The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock
“If I made a film of Cinderella,” Hitchcock used to complain, “people would start looking for the corpse.” They would, a French critic adds, and it would not be a bad place to look. Hitchcock specialized in putting bodies, live and dead, in all the wrong places, and a publicity stunt for Frenzy had a bloated dummy of Hitchcock himself, hands folded over ample stomach, floating on the Thames: a portrait of the artist as a drowned man.
Hitchcock’s last appearance in one of his own films was as a broad, gesticulating shadow glimpsed through a glass door marked Registrar of Births and Deaths. The word “Births” was not legible, had to be guessed at; the word “Deaths” almost gleamed with clarity. These were not exactly the events Hitchcock chiefly registered—he was more interested in what intimations of risk and panic could do to impressionable minds—and he was in real life some three hundred pounds too heavy for a shadow. But he liked to present himself in silhouette, a form where fat men are thin at least in one dimension, and a well-known line drawing became his signature. The shape was unmistakable, but it was also empty.
Something like this occurs with the films themselves. Hitchcock is there, his mark is all over them; he is not there, the films are just machines set in motion, while their inventor hides behind gags and a smoke screen of cynicism and expertise. Told that a man had killed three women, the last of them after seeing Psycho, Hitchcock maintained his customary deadpan. “Aren’t you pleased?” a journalist asked, presumably hoping for a mean glee or a belated blossoming of conscience. “No,” Hitchcock replied. “He didn’t say which of my films he saw before killing the second woman.” It would be a mistake, I think, to view this joke as a confession of cruelty or as a macabre mask for a secret bonhomie. It is above all an assertion of style, a retreat into the shadow. It also answers the question, of course. If we blame Psycho for that homicide, what shall we blame for all the rest? But can we find the man who makes the shadow? Is there a way through the glass door and into the office of the registrar of risk and panic?
John Russell Taylor, in his authorized biography, which came out in 1978, two years before Hitchcock died, seemed to think not. “There is no real Alfred Hitchcock outside his movies,” he quoted an unidentified director as saying, and concluded with an evocation of “the artist disappearing into his art.” “There is a real Alfred Hitchcock who is perfectly sufficient for the real Alfred Hitchcock. And for the rest of us, the work is what counts.”1 Amen, although not every biographer would want to do himself so thoroughly out of a job. Still, Russell Taylor admits to a “human curiosity that impels us to unravel the puzzle,” and does a little unraveling after all. He is particularly sensitive to what he calls the “curiously desolate” quality of Hitchcock’s childhood, which was not unhappy or broken but obviously lonelier than most.
Hitchcock was born in East London in 1899, educated by Jesuits, worked for a telegraph company, showed a talent for graphics and publicity, and got into films as a designer of title cards. He learned the trade, became a director, made nine silent movies, of which one, The Lodger, is a classic, and fifteen talkies, including Blackmail, Murder, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes, before vanishing himself to America in 1939. He settled in California, did some propaganda work in England during the war, and returned to old haunts to film Frenzy in 1971. He was a great gourmet and collector of paintings and drawings, Klee being a particular favorite. His career had its ups and downs, but he made a fortune all the same, becoming famous for his lugubrious television performances, dressed as Queen Victoria on one occasion, as a small baby on another, and appearing with a hatchet buried in his head on yet another. After the dim extravagances of Torn Curtain and Topaz he returned to form with Family Plot, his last film.
The American works everyone remembers are Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds; and others, of course, have their fans. For five Hitchcock films, until their current re-release, we had only our memories to rely on since their author had taken them out of circulation. Rear Window, Vertigo, Rope, The Trouble with Harry, and the second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much have been gradually reappearing, month by month, in New York and London, to mixed choruses of acclaim and bewilderment.
Vertigo particularly, on reviewing, seems both engineered and naive, a bundle of tricks planted on an obsession. But it is a haunting, and haunted, movie. James Stewart seeks to remake Kim Novak into the living image of a dead, loved woman, to regain the past by refashioning the present. Hitchcock baffles this circling desire not by disappointing it but by granting it an unthinkable blend of failure and success. The woman was not dead, but Stewart loses her a second time—not because the past can’t be repeated but because the present is already a repetition, and the past was a fraud. There was only one woman; Stewart has merely been restoring Novak to the disguise in which he met her. The camera scrupulously affirms the eerie, undeniable truth: there is just the one actress, shot in different lights and clothes and hairdos, nothing more. The rest is dream, crazy conspiracy, an allegory of love.
