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The Haunted Imagination of Alfred Hitchcock

How the master of suspense got his sadistic streak


The twentieth century ushered in the age of the uncanny. The concept, of course, has always been with us, as we see from the earliest of the surviving great epics, Gilgamesh, haunted as it is by the ghostly and the ghastly, by the terror of death-in-life and life-in-death. Freud in his essay Das Unheimliche identifies the uncanny as “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” The meaning here is slippery, as so often with this most furtive of revolutionary thinkers; nevertheless, we know what he means. What could be more terrifying than to glance through a window and see one’s double standing outside in the street?

The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspense
by Edward White
W.W. Norton & Company, 400 pp., $28.95

Freud published his essay in 1919, when the world was still haunted by the hosts of the dead of the world war that had just ended. This was a new kind of warfare: Slaughter on such a scale must have been well-nigh impossible to comprehend or assimilate. Surely it seemed unreal, the thought of wave after wave of uniformed men scrambling out of holes in the ground and stumbling forward over the corpses of their fellows, only to become on the instant corpses themselves; were they the fathers, sons, and brothers who had marched off to battle, or had those once-familiar figures by some dark alchemy been transformed into automata?

Alfred Hitchcock, according to his latest biographer, Edward White, “was very widely read and could talk with authority on matters of psychology, politics, and philosophy, as well as almost any field of the arts.” It’s likely, therefore, that he knew, or at least knew of, Freud’s essay. Certainly he made a career out of exploiting our fascination with, and fear of, the uncanny. In his own case, he manufactured a sort of Doppelgänger in whose ample shadow he could hide in plain sight. There was Alfred Hitchcock the lower–middle-class lad from the East End of London who from earliest days was obsessed by the shadow play of three-dimensional images on a two-dimensional screen, and then there was “Alfred Hitchcock,” a balding fat man in a double-breasted suit with a protruding lower lip and an instantly recognizable profile, who made a fortune in Hollywood by playing to, and playing upon, our deepest fears and phobias. Which was the real man, if there was one?

His professional life also was divided in two parts, geographical and imaginative. So famous is he for the movies he made in Hollywood, from Rebecca in 1940 through to his last film, Family Plot, in 1976, that it is easy to forget he spent the first half of his career in England, making English films, more than a score of them, and that, when he left for America, he was already an established, indeed a revered, name in world cinema. No wonder he was so close for so long to Cary Grant, another riven Englishman, who at the outset had been the less than dashingly named Archie Leach. It might be said that these two dream-figures, Hitchcock and Grant, were their own body doubles, the one comically grotesque, the other superhumanly handsome.

Hitchcock was 80 when he died, in 1980, but one has the impression that he lived for twice that long. The “English” Hitchcock is essentially a creature of the late nineteenth century—he could be a character out of Dickens, or an impresario of the English Music Hall in its heyday. He never lost his accent, a curious mixture of East End Cockney and the plummy vowels to be heard in the West End gentlemen’s clubs. Though he became an American citizen in 1955, following his wife’s example and perhaps encouraged to it by her, he had his doubts. According to Edward White, he was nervous of relinquishing his official status as an Englishman, observing to a friend that “the Hitchcock name goes back almost to the beginning of the British Empire. It isn’t easy giving up a lifetime surrounded with British tradition and history.” Yet as David Thomson has suggested, Hitchcock’s Psycho marked the true start of what would become known as The Sixties, not so much a decade as an epoch.

He was born in 1899 above his father’s greengrocer shop in the unremarkable town of Leytonstone in Essex, northeast of London. His parents already had two children, and Alfred was to be their last. He was around six years old when the family moved to Limehouse, on the Thames in London, where his father purchased two fish-and-chip shops, over one of which the Hitchcocks lived. The world the child knew was, as White evocatively writes, “one of greengrocers and market traders, publicans and barmaids, coarse humor and an edge of menace.”

