In the dark

Philip Horne

  • The Life of Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius by Donald Spoto
    Collins, 594 pp, £12.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 00 216352 7
  • Howard Hawks, Storyteller by Gerald Mast
    Oxford, 406 pp, £16.50, June 1983, ISBN 0 19 503091 5

Television recently showed a likable young man from Florida who had committed an atrocious murder giving evidence in court against his ‘accomplice’, whose trial had been thrown open to the cameras. The photographs of the victim’s wounds were sickening, but the softly-spoken young man went back over the sequence of incompetent brutalities which produced them with unbroken equanimity. Interviewed outside the courtroom, he was deferential and polite in explaining why it had been sensible for him to turn State’s Evidence; and as he talked, he coughed, his hand went demurely up to cover his mouth, and he murmured: ‘Excuse me.’ Looking for a qualitative deviation in the murderer’s demeanour, a frightening glint or a nervous tic by which to know him for different, we were baffled by his ordinariness; anxious not to be thought ill-mannered, he held out no greater token of a need for forgiveness than this piece of social small-change.

Alfred Hitchcock would have been pleased and frightened by this incongruity, as he was by so many others. The representative of evil in his films usually appears to exemplify orderliness and cordiality; the power to deceive makes his wickedness conveniently incredible. As Hitchcock put it in 1972:

He has to be charming, attractive. If he weren’t, he’d never get near one of his victims. There was a very famous man in England called Haig, known as the Acid Bath Murderer. He murdered about four people and was a dapper, very presentable-looking little man; he could never have committed these murders without being accepted.

Writing about film acting in 1937, Hitchcock pointed out that ‘people today in real life often don’t show their feelings in their faces.’ Hitchcock’s films are informed by the sense that pleasant faces may conceal murderous feelings. Respectable appearances repeatedly dissolve into extraordinary menace. Benign professors whip out guns, as do nuns and housekeepers. Being afraid that friendly looks might fade to an ominous black stare isn’t, of course, an emotion which the sane can much afford in real life: but we have to grant the premise that improbable things can happen, and bare possibilities have an uncanny hold on the mind which gives a force to ‘implausible’ fictions.

One of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, the terrifying Psycho (1960), shows a young woman who steals some money happening to stop at a maniac’s motel; the fortuitous conjunction of criminals is seriously witty, at the same time funny (because patently unlikely) and not funny at all (because so powerfully demonstrated). Our pleasure in the film comes from its dual attitude to this central coincidence; it conveys to us the terrible dizziness of being lost and trapped on our own in circumstances beyond our control, and yet also offers the light relief of its po-faced jokes, reminding us as an audience of the comparatively safe community we form with its makers. The script is full of, ironic glances that mark and alleviate the cruel logic of the action – like the policeman early on who admonishes Janet Leigh for sleeping in her car: ‘There are plenty of motels in this area. You should’ve – I mean just to be safe – Anthony Perkins, who plays Norman Bates in the film, has justly remarked: ‘Luckily, I think that most of the people who saw the picture enjoyed it in a very good warmhearted way. When they were frightened, they were pleased that they were frightened.’ For Hitchcock to say, ‘To me it’s a fun picture,’ then, is not callous or barbarous: the ‘fun’ involved is part of the film’s serious value. Hitchcock’s sense of humour evokes the general social solidarity which enables us to contemplate Psycho’s grimly particularised hypothesis – that ‘we’re all in our private traps.’

