchcock's films. What we get is a few new quotes on a familiar theme: that Hitchcock liked to dress up, and thus create women, particularly women of a certain type. Hitchcock on Eva Marie Saint (in North by North-West): "I watched every hair on her head ... I acted just like a rich man keeping a woman: I supervised the choice of her wardrobe in every detail – just as Stewart did with Novak in Vertigo." Hitchcock on Tippi Hedren: "I brought her to Hollywood. I changed everything about her. Svengali Hitch strikes again." Samuel Taylor on Marnie: Hitchcock "was really doing Vertigo with Tippi Hedren."

The irksome thing about Spoto's book is that all his revelations, even the clearly important ones, are incidental to his main purpose in writing it, which is to unmask Hitchcock. It is an enterprise that is not without precedent. David Selznick's well-known and un-characteristically laconic comment that Hitchcock was "not a man to go camping with" is some 40 years old by now. (This is to digress, but it is curious that in a book that deals extensively with the Hitchcock-Selznick relationship, and even more extensively with anecdotes, one of my own favorites – that Hitchcock carefully coached Raymond Burr in Selznick's mannerisms for his part in Rear Window – is unaccountably omitted.) One question is whether the revelations about Hitchcock with which Spoto regales the reader take us any further than Selznick's only known one-liner. Another is whether Spoto's overwritten psychologising is of any real help. "Alfred Hitchcock was living with inner demons of lust and possessiveness, dark fantasies about killing, and unfulfilled sexual daydreams. He could be crude and cruel and tyrannical with his cast, and mercurial and unpredictable with his colleagues"; the "fears and demons of his own soul... were expressed through his films and occasionally unleashed in cruel jokes, outrageously scatalogical comments and ... a systematic withdrawal from all forms of the human sharing he so desired." Perhaps he should have kept it all bottled up.

The pattern is clear enough. Spoto wishes to portray Hitchcock not as a monster of depravity, once the mask slips, but more sympathetically and tastefully, as a tormented genius. Yet in a world where not everyone is as sympathetic to Hitchcock as Spoto is (and where somebody at Little, Brown knows what makes good copy), the cruelty cannot be all Hitchcock's. A more substantive remonstrance about Spoto's book is that it fails to investigate the relationship between torment and genius. Spoto has no way of accounting for the "genius" that is said to have its "dark side" because he has so little to say about Hitchcock's films. What he does say is that they were Hitchcock's "notebooks and journals" – the notebooks and journals our intrepid, undaunted biographer could locate nowhere else. (Spoto received no cooperation from Hitchcock's family, and, in fairness, one can see why.) Hitchcock's "almost maniacal secrecy was a deliberate means of deflecting attention away from what these films really are: astonishingly personal documents." Spoto goes so far as to claim that in examining what he could uncover about Hitchcock's life, "a complex image appeared, more mysterious than any of the stories he chose to film."

This claim – a patently absurd claim, on the evidence Spoto himself produces – tells us how Spoto weights his priorities. The Dark Side of Genius does not recount Hitchcock's life for the sake of a better understanding of his films. Instead, Hitchcock's films are dealt out, deftly and in sequence, like cards, for the sake of carrying forward Spoto's melodramatic plot about Hitchcock's life. It may be possible, and it may be interesting, to judge Hitchcock's films as "personal documents," if we are so inclined. But it is not possible even to approach such a task without a serious, critical reading of the films in question. This is precisely what Spoto-who contents himself with cursory plot summaries and thin, easy judgments-does not provide, which makes mincemeat of his entire enterprise. For all the value of the information it provides, The Dark Side of Genius is finally a kind of self-consuming artefact.