Donald Spoto’s hefty biography was published before the return of the withdrawn films. Spoto has none of Russell Taylor’s tact or hesitation, and his portrait shows none of the slightly improbable coziness of Taylor’s, whose claim that people who worked with Hitchcock “picture him usually as the kindest and gentlest of men” will not survive the onslaughts Spoto has gathered from a host of actors and actresses and writers and others. Russell Taylor was no doubt daunted too, as I am, by what I called Hitchcock’s style, his air of monumental indifference to his personal mystery. “He never seems to have looked for an answer to his own conundrum,” Russell Taylor says. Because he didn’t care, because he knew the answer, because he was afraid of the answer he might get? That’s also a conundrum.
The trouble with The Dark Side of Genius is not that it looks for the secrets Hitchcock kept from himself—biography, at least on one theory of the matter, is supposed to do just that—but that it doesn’t look very hard, and what’s more keeps shouting eureka like the little boy who cried wolf. The title itself begs half the questions the book ought to answer. Was there a dark side to Hitchcock? How dark? Was he a genius or a marvelous mechanic?
Spoto has amassed a lot of information, much of it disagreeable, suggesting a small-spirited, tyrannical man, but he has simply attached it to a hoary old stereotype of the tortured artist, as if Hitchcock were Poe wearing a business suit, and as if talent lay only in nightmare. The information hangs before us, and the interpretation goes its gloomy way, seldom staying for back-up or argument. The absence of letters or diaries or notebooks written by Hitchcock is not a problem; on the contrary, it proves his “deep inarticulateness.” His careful, mournful façade represents, it turns out, a “maniacal secrecy” meant to deflect our attention from the gripping truth about the movies: that they are “astonishingly personal documents,” offering “a complex image…more mysterious than any of the stories he chose to film.” This may be bad writing rather than the reckless rubbish it seems to be—that is, Spoto may not exactly believe what he is saying—but it is overheated either way. Hitchcock becomes “a repository of everything contradictory in human nature,” lives with “inner demons of lust and possessiveness, of romantic, dark fantasies about killing, and of unfulfilled sexual daydreams.” This sounds like an ordinary day in the life of a maker of thrillers, and on this principle it would be easy to lend Agatha Christie a private life on a level with that of Sade.
One or two witnesses give Spoto a little trouble. Ivor Montagu says that “a good director must have something of the sadist in him,” but “not necessarily…to a pathological degree.” Spoto decides Montagu is being cagy, thereby indicating, surprisingly enough, an “awareness that there might, indeed, have been something pathological” about Hitchcock, waiting its “monstrous unleashing.” There is no limit to what might have been. When asked if he was ever afraid, Hitchcock would reply, “Always”—an answer no doubt meaning a number of things, not least among them that Hitchcock was playing at being Hitchcock. Spoto will have none of this wayward reticence. This is the frightened Hitchcock he intended to find, and by Jove he has found him: “the brevity of the reply and the insistence with which he changed the subject are clues to the large truth of it.”
The worst feature of the book is its gossipy tone and its tendency to put Hitchcock on trial. One might defend this as stern truthtelling, the avoidance of hagiography, if the accent were not so knowing and if the charges were not, most of the time, so trivial. Did you know that Hitchcock drank? A lot? Spoto wants to turn the man’s life into Under the Volcano. Did you know that the master of suspense was a “secret eater, indulging his appetites the way he developed his film fantasies—privately, in the quiet evening hours and in the retreat of his own room”? There is worse. He had a habit of—can I bear to say this?—“indulging in great quantities of ice-cream privately.” Indulging, you will notice: the dietician as moralist. Spoto makes privacy itself sound shifty.
