Alfred Hitchcock: A Brief Life

Alfred Hitchcock rating

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A gripping short biography of the extraordinary Alfred Hitchock, the master of suspense.

Alfred Hitchcock was a strange child. Fat, lonely, burning with fear and ambition, his childhood was an isolated one, scented with fish from his father's shop. Afraid to leave his bedroom, he would plan great voyages, using railway timetables to plot an exact imaginary route across Europe. So how did this fearful figure become the one of the most respected film directors of the twentieth century?

     As an adult, Hitch rigorously controlled the press's portrait of him, drawing certain carefully selected childhood anecdotes into full focus and blurring all others out. In this quick-witted portrait, Ackroyd reveals something more: a lugubriously jolly man fond of practical jokes, who smashes a once-used tea cup every morning to remind himself of the frailty of life. Iconic film stars make cameo appearances, just as Hitch did in his own films: Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, and James Stewart despair of his detached directing style and, perhaps most famously of all, Tippi Hedren endures cuts and bruises from a real-life fearsome flock of birds.

     Alfred Hitchcock wrests the director's chair back from the master of control and discovers what lurks just out of sight, in the corner of the shot.

Alfred Hitchcock is THE MAN of suspenseful directing. He needs little introduction, for some of his movies have made infamous, long-lasting impressions. This well-done biography focuses on the unusual eccentricities of the prestigious director, his artful and quick directing styles, low self-esteem and obsessions. The ending gives a sobering, depressing conclusion that I can’t get out of my head.

I typically prefer memoirs because of their more intimate tone, but Peter Ackroyd’s writing style in this biography is well done. Neither dry nor dully academic, he indulges in details for every film Hitchcock did, from directing to acting to box office result. Obviously much research has been done to formulate such a thorough book. It is not all-conclusive, however, and leaves some personal issues out.

While not a textbook on technical details, people interested in directing and film-making should find this one worthy. The biographer discusses small techniques Hitchcock learned abroad and explored with different movies, where he experimented, and his unusual kookiness behind the camera.

From this book the main impression is that Hitchcock was an unhappy man for much of his life. Film was not only his career, but his only major hobby, and he used it not only as a creative outlet, but as an escape from life’s worries and humdrum. It’s surprising to learn he is so serious since I saw his humor while introducing so many episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (which he apparently enjoyed quite a bit), and because of the stories of him being such a merciless prankster on film sets. In fact, his practical jokes and nearly constant pranks sometimes alienated him from crew members permanently.

The biographer talks about his early childhood and into his final years, detailing that he was apparently obsessed with time and routine, nervous and high strung. Whenever an ailment affected his longtime wife and companion Alma, he fell apart weeping and claiming he could not go on. He attributed strength and structure to their relationship.

Due to his worries over illness and sickness, disaster and doom, the smallest things could set him off. Some of his isolation was self-induced. It was speculated that his extreme anxiety and large array of fears may have prompted him to get the help of artificial means long before proper anxiety and antidepressant drugs were created. This, mixed with his lifestyle, could be why he kept falling asleep so easily in between dinner conversations on the movie set.

I had the fortune of hearing Tippi Hedrin speak at a movie convention a few years back. Yes, she's still beautiful. She clearly did not care much for Alfred Hitchcock. She seemed to find him creepy, talking about wanting to distant herself from him after some weird story about her daughter and a doll or something like that. She didn't come across as too impressive herself at the convention, alienating several fans by being less than friendly to them unless they showed interest in her animal rescue organization. One of the staff called it the "Old Hollywood" attitude. When I did get to her part of the biography, I see that he did get unhealthily, oddly obsessed with her. She wasn’t the only one apparently, but from the sound of it she was the worst case.

I was also surprised to hear Daphne DuMaurier hated his version of Jamaica Inn, a film he did very early in his career and on assignment, to be followed by Rebecca, again not a film he had much enthusiasm for. While she wasn’t a fan of his films, he claimed not to be a big fan of her writing, despite choosing The Birds years later when he had it made. He did change pretty much everything in the story. Keeping with his nearly endless fears, he had a phobia of birds.

There's something fascinating about Hitchcock, weird stories aside. He was a man behind so many sensational movies that, although they may show age, never lose luster. This short book tells a lot. Every movie is discussed and notes are made about the production, methods, box office, relationships within the movie, and how each idea was conceived. Being a fan of his suspense works, I was especially excited about Psycho and The Birds.

I’m happy Psycho actually got made, as apparently the studio Paramount was against the idea and thought the idea a failure. Hitchcock ended up subsidizing the project and to his surprised delight, it made him more money than any other. While he enjoyed making the film, he felt it a failure at some points and was always a little dumbfounded at how well it was received. He purposely hired actors who weren’t well known in order to make as much profit as possible since he figured the movie would either bomb or struggle or break even. These behind the scenes trivia pieces make this book a joy to read.

I’m surprised to learn how poorly The Birds did. I always considered that one of his most famous works, but apparently it wasn’t at the time. It's weird how some movies do poorly when they first come out, but go on to become cult classics.

That ending, though. Brutally sad. Not only for the aging and pain and death, but for his realizations and viewpoint of life, co-workers, and inner struggles. Age can be cruel, but that wasn't the only reason this was a sobering, depressing ending. Hate to hear how he went out. He may have had his issues, but I sensed a genuinely unhappy man throughout most of his life, choosing to invest almost all his time in movies as a distraction. When he was nearing the end, he became more brutal and experimental with his urges in showing violence in his films, including toward women. He became emotionally unbalanced.

“An old colleague, Hume Cronyn, recalled in these later years that Hitchcock had become “a sad and rather isolated figure. I visited him often and found him weeping. He said not only that the work was not proceeding well, but that he never went out, never saw anyone, was never invited anywhere.”

I looked up and the picture on the home page struck me as such a depressed expression:

“Another actor on set, John Forsythe, said that “He was no longer the great brain that sat in the chair watching…He would go away for fifteen or twenty minutes, and lie down if he could, and it was sad to see.”

Ugh, my heartstrings!

It was definitely a bleak finish for a great director. If you are interested in the man behind the camera, I highly recommend this book. It’s not complete with every detail, but it’s surprisingly adept with most of them. You get a genuine feel for the emotions with a man who preferred isolation and hiding behind a false silhouette.

Received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review