Hitchcock was aware that his morbid representations made him vulnerable to misrepresentation: ‘A lot of people think I’m a monster.’ The biography he authorised and checked – Hitch by his friend John Russell Taylor – appeared two years before his death on 29 April 1980 to contradict this idea, and, for all its blandness and sparseness of reference, brought much information to light. Its blurb called it ‘the only serious biography of the man himself’. Now Donald Spoto, author of The Art of Alfred Hitchcock (1976), has undertaken to show The Dark Side of Genius, on the ground that (according to his blurb) ‘the intensely private, secretive Hitchcock eluded the serious biographer until now.’ This is unfair to Hitch: in spite of his exhaustive and fascinating new research, Spoto is often unable to offer more than a jaundiced paraphrase of Taylor’s accounts (he mentions Hitch only once in the text and twice in the notes). When his versions of events differ from Taylor’s he usually looks on the dark side: in particular, the disgusted way he writes of the last years – failing to mention Hitchcock’s sessions with Taylor – labours the impression (on what must be regarded as scant proof) of an oppressive decline into over-eating, alcoholism, inefficiency and marital misery. By starting the biography in ‘March 1979’ with a prologue describing the 78-year-old Hitchcock in a state of decrepitude (receiving an American Film Institute Life Achievement Award), he tries to suggest that his subject is ‘fated’, and to a degeneration more personally specific than old age and mortality. Spoto’s prose works hard and artily to allegorise what happened in 1979 (‘When approached by a visitor, he drew back as if a deadly fear gripped him’), and sets the book up as the real story of a great storyteller: ‘Gradually, a complex image appeared, more mysterious than any of the stories he chose to film.’ John Russell Taylor is more modest, and more satisfactory, in renouncing the interpretative swellings which make up too much of Spoto’s big book: ‘But whether these hypotheses are correct or not, the fact remains that the elements have been precipitated into art which needs no external explanation.’

If Hitch erred by taking the evasive Hitchcock always at his word, The Dark Side errs worse by taking straight into its text the evidence of his ex-friends and ex-associates, particularly that of the writers, many embittered, whose contributions to screenplays were subject to his approval and subjected to his transmutations. Charles Bennett, for instance, wrote scripts for Hitchcock in England till they both moved to Holly wood just before the War; after a film set in Europe, Foreign Correspondent (1940), he never again worked for Hitchcock, who was turning his attention to American subjects. Spoto gives us the Bennett view – ‘At this point he severed almost all contact with the faithful Charles Bennett, who had collaborated so well from 1934 to 1940’ – and does not hesitate to use Bennett’s interested words about Hitchcock, without reflection on their possible bias: ‘he had a monstrous ego that matched his appetite.’ Or: ‘Some of the gifts were quite lavish in those days. But one had the impression he gave gifts to please himself in the giving, and to look generous ... I think he gave gifts because it would help him.’ One is driven to suspect that the apparently disinterested character-sketches by some former associates express a covert hostility towards the genius who rebuked their talents. Hitchcock liked to use established novelists or playwrights, and would work closely with them (he approached Hemingway, Hammett and Nabokov, and employed Thornton Wilder, Steinbeck, Chandler, Brian Moore and Anthony Shaffer). Spoto has found many ready to testify to Hitchcock’s inadequacy without them (like Brian Moore of Torn Curtain: ‘I found that he had absolutely no concept of character’); and to his inadequacy in dealings with people generally. Others found him charming: but Spoto, looking for the dark side, takes this as the surface beneath which Hitchcock was really raging with ‘a sad and ultimately destructive passion’, just as he takes the main object of Hitchcock’s art to be his life: ‘His work became a more acute spiritual autobiography with every film.’ We can believe that Hitchcock had a dark side, and that the films take a lot of their power from autobiographical elements, without wanting to lose the benefits either of his sense of humour or of his best films’ urbanity of address.

Where Hitch was over-jovial about Hitchcock’s notorious practical jokes. The Dark Side takes a dim view of them. Those involving laxatives are certainly not funny, but the topic of jokes needs a light touch: Spoto usually takes a joke and relates it to death, cruelty and lust. By turning a (possibly unwise) game into a dark deed, and sacrificing the delights of Hitchcock’s lugubrious wit in the scrutiny of his troubled inwardness, Spoto forces on this book a dour tone which the supposed evidence repeatedly belies. Every practical joke seems to end with the victim in terrified hysterics or agonies of embarrassment, and is for the serious biographer a ‘revelation’ of sinister impulses. It is right, of course, to see practical jokes as translating dark fears and desires more or less successfully into social comedy: they are power games that signal and play around with the bounds of the probable and the ordinary, with the notion of having and then losing control. Cary Grant, mistaken for a spy, is kidnapped at the start of North by Northwest (1959) by two unsmiling gunmen: ‘What is this, a joke or something?’ he asks. They answer grimly: ‘Yes, a joke – we will laugh in the car.’ Soon US Intelligence learn of his random victimisation by the enemy and the subsequent equally random death of a statesman at the UN, and one of them remarks, strikingly: ‘So horribly sad, how is it I feel like laughing?’ The measured lightness of tone in North by Northwest – its intermittent jokiness – mediates between the abstract meaning of the film as a controlled fiction we can laugh at and the infectious sense it carries as a horribly sad drama of fear and dislocation and collapsing trusts. But Spoto is deaf to the civilised accomplishment of such an ironic interplay of registers (and thinks lightly of North by Northwest as Hitchcock’s ‘temporary respite from his hidden anxieties and his romantic fantasies’). He finds Hitchcock disclosing his dark side again in 1971. ‘“Frenzy,” he told people at the time, “is the story of a man who is impotent and therefore expresses himself through murder.” Many have thought that the result clause – “and therefore ...” – contains a strange logic, or one that perhaps made sense only to Hitchcock.’ The utterance is a joke, ‘and therefore’ deliberately shocking with its flat imagination of nastily twisted reasons: the serious biographer, assuming Hitchcock to have made an unconscious slip, takes the bait without getting the point.