But there are two regions of Hitchcock’s life that open the glass door an inch or two: his relentless practical jokes and his relations with a series of leading ladies—Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Vera Miles, Tippi Hedren. As a boy he pinned a firecracker to a schoolmate’s pants. As an adult he bet a property man that he wouldn’t dare to spend a night alone in the studio, handcuffed to a camera, and offered the fellow a bottle of brandy to see him through. The brandy was spiked with laxative, and the man was found weeping in the morning, his clothes soiled, more exhausted by his humiliation than by his vigil. Spoto finds this sort of fun “nasty and demeaning,” and this is surely more appropriate than Russell Taylor’s thought that old Hitch had “gone a little too far.”
But some of Hitchcock’s jokes are splendid, and have a sharp-edged justice to them. A friend tried the brandy-with-laxative trick on Hitchcock himself, offering a bottle as a thank-you gift. There were no visible effects, and Hitchcock did not mention the matter further. Finally, the friend could stand the uncertainty no longer, and asked Hitchcock if he had enjoyed the brandy. “Oh, yes,” Hitchcock said, “I didn’t want to mention it, but my mother is ill, and when the doctor prescribed brandy, we gave her some of yours.” The guilt-stricken friend sent flowers and sympathy to Mrs. Hitchcock senior, only to discover she was perfectly fit and knew nothing of any brandy.
Practical jokes were very common in Hitchcock’s England, and it makes sense to see in them, as many people have, a strangled desire to communicate, and a wish for mastery in miniature over a world that seems very unruly in its ordinary dimensions. But I wonder whether their principal purpose is not more disruptive, a turning of all transactions to mischief and disorder. In England they suggest—or used to suggest; since they are perhaps less common now—not aggression finding an outlet in humor, but an impulse toward anarchy that civilized people can hardly confess in any other way.
But Hitchcock’s jokes are not merely an aspect of his Englishness, and they are not a little hobby, as I suppose he thought they were, or a projection of some snarled Dostoevskian cobweb in his brain, as Spoto implies. They are inseparable from his art, which also deals in planned, short-term disturbances of the ordinary, disciplined flirtations with the unpredictable. Celebrating his forty-third birthday in Hollywood, Hitchcock stood up after dinner and held a carving knife to his throat, as if to slit it. Then he put the knife away, and ordered drinks all around. Spoto finds this an “unusually macabre display,” and certainly the gag is in terrible taste. But it is in the same taste as Psycho, and a little Hitchcock film in its own right. Is it a dark joke? I’m not sure. It is black humor, but that is a technical phrase, and the joke may not have much to do with suicide, even imagined, or with Hitchcock’s state of mind at the time. It looks like a joke about what a sudden reminder of mortality will do to people, about letting that thought loose among the comfortable guests; and death in that case would be an instrument rather than an immediate terror, the means by which the rituals of normality are shaken.
Spoto’s most useful and memorable pages concern Hitchcock’s increasingly obsessive attentions to his actresses. He had an “infatuation” for Ingrid Bergman, Spoto says, “never articulated, much less activated,” and at this point we may want to say who didn’t? Grace Kelly seems to have got off lightly, and preserved fond memories of the master—she was interviewed extensively by Bruno Villien for his book Hitchcock. Vera Miles was closeted with the director for hours during the shooting of The Wrong Man, suffocated by his interest in her, and expressed her resentment by upping and marrying Gordon Scott, the star of a series of Tarzan films. But it is with Tippi Hedren that the story turns nasty. In the final scene of The Birds the creatures attack the heroine. At first, artificial birds were tried, but they didn’t look right, so live birds were attached to Hedren’s clothes, and the shooting went on for a week, with the actress and the birds becoming increasingly hysterical. Finally a bird went for Hedren’s eyes, and she collapsed. Hitchcock was visibly nervous, but insistent. He wanted to shoot this scene, the writer Evan Hunter said, “but something in him didn’t want to shoot it.”
Working with Hedren on his next film, Marnie, Hitchcock the timid, according to Spoto, made an actual sexual proposition to her, accompanied by threats, and was turned down. He was sixty-five at the time. After that, he wouldn’t speak to Hedren, or use her name. Russell Taylor says they had an argument about whether she could have a weekend off from the production and reported Hitchcock as saying that she had referred, sin of sins, to his weight. The details don’t matter enormously, since everyone agrees on the troubled relation between the two, and on Hitchcock’s agitated condition during work on both The Birds and Marnie. He fell in love with the star he was making—films and life are unequivocal about what Bruno Villien calls le geste de Pygmalion, and it is the oldest cliché of Hitchcock criticism, the icy blonde brought to life by love and violence. His age and his privilege tricked him into playing with feelings he ordinarily kept on a very low flame, if he warmed them up at all. The evidence suggests he really did keep the flame low until these late years, so the story is not so much one of inner demons finally getting out as one of banished demons, demons who seemed to have gone for good, creeping back for a rampage.
