Alfred Hitchcock by Peter Ackroyd. (Critical Biography, 2016).
Hitchcock is, of course one of the most famous and most written-about figures in the history of the film industry. You needn’t take my word for it, either. Merely check out 4-page bibliography lurking at the back of this new book! Naturally, some are books about movies in general that simply mention some of Hitch’s techniques and contributions to cinema. But an uncommon number (a clear majority, in fact) are focused squarely on the man himself–multiple earlier bios, memoirs of those he came in contact with (for better or worse), books seeking to understand his appeal and even entire volumes about the making and/or impacts of his most notable individual films.
Considering this abundance of material, do we really NEED veteran writer Peter Ackroyd’s take on this famous (and more than slightly notorious) guy?
Maybe not. I can’t claim to have read more than a tiny fraction of the previous books listed back there. So I won’t venture a guess as to how original or groundbreaking Ackroyd’s effort is. But as comparatively brief critical biographies go (Ackroyd’s crisply written account comes in at 26o pages of text, including several photographs), this one is definitely a lot of fun, as well as informative.
And old Alfred certainly was a fascinating personality–a fear-driven man whose his carefully and consciously designed public image eventually merged with his private circumstances to become the contradictory yet compelling figure that Ackroyd ably reveals. The man’s working class origins are outlined in a brisk-paced opening. His personal life, as well as his career, follow with just enough detail for my taste.
The films he made, and those he only thought of making then abandoned, are covered, one by one. His methodology in both planning and executing his creative vision, focusing on visual impact sometimes at the expense of other qualities; the inner tension between artistic impulses and commercial ambitions; his directorial style (and how it often proved bewildering if not seriously off-putting to his actors; the many personal terrors and obsessions that he transmuted into his films (enabling him to become the master of suspense and horror, and yes, his trademark horrific humor); his strange yet touching relationship with his wife and vital collaborator Alma; the triumphs, misfires and failures of a career stretching from the silent 1920s into the late 1970s–it’s all here.
And all of it is told in an economical yet discerning fashion.
This particular book is neither a whitewash of the man’s flaws, nor is it a hatchet-job. It offers up instead good critical insights into what worked and what didn’t–in each of Hitchcock’s films and in his dramatic, sometimes troubled and sometimes troubling personal life. It’s quite a good book for anyone with an interest in film history, or the psychology behind what drove this compelling, sometimes starkly obnoxious yet never boring individual. And it’s available in just about every format imaginable.
Well worth a look!