April 6, 2021

The Many Selves of Alfred Hitchcock, Phobias, Fetishes and All

By Parul Sehgal

1,026 words

In showing several different sides of the filmmaker, some of them contradictory, Edward White’s “The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock” captures him in full.

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  White doesn’t reconcile these contradictions. He never needs to. He presents the reader with 12 portraits of Hitchcock, taken from 12 different angles — including “The Boy Who Couldn’t Grow Up,” “The Voyeur,” “The Pioneer,” “The Family Man,” “The Womanizer,” “The Dandy.” There is no verdict to be issued, no single identity most authentic or true. His selves clash and coexist, as they did in a life that spanned the emergence of feminism, psychoanalysis and mass advertising, and a career that mapped onto the history of film itself, from the silent era to the rise of television.
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  Strangely, through these refractions, we receive a smoother, more cohesive sense of a man so adept at toying with his audience, on and off the screen. (I would have added a 13th angle, however: “The Dissembler,” for Hitchcock’s own joy in issuing contradictory statements about his life.)
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- In the filmmaker’s own words, “the man is not different from the boy.” The traditional task of the Hitchcock biographer has been to locate the defining event that became the wellspring for his lifelong interest in paranoia, surveillance and sexual violence. The biographer as detective, as it were, wandering the Bates home in “Psycho,” searching for the body of the mother, the all-revealing trauma. Hitchcock was only to play along (or dissemble), offering up theories: the harsh beatings by Jesuit priests, early fascination with Edgar Allan Poe, the day his father had him inexplicably locked up in a prison for a few hours to teach him a lesson as a small child.
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+ In the filmmaker’s own words, “the man is not different from the boy.” The traditional task of the Hitchcock biographer has been to locate the defining event that became the wellspring for his lifelong interest in paranoia, surveillance and sexual violence. The biographer as detective, as it were, wandering the Bates home in “Psycho,” searching for the body of the mother, the all-revealing trauma. Hitchcock was only too happy to play along (or dissemble), offering up theories: the harsh beatings by Jesuit priests, early fascination with Edgar Allan Poe, the day his father had him inexplicably locked up in a prison for a few hours to teach him a lesson as a small child.
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  White indulges these explanations while subtly shifting the focus to what Hitchcock rarely discussed — the death of his father and the strain of living through war — “the very type of tortuous suspense and grinding anxiety that was the adult Hitchcock’s stock in trade.” Neighborhood children and infants died in the air raids, and White suggests that “The Birds” — with the attacks on a school, and the pioneering aerial shots — can be seen as Hitchcock’s way of reliving the terror.
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  White’s style is unadorned and unobtrusive; only occasionally does he allow himself a little turn of phrase (on Jimmy Stewart: “If Cary Grant was Hitchcock’s favorite man of action, some heroic, imaginary version of himself, Stewart was surely his favorite man of reaction”). The psychologizing is of a delicate sort — far from Hitchcock’s own ham-handed attempts, which his own characters seemed to mock. “You Freud, me Jane,” Tippi Hedren says to Sean Connery in “Marnie.” White’s real interest, and talent, lies in synthesizing the scholarship, and in troubling easy assumptions.

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  • The Many Selves of Alfred Hitchcock, Phobias, Fetishes and All
  • A New Biography of Alfred Hitchcock

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  • Books and Literature
  • Content Type: Personal Profile
  • Hitchcock, Alfred
  • Movies
  • The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspense (Book)
  • White, Edward (Author)