Hitchcock’s meanness is clear, although I take it his kindness was real enough too, and we don’t have to defend him or get too excited about his cruelties. Certainly I shouldn’t have liked to be Vera Miles or Tippi Hedren when Hitchcock was around. But haven’t we all fallen for actors or actresses? Been tempted to remodel the people we love into replicas of images that haunt us? Dreamed of dying in lonely rooms? Hitchcock’s peculiarities, or more precisely the mixture of his genuine peculiarities with his bland, persistent ordinariness, have struck chords in millions. That is how his films work, and that is why we can’t simply refer them back to a private pathology. Even if Hitchcock knew very little about himself, he knew a great deal about us.
There are dark and light Hitchcock films, of course, and English and American ones. There is also the spoiled romanticism of Under Capricorn and Waltzes from Vienna. If we wanted a sense of the change in the work from early to late, we could compare the English The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes with the American To Catch a Thief or North by Northwest. The second pair seems more self-consciously frivolous, and less good-humored perhaps, and may mean that the Hollywood Hitchcock felt happiest on some sort of seesaw: after Rear Window, To Catch a Thief; after Vertigo, North by Northwest. Or it may just be that in England Hitchcock was a gifted director with a name—this was precisely the personage Selznick brought over to direct Rebecca, Hitchcock’s first American film—but not yet “Hitchcock,” the man with the knife at his throat. For the moment I want to stay with qualities common to all the films.
They frequently play jokes on their characters, and often on characters who are lovers, so the two regions I have been looking at, the mischief and the obsession, come together. The crucial scenes don’t always feel like jokes, since the plot wraps them up in suspense, but they have that odd flavor of tension and almost unbearable complication we found in Vertigo. In Notorious Ingrid Bergman is in love with Cary Grant, an American undercover agent, but she is married to Claude Rains, because the FBI needs her to spy on him, and she is anxious to atone for the Nazi enthusiasms of her father. Rains is a Nazi too, and has uranium hidden in wine bottles in his cellar. Bergman steals the key, and takes Grant with her to the cellar to investigate. They are surprised by Rains, and immediately go into a passionate clinch, disguising the political conspiracy behind the appearances of an amorous pass. But of course, the pass is the truth, and the lovers are forced, for the sake of this frankly ludicrous uranium, to travesty what matters most to them. This seems to me similar to what James Stewart is made to do in Vertigo, when he gradually, cruelly, converts Kim Novak into Kim Novak.
Rear Window contains a characteristic, uneasy Hitchcock joke, meant very precisely to pander to our worries about sexuality. James Stewart, a photographer laid up with a broken leg, thinks he has detected a murder in a room he can see across a courtyard. He and his girlfriend, Grace Kelly, work it all out by inference and spying. At one point they find themselves staring at the blinds of a room where a pair of newlyweds have been hidden away for days. Kelly says straight-faced that she thinks something “even more sinister” may be going on behind those blinds, and Stewart looks quizzical. Kelly wants him to marry her; he likes her but is anxious to stay single. He gets her into his murder mystery, and she seems at the end to get him in return. As Bruno Villien says, the whole courtyard offers images of love and marriage, “the couple scattered, cut into pieces,” like the woman who has been killed. There is the girl with many boyfriends and a returning fiancé, the lonely older woman, the aging couple with a dog in the place of a child, and of course the central reflection of Stewart’s fears, the promised end of all affection, the murderer and the body of his wife.
