Edward White

The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspense

The man, the myth, the legend.

May 17, 2022
Dimitris Passas

"Making a film means, first of all, to tell a story. That story can be an improbable one, but it should never be banal".

The man with the many faces, the director whose name became a legend in cinema history and whose films are still studied by scholars around the world, the eccentric persona whose controversial words and behavior frequently became a matter of public interest, the auteur who has been loved and hated by his protagonists and closest collaborators throughout his long career. Alfred Hitchcock, being all the above and much more is nothing less than a totem for cinema aficionados and his immense popularity deems him one of the most acknowledged English artist of the previous century. Films such as Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window, and Marnie became sources of inspiration for numerous film creators whose work has been tremendously influenced by Hitchcock's innovative use of the camera and his unique expertise in building suspense at an even tempo, thus eliciting the most thrilling of emotions by the audience. There have been multiple attempts at writing a Hitchcock biography and some of them are much detailed and enlightening such as Donald Spoto's The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures, and Patrick McGilligan's Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, and of course François Truffaut's Hitchcock, a book containing the transcriptions of a series of interviews with the English auteur that the French director and film critic conducted during his visit in Los Angeles in 1962. These interviews still constitute the immovable reference point used by every film critic and scholar who endeavored to explore the Hitchcock phenomenon.

Edward White adds his own contribution to an ever-growing mosaic of interpretations, consisted of fragmented perceptions of Hitchcock's work and public persona, emphasizing on the director's mythology that sets him apart from the rest of his contemporaries. White writes: "Hitchcock stands alone in the Hollywood canon: a director whose mythology eclipses the brilliance of his myriad classic movies". The mythicization of Hitchcock comes as a result of the numerous distinct ideas and images projected to the man, originating from his fans and critics who studied his oeuvre as early as 1957 when the first critical study on Hitch by Erik Rohmer and Claude Chabrol was published. Since then, the aspiring biographers and those who liked to claim that they have comprehended the Hitchcockian artistic work published paper after paper, examining the subject in relation to one or more specific themes. Furthermore, Hitchcock wouldn't be Hitchcock if it weren't for the studious professional work carried out by his creative team including the editors and scriptwriters. White concludes that Hitch's "talent cannot be denied, but without the intervention of creative collaborators, journalists, publicists, and we, his public, the thing we know as Hitchcock would not exist". For White, Hitchcock's character becomes an empty canvas that is slowly filled by the study of him as an artistic persona and his films, always in relation to a specific subject, offering the reader a fragmented image of Hitch who acquires his identity through this process. In The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspense, the author probes his subject matter by perceiving Hitchcock in a rather postmodern way that focuses both on the ambiguity of his movies and the way in which he conducted himself as a director, artist, co-worker, husband, womanizer and more. Each of the twelve chapters contributes "a different component of his identity".

Hitchcock's long standing career as a filmmaker, that exceeds the 60 years in total, begun during the 1920s, an era in which silent films were the only existent type of picture. Young Alfred was the man assigned to design intertitles for silent films, that is the story and dialogue cards that helped the narrative to unfold in a coherent and meaningful manner. His first films were all silent with The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog being his most successful creation, a story about a withdrawn man who is suspected to be a serial-killer by his landlady. A visual artist par excellence, Hitchcock was a fervent advocate of that theory which claimed cinema as a medium destined to communicate human emotions through the sole power of moving image. The story, the plot, anything connected with the actual narrative aspect of the film was of secondary importance, or in other words for Hitchcock "content was secondary to the handling" to the visual part, a field in which the English giant excelled through his innovative, newfound ways of using camera angles in such a manner that the truth of the movie would become an image, not a concept, which the audience would be able to sense with their eyes alone. For Hitch, cinema was all about the art of looking, but looking in a way that allows each and every nuance in feeling become palpable to the audience. His observational skills and singular talent in visualization becomes evident if we consider that he read the scripts of his movies only one time, and then he was able to watch the film in his mind's eye scene by scene. As he liked to say: "Films are made before they are shot" while White defines Hitchcock's method like this: "Observing and capturing the facts of the world, then re-ordering them in a configuration of his own choosing".

