The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock

Edward White

WW Norton, £22.99

IN 1967 Orson Welles gave a rather damning assessment of his fellow director, Alfred Hitchcock. “His contrivances remain contrivances, no matter how marvellously they’re conceived and executed,” Welles contended. “I don’t honestly believe Hitchcock is a director whose pictures will be of any interest a hundred years from now.”

More than 50 years later Welles’s theory has yet to be borne out. Indeed, in 2012, it was Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo that topped the Sight & Sound Greatest Film of All Time poll, replacing Welles’s own Citizen Kane in the process (the next poll result is due next year).

It appears that Hitchcock’s controlling, voyeuristic gaze still has a charge for us more than 40 years after his death in 1980. Not a bad return for a filmmaker dismissed by Scots documentarian John Grierson as “the slickest craftsman of … unimportant films”. (Hitchcock clearly didn’t hold it against him. In 1969 he fronted a documentary about Grierson’s contribution to cinema for STV.)

In his new book, The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock, author Edward White takes issue with Welles and Grierson. “Hitchcock,” he writes, “was the emblematic artist of the 20th century – not necessarily the most talented or the most accomplished, but one of vast influence.”

For White, Hitchcock is a central figure to 20th-century art, a man born in the last gasp of the 19th century who, “decades after his death … lives among us in many guises”.

White defines 12 of them as he examines the art and life of the director by looking at Hitchcock the auteur, the womaniser, the family man, the entertainer and the voyeur (to name but five).

It feels a fresh way to organise a familiar story, one that allows White to examine the binaries that run through Hitchcock’s life; the man who had both an enormous ego and fragile self-esteem, the uxorious husband who was also lecherous, the dandy in the body of a fat man and the end-of-the-pier entertainer who could also be framed as an avant-garde artist.

HeraldScotland: Alfred Hitchcock on set (Getty Images)Alfred Hitchcock on set (Getty Images)

Raymond Chandler once complained of Hitchcock’s lack of interest in character or narrative coherence. But, White contends, what Chandler dismissed as visual gimmickry is in fact the substance of “Hitchcock’s skill as a visual artist whose primary objective was to express atmosphere and emotion through the gaze of a camera”.

Hitchcock himself once said: “I’d compare myself to an abstract painter.” White, meanwhile, argues that: “So strong was his visual motivation that Hitchcock does at times resemble a conceptual artist, one who liked to capture shocking, witty ideas in those images that were so often his initial motivation for making a film.”

HeraldScotland: Janet Leigh in PsychoJanet Leigh in Psycho

The shower sequence in Psycho is perhaps the most obvious example of his avant-garde tendencies: 78 shots, 52 cuts, all soundtracked by Bernard Herrmann’s screaming strings. White, though, also draws a line back to Hitchcock’s wartime documentary about German concentration camps. “Once seen, the visual rhyme with the shower scene from Psycho, as profane as it might appear, is difficult to dislodge from one’s mind.” (Such connections are among the book’s pleasures.)

Born in 1899, the son of a greengrocer, Hitchcock grew up in lower-middle class London as the Victorian era gave way to the Edwardian. His early life was marked by the sudden death of his father when he was 10 and the impact of the First World War in his teens. He was a fearful boy (or so he always claimed), scared of policemen, strangers, crowds, heights, water; all fears he would later put onto the screen in his films.

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As a director, however, he was in control of that fear. He may have relished the fact. One of his scriptwriters, Charles Bennett, contended that Hitchcock’s creative energy was sadism. The director liked to quote the playwright Victorien Sardou, who once said the key to good drama is to “torture the women!”.

And yet in his working life, White points out, he surrounded himself with women, gave them responsibilities and opportunities and championed their work, none more so than his wife Alma (they were married and worked together for more than 50 years).

“At the same time,” White writes, “it was through women that he revealed the darkest, most discomfiting parts of himself – and embodied the culture in which he existed as a filmmaker and as a man.”

There’s no question that the chapter on Hitchcock the womaniser is the most challenging to read. The claims against Hitchcock in regard to his behaviour towards the women he worked with are not new, but they take on an extra charge in the wake of Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement.

HeraldScotland: Tippi Hedren, star of The BirdsTippi Hedren, star of The Birds

His relationship with Tippi Hedren, star of The Birds and Marnie, was the most troubling. Hedren claims he told her bawdy jokes (as he did other Hitchcock heroines, to be fair), sent her Valentine’s messages, and even forbade her travelling to New York to pick up an award on The Tonight Show. Cast and crew saw it as a crush. Hedren saw it as controlling.

In 2016, Hedren also claimed that Hitchcock had sexually assaulted her. At the time, some dismissed her claims as attention-seeking. Would they today?

Hedren was not the only actor who complained of her treatment at Hitchcock’s hands. Brigitte Auber, who starred in To Catch a Thief, once claimed that Hitch lunged at her in a taxi and kissed her. Afterwards he was contrite, but it ruined their relationship.

White, to his credit, takes Hedren’s claims seriously. “Despite the protestations of Hitchcock’s ardent defenders, it’s difficult to see why Hedren would have fabricated the entire story, and taken the trouble to keep it alive more than half a century later,” he writes.

“Hitchcock alone bears responsibility for his acts of predation, though his behaviour was thoroughly facilitated and normalised by the culture within which he lived and worked, one we are only beginning to fully reckon with.”

How, then, should we now regard his films? White wants to be honest about the man, but also alive to the art he created. Yes, Hitchcock liked to torture his heroines. And yet, Janet Leigh in Psycho apart, they are often capable, canny survivors. In Rear Window, his most voyeuristic film but also arguably his greatest, Grace Kelly may be presented as a fashion plate, but she is also the one who goes out and finds the evidence that proves the killer’s guilt. In Vertigo, James Stewart’s controlling impulses ultimately lead to disaster.

There is nothing simple about any of this. It is perhaps why Hitchcock’s dark, troubling art remains so compelling and may still be in 2067. Whatever Orson Welles says.

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