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American Film (1978) - Books: Nothing Too Personal





What film director has scared more people than Alfred Hitchcock? His fifty-three films and innumerable television shows have seen to that and have also turned the man with the overripe silhouette into one of the most immediately recognizable figures in the world. Yet, as John Russell Taylor points out in Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, "Two facts are obvious: Everybody knows Alfred Hitchcock, and nobody knows him." Almost all of the small library of books and articles written about him have centered on poring over all that footage; and Hitchcock, the most private of private individuals, has not encouraged even the discreetest of peeks into his personal life.

Hitch, however, promises to be different. It is "an authorized biography," written with the total cooperation of the usually reticent director, his wife and daughter, even his sister, complete with family photos. At last, it seems, the public veil is to be dropped and the inner man revealed.

The son of William Hitchcock, master greengrocer, young Alfred apparently had a somewhat desolate childhood. Feeling distant from his strict, devoutly Catholic parents, he developed eccentric interests of his own. His favorite reading material, Taylor tells us, was railway timetables; he prided himself on his ability to recite all the stops on the Orient Express. A classic childhood memory has him waking on Christmas Eve only to see his mother taking a toy from his stocking and giving it to his brother or sister and then filling the empty space with an orange. Pleasant dreams, indeed.

Hitchcock's interest in film was apparently an outgrowth of his parents' enthusiasm for the theater. In 1919, at the age of twenty, he left the relative comfort of his job at a firm which manufactured electrical cable for employment designing title cards for Famous Players-Lasky. In this humble manner did one of the greatest of film careers begin.

If Alfred Hitchcock's life does not exactly scintillate up to now, be informed that it gets no better. For a man whose cinematic imagination is so unrestrained, he lives a remarkably dull and consciously commonplace private life. All his madness is in his head; there is apparently nothing much of interest to fill his days, except his films. So for better and for worse, much of Hitch is not a biography per se but an anecdote-filled narrative history of each and every one of those fifty-three-productions.

Unfortunately, it is the least interesting of his films, his early British-made features, which have to be plowed through first. No one but a dedicated film historian could care greatly about shooting details on items like The Mountain Eagle and Downhill, but for the sake of completeness we have to put up with them. Even Hitchcock seems bored by these early efforts, but Taylor, with a loyalty that is one of the book's weaknesses, is enamored of every one of them. Hitchcock may dismiss The Manxman as of little interest; Taylor feels that judgment is "unfair." The director calls Waltzes From Vienna "my lowest ebb"; Taylor insists that "the film itself is actually rather charming." And soon.

When Hitchcock arrives in America, his films and the stories attached to them become progressively more interesting. Most fascinating is the story behind Psycho, which Hitchcock shot for a bargain-basement $800,000 just to show he could make a trashy horror film as well as the next man. In an almost total reversion from form, he filmed screenwriter Joseph Stefano's first draft with only one scene rewritten. Even more uncharacteristically, he had doubts about the film after it was finished and talked of cutting it down and using it on television.

And Psycho's famous shower sequence led to one of Hitchcock's most famous deadpan ripostes. What, an aggrieved parent wrote to ask, should he do with a daughter who refused to take showers after seeing the film? Have her dry-cleaned, was the directorial reply.

The closest we get to Hitchcock the man are anecdotes like that one, which are sprinkled throughout the book. We learn, for instance, that he detests eggs, is compulsive about personal cleanliness, claims to have been completely celibate for more than forty years, and gave up driving when he arrived in America, except for Sunday trips to hear Mass.

More disturbing are glimpses of the sadistic side of the director. He once told a producer that with actors he prefers to "break 'em down right at the start — it's much the best way." He also has a penchant for practical jokes. In England, he once paid a studio propman a pound to let himself be handcuffed overnight and then immediately gave the man a strong laxative. Taylor reports that Hitchcock felt he'd gone a bit too far on this one and made "generous amends" the next day in the form of a hundred percent bonus. How generous the propman felt this to be has been left unrecorded.

In this and other matters, it is Taylor's willingness to be a bit too tolerant of Hitchcock that is the book's central flaw. Obviously, he would not have got the director's cooperation were they not relatively close personal friends, but when that friendship leads to a generally uncritical point of view, even spilling over into worshipfulness, it is unclear whether the bargain was worth the price. In biographies of famous men published while the subjects are still alive, this is almost always the case.

Although this book should ideally be richer and more insightful, most readers will be justifiably grateful for its competence of execution and for some of the stranger anecdotes it relates, such as the time Hitchcock leaned out of a moving car to say to a small boy chatting with a priest, "Run, little boy, run for your life."

What kind of man would say something like that? Even after reading Hitch, it is difficult to say. One of his scriptwriters capsulized him as the "biggest bully in the world; one of the kindest men I have ever met in my life." David O. Selznick called him "not a bad guy, shorn of affectations, although not exactly a man to go camping with." In sum, he seems to be described best in a phrase Taylor uses near the beginning of his book. "The most frightening labyrinth," he says, "is a labyrinth without a center." So it is with Alfred Hitchcock.