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American Film (1983) - Torn Curtain




Review of "The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock" - by Donald Spoto.


Torn Curtain

Donald Spoto's biography of Hitchcock sheds new light on the man, but does it have anything to say about the filmmaker?

Film history has for so long been written from legends and self-serving anecdotes that the lives of most major figures remain obscure. This is true even for Alfred Hitchcock, about whom so much has been published. John Russell Taylor's Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, until now the sole Hitchcock biography, is not the kind of rigorously researched, methodologically sophisticated study that would be expected if its subject were an important novelist, painter, or composer, not to mention politician. Donald Spoto's The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock is such a biography, and is to be welcomed.

Spoto's book provides by far the most detailed and useful account we have of the director's life. It is a substantial scholarly achievement that profits from conversations with Hitchcock's screenwriters, actors, and other longtime associates, and from study of studio files and private correspondence, especially material in the David O. Selznick archives. And it has another asset: Its author knows and loves Hitchcock's films.

Yet it is not for its scholarship that it is generating such interest, but for its scandalous revelations. The flyleaf whets the reader's appetite for gossip even as it provides a fair synopsis:

While still a schoolboy, Hitchcock endured his widowed mother's demands for an unusual psychological intimacy, from which he never recovered—even after his marriage, at twenty-seven, to a gifted and challenging co-worker. Unable to confront the problems of his personal relationships and unwilling to face the dangers of a pathological obsession with sadomasochism, he soon invented an array of crude practical jokes—and later, a habit of subjecting actors to degrading and often painful tests.

Although most of the book is taken up with mundane matters, Spoto never lets the reader forget that sensations are on the way. He has a devastating story to tell and pulls out all the stops in building his climax—the now famous scene in which Hitchcock makes an "overt sexual proposition" to Tippi Hedren. In short, it is written as a Hitchcockian thriller.

If Spoto's book is a thriller in homage to Hitchcock, it is also a transgression against him. In the maxim "You destroy the thing you love," Spoto finds the key to Hitchcock's life and work. Oscar Wilde's sentiment may or may not supply the key to the director, but it does provide a key to Spoto's project. The author loves Hitchcock, yet wishes to destroy him.

This thought occurred to me when I first saw the reviews of his book in the Sunday New York Times and Vanity Fair. Both ridiculed the notion that Hitchcock was a genius, and relished Spoto's revelations, taking them as evidence that Hitchcock could not have been a great artist. Spoto is worlds apart from such philistinism, yet his book seems to invite this reaction.

Spoto is revolted by Hitchcock's appetite for food and drink, his cruelty, his infatuations. It isn't as if he undertook to destroy Hitchcock to protect his own innocence, the way Charlie kills her uncle in Shadow of a Doubt. Spoto is no innocent. The cruelty he attributes to Hitchcock is mirrored by his own in writing this book, which is certain to cause so many people pain, especially Hitchcock's family.

It is clear that there is a strong bond between Spoto and his subject. Yet that bond is also denied: Spoto sets Hitchcock apart in pathetic—and villainous—contrast to himself. Like most purveyors of gossip, he cultivates the impression that he has the confidence of everyone, while Hitchcock is cursed by being intimate with no one.

Spoto's dark, ambiguous relationship with the character he creates lies at the heart of the narrative, but is unexamined in it. The Dark Side of Genius is, in this sense, entirely unreflective, as was The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, Spoto's earlier critical study. That work was animated by a passion for Hitchcock's films, but never adequately articulated their meaning or form.

The new book discovers in Hitchcock's films numerous poignant or chilling parallels to his personal life, but as criticism it makes no advance. What is most striking about the story of Hitchcock's life as Spoto tells it is that it does not change our view of his films at all. It is no surprise that the man who made The Lodger and Murder and The Thirty-Nine Steps and Shadow of a Doubt and Psycho lived such a life. Spoto's book only confirms that Hitchcock was who he appears to be in his films.

For Spoto, Hitchcock's movies are the inarticulate outcries of a tormented genius. However, Hitchcock's films are not inarticulate outcries but meditations. To penetrate their mysteries, we need know nothing about Hitchcock that the films do not make available to us. Hitchcock's films are "personal," but his meditations on the human condition, on film, and on his own nature are seamlessly joined. It could not be otherwise, since Hitchcock's "self' is that of a man who dedicated his life to what he called "the art of pure cinema." It is this dedication, and not a pathology that can be separated from it, that most decisively marks Hitchcock's identity. Hitchcock's adult life, and certainly his dreams and loves, cannot really be imagined apart from his calling as a filmmaker.

When Spoto writes about Hitchcock's "infatuations" with Ingrid Bergman, Vera Miles, and Tippi Hedren, his tone is confident, as though he were certain he knew what Hitchcock's dreams about these women were like. When he comes to the fateful "overt sexual proposition" to Tippi Hedren, he again assumes a tone of certainty, although it is obvious that he cannot possibly really know what went on in that studio trailer. He invites us to imagine this incident as though its passions were completely transparent, as though it were a scene in a soap opera. This is an invitation I have no inclination to accept, however grateful I am for this book.

William Rothman, who teaches film at Harvard University, is the author of Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze.