TIME (09/May/1983) - Hitchcock on the half shell
- article: Hitchcock on the half shell
- author(s): John Skow
- journal: TIME (09/May/1983)
- issue: volume 121, issue 19, page 85
- journal ISSN: 0040-781X
- publisher: Time Incorporated
- keywords: Alfred Hitchcock, Dial M for Murder (1954), Donald Spoto, Gertrude Lawrence, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Janet Leigh, Kim Novak, Notorious (1946), Peter Lorre, Psycho (1960), Rear Window (1954), Spellbound (1945), The Birds (1963), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Tippi Hedren, To Catch a Thief (1955), Vertigo (1958)
Hitchcock on the Half Shell
THE DARK SIDE OF GENIUS: THE LIFE OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK by Donald Spoto;Little, Brown 594 pages; $20
The word genius is good for starting arguments but bad for book titles, unless the books are about Mozart. To insist that Film Director Alfred Hitchcock possessed this incandescence is simply to ensure a lot of windy exception taking. Yes, he was devilishly clever, but was there not a crippling contempt for human emotions and possibly for film making in his mechanical manipulation of viewers?
Such grumbling to one side, Donald Spoto's account of Hitchcock's life is a vivid and perceptive portrait of a man whose character was as strange and shadowed as his films. He took a sexual kind of satisfaction in food and managed to pack as much as 365 Ibs. on a 5-ft. 8-in. frame. He had a deep terror, which he transmuted superbly into film, of policemen and jails. Making a good story of it, he said that this fear originated when, at the age of six, "I did something that my father considered worthy of reprimand. He sent me to the local police station with a note. The officer on duty read it and locked me in a jail cell for five minutes, saying, 'This is what we do to naughty boys.' " Which, he would say in his most ominous tone, was what he wanted to have carved on his tombstone.
His humor was bizarre and not just on the screen. He gave a dinner party for Actress Gertrude Lawrence at which all of the food—"the soup . .. the trout, the peaches, the ice cream," as he later recited gleefully—was dyed blue. When Peter
Lorre complained, on the set of The Man Who Knew Too Much, that a suit had been ruined, Hitchcock had another one sent to him, beautifully tailored in the same material but cut to infant size. Spoto reports that Hitchcock Enjoyed the power that his position as director gave him to control and humble women. When a script required an actress to be dunked in water, as with Kim Novak's fake suicide in Vertigo, he would shoot the take over and over.
Hitchcock was a cockney, born in London in 1899, and he had a Victorian fascination with sin and with the delicious precariousness of female virtue. His best films placed a succession of cool, blond actresses in jeopardy, and his pattern of filming became a matter of smothering the goddess of the moment with an incestuous sort of fatherly attention, and of laboring to control every detail of her life. He raged when he was deserted, as he saw it, by Ingrid Bergman after Spellbound and Notorious and by Grace Kelly after Dial "M" for Murder, Rear Window and To Catch a Thief. By 1962, when he filmed The Birds, he was treating Actress Tippi Hedren as a doll to dress, cosset and terrorize.
Author Spoto is too shrewd to imagine, however, that an artist is the sum of his quirks. Hitchcock's brilliance was entangled with his personal grotesqueries, but it was real brilliance. He grew up with the film industry, and at his best gave movies a dazzling visual impudence: the single flash of color in the black-and-white Spellbound, as the pistol of the suicidal villain flares red; the wicked eroticism of Janet Leigh's shower scene in Psycho, a film that, as Spoto points out, takes pains to make the viewer queasily aware of being a voyeur. Hitchcock's final obsession was secretiveness, but he has been well served by a knowledgeable and revealing biography.