As an East Ender, he was slightly unusual in that his people were Roman Catholic, being of Irish descent—his mother, Emma, White tells us, “came from devout Catholic stock”—and he was brought up in the Church and educated by Jesuits. “The teachings and rituals of the Church played a central role in family life,” White writes. “Borrowing the words of the First Epistle of Peter, Hitchcock’s father affectionately referred to Alfred as his ‘lamb without a spot,’ while Emma, if Hitchcock’s recollection can be trusted, had her youngest boy stand at the foot of her bed each night to confess his sins.”

It’s unlikely that he held on to his faith. However, as is the case with so many “lapsed” Catholics, and particularly ones who, like James Joyce, had been subjected to the sophisticated and subtle indoctrination the Jesuits specialized in, the forms and rituals of the church were to affect his feelings and inform his thinking, especially his artistic thinking, to the end. As White shrewdly observes, “many of Hitchcock’s films certainly have a look that could be described as Catholic.… With the autumnal colors of Vermont, and Shirley MacLaine’s vivid purple outfit, there are shots in The Trouble With Harry that look like moving stained-glass windows.”

Nor is it far-fetched to see in his predilection for, or as some would say his obsession with, the statuesque, barely animate blonde actresses whom he cast in movie after movie, an involuntary referencing back to the paintings and plaster images of the Virgin Mary that would have attended his childhood, in the local church and, no doubt, in the home, too; in many a Catholic household in those days the “Blessed Virgin” was far more popular than her son. It is telling that in Hitchcock’s supreme masterpiece, Vertigo, the violent scenes take place in the bell tower of a church.

Iconography played a powerful part in the upbringing of Catholics, who, in childhood especially, found themselves by turn simpered over and terrified by the images that confronted them from all sides. This was a densely figured world, in which even the most benign representations of the congregation of saints had about them an air of menace; remember, they seemed to say, we are always here, always watching. And what could be more uncanny than a life-size Christ bleeding on the cross?

The result of this, for all but the true believers, was a more or less oppressive, lifelong sense of unease and nameless anxiety. Edward White writes of Hitchcock that

his most vivid memories—or, at least, the ones he publicly declared—were concerned with fear, the fuel on which the Hitchcock juggernaut ran. He claimed to be scared of just about everything: policemen, strangers, driving, solitude, crowds, heights, water, and conflict of any sort.…

Thus, below the Cold Heaven, there lay the terrestrial sphere and its attendant torments. Hitchcock told François Truffaut the story of how when he was a little boy his father punished him for a misdemeanor by sending him to the local police station with a note describing his wrongdoing. “The chief of police read it and locked me in a cell for five or ten minutes, saying, ‘This is what we do to naughty boys.’” Then there was the night he woke to find the house empty, his parents having slipped off to the pub, and thought himself abandoned; he remembered standing terrified in the kitchen, seeking to comfort himself by wolfing down slice after slice of cooked meat. Being Hitchcock, of course, he made humor out of the incident, suggesting with his usual teasing solemnity that, as White writes, it “had instilled in him a fear of the dark … and an unconquerable dislike of cold cuts.”

The boy Hitchcock left school early, and by the age of 15 already had a full-time job with a telegraph company; the work was dull, until he moved into the advertising department, and began ambitiously to dream. He took evening art classes at the University of London. His taste in books ran to the middlebrow: J.M. Barrie, John Buchan, and the great master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe, whose influence, he said years later, led him to make “suspense films.”

He must also have been deeply affected by his postwar work on a film documenting the horrors of the Nazi death camps, commissioned by the British Ministry of Information. The French critic Jean-Louis Comolli has observed that the “juxtaposition of what is familiar with what is horrible is one of the great Hitchcock themes”; along with so much else, the camps were the ultimate in das Unheimliche. White notes that, in one section of the film, the camera pauses on the threshold of “a brilliant white room” marked BRAUSEBAD, the German for “shower bath,” a disguised chamber of horrors meant to deceive the countless victims destined to be gassed to death inside it. As White writes, “the visual rhyme with the shower scene from Psycho, as profane as if might appear, is difficult to dislodge from one’s mind.” All the same, it’s sobering to recall that Hitchcock considered Psycho a comedy, and said of that movie’s infamous shower scene, “I directed [it] for laughs.”

