I’m a sucker for brief lives. Not people dying young, mind you, but short biographies of prominent artists, thinkers and politicians. Among several fine sets have been Viking Modern Masters, the Penguin Lives (both now defunct) and the American Presidents series, which is nearing completion. The best entries in these series can sharpen our perception of a familiar figure by focusing on the essentials.
The prolific British writer Peter Ackroyd is becoming a one-man progenitor of his own brief lives. Last year, he published a scintillating volume on the father of the mystery novel, Wilkie Collins. Now he has taken on another English-born purveyor of suspense (and a great admirer of Collins): Alfred Hitchcock.
Ackroyd reminds us what an outsider Hitchcock was. Raised Roman Catholic in Protestant England, he was perennially unhappy with his appearance, especially his spherical figure, and beset by multiple fears: of heights, policemen, imprisonment and, simply, other people. Even after he was well-established in a job with quasi-dictatorial powers — movie director — he “still did not like to cross the studio floor in case a stranger came up to him.” Such a cluster of neuroses would send many of us running to a shrink, but instead Hitchcock harnessed them to his talents. He was, Ackroyd sums up, “a superb fantasist of fear.”
After starting in the British film industry as a writer of title cards, Hitchcock quickly rose in the ranks: designer, art director, assistant director, director. More than most biographers, Ackroyd emphasizes his subject’s German phase, and makes a good case for doing so. While working on two Anglo-German productions in the 1920s, Hitchcock came under the sway of F.W. Murnau, who had directed “Nosferatu,” the great silent version of Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula.” “From Murnau,” Hitchcock recalled, “I learned how to tell a story without words.” Ackroyd also argues that the milieu depicted in the cinema of Weimar Germany “unlocked the door of Hitchcock’s imagination. This world is hazardous and uncertain; it is tremulous and frightening; it is deadly and unpredictable. It elicits anxiety and disorientation. It is always precarious.” It’s a world in which cops are apt to arrest the wrong man, in which an affable jokester on a train proposes an exchange of murders — except he’s not really joking, and a repentant woman is murdered while showering in her motel room.
Much has been made of the tension between Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick, who lured him to Hollywood in 1939. Selznick could be a heavy-handed meddler, but in Ackroyd’s view, Selznick rightly overruled Hitchcock on how to approach their first collaboration, “Rebecca.” Hitchcock submitted a treatment that lightened the novel, giving it more or less the tone of his breezy British films (“The 39 Steps,” say, or “The Lady Vanishes”), but Selznick insisted on a darker version faithful to the neo-Gothic melodrama Daphne du Maurier had written. Hitchcock gulped but started over, and the result was an Oscar for best picture of 1940. (That year’s award for best director, however, went to John Ford for “The Grapes of Wrath”; Hitchcock never did win an Oscar.) During the remainder of his contract with Selznick, Hitchcock directed more movies on loanout to other studios than he did directly for the overbearing producer. And in making his great movies of the 1950s — “Strangers on a Train,” “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest” — Hitchcock enjoyed near-total control.
Ackroyd can write intelligently and evocatively about these films, as in this characterization of “Vertigo”: “It is a reverie and a lament, a threnody and a hymn, with an ending so abrupt, so shocking, that it prolongs the mood of emptiness and anxiety.” But after at least 35 books, his productivity may be taking a toll. The prose is not always as crisp as it should be. For example, Ackroyd says that “The Birds” “flaunted the conventions of American cinema” when he means it “flouted” them. And he makes a surprising mistake in discussing a MacGuffin, Hitchcock’s term for “the device that sends the plot and the characters on their way” — the secret invasion plans, for example, or a quantity of uranium, or how and when a prime minister will be assassinated. Ackroyd equates a MacGuffin with a red herring, which means almost the opposite: a false clue.
He might also have paid more attention to Hitchcock’s work as a whole. Writing about “Marnie,” Ackroyd claims “it is not clear whether Hitchcock used [painted backdrops] to emphasize the artificiality of the film, or as a measure of economy.” In fact, Hitchcock cheated in this way throughout his career. “Vertigo” is marred by several unconvincing painted backdrops, and in one of his first big international successes, “The Lady Vanishes,” an early shot of a toy car driving the streets of a tabletop town is so phony it wouldn’t fool a child. Hitchcock stooped to such fakery not to economize or to emphasize artificiality but to indulge his control-freak tendencies. He didn’t like shooting real backdrops in actual locations because too many things could go wrong. Within the confines of a studio, he felt more at ease.
Peter Ackroyd’s latest brief life is more astute on his subject’s psychological makeup than on what makes us want to read about him: his approach to the films he made.
Dennis Drabelle, a former contributing editor of Book World, writes frequently on film.
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By Peter Ackroyd
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 276 pp. $26.95