Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Dial H for Hitchcock

Summer is supposed to be the time for light-hearted amusements, but I suspect the book I’ve just finished doesn’t exactly count as an appropriate beach read. It’s Edward White’s brand-new The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspense. Maybe it’s the resurgence of COVID-19 that has prompted me to choose a book in a minor key. But it’s also true that this unorthodox biography is smart and original, as well as sometimes quite amusing, much like the man himself.

 Why not write a cradle-to-grave biography of Hitchcock? As White points out, such books already exist. Instead, he divides his study of Hitchcock into twelve sections, each exploring a different aspect of the master’s life and work. The tantalizing list of chapter titles immediately provoked my curiosity. White starts out with “The Boy Who Couldn’t Grow Up,” discussing young Alfred’s childhood fears and revealing how these perhaps show up in his handling of innocent children in films like The Birds. Next comes “The Murderer,” regarding a shy man’s fascination with murder as a perverse sort of art form. This leads to a fascinating suggestion that Psycho was, among other things, Hitchcock’s response to the rise of the television generation, as well as a precursor of the various real-life horrors of the Sixties, including the Zapruder tapes, the Vietnam War, and the bloody doings of the Manson family. (I learned for the first time that just after World War II Hitchcock was hired by the British Ministry of Information to edit found footage of the Nazi death camps.)

 There’s a chapter, of course, on Hitchcock’s complex dealing with women, whom he took a delight in degrading on screen, while also relying heavily on his sensible wife. And there’s a chapter on his gourmand-ish relationship to food, as well as his ambiguous view of his own weight issues. (He was hugely self-conscious of his looks, but also knew how to poke public fun at his own stabs at dieting: see how the clever Hitchcock cameo in Lifeboat is tucked into a newspaper ad for a diet plan, complete with before-and-after photos.) Chapter 6, “The Dandy,” explores Hitchcock’s rigid personal sartorial code, and then dips into his subtle use of actual gay actors to hint at the homosexual aspects of a senseless crime in Rope. No surprise that the chapter on “The Voyeur” features Rear Window, comparing its housebound protagonist (played by James Stewart) to Hitchcock himself, as a man who gets his jollies by peering from afar at the perversities of others.

 Chapter 9, “The Entertainer,” zeroes in on how and why Hitchcock uses humor to leaven the horror of many of his films. “The Pioneer” pays tribute to the myriad ways in which his filmmaking can be considered artistically revolutionary. I was intrigued by how White, an Englishman, sees in Hitchcock a peculiarly British perspective, especially when it comes to the English delight in watching the once-mighty get their comeuppance. (Much attention is paid in this chapter to Hitchcock’s early, London-based, film work.) And the unexpected final chapter, “The Man of God,” weighs the impact on Hitchcock – both the young boy and the old man nearing death –of his family’s deep-seated Roman Catholic faith.

 Along the way, I discovered that it was Hitchcock films like Vertigo and Marnie that cinema scholar Laura Mulvey was remembering when she formulated her influential theory of the “male gaze.” And among the important Hollywood auteurs who took lessons from Hitchcock was Martin Scorsese, who reworked aspects of Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man into Taxi Driver. Who knew?





  1. The sound effects in THE BIRDS was made electronically..supervised by Bernard Herrmann. I have never been able to find anything about this terrifically creative endeavor

  2. You're right, Mitch. I remember something about that in White's book. I can't check it, because it went back to the library yesterday, but what you mention is definitely discussed (in brief) in White's pages. Thanks for reading!