Alfred Hitchcock

By Patrick McGilligan

Every biographer has some explaining to do. But just how do you explain the particular genius of a Napoleon or a Michelangelo? The achievements of even an exceptional life don’t tell us anything. We read biography not to find out what happened and what was done, but how and why. We are looking for interpretation.

The interpreting of personality has the unfortunate effect of introducing a lot of amateur psychoanalysis. Freud himself dabbled in biography, suggesting (among other things) that Leonardo Da Vinci’s originality was the result of his fiercely repressed love of his mother (the smile of the Mona Lisa was that of Leonardo’s mom). Today’s biographers tend to be a little more subtle and sophisticated, but the need to explain their subject’s personality still requires some speculation and labeling.

In 1983 Donald Spoto wrote just such a speculative psycho-biography of Alfred Hitchcock. Titled The Dark Side of Genius, it portrayed the Master of Suspense as a latter-day Leonardo, an impotent man (“It’s Hitch . . . without the cock”) whose films were essentially an outlet for repressed sexual desire and childhood anxieties. It was one way of explaining an obsessive fantasist and voyeur with a thing for degrading his icy blonde leading ladies. This Hitch was an easy figure to label with the Freudian palette: “a macabre joker, a frightened child, and a tyrannical artist.”

Such a critical reading didn’t sit well with everyone. Patrick McGilligan’s A Life in Darkness and Light is obviously meant as an antidote (an intention signaled by its balanced, and thoroughly banal, subtitle).

McGilligan’s book is informative and readable. It is also devoid of criticism and interpretation. It is mainly a history of Hitchcock’s professional life. The result is detailed and reliable, but also discreet to the point of seeming shallow and impersonal – less a life study than a reference work. For example, we learn scarcely anything about the nature of Hitchcock’s relationship with his wife Alma. And this isn’t to complain about the lack of dirt. At one point we are told that Alma was more mechanically inclined than her husband. Given Hitch’s technical expertise I found this rather odd. But it is something only mentioned in passing and then dropped.

McGilligan’s deference also colours his approach to the films. The genesis and story behind the making of Hitchcock’s movies and his work habits on set are all capably rendered, but there is little analysis, interpretation or opinion. McGilligan (who has written a number of Hollywood lives) is generous to a fault. He even tries to say nice things about Under Capricorn and Torn Curtain. This doesn’t take us very far into explaining Hitchcock’s mystery.

And there is a mystery to be explained. McGilligan ends his story with a Coda discussing Hitchcock’s continuing influence on today’s filmmakers. He has this to say about the re-make of Psycho:

But Gus Van Sant’s “faithful” remake of Psycho (also 1998), made from Joseph Stefano’s original script – only this time in color – illustrates that you can copy the script and style, even the exact shots, without getting close to the essence of Hitchcock.

Exactly. But what is the “essence of Hitchcock”? I found myself wondering the same thing when I recently re-watched Vertigo. There’s no denying this is a great movie, but when you start picking it apart you have a hard time explaining why. The story is nonsense, the female lead is miscast, and many of the special visual effects have dated. But the whole thing works, brilliantly.

Hitchcock was that rarest of blends: the inspired professional. His career in film, quite fully documented here, spanned most of the history of the medium. And with each new development in the state of the art (sound, colour, 3-D, the long take, neorealism and the nouvelle vague) he was eager to experiment and adapt. He was a pure filmmaker, someone for whom telling a story in pictures was as natural as breathing. If the screenplay didn’t cohere – and it rarely did – so much the worse for it (he frequently derided critics with an eye for every hole in the plot as the “plausibles”).

Like all great artists, he knew he was just playing a game. Or, as he put it, playing his audience like an organ. He honestly couldn’t understand the critical demand for plausibility, any more than he could understand a Method actor’s need for “motivation.” What he was crafting was an experience and what he brought to every project was a vision. Placing all his self-deprecation aside, these are graces beyond the reach of art.

Review first published online April 13, 2004.


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