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The Hudson Review (2006) - Some Refrigerator Talk About Alfred Hitchcock




Some Refrigerator Talk About Alfred Hitchcock

When François Truffaut began his marathon interview with Alfred Hitchcock in the summer of 1962, he expected to encounter an elusive and calculating man, secretive about his art and himself. Instead he found him "genuinely self-critical" and "completely sincere." After more than fifty hours of taped conversation, Truffaut concluded, "Under the invariably self-possessed and often cynical surface is a deeply vulnerable, sensitive, and emotional man who feels with particular intensity the sensations he communicates to his audience." Hitchcock's biographers -- not to mention innumerable other memoirists and critics -- have seldom been so lucid as this. John Russell Taylor, who wrote Hitch: The Life and Work of Alfred Hitchcock in 1978, found him a bundle of contradictory personae, running from dignified professional to "shameless publicist," and from devoted married man ("the epitome of English virtues") to sexually-obsessed fantasist, a man who could sometimes be a "grinning schoolboy" and at others a "connoisseur of slightly ghoulish jokes and deadpan outrageousness." Taylor decided he was all of these things and none of them -- an engima, finally, an artist who simply disappeared into his work. He is "not so much in his films," Taylor wrote, "he is his films."

Then came Donald Spoto's The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock in 1983, which the New York Times described as "the picture of a severely repressed, even twisted, Victorian gentleman" and Time called a "portrait of a man whose character was as strange and shadowed as his films." Spoto found Hitchcock in his films all right -- in his charming wife-murderers, sadistic misogynists, deranged voyeurs, and psychotic killers. Spoto emphasized Hitchcock's apparent cruelty on the set: his perversely repeated dunking and drenching of Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat, his relentless pressure on Vera Miles, the suffering housewife in The Wrong Man, his cruel domination of Tippi Hedren in The Birds and Marnie. In his wit and charm wasn't Hitchcock like the psychotic Bruno (Robert Walker) in Strangers on a Train? Or in his throttled sexual inhibitions akin to Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho? Or in his need to control and direct the sexuality of women very like Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) in Vertigo and Mark (Sean Connery) in Marnie? Spoto appealed to those who readily assume guilt by association -- Poe must have been a madman, Nabokov a pervert -- so eager are they to explain the author by the work. Then too Spoto never misses a chance to depict Hitchcock's overweight as grotesque, and his huge appetite as proof of deep distress. His chronicle of Hitchcock's "Gastronomic Life" is relentless, with its most memorable item a description of the director rapidly consuming, at New York's elegant 21 Club, three complete steak dinners, followed each time by an ice-cream parfait. Surely this signalled desperation? But Hitchcock explained his behavior afterwards, quaffing a brandy with reporters: "I find contentment from food. It is a mental process rather than a physical." Truffaut would have understood this candor, but the ever-suspicious Spoto had to call it "uncharacteristic honesty."

The most recent Hitchcock biography, by Patrick McGilligan, does much to correct Spoto's excesses, without being quarrelsome. Only after 750 densely-packed pages of his own does he suggest why Spoto's portrayal has remained the popular one: "perhaps because it is easier to imagine a m...

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(c) The Hudson Review, Dean Flower (2006)