By Peter Ackroyd
Any biographer writing the life of an artist has to face down the temptation to interpret that life through their work, using it as a key to unlock the artist’s hidden heart.
This is the way many if not most biographies of Alfred Hitchcock, the iconic master of film suspense, have chosen to proceed. They spend little time on Hitchcock’s life, preferring instead to talk about his movies. There are, after all, so many of them (he directed more than fifty), with the most famous – titles like Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds – being familiar even to people who haven’t seen them.
The same approach is followed by the prolific Peter Ackroyd in this new bio, which is focused almost exclusively on Hitchcock’s professional life and the movies he made. As Anthony Lane, film critic for the New Yorker, once put it, the master’s canon is the key to understanding the “real” Alfred Hitchcock: “Our only reliable evidence is the movies; beyond that, the lonely fat boy disappears from sight.”
But how reliable are the movies as evidence? And how did that lonely fat boy, who became a very large man, manage to disappear from sight in the first place?
He mainly did it by hiding in plain view. “Hitch,” was a relentless self-mythologizer who recognized early on the need to promote himself as a personal artistic brand. He liked to tell the media all kinds of stories about himself: not all of which checked out, but which sounded good nevertheless.
Meanwhile, many of the biographical basics remained blank.
Hitchcock was not an only child, but Ackroyd mentions an older brother and a sister only to dismiss them in a single sentence, as “they seem to have left no lasting impression on his life.” Was that all there was to it?
In terms of religion, Hitchcock was raised a Catholic, and we know he at least observed the rituals his entire life. But was he a man of faith? Did he believe in God?
Then there is the matter of his sexuality. A lot of people were struck by Hitchcock’s feminine mannerisms, and many of his leading men were gay or bisexual. He had a close emotional attachment to his wife, but claimed to be celibate and said he only had sex with her once (resulting in a daughter). At the same time he was given to relentless sexual badinage on set and seemed to have an obsession with glamorous female stars like Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren. So was he repressed? Impotent? Asexual?
Ackroyd has no answers, and seemingly not much interest, in personal matters such as these. When he does get away from the filmography he tells us that Hitchcock was an anxious, fearful, shy man, upset by chaos and the unexpected. He could be both charming and an arrogant control freak. Not surprisingly, all of these qualities were reflected in his work.
As a concise companion to the story behind the making of the films, Ackroyd’s book stands up pretty well, though it’s far less detailed in this regard than Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. For the most part Ackroyd is reliable if not original, with only a few minor inattentive slips.
As biography, however, a lot is left unsaid, perhaps necessarily. In terms of biographical data the movies may conceal, intentionally, more than they reveal. Hitchcock was a curious case to be sure, and is likely to remain hidden behind the big screen.
Review first published online February 15, 2016.