Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto

Not that we get a choice of course, but how many of us would be willing to swap being a decent person for being a great artist?  I'd rate Hitchcock as one of the best moviemakers of all time (better than John Carpenter even?  Tough one....) but as a human being he really was one sick puppy.

This is a big book, with a hell of a lot detail about moviemaking.  Essential for fans of cinema I reckon.  But it's Hitchcock's twisted relationships with women which I found particularly fascinating.  He got married fairly young to Alma Reville -  who was shaping up to be a talented filmmaker in her own right.  They never divorced, were married for more than fifty years, and apparently never cheated on each other. But much of Hitchcock's life was spent obsessing about, and eventually tormenting, beautiful women.

 Madeleine Carrol in The 39 Steps I suppose set the mold for the stereotypical Hitchcock blonde, but it seems to have been Ingrid Bergman who really knocked him for six.  Though the director was clearly smitten, Bergman was a pretty tough cookie and their relationship was always strong.  Grace Kelly, similarly, could handle his attentions.  But when she ran off to become a princess, Hitchcock went a bit off the rails.

He signed up Vera Miles to a five year exclusive contract as Kelly's replacement, but she betrayed him by getting pregnant (an escape route taken by a suspicious number of his leading ladies.)  He didn't have a lot of luck with Eve Marie Saint or Kim Novak after that, and the author here argues that Psycho was sort of a nervous breakdown on film - a furious manifestation of his frustration with these beautiful, untrustworthy women.  Tellingly, Vera Miles is given a second string role and made over like a spinster in that movie.

Then Hitchock tries his most ambitious gambit yet - and falls harder than ever.  Alma notices a girl on an advert and Hitchock decides to make her his new star from scratch.  This was Tippi Hedren, whom he again signed up to an exclusive contract, before personally coaching her, torturing her with live seagulls for days on end on The Birds, then tormenting her psychologically in the unsettling flop Marnie.  After that her career was pretty much over, but Hitchcock also seems to have been damaged beyond repair too.  Frenzy's really the only one worth watching after that, featuring his most brutal violence against women.

As well as this side of him, the author also gives an account of Hitchock's cruel practical jokes - including manipulating a crewmember on an early British film to stay handcuffed to the set all night, before slipping him a bunch of laxatives.  He was also incredibly mean to his collaborators - not just with the credit, which he generally wanted all to himself, but with money.  He was earning millions, yet paid key scriptwriters next to nothing.

And yet, this really isn't a hatchet job on the man.  Hitchcock's love of film and command of the medium shine through.  He was incredibly private and rarely showed any emotion, but his damaged psyche seems to have been projected straight onto the screen.  What more can we ask from an artist?  His demons have become timeless.


Ed said...

Great review - sounds like an interesting read! I think you're right to say that of Hitchcock and Carpenter, Hitch is the greater filmmaker. As much as I love Carpenter's horror classics - Halloween, The Fog and The Thing - there's a massive debt to Hitchcock there, especially with The Fog.

Joe said...

Know what? I've never seen the Fog. Maybe that'll just swing it..