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New York Times (22/Oct/2008) - Hitchcock's Birds (Especially the Blond Ones)

(c) The New York Times (22/Oct/2008)

Hitchcock’s Birds (Especially the Blond Ones)

Donald Spoto’s “Spellbound by Beauty” surveys Alfred Hitchcock’s fraught relations with those ice-blond leading ladies he favored. Any reader remotely familiar with this material can predict that Mr. Spoto’s emphasis will be on the filmmaker at his most fetishistic, and that the book’s pièce de résistance will be the pecking of Tippi Hedren during the making of “The Birds.”

Mr. Spoto thus adds to the reams of critical speculation about Hitchcock’s ambivalence toward some of his actresses. But there is another love-hate affair on display here: the one between this biographer and his subject.

Mr. Spoto began his Hitchcock studies with a work of polite hagiography, “The Art of Alfred Hitchcock,” in 1976. He conducted many long and presumably collegial interviews with Hitchcock while working on that book. Seven years later, after Hitchcock’s death, Mr. Spoto delivered a more feather-ruffling portrait, “The Dark Side of Genius,” which dealt with Hitchcock’s life as well as with his work.

And now, after a long if seemingly random string of other biographies about individuals as varied as Preston Sturges, Elizabeth Taylor and Joan of Arc, he is drawn back to familiar territory. He has pieced together a patchwork of analysis and anecdotes, drawing on the impressive list of Hitchcock collaborators he has known over the years. Ms. Hedren, for one, told Mr. Spoto not only about her ornithological nightmare (“Are you trying to kill her?” asked Ms. Hedren’s doctor during her “Birds” ordeal) but also about Hitchcock’s attempt to force her into making herself sexually available to him, threatening to ruin her career if she would not oblige. (She didn’t.)

Two questions arise: How valuable is Mr. Spoto’s collection of such material? And how does he justify putting it into print?

The justification comes fairly easily to him. No study of the Hitchcock oeuvre can ignore the films’ subtexts or their frequently used motifs, he says. And even the plodding psychiatrist in “Psycho” would see parallels between the director’s private longings and their cinematic correlatives. Thus his recurring and metaphorical use of handcuffs, eyeglasses (“Hitchcock’s modern version of the Venetian mask”) and voyeurism, just for openers, can be seen to have biographical meaning that enhances an understanding of his work.

Critical orthodoxy about Hitchcock is another justification Mr. Spoto cites to bolster his new inquiry. He maintains that no understanding of the director’s career can be complete without that dark side, and that great art need not correspond with saintly behavior. (Wagner and Picasso are points of references.) And he suggests that this book be read as “a cautionary tale of what can go wrong in any life.” After all, “it is the story of a man so unhappy, so full of self-loathing, so lonely and friendless, that his satisfactions came as much from asserting power as from spinning fantasies and acquiring wealth.” By the time Hitchcock imploded with Ms. Hedren, this book argues, the craving for such power had stifled the creative vitality of his work.

“He could not have gotten away with some of his conduct today,” Mr. Spoto writes, in a book that provides much evidence to back up that claim. “And no one should ever be permitted to behave as he often did.” This sets up “Spellbound by Beauty” as a chronological litany of stories about Hitchcock’s actresses, some of those women far more interesting than others. But one of this book’s odd virtues is Mr. Spoto’s doggedness in tracking these actresses’ later lives. While it may add little to an understanding of Hitchcock’s art, the knowledge of where Nova Pilbeam (“The Man Who Knew Too Much,” 1934) was living quietly in 2008 attests to Mr. Spoto’s tenacity — and also makes a good story.

Among the well-known Hitchcock stars to whom more interest will gravitate, not all of them had rocky dealings with the filmmaker. There were some, like Joan Fontaine in “Rebecca,” who simply didn’t much interest him; Hitchcock’s dismissive attitude and schoolboy dirty jokes were the worst treatment they got. But interspersed with his anecdotes about actresses is a much tougher claim from Mr. Spoto: that Hitchcock, so well known for his cool precision, could be inattentive, bored or worse while the cameras rolled. This book balances oddly conflicting impressions of an obsessive Hitchcock and a distracted, ultimately quite dissipated one. Salacious as that may sound, Mr. Spoto does not manage to — and perhaps does not want to — seriously challenge an overall impression of Hitchcock’s greatness.

Some of his leading ladies had a camaraderie with their director. Ingrid Bergman, “the closest actor-collaborator in Hitchcock’s career,” had a warm rapport with him, even if Hitchcock turned that into a schoolboy crush on her. He had great respect for her in any case; he reserved his crueler behavior for actresses who were less powerful, and thus less able to resist his bullying or his makeup and wardrobe mandates. Anne Baxter, who appeared in “I Confess,” told Mr. Spoto that the director made her feel unattractive until she dyed her hair to become a Hitchcock blonde.

Other, better Hitchcock aficionados — most notably François Truffaut in his book-length conversation with his fellow auteur — have already paid considerable attention to the most flagrant kinkiness in the Hitchcock canon. No single performance in any of his films has been more heavily analyzed than Kim Novak’s in “Vertigo.” Still, Mr. Spoto has enjoyed extraordinary access to Hitchcock’s players over a long period of time, and he has assembled a cavalcade of chatty firsthand impressions.

Ms. Novak does not speak for herself here. But Grace Kelly, Janet Leigh, Eva Marie Saint, Teresa Wright, Ms. Hedren and many other unforgettable Hitchcock heroines do.