The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock
by Donald Spoto
Little, Brown, 594 pp., $20.00
by Bruno Villien
Editions Colona (Paris), 359 pp., 248F
“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.” 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 …