Title: Alfred Hitchcock
Author: Peter Ackroyd
Date published: 2015
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Star Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Alfred Hitchcock or ‘Hitch’ as he was affectionately known by family, friends and colleagues was a pioneer director of some of the most well-known thrillers in film history. Today he is still considered one of the most dynamic and inspiring members of the film industry. His most famous thrillers include North by Northwest (1959), Vertigo (1958), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and (1956) and Strangers on a Train (1951). His massive film repertoire also includes the immensely popular Psycho (1960), his very first attempt at something truly scary, and The Birds (1963) which was also frightening but less popular when it was released. Thankfully audiences have since changed their minds about that particular film and it is now considered a ‘cult classic’, one of the greatest so-called horror films of all time, as well as the first Hitchcock movie I would see at the age of thirteen.
Having grown up on a steady diet of movies that all kids were subjected to in the eighties and nineties – movies about kids saving the world, anything with Tom Hanks and low budget monsters and/or giant insects – it’s actually quite astonishing that I would prefer the black-and-white slow burn intrigue of film noir from the 1940’s and 1950’s. When I discovered Hitchcock I knew that I was now embarking on a film love affair that would last a lifetime.
Knowing very little about Hitch’s home life this book is a refreshing introduction to the man behind the films. It is in no way an exhaustive study, but rather a brief appetizer of his humble beginnings as the son of a greengrocer who was born in 1899 in the suburb of Leytonstone on the outskirts of London. This British director as a child spent time studying under Catholic Jesuits whom Hitch claimed: “used to terrify [him] to death with everything, and now [he was] getting [his] own back by terrifying other people”. The book also helps in making sense of the psychological associations often made between his films and his past. Psychologically his films were often analyzed for their connection to numerous phobias and past traumas, however Hitch often claimed that he was a literal person and that his films were not as metaphorical as people seemed to believe. There are however many associations that can be made with regard to politics and war that were topical at the time.
Hitchcock was a very private man who eventually found himself in Hollywood, married his wife Alma who was also in the same industry and together they produced a daughter Patricia. Very little is known of the specific dynamics of this marriage other than that they were a professional team who both claimed a certain level of asexuality. Hitch himself was such a perfectionist and a bit of a workaholic that there seemed little time for anything else, and perhaps that is why we know so little of his private life.
This all being said Peter Ackroyd, whose numerous biographies include those of Charlie Chaplin, T.S. Eliot, Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare to name a few, has given the film enthusiast a remarkable insider’s view into the making of every single one of his film projects in chronological order. Ackroyd’s account is also a wonderful introduction into the evolution of film, as Hitchcock progressed from silent pictures, to ‘talkies’ to the advent of Technicolor, Vista Vision and 3D. Unlike a lot of industry people at the time, Hitch was not afraid of the technological changes as he always claimed to be fascinated by the process of making motion pictures.
Known as the man behind the famous silhouette, as the man who said “Good Evening” before every episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and as the rotund British director whose gallows humor was and still is as unique as his particular style, even Hitchcock sometimes felt he wasn’t ‘Hitchcock’ enough for his adorning audiences and critics. Peter Ackroyd’s biography of this strange genius is superbly constructed without falling into the common trap of attempting to ‘dish the dirt’. Rather it is a straightforward account of the life of a professional member of the business of show whose contribution will be acknowledged till the end of time.
North By Northwest