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Columbia Daily Spectator (13/Feb/1979) - Biography of Hitchcock is worthy, if not defintive




Biography of Hitchcock is worthy, if not defintive

Hitch, by John Russell Taylor (Pantheon Books, 320 pp., illustrated, $10)

Film fans have long needed a good critical biography of Alfred Hitchcock. No other director has matched this master of the thriller genre in terms of longevity, popularity, and critical acclaim.

His films are noteworthy on several counts. Foremost is Hitchcock's technical wizardry, which has amazed audiences for decades. Everybody has a favorite among the many striking sequences that this director has given us. Whether you prefer the crop-dusting scene in North by Northwest, the Statue of Liberty chase in Saboteur, or the shower scene from Psycho, these and other sequences are evidences of Hitchcock's flair for the memorable.

While John Russell Taylor's Hitch captures its subject's complex personality, it recounts his career in an anecdotal fashion similar to the typical Hollywood "authorized" biography. In fact, many of these stories are contained in a published series of interviews with Hitchcock, conducted by Francois Truffaut in the mid-sixties.

Yet those discussions ignored Hitchcock's very early career in Great Britain, and of course do not include the films made afterwards, including Topaz, Frenzy, and Family Plot. The worthiness of Taylor's book lies in the fact that it illuminates these gaps extensively.

It begins with his birth in a London suburb. The first few chapters deal with his childhood, and then follow him as he designed title cards for the film company Famous Players-Lasky, up to a first directorial effort on the uncompleted Number Thirteen.

Hitchcock's Catholic upbringing has preoccupied film critics for years, and Taylor fills us in on his subject's education at a Jesuit boarding school, where he studied until the age of fourteen. While there seem to be parallels between several childhood incidents and his films, Taylor tends to rely on Hitchcock's own interpretations of his psychological development and its later effects.

Since the book is short on analysis, perhaps most interesting to the film buff is Taylor's reconstruction of the plots of two of the director's earliest films, Number Thirteen and The Mountain Eagle, of which no prints now exist.

Taylor then proceeds to write about the well-known period of Hitchcock's career, from The Lodger up to the present day. This section of the book is filled with behind the scenes gossip. All the big stars are present, from Cary Grant, who starred in four Hitchcock features, to Julie Andrews and Marlene Dietrich.

Yet in the closing pages of Hitch, Taylor returns to untouched ground. The book shines in this section, which deals with the making of Family Plot, his latest film. It takes us step-by-step through preproduction, all the way to the premiere and the resulting promotional hoopla. Taylor followed him through the whole process, and he writes detailed descriptions of the director on the set, where he conducts the proceedings with proper British formality. And, in passing, there is an account of a luncheon for the press which Hitchcock held in a graveyard set in the studio, with Bloody Marys, and with each gravestone carrying the name of one of the journalists present.

In the epilogue, Taylor ventures a few opinions on his subject. He sees Hitchcock as intimidating, but also extremely vulnerable. Still shy and often ill at ease, Hitchcock, according to Taylor, uses film to manipulate the emotions of his audiences, and delights in having such power.

Taylor's portrait remains somewhat shallow, but his use of interviews with Hitchcock and those around him, reveal, in the end, a man who is in private quite different from the ghoulish public image he has cultivated, especially on his old television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. And what Hitch lacks in terms of critical analysis, it compensates for by containing juicy stories about stars like Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman, and by providing information on Hitchcock's early and later years in the cinema.