In the years following Alfred Hitchcock’s death in 1980, an image of him as a dark, vindictive, and lecherous man clung to his memory. More than 20 years later, Film historian Patrick McGilligan re-evaluated the film director’s life in his book, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. McGilligan is no stranger to the Hollywood biography, having published biographies of such noted directors as Robert Altman, George Cukor, and Fritz Lang. He focuses primarily on his subject’s career—an easier strategy with Hitchcock, who left little documentary evidence of personal nature and was obsessed with the technical side of his work. Aside from studio sources, McGilligan includes source material in the usual manner for a biographer: archives, personal interviews, books, and articles. He presents enough of Hitchcock’s private life, including its salacious aspects, to give the reader a general idea of what had motivated the “master of suspense.” While generally, the author shies away from film analysis, the book is filled with descriptions of Hitchcock’s working methods.
McGilligan quotes numerous sources, but three are particularly interwoven: Hitch, the official biography published by John Russell Taylor in 1978, which served, perhaps more than any other, as the foundation for this work; Hitchcock, François Truffaut’s 1967 interview book; and Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius.
Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on August 13, 1899, in the living quarters above the Leytonstone greengrocer shop his parents ran. Hitchcock’s family were devout Catholics, and he maintained his faith to varying degrees throughout his life and manifested it—again in varying degrees—in his work. While McGilligan does not really push the idea of the Catholic Hitchcock isolated in a nominally Anglican country, he does reinforce the notion that the director “himself said that it might have contributed to his ‘eccentricity'” (p. 17). Hitchcock’s parents sent him to a series of Catholic schools culminating with St. Ignatius College, a Jesuit day school, which the young Alfred attended from 1910 to 1913. Afterward, he entered the London County Day School of Engineering and Navigation. A year later, he began working for Henley’s Telegraph Works, where he realized engineering did not interest him. Too young for military service at the outbreak of World War I, McGilligan can only postulate how his subject avoided military induction when he came of age in 1917. He does point out, however, that in 1917 Hitchcock joined a cadet regiment of the Royal Engineers. Once he had established himself at Henley’s and had moved into a London apartment, Hitchcock enrolled in art classes at Goldsmith’s College, an extension of London University.
At Henley’s Hitchcock was transferred from sales to advertising—his earliest apprenticeship in the field of public relations and publicity at which his skill eventually rivaled that of his filmmaking technique. He was a founding editor, business manager, and regular contributor to the company’s house organ, The Henley Telegraph, a magazine that went far beyond the usual company news. McGilligan reproduces seven of Hitchcock’s contributions to the magazine, which show his subject’s early style of blending humor, the macabre, and the occasional twist ending. The film industry soon beckoned the young man, and in 1921 Hitchcock went to work full-time in the art department of British Famous Players-Lasky, which was UK’s extension of the production arm of Paramount Pictures. He had already worked part-time for the film company on at least three films. Hitchcock’s first job in the motion picture industry was that of “captioneer,” which involved lettering (and sometimes writing) the explanatory title cards used in silent movies, and occasionally illustrating the cards or drawing borders. Also working at the studio was Alma Reville, the woman who became not only Hitchcock’s wife (on December 2, 1926) but also the most important person in his career.
During the next few years, Hitchcock’s career moved upward on a straight trajectory. In 1920 and 1921 Hitchcock worked as title designer on seven films. In 1922, he received screen credit as title designer and art director on five films and as director and producer of a sixth, titled Number Thirteen, which remained unfinished due to lack of money. By this time British Famous-Players Lasky had ended production.
In 1923, Hitchcock signed on with a new film company, Balcon-Saville-Freedman (the first two names referring to Michael Balcon and Victor Saville), and so did Alma. As McGilligan relates it, Reville and Balcon facilitated Hitchcock’s final period of apprenticeship. From the latter half of 1923 through 1925, he and Reville worked on five films: Hitchcock as co-writer, art director, and assistant director; Reville as editor and second assistant director. Balcon produced all five although the final three were for a new company, Gainsborough Productions.
This trio may indeed have constituted the first of what McGilligan has described as the “three Hitchcocks”—triumvirates made up of Hitchcock, Reville (whom McGilligan annoyingly refers to as “Mrs. Hitchcock” rather than by her professional name), and a third person, often a screenwriter, for pre-production brainstorming sessions. In 1925, Balcon gave Hitchcock another shot at directing films, and McGilligan quotes Hitchcock from an interview with director Peter Bogdanovich: “Balcon is really the man responsible for Hitchcock. I had been quite content at the time writing scripts and designing” (p. 67). McGilligan admits the generosity of this quote, considering that Hitchcock and Balcon later had a falling out when Hitchcock left for Hollywood.
Hitchcock’s first completed directorial effort was The Pleasure Garden (1926). The script was written by Eliot Stannard while Alma served as assistant director. The interiors were filmed in Germany because the picture was actually a coproduction of Gainsborough and Münchener Lichtspielkunst (phonetically called “Emelka” for its initials—MLK), a Munich production company. Here McGilligan hints at the origins of the classic Hitchcock blonde when he acknowledges that Alma began to help “shape his aesthetic of female beauty” at the time (p. 69). McGilligan also touches upon, but does not dwell on, Hitchcock’s interest in German expressionism and its influence on his work. Not too much later, as the author describes, the young director would also come under the spell of the Soviet filmmakers and theorists of the 1920s who were exponents of montage as the sublime standard of filmmaking.
