Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Book Review: Alfred Hitchcock by Patrick McGilligan

Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

Alfred Hitchcock is a director whose name and appearance are instantly recognizable. Few moviemakers who spend their time behind the cameras are so famous. Perhaps it's because Hitchcock also came in front of the camera. He had cameos in almost all of his movies (of which he made fifty-three). More significantly, he hosted a TV anthology show called Alfred Hitchcock Presents where he made introductory and closing comments, often filled with self-deprecating (and sometimes sponsor-deprecating) humor. Movies like Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo, and Rear Window are often cited in top 100 movies of all time lists.

He was born in 1899 to a greengrocer in the outskirts of London. The family had several shops and were prosperous enough to afford good schools. Hitchcock's first break in the movies was in the silent era. He designed the intertitle cards at fledgling movie studios. His meticulous nature, willingness to put in extra hours, and ambition for more soon led him to directing and writing. He had his first big hit with The Lodger in 1926. He went to Hollywood in the 1930s where he had a challenging time dealing with studio executives like David O. Selznick and with the Production Code. His movies often revolve around crime, psychology, and sex. He pushed boundaries where he could and became quite adept at "playing the game" of negotiating with the studio bureaucracies and the Production Code censors. As a filmmaker, he meticulously planned movies, often having several successive screenwriters polish and refine scripts to the point where Hitchcock had every camera move and angle planned out ahead of time. His hard work paid off as he eventually became a co-owner of Universal Studios and developed more, if not complete, freedom in making movies. He died in 1980.

This biography goes into great detail about his life, focusing mostly on his film career. Like many other director biographies, this book goes from film to film, describing the pre-production phase, the shooting of the film, and the critical and box-office reception for the films. The stories are interesting and fans of Hitchcock like me will have fun seeing the different ideas Hitchcock had for casting and for plot developments. His personal relationships with stars, studio executives, and writers is given in detail. Anecdotal evidence could show that Hitchcock was hard on his actresses, sometimes even abusively so in order to get the performances he wanted. This book tells the stories of when he did do that and when he didn't. He got along with some people quite well. The book also delves into his sexual obsessions (though he hardly ever acted on), almost too often for my taste, though such obsessions clearly resonated in his movies. McGilligan paints an honest picture of the man, not just a rehash of his public persona and famous anecdotes.

Recommended, especially for Hitchcock fans. It is 800+ pages, so be ready for a deep dive.

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