The psychology that drove cinema’s master of suspense is unravelled in this insightful biography
Wednesday 25 March 2015
December 1943 was a low point in the life of Alfred Hitchcock. “I was alone and I didn’t know what to do,” the director recalled. Despite the pleasure he took in scaring his audiences, Hitchcock himself was “a shuddering, shivering human being”, in Peter Ackroyd’s words. During this unhappy period, at the age of 44, he had returned home to England to discuss making propaganda shorts for the Ministry of Information. His wife and collaborator, Alma, on whom he depended, was not with him; he huddled alone in a hotel room, nervously listening to the bombs drop.
In Hollywood, meanwhile, Hitchcock’s film, Lifeboat, which had taken twice as long as planned to film, was being savaged by the critics. Lifeboat was an anomalous project for the “Master of Suspense”, a largely static film about an ill-assorted group of American survivors who end up unwittingly sharing a boat with the Nazi officer who torpedoed their liner. The script, by John Steinbeck, was botched and needed extensive rewrites. It was an arduous shoot, with many of the cast getting ill from spending so much time drenched by the water tank on which the boat floated. The biggest star, Tallulah Bankhead, caught pneumonia. When it was finally released, at this critical moment of the war, some reviews condemned Hitchcock – unfairly – for not making the Nazi character seem vicious enough. One reviewer gave the movie “10 days to get out of town”.
“Yet,” writes Ackroyd, “Hitchcock did have work at hand.” That is an understatement. As well as creating those propaganda shorts – which ended up being shown in liberated France in 1944 – Hitchcock was in talks with the great Hollywood producer David Selznick about a new “psychological story”. This would end up as Spellbound(1945) starring Gregory Peck as an amnesiac and Ingrid Bergman as the beautiful psychiatrist who unlocks his troubled mind. Although far from being Hitchcock’s finest psychodrama – it lacks the haunting depth of Vertigo –Spellbound was a huge hit and was nominated for seven Oscars. But without drawing breath, Hitchcock was on to his next project, again with Bergman. This was the thriller Notorious, about as perfect a film as he ever made, in which an American agent played by Cary Grant persuades Bergman’s character to marry a Nazi, even though he is really in love with her himself. Notorious is soaringly romantic and impossibly tense, with possibly the best kiss in screen history. Once again, however, Hitchcock did not dwell on his achievement. He moved straight on to The Paradine Case, a courtroom drama. When he didn’t know what to do, what he did was work.
It is a cliche that biographers make their subjects in their own image. But reading this superb, insightful short life, it is hard to resist comparing Hitchcock’s prodigious appetite for work with Ackroyd’s own. The list of Ackroyd’s works includes substantial lives of Dickens and Eliot, numerous shorter lives and other non-fiction such as London: The Biography. By the same token, Hitchcock directed more than 60 films, and though not all were as good as Rear Window or North by Northwest, even the flops had magic in them.
Ackroyd does not seem the most obvious person to write about Hitchcock. His presiding obsessions have been with places (London, Venice, Albion) and writers (Milton, Dickens, Blake, Eliot) rather than film. For film fanatics, Ackroyd’s slim volume will offer no replacement for the more comprehensive treatment by Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light). Yet Ackroyd’s deft and moving biography proves that there is a fresh story to be told, and that he is the person to do it. Hitchcock grew up in a London that was recognisably still the city of Dickens. The director’s ability to mix “threat with pantomime” was a “cockney vision”, says Ackroyd. His imagination, too, was similar to that of Dickens. “They were both fantasists who insisted upon meticulous detail in the unravelling of their plots; they were both poised between art and commerce, with a keen taste for the making of money.”
Hitchcock was born in the final year of the 19th century above his father’s greengrocer’s shop in Leytonstone, but the family moved to a fishmonger’s in Limehouse when Alfred was six or seven. Ackroyd describes Limehouse at that time as a grimy neighbourhood of “small shops and houses standing a few feet back from the pavement, little plots of impoverished humanity”. As a boy, Hitchcock escaped from his surroundings by fantasising about travel. “He collected maps and timetables, tickets and schedules, and all the other paraphernalia of journeying”. He claimed that when he was eight, he had travelled on every single London Omnibus route.
According to Ackroyd’s account, perhaps the most important aspect of Hitchcock’s working-class upbringing was that his family was deeply Catholic, which instilled in “Alfie” (he became known as “Hitch” as an adult) a squeamishness about bodies and a “tremulous sense of guilt”. His Catholic education gave him a sense of “mystery and miracle”. What, after all, is “suspense”, but a riff on the Catholic sense of awe at the unknown forces of the universe? Hitchcock’s religious sensibility informed films such as Vertigo, which, to Ackroyd, is “a reverie and a lament, a threnody and a hymn”. The final, chilling line is spoken by a nun: “God have mercy.”