Two things seem to be going on here. One is an oddly complacent account of voyeurism, which is why the film both fascinates us and makes us uncomfortable. At one moment it seems that Stewart and Kelly may have made the murder up, that the suspected man may be quite innocent, and they are aghast at the depth of their disappointment. “Here we are,” Kelly says, “in despair because we find out a man didn’t kill his wife.” This takes us beyond simply voyeurism and into an actual wish for a horror to have occurred, so that we shall be seeing something, and not just a man doing the washing up. We often watch the news in this damage-hungry way, and the fact that Stewart is a news photographer and has broken his leg covering an auto race is no doubt there to remind us of this. Speaking to Truffaut, Hitchcock showed an unconcerned ambivalence on this score, suggesting that when ‘the killer gets wind of Stewart’s investigations, and comes round to do him in, Stewart “deserves what’s happening to him”, but Hitchcock also resisted the notion that there is anything horrible about the film because it is all about snooping. Sure Stewart’s a snooper, Hitchcock said, “but aren’t we all?” Are we? The film assumes this, and only Kelly’s remark touches on the specific nature of the ugliness involved, that of wanting harm in the world for our entertainment.
The other thing that is going on is more clearly focused, if no more limpid morally, and Hitchcock again assumes we are all in on the act. Stewart is only really drawn to Kelly, whose beauty and manners are otherwise unreal, something you could pin up on the wall but not go to bed with, when she is in danger, threatened by the man who has killed his wife. Stewart’s eyes light up then, he comes to life. Previously he was more interested in another man’s crime than in his own romance. Now that the romance is entangled in the crime, he can care about it. I’m not sure what this says to us, except that displacement is a funny business, and we may all need more of it than we think.
Michel Laigle, in a recent issue of the French magazine Caméra/Stylo, wondered why Hitchcock’s films pleased him so much, “pourquoi tant de bonheur,” when Hitchcock was by no means his favorite director. This seems to me just the right question. What is that curious delight that Hitchcock’s work at its best provides, that lift of feeling which makes questions about whether he was a genius or a mechanic seem mere label-mongering, the sort of thing that could bother you only if you hadn’t seen the films. In Strangers on a Train Robert Walker proposes to Farley Granger an exchange of murders. He will kill Granger’s trouble-some wife if Granger will kill Walker’s hated father. No one will ever catch them because there will be no motive to give the police a trail. There will be no reason for the crimes. At the beginning of the film we have seen train lines crossing, forming X-shapes, running parallel, veering off. Left alone, thinking he has Granger hooked, Walker leans back in his seat, throws his feet up, and smiling fondly murmurs the phrase he has used to describe the structure of his scheme. “Criss-cross,” he says. “Criss-cross.” You can want to go to the movies just for that scene.
Why? Hitchcock raises a question about our complicity, about what he is doing to us and why we are letting it happen. The bonheur is subjective, but it is not private, since so many share it, and share it in similar terms. We don’t think Hitchcock is the greatest director in the world, but our pleasure in him is livelier than it is in a lot of work we admire more, and it is not the pleasure of escape or relaxation, but something like the reverse.
Bruno Villien doesn’t address this question in his large, glossy book. He simply traces the whole career, film by film, illustrating lavishly and commenting well, without a sign of fatigue. This is the French Hitchcock, at home in a world of fetishism, sadomasochism, and homoerotic fantasy, afloat on a sea of mild overinterpretation. Villien dismisses as vulgar the idea that Hitchcock could be just a virtuoso technician, and is inclined to a rather schoolboyish elaboration of the patterns of imagery he finds in the films: fire always has a rôle meurtrier, a murderous part to play; air is the synonym of liberty; “Black and White: a brand of whiskey but also the fundamental opposition of the work”; “animals symbolize the struggle of darkness and light.” He doesn’t offer much of a critical view of the films, but he is very attentive to neglected ones, and rarely fails to find something sharp to say about any of them. He treats Hitchcock’s life lightly, but offers much information, and I have borrowed a number of quotations and anecdotes from him.
Michel Laigle’s own answer to his query is disappointing: Hitchcock permits us to travel to the end of ourselves, to live out our own adventure. I can’t think of a director who permits this less. We go precisely where Hitchcock takes us. He plays on us, he told Truffaut, as he might play on an organ, and he said to Oriana Fallaci that terror and horror have the same effect on human beings as a caress. “The public is very strange,” he remarked on another occasion. “They like to dip their toes in the icy water of fear…a pleasant little fear.”