Hitchcock became the most fitting director to represent the novel "Auteur Theory", which was expressed by the French critics of film journal "Cahiers du cinéma". Among the advocates of the Auteur Theory" were François Truffaut and the members of the so-called "French New Wave" such as Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard. Those who argued in favor of this theory, claimed that the director of a film is also its author and the sole responsible for all the creative aspects of a production. Hitchcock was always a despotic figure on set who didn't hesitate to appropriate the work of his colleagues and often treat them dismissively and abruptly. White mentions that Hitchcock "as early as 1927, he had expressed the opinion that any films worth watching have their director's thumbprints on the negatives". His authoritarian stance led to a series of problems, especially in his collaboration with the screenwriters of some of his masterpieces, such as E. Lehman, J. M. Hayes, and C. Bennett who all expressed complains regarding Hitch's attitude towards them and his centralist proclivity to have the last word in everything concerning the film. At one point, the American author of the iconic Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck , suggested an idea for a movie to Hitchcock, only a few months after the American government decided to become involved in World War II. Hitchcock retained the basic core of the story, nevertheless retracted all the political elements notions that were interspersed in Steinbeck's text. As a result, Steinbeck became livid and stated that Hitchcock was one of those "incredible English middle-class snobs who really and truly despise working people". A similar fight erupted when the American father of noir, Raymond Chandler, was called to adapt Patricia Highsmith's novel Strangers on a Train into a feature film. The relationship between the two men was heated and finally Chandler walked away from the job and was succeeded by C. Ormonde.

Even though most of Hitch's films are based on novels or short stories, he never exhibited any profound respect toward his original sources and he had openly declared: "I never read a book through if I'm considering making a picture of it". His contempt for the books can be seen as an immediate consequence of his tendency to be the absolute "father" of the film which meant that the script and the story should also bear his own signature. His intervention to the work of his screenwriters created a lot of friction in many productions and sometimes led to a total breakdown of communication between director and writer. Hitchcock's movies were entirely of his own making and the coining of the term "Hitchcock Brand", meaning "a riveting fusion of his personal fame and mythology and the themes, aesthetics, and atmosphere of his movies" further indicates his dominance over every aspect of his filmmaking. At the beginning of the 1950s, the time in which Hitch's work became accessible to a larger audience, there was a debate regarding the reevaluation of the distinction between art and entertainment. Hitchcock, who has famously said "I really hate the word artistic", reinforced through his work the assertion that the boundaries between the two concepts are too blurry and suggested that a gifted director can combine both. Hitch was "not just a filmmaker but an impresario, an entertainer, and the creator of spectacle with his mythology at its center". It was his obsession with looking that broadened the horizons of his contemporaries and forced them to imitate some of his techniques in their own work. Hitchcock was essentially a voyeur and it is in films such as Rear Window that we can clearly see his preoccupation with the motif of watching from a distance, "zooming in on the lives of others while simultaneously reinforcing the solitude of watching". White claims that this film is "the closest we will ever get to experiencing the world as Hitchcock saw it". But there is also Vertigo, another movie on "excessive watching" that proves the director's fixed choice of motifs. As far as the symbolism in Hitchcock's films in concerned, there is a great book by Michael Walker titled Hitchcock's Motifs in which the author attempts to decode the obscure meaning of objects, characters, and scenes and suggests the presence of ambiguity in the heart of the auteur's body of work.

Hitchcock's most beloved person was certainly his wife, Alma Reville, whom she married in December 2, 1926. Alma was a rather inconspicuous woman who remained under the shadow of her superstar husband, nevertheless she was the person that supported Hitch and boosted his fragile self-esteem when things were looking awry: "She provided not just creative partnership but also emotional ballast, thethering her husband's neuroses and protecting his large, delicate ego". Alma worked with her husband in a number a films and in various different fields such as screenwriting and editing, while advised him regarding his self-promotion and amendment of his public image. Alfred and Alma as a couple challenge a rooted belief that the personal life should not be mixed with the professional and proved that "the boundary between domesticity and creativity was not just permeable, but invisible". The notion that "a feminized domestic environment was anathema to artistic productivity" was discredited by the close and peaceful collaboration between Alfred and Alma. Hitchcock was not much of a womanizer, though he showed some of his preferences in the choice and handling of his women protagonists such as Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly, both blondes and symbolizing the director's ideal woman: "The ice maiden concealing a volcanic sexuality". Hitch wanted to transform little-known starlets to movie stars and this desire sometimes led him to overstep the boundaries of indecent behavior. Just a year before Harvey Weinstein's scandal shook the world of global cinema and signified the emergence of the #MeToo movement that rapidly spread throughout the world, Tippi Hedren, the protagonist in movies such as The Birds and Marnie, in her memoir accused Hitchcock of sexual harassment during the shooting of the former film. There has been a lot of controversy in the perception of those allegations by the public as there are those who believe that Hedren found the opportunity to resurface in the movie industry by falsely accusing the English auteur for an act that was so opposite to his character as described by the people who knew him.

