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The Telegraph (15/Dec/2003) - Review: The de-kinking of Alfred Hitchcock

Telegraph (15/Dec/2003)

The de-kinking of Alfred Hitchcock

In the mid-1950s, a group of French cineastes started mustering support for their earnest belief that Alfred Hitchcock, the lugubrious "Master of Suspense" - the title was dreamed up by a New York ad man in 1940 - was a painstaking artist of world-class proportions as well as a consummate pro.

At the time, the director had already hit the most creative stretch of his long career, and by the early 1960s the point had been resoundingly made: after Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest, few questioned Hitchcock's claim to permanent greatness.

His whole body of work has been reappraised many times since then, but Hitchcock is still most admired for the pictures of his late phase, which show us startling images of voyeuristic fantasy while "shyly asking us", as one writer has put it, "to claim them for our own." Anthony Perkins goggling through his illuminated peephole, Jimmy Stewart scrutinising human foibles from his darkened room: as moviegoers, we're supposed to recognise ourselves here, and by and large we do - although we also suspect, as the movies teasingly acknowledge, that Hitchcock is revelling in his own kinkiness as well.

This suspicion - already amply confirmed by movie lore - was vigorously championed by Donald Spoto in The Dark Side of Genius (1983), the last full-length biography of Hitchcock. Spoto portrayed the great director as a lubricious, sadistic, manipulative voyeur with a thoroughly unwholesome interest in pretty young actresses and - just for good measure - a strange relationship with Mother.

Hitchcock's family and many of his surviving associates weren't much enthused by Spoto's intervention, but it didn't do the emerging field of Hitchcock Studies much harm. Twenty years later, there are more books about Hitchcock than there are about any other director in cinema history.

And now Patrick McGilligan has written a new biography which aims to supersede Spoto by replacing his effortful psychosexual sleuthing with the fruits of the intervening decades of scholarship.

In this respect, McGilligan succeeds - although his accumulated scorn for Spoto's "dark" biography, as he calls it, occasionally leads him too far in the other direction, making his own account seem implausibly sunny: Hitchcock's childhood in East London was a riot of Frank Capra-style merriment, it seems, with priests forever "in and out of the home, drinking, singing, laughing and making mischief", like leprechauns.

This weakness is mostly confined, however, to the book's opening chapters, where McGilligan seems hampered by a certain unfamiliarity with the English scene. (Solemn absurdities perpetrated by the likes of Peter Ackroyd - "Londoners are fascinated by excrement" - are treated as authoritative statements on metropolitan mores.) Still, he doesn't make things up when evidence is scarce, and after a workmanlike slog through the young Hitchcock's early career at an engineering firm, his narrative eventually finds its feet as the movie business lumbers into view.

This Hitchcock is, above all, a hardworking showbiz professional, and from the time of his earliest silent pictures until a few years before his death in 1980, he's rarely seen away from his director's chair.

After the move to Hollywood in 1939, McGilligan emphasises Hitchcock's patriotic efforts to combat American isolationism - most famously in Foreign Correspondent (1940), which, in flagrant breach of the Neutrality Act, ended with Joel McCrea broadcasting from London during an air raid: "The lights have gone out in Europe! Hang on to your lights, America - they're the only lights still on in the world! Ring yourself around with steel, America!"

The author also pays tribute to the director's wife, Alma Reville, who worked on the scripts of nearly all his movies, often unpaid and often without taking credit. Mrs Hitchcock, it seems, had a brief and unhappy affair with a fellow screenwriter in 1948, but was otherwise unswervingly dedicated to her husband's wellbeing.

As for Hitchcock himself, he occasionally tries to get off with actresses - which didn't cut much ice with Tippi Hedren - and is remarkably "clever about logging kinky experiences". On the whole, though, he is pretty well behaved, and even his more outré on-set behaviour is usually written off as a clever directorial strategy.

Some of Hitchcock's admirers might object to seeing their hero so exhaustively de-kinked. But McGilligan's biography unquestionably gives a more lifelike account than any of its precursors. It's also startlingly bulky, despite the lack of footnotes, and bedevilled by clumsy writing and gratuitous misprints ("V. F. Pritchett" and so on). Still, the illustrations are generous, and the filmography includes a useful spotter's guide to Hitchcock's sneakier on-screen appearances.