Spoto is not adept at sifting evidence, his critical judgments on the films are tendentious, his lengthy comparisons of Hitchcock with James, Dowson, Chesterton, Poe and Hieronymus Bosch can be left unread, and his accounts of cultural history are often laughable (‘Artists and writers and even the man in the street admitted that moral values were certainly changing very quickly, and some people were questioning the old truths about what was right and wrong’). Yet like Gerald Mast’s likeable and competent Howard Hawks, Storyteller (a critical study – Todd McCarthy’s biography is forthcoming), The Dark Side of Genius will be read by those interested in its subject, on the strength of its exhaustive textual scholarship: both books are based on archive work with drafts of the screenplays, and give for the first time accounts of the stages of writing, the hard work that allowed such apparent ease in the finished films of both directors. It is salutary that the so-called auteur theory should be so tested, and for the most part so convincingly confirmed in these concurrent careers: as a rule both directors worked closely with – directed, in fact – their screenwriters. In Red River (1948) Hawks himself revised out as much speech as he could, chipping down the uttered relations of John Wayne, Walter Brennan and Montgomery Clift to laconic statements of respect (‘He’ll do’) and friendship (‘I’m glad you came home cause ... well, I’m glad you came home’). In Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940), admirable comedies with Cary Grant (who graced five of his and four of Hitchcock’s most characteristic films), he added verbal tags to both ends of nearly every line, so that the overlapping dialogue can rip along at only apparently bewildering speed. Hitchcock usually left the bulk of the dialogue to his writers, but Spoto’s research uncovers striking exceptions: in the affectionate and chilling Shadow of a Doubt (1942), which is set in peaceful Santa Rosa, Hitchcock himself wrote the broken, affecting speech that recalls a traumatic bicycle accident in the childhood of Uncle Charlie, the visiting killer of rich widows. A similar accident left Hitchcock with a faint scar on the chin. He also wrote the wondering, stunned reaction of Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946) to the news of her father’s suicide (Hitchcock’s elder brother had died, probably by his own hand, in 1943). Such eloquently personal contributions illuminate the idea of authorship.

It seems important to know, of Hawks’s Only angels have wings (1939), often called implausible, that it is based on a tiny airline in South America whose fliers he knew; and of the moving scene in which Cary Grant lights a cigarette for his dying friend Thomas Mitchell and goes slowly outside that Hawks’s brother died in a frying accident. It is hard to define the difference this makes. In Hitchcock’s work, the extraordinary three-minute scene where Norman Bates mops, scrubs and wipes up the bathroom after the shower murder in Psycho evidently has some relation to Hitchcock’s own announced fastidiousness about bathroom hygiene – which does not, however, supply the meaning of this strange and gripping sequence. We are disturbed that the 56-year-old Claude Rains of Notorious should report in a crisis to the foot of the bed of his murderously possessive mother – even after his marriage to Ingrid Bergman: Hitchcock did this as a child in Leytonstone and Poplar (‘It was a ritual’), and he used the basis of fact to make these scenes so truly sinister – by giving the twist of persistence to something to be outgrown – but it couldn’t be said to ‘explain’ them. These are only a few of Spoto’s cases. They reinforce our sense, conveyed by Hitchcock’s best films, of lives imagined as bafflingly particular. Brian Moore, as an ex-collaborator, laments Hitchcock’s ‘profound ignorance of human motivation’ as a self-evident weakness: but we could note that we’re all profoundly ignorant on this matter, and that the mysteriously expressive surface of the film actor’s face is an appropriate medium for this truth.

