A celebrated biographer adds to the tall pile of biographies about cinema’s master of suspense.
As a baby, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) never cried, yet he would react in terror whenever a female relative leaned into his cradle and made baby sounds, which may explain why, in his films, “he enjoyed devising the rape and murder of women.” From a modest upbringing as the son of a greengrocer, he went on to become one of the most recognizable film directors in the world. In the latest in his Brief Lives series, Ackroyd (Charlie Chaplin, 2014, etc.) traces Hitchcock’s career from his early years designing title cards for the film distribution company Famous Players-Lasky to his Hollywood years working with Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and lots of blonde actresses with whom the married director was obsessed. But Ackroyd’s book suffers from the same deficiency that marred his Chaplin biography: we get to know Hitchcock as a legend but not as a person. After early attempts to define Hitchcock’s character, the author then delivers a laundry list of career events: the films he directed, the anthology TV series he presented, the lighting techniques he used, and so on. It’s a sketchy, by-the-numbers book, with a few pages on each film, and this material has been documented many times before. Fans already know that Psycho was referred to during filming as “production 9401” or “Wimpy,” and those who don’t can learn such facts from the better and more comprehensive biographies Ackroyd frequently cites. Still, there are juicy, inside-Hollywood tidbits that will keep readers entertained, such as the revelation that, on the wet set of Lifeboat, Tallulah Bankhead had a habit of not wearing underwear. “Hitchcock, when told of the situation,” writes the author, “said that it was a problem for a barber and not for a director.”
Ackroyd writes of his enigmatic subject, “he did not want anyone to come too close.” Alas, readers of this book will not get as close to that subject as they might like.