The young Hitchcock had a “preternatural fear of authority of every kind” and complicated feelings about sex. After the conception of their daughter, Pat, it is thought that his relationship with Alma was celibate. One of his screenwriters, Arthur Laurents, said “he thought everyone was doing something physical and nasty behind every closed door – except himself”. But his Jesuit schooling at St Ignatius College in Stamford Hill also left him with an extraordinary work ethic. From the silent era to talkies, from England to Hollywood, from black and white to glorious Technicolor, from drama to horror, he was always toiling, and it is this aspect of Hitchcock’s personality that Ackroyd brings out most strongly.
We have been given many previous versions of Hitchcock. For François Truffaut, one of his earliest and most passionate fans, he was an auteur: the consummate artist. For biographer Donald Spoto in The Dark Side of Genius (1983), he was a creepy and deeply troubled man who acted out his inner demons on screen and was abusive towards his leading ladies. Ackroyd, far more convincingly, gives us Hitchcock the industrious craftsman. His work was a solace from his horrors and hang-ups rather than a straightforward depiction of them.
Ackroyd does not deny that the director often behaved controllingly towards the succession of untouchable blondes who starred in his films. Yet for most of his career, this dominating behaviour was a function of the work. On the set of Rebecca, for example, Hitchcock decided that Joan Fontaine’s performance as the nameless wife would be more convincing if he could make her think that the rest of the cast disliked her. On North by Northwest, he told Eva Marie Saint off for drinking coffee from a disposable cup. “You are wearing a $3,000 dress, and I don’t want the extras to see you quaffing from a Styrofoam cup.” It was only while shooting The Birds with Tippi Hedren that these personal demands tipped over from the behaviour of a perfectionist to that of a stalker. “I controlled every movement on her face,” he boasted. As well as making her suffer excessive violence from the birds during filming, he started telling her what she should wear, and even eat, in her spare time.
When Psycho was released in the summer of 1960 to unprecedented success, making Hitchcock the richest film director in the world, he was so shocked that his incessant work urge was momentarily put on hold. “What will you do for an encore?” asked his agent, by telegram. “Hitchcock did not know,” writes Ackroyd.
And then he made The Birds.
A new biography of the ‘master of suspense’ that emphasises the film-maker’s Catholic upbringing
Alfred Hitchcock was born in London in 1899 to devoutly Catholic parents, who reportedly instilled in him a fear of punishment and authority. For a trifling misdemeanour, the story goes, the boy Alfred was locked up at his own father’s request in a police cell. His most distinguished biographer, Donald Spoto, claimed that the “Master of Suspense” rejected religion in the late 1970s as death approached. Nevertheless, in Catholicism Hitchcock had found a sense of melodrama — an atmosphere of good and evil — that served him well as a film-maker.
In this brief biography, Peter Ackroyd highlights Hitchcock’s Jesuitical secondary school education at St Ignatius College in north London. From the Jesuits Hitchcock believed he learnt the virtues of order, control and precision as well as, no doubt, a strong sense of fear. The anxious Catholic priest played by an alcoholic Montgomery Clift in Hitchcock’s noirish masterpiece I Confess (1953), is blackmailed into keeping silent about a murder, yet, as a Catholic, he fears damnation, and Hitchcock establishes our empathy for him. Graham Greene, a fellow Catholic, was asked to write the script for the film, but he turned Hitchcock down.
Greene’s aversion to Hitchcock is well-known, but Ackroyd oddly makes nothing of it. Greene shared with Hitchcock a taste for sinister jeopardy and suspense in dowdy, broken-down locations, as well as a love of espionage thrillers in the John Buchan mould. In 1958, Hitchcock tried to acquire the film rights to Greene’s espionage “entertainment” Our Man in Havana; but, again, he was snubbed.
Hitchcock’s third production, The Lodger, was in many ways his first true film. Released in 1927, it starred the matinee idol Ivor Novello as a Jack the Ripper-like murder suspect and saw Hitchcock in his debut “cameo” role. Hitchcock did not want his audience to think, says Ackroyd, but to “bludgeon” and “titillate” them with suspense. Vital to the film’s success was the director’s future wife Alma Reville, the “doyenne of the cutting room”, and a no-nonsense assistant on set. Hitchcock later said, half-jokingly, that he would have become homosexual had he not met Alma. In the director’s dandified manner and keen interest in women’s couture Ackroyd nevertheless detects an undertow of near-Wildean campery.
As a Londoner and chronicler of London, Ackroyd co-opts Hitchcock into a tradition of metropolitan “cockney visionaries” that stretches back to Charles Dickens. The director’s lugubrious delivery in his hugely popular 1950s and early 1960s television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents suggests a London music hall comedy routine. Hitchcock’s off-colour jokes to camera (“I was once arrested for indecent exposure when I removed a Halloween mask”) have an edge of macabre sauciness. Hitchcock once said that if he made a film out of Cinderella, a corpse would have to roll out of the fairy-tale coach.
Ackroyd reminds us that “Hitch” was often described (not always flatteringly) as an artist of the surface; Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, North By Northwest and other great works of the 1950s radiate a “vivid unreality” and glazed elegance in the image-making that is pure mannered cinema. His leading actresses were all idealised, Madonna-like fantasy constructs; Grace Kelly was perhaps associated in his mind with the Catholic “light of grace” from his Jesuit school days, Ackroyd suggests, while Janet Leigh in Psycho (1960) radiates a tremulous if sexually knowing beauty.
