The famed director Alfred Hitchcock’s secret to success? He was afraid.
That’s Michael Wood’s take in Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much, a thoughtful peek into the director’s work and psyche released as part of the Icons series, which has in previous volumes delved into everyone from Jesus to Stalin to Edgar Allan Poe. Hitchcock is most famed as the master of suspense, and the book submits that it points back to his youth when Hitchcock was consumed by the fear of being stopped by a policeman.
“He was ruled by fear,” says Wood, an emeritus professor of comparative literature at Princeton University and columnist for the London Review of Books. “With writers and moviemakers, the stuff that bothers the rest of us, they sort of hoard it so they can use it. He could have stopped being a frightened boy, but it was always there. He was always in touch with it.”
Wood paints a picture of Hitchcock as caught between two places—the ordinary and the extraordinary, England and the United States, WWI and WWII sensibilities.
“He was always looking ordinary but not ordinary,” Wood says. “Wild things happen in the middle of ordinariness. We like to think the strange and ordinary are very different, but they’re not really that different.”
In his ordinary demeanor, Hitchcock was very much the English schoolboy, says Wood, who like the director is a Brit transplanted to America. “Every English person is afraid the next person will be a spy, but they also want to be a spy,” Wood says.
Hitchcock’s move to the United States pre-WWII allowed his “fears to be set free,” Wood says of films like Vertigo. “He had a bigger canvas. His films became more psychological, less social. He lived this secret life in America. He had the freedom to think up these spooky characters, and he got better actresses.”
That included Grace Kelly, the future princess of Monaco, who appeared in three Hitchcock films: Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and To Catch a Thief, and remained Hitchcock’s perfect actress. “He loved the idea that she seemed so pure, even boring, but there was a fire in her crackling,” Wood says. “There was a bit of mischief, a kind of naughtiness she portrayed well.”
Hitchcock tried unsuccessfully to recreate that feel with other actresses, perhaps most notably with Tippi Hedren in The Birds and Marnie. But it never worked and Hitchcock’s treatment of her on the set leaned to the side of sadism. “It feels terrible now, but it probably didn’t feel as terrible at the time,” Wood says.
Wood also examines Hitchcock’s work in terms of war. The director was still young during WWI, but the mood surrounding the war—not knowing precisely who the enemy was—was a shadow in his early works. “It was quite unlike the other war in that people felt in many ways that it was a con,” Wood says. “There was a bitterness and anger as if everyone felt they’d been lied to.”
WWII was more expected and the enemy more defined, but Hitchcock had a slightly different take on it, Wood says. “He wasn’t sympathetic to the Nazis, but he thought all of us had a little Nazi in us,” he says. “He saw that the German nation had gone wrong, but a lot of people believed in purity; it was common in England and America.”
Nazis in WWII Hitchcock films like Saboteur are “not respectable, but elegant,” Wood says. “They get all the good lines.
Hitchcock’s later career involved the television program that featured his famous shadow in profile. Each episode was like a noir film, but, Wood notes, film noir was about criminals, and Hitchcock didn’t necessarily believe in crime. “He believed in sin, but I’m not sure he believed in crime,” Wood says.
That again points to Hitchcock’s English upbringing. His family wasn’t working class, but not well-off either. “He was of the business class and he was Catholic, which gives you a slight difference from the average English person. He was secretly not quite one of them. As far as we know, he remained a Catholic all of his life. He believed in the basic notions—that everyone is in touch with original sin.”
For Hitchcock it all comes down to chance, says Wood, who counts North by Northwest, a story of mistaken identity,among his favorite of the director’s works.
“The accidental is lethal,” Wood says. “He’s the wrong man. He just happens to look like the other guy. The reason is chance itself.”
Joe M. O’Connell, author of Evacuation Plan: A Novel from the Hospice, is based in Austin, Texas.