Monday, July 11, 2016

Review of "Alfred Hitchcock" by Peter Ackroyd




Alfred Hitchcock was born into an English working class family in 1899 and grew up in some of London's poorer districts, among small houses, assorted shops, daily laborers, and crowded streets smelling of the Thames River. Alfie (as his family called him) had a passion for roaming and claims to have journeyed all over London - via bus and train - by the age of eight. The scenes of churning London neighborhoods remained with Hitchcock for life, and he re-created them in many of his films.

Hitchcock's family was devoutly Catholic and he was educated in Catholic schools, became an altar boy, and embraced the strict tenets of the faith. As a result, Hitchcock had an anxious disposition and was uncomfortable about his body. Hitchcock often claimed that - apart from conceiving his daughter Patricia - he was celibate for life. Hitchcock was also fat and not especially handsome, which probably affected his self-image and relationships with women.

From an early age Hitchcock loved public entertainments, especially plays and films, and began reading trade papers as a teenager. He was obsessed with themes of horror, violence, crime, and criminals, and became a devotee of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. By the age of 22, Hitchcock went to work for a London-based film company and - by volunteering to do every job available - began to learn the nuts and bolts of movie-making. Hitchcock's future wife Alma also worked for the film company and, after they married, became Hitchcock's most trusted partner - both personal and professional. By the middle of his career, Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most well-known, popular, and respected directors in the world.

This biography by Peter Ackroyd touches on many aspects of the director's life and provides a detailed overview of Hitchcock's movies. Ackroyd talks about each of the surviving (and a few lost) Hitchcock films, and describes how Hitchcock's background, upbringing, education, religion, personal foibles, likes, dislikes, hirings, firings, studios, producers - and of course Alma's input - impacted them.

Even in the midst of making a movie Hitchcock was always on the hunt for his next project, and he had 'favorite people' he liked to work when possible. This included certain script writers, photographers, dress designers, composers, actors, and so on. Moreover, Hitchcock often developed crushes on his beautiful female stars, whom he would cosset, groom, and converse with constantly - bestowing so much attention that they were often uncomfortable. Hitchcock's wife Alma was well aware of this quirk, and sometimes commiserated with and apologized to the ladies.

Hitchcock's early movies were silent black and white productions, but as new technologies became available the filmmaker happily switched to talkies, and then technicolor. Hitchcock began his career in England, where he did well. But the director was always seeking increased commercial success and more money, and he eventually moved to California.....to make Hollywood movies.

Whenever possible Hitchcock liked to control all aspects of his films, including the story, the script, the locations, the lighting, the camera angles, the sound effects, the editing, the music, the length, etc. Though he sometimes filmed on location Hitchcock preferred to work in a studio, where he was more comfortable and had access to his favorite things (like steak and salad for lunch every day).

Hitchcock was meticulous about storyboarding, planning, and blocking every scene of his movies. By contrast, the auteur took a kind of minimalist approach with respect to actors. Most stars of Hitchcock films noted that the great man rarely commented on their performances - good, bad, or otherwise. Hitchcock just told them what was expected and let them get on with it, which many found disconcerting.

Hitchcock also had a lighter side, and he liked to tell ribald stories and play practical jokes. During one production Hitchcock left a different 'dead body' in an actress's trailer every day, to see which elicited the best response. More evidence of Hitchcock's humor could be seen in his opening and closing remarks for the TV series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", where he tended to be droll and sarcastic.

Hitchcock achieved worldwide fame and popularity, and many of his films are considered classics.Toward the end of his career Hitchcock received two prestigious awards: a "Lifetime Achievement Award" from the American Film Institute, and a "KBE" (Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth.

I enjoyed the book, which was fun and informative. I liked reading about the nitty-gritty of Hitchcock's film-making and appreciated the stories about famous actors, including Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Paul Neuman, Grace Kelly, Jimmy Stewart, Anna Massey, James Mason, Kim Novak, Tippi Hedren, Joseph Cotten, Eva Marie Saint, Anthony Perkins, Ingrid Bergman....and many more.

Reading the book brought to mind some of my favorite Hitchcock movies, like The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Suspicion, Spellbound, The Paradine Case (which wasn't a big success...but I liked it), Strangers on a Train, Dial M For Murder, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, Marnie (which was said to be too cerebral for mass appeal), and Frenzy. I now plan to re-watch some of these films via the magic of streaming and DVDs.

Overall, this is an interesting, enlightening, and entertaining book, recommended for fans of biographies, film buffs, and especially Alfred Hitchcock devotees.

Thanks to Netgalley, the publisher, and the author for a copy of this book.

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