Ian Garrick Mason

Book Reviews

National Post -- December 20, 2003

Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light

Patrick McGilligan
Regan Books, 850pp, $59.95

by Ian Garrick Mason

In 1921, a young advertising man began moonlighting as a title artist for the London-based operation of the silent films studio Famous Players-Lasky. He was soon offered a permanent position at £7 a week, but as he later recalled, "I insisted that was too much, asked for less and told them to give me a raise later if it worked out."

No one would deny Alfred Hitchcock loved his chosen field of art. Yet in Patrick McGilligan's new biography, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, one of the most interesting things we learn about this "ultimate magician of the cinema" is that he was also a practical businessman. Hitchcock kept production costs constantly in mind, and sought innovative ways to reduce them. Rather than filming the climactic scene of his 1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much in Albert Hall itself -- which would have required hundreds of extras -- he adapted Fritz Lang's Schufftan process of using photographic transparencies to simulate the crowded hall. "Hitchcock budgets were like Hitchcock's weight," McGilligan writes. "He might prefer to gorge himself, but he was a genius at shedding pounds."

Such discipline, of course, was an important factor in the willingness of studios to back him from movie to movie. But so were the films themselves, and Hitchcock directed many of the century's most important and original: Lifeboat, Notorious, Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho, to name a few. Although Hitchcock's work was largely underrated by critics for much of his career, by the mid-1950s, he had attracted the attention of the French cineastes affiliated with the magazine, Cahiers du Cinema. Through the influence of such critics as Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock soon became the poster boy of auteur theory, which held that of all the collaborators on a film, only the director could be considered its author. Underrating Hitchcock was now to be replaced by overestimating him.

Of course, if anyone came close to the auteurist ideal, it was Hitchcock. An extremely hands-on director, he chose the stories he wanted to adapt and, with his wife, Alma, wrote many of the treatments and scripts, bringing in new writers as needed for fresh perspectives. His early career included a stint in production design and, since he loved filling in for missing cameramen, he soon knew more technical tricks than they did. McGilligan compares Hitchcock to "a brilliant symphony conductor who prides himself on knowing how to play every instrument in the orchestra."

Is it any surprise, then, that some of the musicians would feel unhappy? Hitchcock is notorious for leaving a train of disgruntled screenwriters behind him. Perhaps it was because he still regarded them as the scenarists -- "stooges," he called them -- of the silent era, when the idea and the image were more important than the script. Perhaps the acrimony was no more than a natural outcome of a collaborative process engaged in by artistic personalities, yet McGilligan doesn't reflect much on the general causes of the problem, summing it all up with a sigh of exasperation: "Hitchcock couldn't win with writers, who could be offended in so many ways." Poor Hitch, to be so burdened.

With his almost universally forgiving tone, it is plain that McGilligan is trying to temper or even erase the legacy of Donald Spoto's more critical biography, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. But he consistently overplays the defence. Hitchcock's incessant prank-pulling that annoyed so many people -- actress Jessie Matthews said she couldn't focus on her work during the filming of Waltzes from Vienna because she was always anticipating "some ghastly practical joke" -- is portrayed as a playful testing of actors' mettle; those actors who disliked it are condemned as "stuffy." The director's manipulative nature is recast as a deliberate technique to get the best out of his actors; his psychological cruelty toward Joan Fontaine during Rebecca, for example, was merely "Hitchcock forcing a novice actress to become her character, by treating Fontaine like Mrs. de Winter." Personal flaws are revealed as artistic methodology: There is certainly more than a hint of auteurist hero-worship in McGilligan's book.

That he has chosen to reveal Hitchcock by focusing on the films he made is not surprising. He follows his subject faithfully from project to project, as if padding along behind him with a mobile camera to show us what Hitchcock did, whom he met, what he said. But McGilligan fails to vary his emphasis between films of critical and minor importance: Each is given more or less the same space in the book, which begins to feel like a metronome of descriptions and anecdotes. As a systematic record of Hitchcock's life and work, it is successful, but McGilligan has missed an opportunity to come to grips with the dynamics at the heart of the movie industry and the interrelated dynamics in the heart and head of this most distinctive director. To do this would require more than a chronological survey of his films and life. It would require a willingness to turn the camera off and to think about what has just been seen. But for McGilligan, as Janet Leigh once said about Hitchcock's approach to filming Psycho, "There could be no deviations. His camera was absolute."