For all its insight, Peter Ackroyd’s biography is a deft synthesis of numerous other studies of “Alfred the Great”; it is well written, however, and unusually well attuned to the religious element. Over the half-century of his film-making career, Hitchcock created characters who try to hide their weaknesses from the world and themselves. He was, like Greene, a Catholic excited by human turpitude and evil. Pointedly, his great 1958 film Vertigo ends with words spoken by a nun: “I heard voices. God have mercy.”
Alfred Hitchcock, by Peter Ackroyd, Chatto & Windus, RRP £12.99, 288 pages
6 Apr 2015
The trailer for Frenzy, Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate film, begins with a life-size dummy of the director floating down the Thames in front of the Houses of Parliament.
The camera cuts to a close-up and Hitch, reclining in the water, tells us that the reason he is “floating around London like this” is that he is investigating “a very horrible murder”. “Rivers,” he warns us, “can be very sinister places.” It is so knowing it is practically pastiche. There is no doubt about who the star of this film is going to be.
By this late stage of his career, Hitchcock had become rather accomplished at playing himself. It was an instantly recognisable performance, honed in the vignettes that opened the hugely popular Alfred Hitchcock Presents: the jowls, the pendulous lower lip, the suits, the unflustered demeanour and the black humour. It is telling that he managed to create a brand out of his own silhouette.
The problem for the biographer is getting beyond this persona he inhabited so thoroughly. He told the same self-mythologising anecdotes in interview after interview and kept his distance from all but a very select few. There is something ultimately unknowable about Hitchcock.
Biographers abhor a vacuum. Most controversial among the extant biographies are Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius (1983) and Spellbound by Beauty (2008), in which Hitch is depicted sexually harassing his leading ladies and using his films to project the creepy desires he could not act on in his own life. It’s a portrait of Hitch as pervy Pygmalion. Patrick McGilligan’s A Life in Darkness and Light (2003), while generally more nuanced than Spoto’s, argued that Hitch was impotent.
So without any fresh revelatory material, Peter Ackroyd’s new biography has to work with what is already known. This can tempt novelist-biographers like Ackroyd to trespass where they are not wanted. In his Dickens biography Ackroyd took a critical kicking for depicting himself having chats with Charlie on the Tube. There is none of that kind of ostentation here. Alfred Hitchcock starts with the birth, ends with the death and works its way briskly through the films in between.
Yet, funnily enough, there is a lot of Ackroyd in this biography, but unobtrusively so, like a Hitchcock cameo. And a good thing it is, too, for the success of the enterprise depends on it. Why? Well, if there is any writer capable of imaginative sympathy with Hitchcock, it is Ackroyd. Both were brought up in strict Catholic households in lower-middle-class London and both were boys in whom there was a contradictory mix of shyness and ambition. Both developed an insatiable appetite for work. Both publicly declared themselves celibate. Hitchcock made some of his finest films late in his life; Ackroyd, at 65, seems to be gaining momentum.
Hitchcock made a great show of not taking his films too seriously – “it’s only a movie” – but was anxious that they were not taken seriously enough. He sought out highbrow collaborators, including Sean O’Casey, Thornton Wilder, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and Vladimir Nabokov. The only interviewer to get him to talk earnestly at any length was fellow director François Truffaut – and even then it took three days for him to open up. In this, Ackroyd argues, Hitchcock was like Dickens: both were “poets and visionaries who posed as practical men of the world”.
Ackroyd’s book is strong on the impact of London on Hitchcock. The opening pages draw on Henry James and Thomas De Quincey to evoke Limehouse at the turn of the century.
It was in this environment, Ackroyd argues, that Hitchcock developed his “Cockney vision of the world” in which terror and comedy were intertwined, a vision “adumbrated by Dickens and Chaplin”. While he stopped making explicitly London films when he moved to Hollywood (at least until Frenzy), the city shaped him.
Ackroyd clearly made the decision not to let the psychosexual stuff determine his portrait. That does not mean he ignores Hitch’s famously obsessive and sadistic treatment of some of his leading ladies, especially Tippi Hedren on the sets of The Birds and Marnie, just that he is careful to contextualise it. The closest to outright speculation is in the story of Hitchcock’s claim that, had he not met Alma Reville, his wife and collaborator, he might have become a “poof” (his word). Ackroyd, who is gay, points out that homosexuality is “almost a leitmotif” in Hitchcock’s films.
Ackroyd says the “secret” to Hitchcock’s film-making was not the expression of repressed desires but his ability to project his anxiety on to the screen. He was, Ackroyd writes, “a man filled with constant dread” that he could translate into moving images. He sought to exert absolute control over the creation of a cinematic world in which people lost control in terrifying ways. If he was generating the fear, he could not be subject to it.
Let's be honest, this is an easy read and Ackroyd's at his best when talking about his early life in London. There are many, many better books on Hitchcock, however.