The making of films, an extended process needing a large number of people, also needs a constant struggle with contingency, an energetic engagement of intention with accident – particularly the accident of who those people are. Hitchcock was constantly pained by the constraints of the industry – impeded and even persecuted by producers and distributors in England during the first part of his career – and he fought with ruthless determination to bring about the conditions he had rather grandly written of in 1927: ‘when moving pictures are really artistic they will be created entirely by one man.’ ‘Entirely’ here takes him too far, though his technical experience in all departments of film-making gave him a remarkable grasp; and his uniquely successful drive to get the script and cast and set and crew he wanted, to escape the importunities of studio heads, and to ensure the director’s name was as well-known to the public as the stars’, might have resulted in an oeuvre sterile with a dictator’s displays of power. Some thought it did. He was rumoured to treat actors as cattle. But it is part of the value of his best pictures that they use their power over people compassionately, to examine abuses of power, are tenderly concerned with the cruel dramas of those who deceive, are constrained to deceive, or are deceived. The demands he usually made of his actors certainly accorded with a testing ideal of competent repose, required a faculty of understatement (he would tell many not to ‘act’). Like Hawks, he viewed film acting as a matter of expressive embodiment; the imitation of emotion involved in stage acting is largely obviated by the narrative power of cameramovement, framing and editing. The reward of film’s exacting process is that the camera brings the finest details of gesture and expression to our attention; the business of the film actor, who is its object, is to be alive with them.

Hitchcock put his sense of this beautifully in 1930: ‘the screen demands a certain animation and sparkle of movement, which is the opposite of self-consciousness.’ This ‘certain animation’ is the redeeming accident, as it were, for the sake of which all other accidents are painstakingly excluded; it arrives as the – spark of intelligent spontaneity to kindle in a moment the mass of rigorous preparation. Bruce Dern from Family Plot (1976) remarks that ‘nothing is left to chance except the actor’s improvisation. He’s concerned that the actor keep it fresh, alive, new.’ And Janet Leigh, from Psycho, notes the luminous clarity of Hitchcock’s intentions in this respect: ‘You get a very pure approach to each nuance, and to each moment.’

Hitchcock used to quote Sardou: ‘Torture the heroine.’ Some of the parts played by blonde actresses in the films from 1956 to 1964 demanded that they be alive for the camera’s searching gaze with the appearance of extremes of passion and distress; the last third of Spoto’s biography is filled with qualms and inferences about the risk that the embodiment of these roles in film acting might have turned Sardou’s axiom, as far as Hitchcock was concerned, into ‘Torture the actress.’ Long before, Hitchcock had said of the screen actor that ‘he has to submit himself to be used by the director and the camera’; in 1963, this submission seemed to have got warped, as he claimed a worrying amount of credit for the racked performance of his new star Tippi Hedren in The Birds:

I controlled every movement on her face. She did purely cinematic acting of very fine shadings all the time. She wasn’t allowed to do anything beyond what I gave her. It was my control entirely.

During the making of Marnie, Spoto tells us, the long-chastely-married Hitchcock made an ‘overt sexual proposition’ to the actress and was turned down: the biographer takes this regrettable episode as his sanction to treat Marnie as veiled autobiography (it ‘was becoming a strange and driven and distorted, parable of the attitude Hitchcock was taking toward Tippi Hedren’). This need not be so, since the film’s already-written script closely follows the novel by Winston Graham: the construction of Marnie, a story where love and desire are baffled by irrational distrust and rejection, is germane to the unfortunate offscreen event but stands on its own as an achievement of humane anxiety. The performance Hitchcock received from Tippi Hedren – in David Thomson’s words, ‘an actress’s triumph as well as a director’s’ – gives body and voice to the ambivalence about others which is at the heart of the work of this fearful man.

The most interesting things to have come out since Hitchcock’s death are not personal details, but films which had disappeared from distribution. Five – Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1956) and Vertigo (1958) – have returned to the screen at the London Film Festival, and Rear Window is the first on general release. It looks into the relation of James Stewart and Grace Kelly as they look into the variously amusing, arousing, desolating and murderous domestic relations of Stewart’s neighbours: the involvement of passion with wit and fear with pleasure in Hitchcock’s best work is nowhere so compellingly placed as here, in the angles of an ordinary New York back yard.