Posted November 20, 2017 by D. K. Holm
There are already over 200 or many more books on Alfred Hitchcock, and they started coming out in the mid-1950s when Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer wrote the first full-length critical study. Ten years later came the first study in English, Robin Wood’s still masterly Hitchcock’s Films. By the time Hitchcock died in 1980, there was already a hefty shelf’s worth, and they continued to appear, but for some reason lately there has been an acceleration of books on the director. Four recent volumes chart the scope of books about him. One is a biography, the second a Hollywood memoir, then a long book essay considering the life and work, and finally a detailed critical study taking on specific elements of the films.
Peter Ackroyd’s Alfred Hitchcock: A Brief Life (Nan A. Talese, 288 pages, $26.95, ISBN-13: 978-0385537414) is a beginner’s guide to the director’s life and films. Ackroyd is a specialist in all things London and has written big books on the city and the river that runs through it and has published many biographies, of Dickens and others. There is no original research here, and no particularly gripping insights into how the films work, and this leads to a lot of revived opinions and unhelpful myths being perpetuated, among them the claim that Hitchcock assaulted Tippi Hedren on the sets of The Birds and Marnie.
In a similar book, the case is rehashed again, but at least from the horse’s mouths. Tippi Hedren’s Tippi: A Memoir (William Morrow, 288 pages, $15.99, ISBN-13: 978-0062469038) is a dictated Hollywood autobiography that covers some of the same ground as the actress’s earlier book on lion conservation, along with remarks she made to Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto and to Camille Paglia in her BFI book on The Birds about Hitchcock’s supposed sexual harassment of her during the films she made. Her claims have achieved the status of fact, so much so that Richard Brody could write about it in the otherwise famously fact-checked New Yorker as true, and HBO even aired a TV movie on the topic. Spoto’s goal was to peek inside to the inner turmoil that drove Hitchcock, and Hedren’s then-claims folded perfectly with that aim. But the situation is much more complicated, and much less easy to determine, despite Miss Hedren’s comments. Patrick McGilligan has the most rational approach to the case in his more recent biography of Hitchcock and Tony Lee Moral has the most detail in Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie. My take on the situation is that the actress was a prudish uptight person not equipped to deal with Hitchcock’s raciness, jokes, and sometimes coarseness of manner. Alma was the person who pointed out Hedren to Hitchcock in a TV commercial, and the negotiations to take on her as a contract player were not hampered by her inexperience, or her weird squeaky voice. Clearly the two had a falling out, but the foundation seems more to be about a contract dispute and her resentment of Hitchcock’s trying to shape her image, in the manner of the old studio days, rather then the possibility of a proposition, or his forcing himself on her in the back of a limo. She did complain to Marni’s screenwriter, and to one of her co-stars, but the tension was not necessarily sexual based but could have been boss-employee issues. Hedren writes that Alma apologized to her about Hitchcock’s behavior, and Hedren supposedly demanded that she do something about it, but again, was Alma voicing awareness of a sexual obsession, or referring to the tensions that enveloped the second half of the Marnie shoot? Yes, Hitchcock called Hedren The Girl, but that was a convention of British cinema and its stereotypes, a shorthand. Yes, Hitchcock worked with some of the most beautiful women in the world, but he also knew sides of them never exposed to the public, and had to wade into show business’s less savory facets having to do with the financial economy of beauty and profit. There are numerous recordings of Hitchcock’s discussions with Hedren, available at the Academy library, and there he called her by her name. According to McGilligan, when Hitchcock wouldn’t let her attend an awards ceremony in Manhattan, she threw a fit and called him a fat bastard. In light of the multitude of prominent men exposed as predators, yes, we must believe women, but we must also search for the truth.
Frankly, I’m not sure I grasped the point of D. A. Miller’s Hidden Hitchcock (University Of Chicago Press, 208 pages, $22.50, ISBN-13: 978-0226374673), though it is interesting and even fun to read. Mr. Miller is a UC Berkeley grad school professor, and previously wrote a BFI Classics monograph on Fellini’s 8 ½, and this new volume is a close look at Hitchcock’s meaningful “errors,” and while concentrating on only three films from roughly around the same time, Rope, Strangers on a Train, and The Wrong Man, makes a plug for what he calls the Too-Close Viewer. It’s a complicated and nuanced conceit, and flies in the face of authorial intention. For example Mr. Miller is more interested in the visual jokes that Hitchcock includes, and in continuity errors, and embedded representations of the director. Among the things he focuses on are the joke of Bruno Anthony in Train shown reading a book whose author photo is of Hitchcock himself because it is an anthology he edited. It’s companion is a Dell Mapback anthology also edited by Hitchcock, barely seen in Bruno’s compartment. The author is also fascinated by the tilted candle seen in Rope, and the initials D and K shown in a hat. In Wrong Man he is intrigued by doublings, the ghostly movement of props, and another cameo by Hitchcock sitting in the back row of courtroom. His free associations on these elements lead to some interesting and curious sideways glances at Hitchcock, and though the book could be accused of “reading too much” into what might be a mistake, the book still proves to be an example of just how richly Hitchcock’s films inspire reflection.
Enjoyable as Hidden Hitchcock proved to be, nevertheless I enjoyed the next book the most, probably because I didn’t have to twist my mind around a difficult concept. That next book is Michael Wood’s Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much in the Icons series (New Harvest, 144 pages, $20, ISBN-13: 978-0544456228), which already includes books on David Lynch, Poe, Lucian Freud, Hannah Arendt, Benazir Bhutto, Jesus (by Jay Parini), J.D. Salinger, Van Gogh, and St. Paul. Nice company to be in. Mr. Wood has written studies of Nabokov (with whom Hitchcock once wanted to work), and has a regular movie review column at the London Review of Books, and he has a learned but not academic style that is flexible and roving. On the surface a “conventional” film by film survey, Mr. Wood, like Mr. Miller, is strongest in his digressions. In fact, the whole book is like a digression, and bears not only reading, but re-reading. It joins a small cadre of recent books of speculation and free association that includes Peter Conrad’s The Hitchcock Murders, and the volumes by Murray Pomerance, all go-to volumes for insights.