The shadow of the Master
o it with scissors,” was Alfred Hitchcock’s advice for prospective murderers, though a glance at these two new biographies reminds us that scissors are also the chosen implement of the silhouettist. Hitchcock’s profile — beaky nose, protuberant lips, conjoined chin and neck — is emblazoned on both dust jackets like a logo.
A logo is what it was. You don’t become the most famous film director in the world merely by directing movies. Hence the wordless walkons Hitchcock made in almost every one of his 53 pictures. Hence the city gent uniform (blue suit, white shirt, black tie) worn throughout even the most stifling Californian summers. Hence, one sometimes suspects, the pendulous jowls and gargantuan gut — trademarks made flesh. Long before the marketing boys, Hitchcock knew all there was to know about brand creation.
Certainly he knew how he didn’t want to be labelled. Happy to be called the Master of Suspense, he was rather less pleased with any suggestion that he might be some kind of artist. Peter Ackroyd says that when, in the mid-1950s, Cahiers du Cinema started talking about Hitchcock as some kind of moralist visionary, this son of a cockney greengrocer rolled his eyes in bafflement.
There was commercial logic behind that reaction. Thrills merchants are pretty much bound to reach a bigger audience than moody threnodists — and Hitchcock never made any bones about the need to put punters on seats. Yet disparage the heavyweight exegetes though he might, Hitchcock was forever discussing his work in the language of high modernist theory. Content, he said, was of no import, story and character neither here nor there. What counted was emotion engendered by cutting and camera placement: “pure cinema”, as he liked to put it.
Pure cinema got its effects, as anyone who has seen Sabotage or Strangers on a Train or what Michael Wood rightly calls the underrated Family Plot can attest. Still, as Wood shows in his introduction to Hitchcock studies, in the master’s greatest movies the formal perfection was at the service of something more knotted and nervy than he perhaps knew.
Hitchcock liked to say that a movie wasn’t a slice of life but a slice of cake. Wood gives us a Hitchcock who, fittingly enough, has his cake and eats it, a Hitchcock whose lightest romantic thrillers — Sabotage, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious — are essays on the fascist mindset. Even though the man himself would have scorned such readings, he’d have loved showing them to those directors and actors who in 1939 had called him out for taking up an offer
Marnie from David ( Gone with the Wind) Selznick and deserting Britain in its hour of need.
Not that Wood’s Hitchcock is any kind of hero. Instead, he’s “a frightened man who got his fears to work for him on film”, a paranoid dreamer whose “fantastic fiction becomes … psychological truth”, a sexual neurotic (Hitchcock often claimed that he had never made love to anyone but his wife Alma, and then only the once) obsessed with “the troubled, often violent relations between men and women”.
Tippi Hedren would have something to say about those relations. A model whom Hitchcock spotted in a soft drink ad and immediately set about retooling for stardom, Hedren has long claimed that during the shooting of Marnie her less than svelte Svengali asked her to touch him in what Ackroyd calls “a certain place”. There is nothing certain about Hedren’s story, of course, but that hardly gives Ackroyd the right to argue that even if it were true then Hitchcock “was simply behaving like an old fool”.
Brisk to the point of blase though his book is (Ackroyd can’t even quote film dialogue accurately), it nonetheless reminds us that from Marnie in 1964 onwards, Hitchcock was always on at his writers to work a rape scene into their scripts. Whatever went on in Hedren’s dressingroom, there were disturbing things going on in Hitchcock’s mind. Ackroyd’s cosy cuts job gets nowhere near to disinterring them.
If Wood’s book does, it’s because it acknowledges those disturbances — indeed, because it argues that Hitchcock’s art works to make us acknowledge them: “His peculiarities, or more precisely the mixture of his genuine peculiarities with his bland, persistent ordinariness, have struck chords in millions.” Wood’s achievement in this startling, insight-laden book is to point up how strange Hitchcock’s pictures remain, how so unlike conventional movies even his most conventional movies are. After an hour with Wood you go back to Hitchcock more unsettled than ever.
Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren on the set of 1964’s