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The Times (01/Oct/1978) - The myths and mysteries of Alfred Hitchcock

(c) The Times (01/Oct/1978)

The myths and mysteries of Alfred Hitchcock

The Life and Work of Alfred Hitchcock
By John Russell Taylor
(Faber, £6.50)

An authorized biography, particularly where the subject is still very much alive, is seldom the earliest of literary forms but in “HitchJohn Russell Taylor has come up trumps. To a shelf already bulging with Hitchcock studies of one kind or another he has added the one book no addict can do without. Not that we have here a series of amazing revelations about the old master: Alfred Hitchcock’s private life remains just that, but then unlike fits working life it has never been much of a mystery.

A Leytonstone lad born within a few 1899 weeks of both Charles Laughton and Noel Coward, men whose careers (though not their lives) shared with his a number of distinct parallels and contrasts, Hitchcock has been happily married to his Alma since 1926 and a Hollywood resident since 1939. In the 13 years before he left this country he was making an average of two films a year, and from 1939 to 1960 only one year passed without a major Hitchcock release. That kind of working schedule left precious little time for much else, and it is therefore on the work that Mr Taylor (this paper’s film critic for most of the 1960s) has concentrated most of his energies.

He deals briskly with the myths that have grown up around Hitchcock’s childhood: true, he was once briefly locked in a prison cell for being “a naughty boy”, and he did have a strict Jesuit boarding-school upbringing which must have given him at the very least a heightened awareness of right and wrong, innocence and guilt, fear and safety: but that’s about the limit of the analysis. From there on, after a few brief pages about his teens, we’re into his first (1915) professional engagement as a technical clerk in the W. T. Henley Telegraph Company. By 1919 he was writing chilling little stories for their staff magazine, and by the end of that year he’d graduated to designing elaborate silent titles for movies then being made by the English end of the Lasky-Famous Players organization.

From there on it was films all the way, each here carefully detailed and researched not in terms of a few old review reprints but instead from Hitchcock’s own point of view — his precise involvement, what he though he was doing with the material in hand, and what eventually turned up on the screen. The prewar English years are inevitably the most intriguing, if only because they’re still the least known: once we get to Hollywood we’re on more familiar ground.

But here too there are some surprises, most clearly unearthed by Taylor in his conversations with Hitchcock and his somewhat reticent entourage: there are also inevitably moments when we want to know more. Taylor is for instance inclined to speed over Selznick’s endless doubts about Rebecca and Hitchcock’s own later period of gloom and despondency at the rime of The Birds. We also fail the discover in any detail how Hitchcock reacted to Michael Balcon’s shamefully misguided attack on him for wartime “desertion” (Alma, we learn, reacted by sharply removing the rest of her relatives from Britain and taking out American papers, a decision Hitchcock himself did not reach until five years later) and while we’re quibbling I’d much have liked a filmography at the back.

But these are very minor complaints about a very major book; there has never been (not even in Truffaut’s epic interview) so detailed an account of Hitchcock at work, nor so carefully critical an assessment of that work. Clearly there has been a falling-off since 1960 (though how many other British directors have made half a dozen feature films after their sixtieth birthday?) and it might well be said, though is not by the author, that his work has never truly recovered from that depression at the time of The Birds. Hitchcock remains, in his eightieth year, a defiantly buoyant figure but if he lives to be a hundred it’ll be hard to find a better tribute to a remarkable career than the one that is Mr Taylor’s book.

Sheridan Morley