Hitchcock as a person was a man marked by contrasts in his character and behavior and his sexual inexperience led him to a life of "impotent celibacy". He was often harsh with those he worked with and there are plenty of actors and screenwriters who could support that claim. Nevertheless, he definitely possessed a more vulnerable side that is brought forth in the choice of the stories that he filmed, the main themes selected and his love towards women that was perhaps expressed in non-orthodox ways. White writes that "Rebecca announced Hitchcock in America as a director of "women's pictures" but also as a director of woman, a man with a rare talent for creating and re-creating, female stars". He believed that the majority of his audience were women and that this was the main target group for his stories. Perhaps that's why he preferred to choose psychological motives and themes for his characters and stories, remaining suspicious of anything having to do with concrete facts: Ideology, religion, and the wounds of history held not intrinsic interest to Hitchcock, the filmmaker". On the contrary, it was anxiety, fear, paranoia, guilt, and shame that drove his films, emotions that can be identifiable particularly to a female audience. Men and women were distinguished in Hitchcock's work not only by means of biology but also "by plains of experience: men (...) inhabit a world governed by fact and rationality, while women (...) have access to mysterious reserves of instinct and intuition". This distinction is a further manifestation of the director's fascination with the gentle sex which is ascribed with powers that reach beyond human reason.

Hitchcock's controlling and domineering demeanor towards his actors and technical crew earned him the label of, more or less, a tyrant, a capricious genius who insisted on his primacy as the one and only creative force driving the film. White writes: "To him, almost all ideas, no matter their origin, would become Hitchcockian when placed before the eye of his camera". Nevertheless it is his penetrating, all-encompassing directorial gaze that sets him apart from the rest of the film creators, even if this particularity inclined many to deem him as a snob. His blasé attitude was also apparent in his obliviousness of the films made by other directors with the two most notable exceptions being Orson Welles and the Italian Neorealist Movement whose representatives, Hitchcock thought, have perfected the use of the camera. Hitch was also accused by some for blatant misogynism, a director who objectified women and their bodies reducing them to little more than living dolls. But, as we saw earlier, Hitchcock had a soft spot for women and despite some questionable actions and behavior towards his women protagonists, he saw them as a source of inspiration and creatures that were more in contact with their inner feelings than men. Apart from that, in his own personal life, Hitchcock was shy with women, and Alma became the barometer of his existence and the person he needed most, especially when he felt diminished in the eyes of the audience or his peers. He was quite fixated with his public image and also "a flaneur and mythmaker, who embraced self-promotion as an end in itself". The discrepancies of Hitchcock's perception by the public came as a result of his exuberant persona and some of his statements in interviews that evoked lots of tense discussions. White poses the question: "Who is the real Alfred Hitchcock?" or else "Which Alfred Hitchcock is your Alfred Hitchcock". The answer to the above queries differs from one person to another as each one has formed an image of the English auteur based on solid, undisputable information, but bearing multiple meanings and possible interpretations. We ourselves, with all our beliefs and prejudices, are a significant factor in our acknowledgement of Hitchcock and his films. The portrait drawn is not irrelevant to the tangs of the painter.

White offers plenty of biographical data on Hitchcock and his sharp writing style makes this book easily accessible to all readers who are interested in the subject. The division of the text into 12 distinct parts contributes to the illustration of an artist's life in fragments, with each thread becoming a piece in an overall puzzle that is completed in the end. Perhaps, this is not the most intricate Hitchcock biography ever published, however the author succeeds in his mission to present his own, singular view on one of the most emblematic directors of the twentieth century. After all, if one wishes to know exhausting details about Hitch, there are plenty of other books fitting the bill. It should be also mentioned that White's book features plenty of rare photographs chronicling instances of Hitchcock's life from the days of his youth to his final years. It is a necessary addition for Hitchcock scholars and a first-class opportunity to learn the basics about him if you are not yet familiar with his work.


The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspense
Edward White
W. W. Norton & Company

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