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The Globe and Mail (03/Apr/1983) - Alfred Hitchcock: kinkiness and art



Alfred Hitchcock: kinkiness and art


Donald Spoto's book about Alfred Hitchcock aspires to be the same kind of revealing biography that Albert Goldman wrote about Elvis Presley. That is to say, Spoto seeks to demonstrate that underneath the respectable facade of reputation, there lurked an incomparable monster. Leaving aside Spoto's dreariness as a stylist, there is one major impediment to his ambition: Hitchcock's unauthorized biographer has a notion of human nature that combines the insight of the gossip columnist with the fatuity of the analysand. Thus equipped, he has little chance to comprehend in any measure a great artist formed by a brutal and peculiar line of work.

All the same, Spoto has a done a remarkable job of research. If the reader knows something of the film business and can form his own conclusions about the context in which Hitchcock's anguished personality was obliged to operate, the journey through the director's long life can often be full of fascination, since the man had a character with enough kinks and sublimated quirks to confound either Kraft-Ebbing or the Marquis de Sade.

Alfred Hitchcock's dilemma, fundamentally, was that he was a physically unappealing and a fatally inhibited man who had a genius for an art form largely based on sexual glamor. From his earliest years, Hitchcock was immersed in the conundrums of the frustrated fat boy, possessed by dark fears, a deep sense of dread, and a thorough disgust for his own body. Add to these unwholesome beginnings a Victorian Catholic upbringing, in which emotion was avoided as dirty, a strict Jesuit schooling with frequent strappings, and an East London Cockney family background suffused in class shame, and you have a personality perfectly formed for the movies.

The creator of Norman Bates was forced to confess the events of each day for the approval or disapproval of a dominant and exacting mother. Early on, Hitchcock turned to food for solace and developed a taste for sadistic pranks, evidently in unconscious preparation for his future career. At bottom, Hitchcock became the first genius of horror because he himself was the most frightened man in the world.

Leaving school in his teens, Hitchcock worked through a series of odd jobs, doted on Chesterton and Poe, made visits to the murder trials at the Old Bailey, and generally shared in the British fascination with gory details of crime and punishment. A film freak at 15, especially of the American product, Hitchcock developed a shrewd and precocious appreciation of the terror story as a safe antidote to the slow drag of bourgeois life. Eager, hardworking amd unflappable, the fat young man went from a job drawing ads at the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company to one drawing titles for the British branch of Famous Players-Lasky. From designer of titles for silent features he became a designer of sets, a writer of scenarios, and assistant director, and then, still in his 20s, the first wunderkind of the British cinema.

While Hitchcock's directorial rivals led the tempestuous private lives that the cinema is famous for, he himself remained a sexual innocent well into adulthood; his marriage to Alma Reville added to the smooth progress of his career. He learned much from the German expressionist films of the twenties, both in telling a story in purely visual terms and in communicating terror. Equally early, he had a finely developed sense of himself as the first celebrity director. In 1925, he said, "Actors come and go, but the name of the director should stay clearly in the mind of audiences." Acting on this insight, immediately after his first success with The Lodger, Hitchcock formed his own PR company to promote his reputation, which, on the advice of promptly-hired financial advisers, he himself invested in, as a tax shelter. Alfred Hitchcock was one artist unafraid to be a good businessman and he ended up leaving an estate upward of $20-million.

But, as Spoto delights in pointing out, underneath the Buddha-like deadpan and the carefully contrived respectability of his image, Hitchcock was not exactly a boy scout. He was ungenerous with his collaborators, resented his actors as rivals for star billing, bitterly envied men such as Cary Grant their ease with women and formed a series of unrequited attachments to his leading ladies, from Ingrid Bergman to Madeline Carroll. Thus thwarted, Hitchcock had himself filmed in drag, did a party trick known as "The Whistling Sailor" in which the 365-pound director obscenely manipulated his massive, naked paunch, and delighted in sadistic and cruel practical jokes.

Obsessed with sexual strangulation, bondage and shoe fetishism, and fixated on all the stinky-poo of scatology, Hitchcock missed out on few kinky aberrations and, thwarted from realizing them in life by both his bulk and his chilly temperament, put as much of them into his films as he could get by the censor.

However, Spoto's boring reaction to all of this is merely to wonder piously why this monster of pride never sought professional help. Jeez, who needs therapy when you're the king of the movies, and can create your own world? What's more, much of what Spoto regards as callousness on Hitchcock's part must be viewed in context; that is to say, what appears to him as sadism is merely the standard operating procedure of the film industry. Spoto makes a great deal of the fact that the aging Hitchcock actually made a pass at that marvel of the thespian art, Tippi Hedren, which sent the poor girl screaming out of her trailer all the way out of the business for good. I mean, one bungled come-on is not enough to make the poor guy into Bluebeard.

Eager as he is to prove Hitchcock's "dark side," Spoto stumbles badly when he comes to Hitchcock's genius, trotting out a series of stupefyingly dull accounts of successive productions. What gets left out is the most important part of Hitchcock: his art. And despite Spoto's mechanical and sometimes laughable attempts to match up the life and the films, the definitive critical biography of Alfred Hitchcock remains to be written.