Hitchcock, characteristically, is making it all sound nastier than it has to be, but the “pleasant little fear” is right. When Robert Walker says “criss-cross” in that absorbed, musing way, the whole careful world of causality and connection, the place where we live and make decisions and care for consequences, wobbles for an instant. We are not, as Hitchcock liked to say we were, in the victim’s position. Most of us don’t have a murder we want to be committed. But the notion of an impeccably motiveless crime may seem to encompass everything we don’t understand, and quite a bit of what we think we do understand. A glimpse of the shaky scaffolding beneath our feet. Not knowing the reasons for a thing is like Lawrence not knowing the fish’s god. The pleasure arises, or becomes conscious, when we get back from this perilous edge. Of course there are reasons for things: Walker is only proposing a swap; each man has his motives; all’s right with the world. But the world we return to from seeing some of the films is both duller and more fragile. Stanley Cavell has written very well on this subject:
I think everyone knows odd moments in which it seems uncanny that one should find oneself just here now, that one’s life should have come to this verge of time and place, that one’s history should have unwound to this room, this road, this promontory.2
These are Hitchcock’s moments, the ones he arranges for us, his little joke.
Hitchcock once spoke of a scene he wanted to shoot but didn’t, and which has always seemed to me to hold some sort of clue to his grip on us. It is a scene about nothing, rather as Walker’s exchanged crimes are apparently based on nothing, and of course this is also a way of describing practical jokes. Where there was nothing, no event, no distrubance, there is suddenly something, firecrackers in the pants, a carving knife at the throat, a solvent in the brandy. And then there is nothing again, life closes over the crazy incursion: just a joke. “Have you ever seen an assembly line?” Hitchcock asked Truffaut.
They’re absolutely fantastic…. I wanted to have a long dialogue scene (in North by Northwest) between Cary Grant and one of the factory workers as they walk along the assembly line. They might, for instance, be talking about one of the foremen. Behind them a car is being assembled, piece by piece. Finally, the car they’ve seen being put together from a simple nut and bolt is complete, with gas and oil, and all ready to drive off the line. The two men look at it and say, “Isn’t it wonderful!” Then they open the door of the car and out drops a corpse!…Where has the body come from? Not from the car, obviously, since they’ve seen it start at zero! The corpse falls out of nowhere, you see!3
The corpse falls out of nowhere. It seems to me that all of Hitchcock’s films flirt with the notion of reasonlessness, and that this is what gives them their particular air of being remote from life and close to our nerves; an air of contrivance so fantastic that no amount of plotting can make it probable, a repertoire of images that probability, if it were available, would only make tamer. How are we plausibly going to get people clinging to the faces of Mount Rushmore? Why would we want to bring plausibility into it? This is to come very close to the world of dreams—not the glossy, prefabricated dreams which Hitchcock had Dali do for Spellbound, but the nighttime realm where the familiar turns eerie, and all sorts of wild fictions, like flying and falling and throwing your wife off a high tower, have their home. In this context, Hitchcock’s frequent cracks at the psychological approach to his scripts become a little more than throwaways. Paul Newman wanted to know when a character in Torn Curtain thinks of killing a man by stuffing him in an oven. Hitchcock gave himself a day to ponder this. “I’ve got it,” he then said. “She thinks of it in the car, on the way to the studio.”
The motives in Hitchcock, all his concessions to plot and story, seem to be there to give us a faint feel of movie rationality, a hint of the rug before he pulls it away. But of course he is not the rebel such a description suggests. What marks his work is its gleeful acceptance of commercial conventions. Hitchcock is not an auteur, struggling against the system, he is using the system. Only he makes the Hollywood conventions stand for the norm, the whole deck of an audience’s expectations, and he smuggles trouble into the system as it stands. Familiarity is what breeds distress. “If the story had involved vultures, or birds of prey,” Hitchcock said of Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds,” “I might not have wanted it. The basic appeal to me is that it had to do with ordinary, everyday birds. Do you see what I mean?” I associate this thought with a subtle phrase in William Rothman’s book on Hitchcock, The Murderous Gaze. “Our suspicion about him,” Rothman says of Cary Grant in Suspicion, “can never be divorced from our understanding of who he is.” This is how we feel about Hitchcock and his films and the safe old world he has taught us to distrust.