THAT ALFRED HITCHCOCK was a very strange sort indeed anyone may have guessed just looking at him. And after all, remembering his outlandish weekly television appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, that was surely how he wished to be regarded. That his strangeness was of a rather nasty sort could certainly have been inferred from most of the films he made in the last two decades of his life. Just to recall certain scenes in Psycho, The Birds, Marnie, and Frenzy is to summon up not so much a shudder of horror as a cringe of distaste. Now comes Donald Spoto to inform us that Alfred Hitchcock had his dark side. Well, really!
This is certainly not to dismiss his work here, for The Dark Side of Genius is in most ways that count an exemplary piece of cinema scholarship, exhaustively researched and reasonably well written. But there is little that he tells us about Hitchcock's life that was not covered in half the space (and, admittedly, half the detail) in John Russell Taylor's Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock. But in all the minutiae that Spoto has assembled, some of it rich stuff and some of it simply dross, he has come up with one revelation that is shocking if not surprising, and he has made explicit in quotation and anecdote what many familiar with Hitchcock's life and work may indeed have suspected.
The trouble with this book and with books of its kind is that they are so omnivorously and needlessly inclusive. This is especially curious here, for Spoto has already published a study of the director's films, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, that is nearly as long as this biography. What more has he to add? A good deal, of course, but inevitably there is a certain amount of repetition from the earlier book. (And he is disingenuous enough to refer us to it for "fuller" examination of Hitchcock's films in a footnote or two.) Some of what Spoto gives us here seems suspiciously like padding. When, for instance, Hitchcock gets his first job in films, is it really necessary to give us a seven-page capsule history of the film industry from Muybridge's early experiments up to that moment?
Alfred Hitchcock got that first opportunity in 1920 with a London-based unit of an American movie company, Famous Players-Lasky, and ever afterward he would boast that he was "American-trained." He was an avid student. In just five years he learned virtually every job in film production and was rewarded with his first assignments as a director. They were two Gaumont-British films to be made back-to-back in Germany for reasons of economy. This is worth mentioning, for if Hitchcock was American-trained, he was also tremendously enthusiastic for the German cinema of his day--for the films of Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau, in particular. And from the very beginning of his career, his work showed this dual influence. He made films with a style of imagery that was first established by the Germans-- and he made them with the technocratic efficiency that has always been the hallmark of American movie-making.
Consider the pictures with which he made his reputation in England--The Lodger, Blackmail, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and Sabotage. They were, above all, films of great technical expertise, for this was the aspect of film-making that always obsessed him. Not story-telling, certainly, because for him a story was no more than an image or two in his head; he would call in a writer to provide characters and plot to connect these images. (He told screenwriter Ernest Lehman that he had always wanted to do a chase across the faces on Mt. Rushmore; the result, of course, was North by Northwest) Hitchcock would work closely with the writer as the plot developed, contributing scenes and shots for visual exploitation. It was then the writer's job to work them into the story. When at last the screenplay was completed to the director's satisfaction, he worked the whole script out meticulously shot by shot, storyboarding the whole film in little sketches so that he knew precisely what would appear up on the screen.
This pre-production phase was the one to which he gave himself completely: shooting the picture, not to mention editing it afterward, was a kind of prolonged anti-climax to all the fun he had had in preparation. He was often so bored that he was even known to fall asleep on his own set when the camera was rolling. This certainly bespeaks a certain indifference to the needs of his actors, and of course Hitchcock was worse than indifferent; he was contemptuous of them. "Actors!" sneered the director in his most notorious statement. "I hate the sight of them! Actors are cattle--actresses, too. I tell them I hate the sight of them and they love it, the exhibitionists! Any profession that calls for a man to use paint and powder on his face in order to earn a living gives me evil thoughts. . . ."
Well, if actresses, as well as actors, were cattle, and Hitchcock hated the sight of them, then he certainly seems to have made an exception to heifers of a very specific type. He himself provided a description: "The perfect 'woman of mystery' is one who is blonde, subtle and Nordic. . . . A woman of mystery is one who also has a certain maturity and whose actions speak louder than words." What he is describing, of course, is the famous "Hitchcock blonde." The prototype was Madeleine Carroll (The 39 Steps and Secret Agent), and she was succeeded by Ingrid Bergman (Spellbound, Notorious and Under Capricorn) and Grace Kelly (Dial "M" for Murder and To Catch a Thief). Alfred Hitchcock was in love --or call it infatuated, as Spoto does--with each of them.
He was a fat boy who grew up to be a fat man, a frog waiting to be kissed by a princess. Yet he was also a mother-ridden Catholic, married to a woman of exceptional talent who had served as his collaborator on a number of films and his adviser on all of them. For all these reasons he repressed his feelings, never declared his love, never asked to be kissed. Yet after years of humiliation, waiting and hoping, he finally exploded into the rage that is so clearly evident in the shower murder in Psycho and the rapes in Marnie and Frenzy.
Hitchcock did something else in those last years: he played Pygmalion, attempting to "create" a blond to his exacting specifications--first with Vera Miles, then subsequently and most seriously with Tippi Hedren. She was just a model whose photograph came his way, but she looked like a perfect Hitchcock blond, and so he signed her to a personal contract and told her he would make her a star. Well, he did, more or less, for she played the lead in his productions, The Birds and Marnie. In fact, Marnie was created as a showcase for her--but a strange sort of showcase it was in which the heroine is raped by the hero for the director's gratification. By this time, obviously, Hitchcock's fantasies regarding his blonds had taken a violent, ugly turn. Nevertheless, according to Spoto, they were just fantasies-- until Tippi Hedren came along. He became increasingly open and aggressive in his pursuit of her, sending strange gifts and mash notes. Finally, during the shooting of Marnie, he actually broke down and propositioned her in her dressing room. When she rejected him, he never addressed her directly again and set about systematically to destroy the career he had pushed upon her.
And so yes, certainly Alfred Hitchcock had his dark side, but was he a genius? This is taken for granted by Donald Spoto, as it has been proclaimed for years the French auteurists, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Eric Rohmer, and here in America, by Andrew Sarris. Yet their mentor, Andr,e Bazin, withheld that from him, and would concede merely (quoting Spoto) "that within certain limitations Hitchcock was a technician and story teller of considerable distinction." To put it bluntly, can a filmmaker who was so absorbed by the technical aspect of his craft and so indifferent to its humane side truly be considered a genius?
But whether he was or was not, he is certainly the greatest influence on American films today. Because he was the technical director par excellence, and technique is what they teach at the film schools, his films have been studied shot-by-shot by the generation that dominates the film industry today. The result? The sterile, emotionally and intellectually shallow cinema of the John Carpenters, the Brian de Palmas and the George Lucases. We have Alfred Hitchcock to thank for this.