Alfred Hitchcock by Peter Ackroyd
|Alfred Hitchcock by Peter Ackroyd
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
|Summary: A sound, well-researched biography of the noted film producer and director and his work, from his early days in London to his towering presence in Hollywood. Throughout he comes across as a very guarded man, reluctant to share his private life with the world, and the last few paragraphs seem a little rushed.
|Date: April 2016
Peter Ackroyd has established a reputation for himself in recent years as the master of the pithy biography, particularly but not exclusively of those with a strong London connection. J.M.W. Turner, Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins and Charlie Chaplin are among those who have come under his scrutiny, and now he looks at the noted film director and producer, the 'Master of Suspense'.
From the start we are presented with a portrait of the very self-contained child from Leytonstone, then part of Essex, the baby and small child who apparently never cried, the plump, shy and lonely boy who was not liked much by his contemporaries, and the product of an austere Roman Catholic upbringing. Seeking escapism from his humdrum existence, from the age of eight or nine he was a regular visitor to the picture palaces. He found English silent films inferior, and was much more impressed by those made in Germany and Russia. As a devoted reader of the early trade papers such as 'Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly', he always had more than a passing curiosity in the new medium. A fascination with the trials of murderers and the works of Edgar Allan Poe testified to his lifelong interest in the darker side of life, and in later years he confessed that had he not gone into movies, he might otherwise have enjoyed the role of a prosecuting barrister or a hanging judge. As a reluctant Londoner who never really felt at ease in the city, he was one of the enterprising young men of the inter-war years who soon realised that America was the place to be for those with ambition. The lure of Hollywood proved irresistible, and eventually he became an American citizen.
The self-contained youngster remained thus throughout his adult life. He and his wife Alma, whom he married in 1926, were as Ackroyd says, 'in some respects an odd couple'. Although they had a daughter, Patricia, he always claimed that it was a sexless marriage, and that he was generally known as 'the celibated director'.
There is little to be said about his personal life, apart from his nervous, even obsessive nature, a fanatical neatness and a devotion to his work which dominated his life. He was a perfectionist who insisted on everything being done his way down to the last detail, and an awkward communicator who often left the stars of his films more than a little unsure of whether they were really meeting his high standards.
As a biography of Hitchcock the film director, this book fits the shelf very well. From his early pictures such as 'Blackmail', sometimes considered to be the first British talkie, and 'Rebecca', his dramatisation of the iconic Daphne du Maurier novel, to the celebrated 'The 39 Steps', 'Dial M For Murder', 'Psycho' and 'The Birds', Ackroyd deals concisely with each. There is a good crisp account of the making of every title, and of its initial critical reception and immediate popularity, or lack of it. Occasionally, little quirks of the man's character come through as well. According to Carol Stevens, one of his permanent secretaries in Hollywood, he had a fetish about glasses, and the theory is explored that he considered women who wore them more invulnerable, knowledgeable, scrutinising, even threatening, perhaps. When they removed them they revealed a certain vulnerability, one of the characteristics which he was most eager to convey on the screen.
Overall, though I thought that Ackroyd treated his subject with a certain detachment. There is something of the feeling of an extended obituary, in that the pages summarise his life story and his achievements very efficiently, but do little to scratch the surface and really show us the man underneath. This may not necessarily be his fault. Hitchcock gives the impression of being a guarded man who wore a mask throughout his life, and which he rarely allowed to slip.
I also found the end of the last chapter a little rushed. One short paragraph refers to the knighthood he received in the new year's honours of 1980, and the next his fading away, losing interest in the world and turning his face to the wall until his death a few weeks later, swiftly followed by the decline of Alma 'as she retreated into a world where she still lived' and death two years after his. There is no measured postscript, no summing up of his character or assessment of his place in cinema history and the impression is of a somewhat hurried job. As a brief life, it does the job well, but readers looking for something deeper will doubtless be tempted elsewhere.
For further reading, one aspect of his professional life is fully explored in Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies by Donald Spoto; as is the life of another contemporary movie icon in Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford by Donald Spoto. You could shelve Alfred Hitchcock alongside Charlie Chaplin by Peter Ackroyd.
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