His notions in general of what was funny resulted in some appalling lapses of judgment and common decency. Asked in an interview to comment on the Moors Murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, who in the mid-1960s sexually abused, killed, and secretly buried five children, he said: “[The murderers] made tape recordings of children screaming as they were buried alive … jolly good stuff.”

He had, without doubt, a strong sadistic streak, both as a man and as a moviemaker. He found, as White notes, “great sport in seeing others being humbled.” Like Graham Greene, whom he tried to get to write for him, he delighted in playing cruel and demeaning practical jokes, often on women. He had an actress who was allergic to smoke play a scene in a phone booth that he slowly filled up with steam. Another time, he spiked a crew member’s drink with a strong laxative and conspired to leave him handcuffed overnight in a public place. These “jokes” and others like them are detailed in a section of White’s book entitled “The Entertainer.” Hmm.

To be fair, if fairness it be, one must acknowledge that Hitchcock did not spare himself when it came to comic spectacle. The kindest interpretation of his clowning is to say it was a way of defending himself against the world’s ridicule. He was acutely conscious of his great girth, his great globular head, and three chins. Yet at dinner parties—at dinner parties—he would perform the “breast ballet,” in which he would “whip off his top and gyrate his pectorals for the amusement of his guests.” And then there was the “whistling sailor” act. In this, he would again remove his jacket and shirt, draw a face on his naked belly with his navel as the mouth, and, in the account of one witness quoted by White, begin to whistle, “at the same time wobbling and shaking his stomach, and the big pink visage below his red face seemed not only to whistle but to change its expression.”

In the way of modern biographers, White speculates freely, though not extensively, on Hitchcock’s sexuality. His lifelong partnership with Mrs. Hitchcock, the redoubtable Alma—how did she put up with him?—was happy, but seems to have been what the French delicately call a mariage blanc. Alma had at least one affair, but her husband’s love life is shadowy in the extreme. Admittedly, he was not averse to confessing to libidinal ambiguities himself. Rodney Ackland, a screenwriter who was gay, and who worked with Hitchcock in the 1930s in England, wrote that his former boss had told him that if he had not met and married Alma, he might well have “become a poof.” Another writer, Samson Raphaelson, described Hitchcock as an “odd, weird, little faggish man,” a description which, according to White, Raphaelson “meant fondly”; one wonders what he would have said had he meant to wound.

White suggests, rather sweepingly, that “no other male artist of the twentieth century dedicated as much time and effort to exploring the lives and identities of women.” Certainly, Hitchcock fixated, on-screen and off, on a succession of actresses, including Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, and, notably, Tippi Hedren, on all of whom he worked, or sought to work, what White in a felicitous phrase calls his “domineering charm.”

Hedren had never acted before he cast her in The Birds (1963), one of his masterpieces, and, the following year, in Marnie, a very dark, and some would say very sick, study of a woman emotionally crippled by childhood trauma. Both films left the inexperienced actress drained and disoriented, but not as much, she wrote, as on the occasion when Hitchcock “threw himself on top of me and tried to kiss me” in the back of a limousine. “It was an awful, awful moment I’ll always wish I could erase from my memory.” No doubt it was awful, and in the Hollywood of the day it was hardly uncommon. In 2016, she elaborated on the incident, writing that “he suddenly grabbed me and put his hands on me. It was sexual, it was perverse, and it was ugly, and I couldn’t have been more shocked and more repulsed.” Hitchcock himself wouldn’t comment, and suggested this reason for his break with Hedren: “She referred to my weight.”

White’s book is a perceptive, plainspoken, and vigorous portrait of an exceedingly strange, complicated, and perhaps deeply wounded man. If Hitchcock was not a genius, certainly he had a genius for entertainment, though of a decidedly dubious kind. White’s claim that Hitchcock is “the emblematic artist of the twentieth century” is overwrought, though he tempers it by adding that he was “not necessarily the most talented or the most accomplished, but [an artist] of vast influence.” This is fairer, surely, than Orson Welles’s bleak judgment: “I don’t honestly believe Hitchcock is a director whose pictures will be of any interest a hundred years from now.” Not all his films are great, and some are not even good, but a few are timeless masterpieces. Watch Vertigo again, and be convinced.