If Balcon was not the first to complete the triangulation of the so-called three Hitchcocks, then that honor surely fell to scriptwriter Eliot Stannard, who wrote eight of the ten silent films Hitchcock directed and, according to McGilligan, had a hand in the other two. Probably the best known Hitchcock film of this period was The Lodger (1926), which Stannard adapted from the novel by Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes. Hitchcock’s third film was a “Jack-the-Ripper” tale starring Ivor Novello. This was an era when stodgy distributors and exhibitors ran the production companies, and Hitchcock was forced to make changes to the film to make it more commercial than he had intended—and Hitchcock was never shy about making a commercially viable picture. Nevertheless, it provided an early tutorial in negotiating the demands of studio executives and censors. The Lodger also marked the first of Hitchcock’s numerous cameo appearances in his films.
As with many directors of the late silent era, Hitchcock’s last silent film, Blackmail (1929), was also his first “talkie.” By this time he had been working for British International Pictures (BIP) for nearly two years, with John Maxwell replacing Balcon as his producer. During the sound portion of Hitchcock’s BIP period, Alma was either the writer or co-writer of all of his features, including an adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock (1929).
Hitchcock returned to Balcon’s fold in 1934. Balcon was now the production chief of a new studio, Gaumont British, “which had acquired a holding interest in Gainsborough” (p. 152). (McGilligan’s explanation of the machinations of the British film industry in the silent and early talking eras is lucid and just long enough to hold the reader’s attention without slowing down the pace of his story.) At Gaumont British Hitchcock made the finest films of his pre-Hollywood period. These included the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), and Sabotage (1936). All were produced by Balcon, and the last three were written by Charles Bennett, who had replaced Stannard as the “third Hitchcock.” Alma was now in charge of continuity on her husband’s films. On the basis of these and other films, by 1938 Hitchcock, according to most critics, was Britain’s premier director, a sentiment McGilligan seconds. And Hollywood, in the person of producer David O. Selznick, thought so too. McGilligan’s account of Hitchcock’s seduction by Selznick and his older brother Myron could itself be a stand-alone book.
In the 1930s and 40s, Myron Selznick was one of the top agents in Hollywood, and he soon added Hitchcock to his client list. Meanwhile, David O. Selznick was forging a path as an independent producer. While other producers and studios had an interest in signing Hitchcock on (and Balcon wanted to retain him), it was an open industry secret that Selznick had the inside track, courtesy of his brother. Hitchcock appeared to be blind to the obvious conflict of interest, or at least according to this account. In the end, the double-teaming worked perfectly—Hitchcock signed a contract with Selznick International Pictures that was very good considering it was during the Great Depression, but was egregious by Hollywood standards. Not only was the money subpar (here McGilligan summarizes a survey of directors’ salaries of that period done by Leo Rosten for his book, Hollywood: The Movie Colony, the Movie Makers), but Hitchcock was tied to Selznick by a series of one-year options. The director was often loaned out to other studios, for which Selznick was paid.
Hitchcock’s first movie for Selznick International was Rebecca (1940). The director was allowed more freedom than most would have expected from such an interfering producer because Selznick was preoccupied with the massive publicity campaign for Gone with the Wind (1939). Certainly, nothing Hitchcock directed for Selznick approached that film, though he only directed three films, the other two being Spellbound (1945) and The Paradine Case (1947), with the script for the latter credited to Selznick. Yet, Hitchcock was prolific during the 1940s, releasing nine other films including such gems as Foreign Correspondent (1940), Suspicion (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Lifeboat (1944), and Rope (1948). By the time of Rope, Hitchcock was no longer under Selznick’s thumb.
McGilligan also describes Hitchcock’s behind-the-scenes war work, which included directing three short films (or compiling footage in the last instance). The first two were propaganda pieces produced by the British Ministry of Information for Phoenix Films, designed to boost morale in the Free French territories and stiffen the fighting spirit of the Resistance. These were Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache, both released in 1944. The third film was released in 1945 and titled Memory of the Camps. It was done under the auspices of the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force. Memory of the Camps was never finished and locked away for 40 years. It was broadcast on public television in the United States in the 1980s (after Hitchcock had died), and its grisly footage of the Nazi death camps can now be found on the Internet.
Though McGilligan regales his readers with anecdotes concerning Hitchcock’s working methods for each film, he seems to enjoy himself when he shows the master tricking the studio censors or being downright subversive (for the era). The subversiveness even extended to casting. In Rope, for example, a film packed with homoerotic symbolism, the two young killers were portrayed by gay actors Farley Granger and John Dall, which added to the film’s frisson. But whether he was sly or subversive, coy or cute, casting was always important to Hitchcock because, as McGilligan recounts more than once, for Hitchcock the real creative work was in the preparation. Filming, he liked to say, was merely a matter of recording what had been scripted, storyboarded, and blocked. Of course, that attitude more or less coincides with the director’s famous “actors are cattle” quote, which McGilligan mentions, then skates around it.
By the time he had extricated himself from the Selznick contract, Hitchcock was deep into his golden period—the 1940s and 50s. The latter decade was the pinnacle of his career when he made a number of what are now considered his classic films for Warner Brothers, Paramount or MGM. McGilligan treats the 1950s films with awe and reverence—he even subtitles the section on Hitchcock’s Paramount films “The Glory Years”—including the lesser works like I Confess (1953), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and The Wrong Man (1956). McGilligan shows that Hitchcock’s technique in The Wrong Man was again influenced by European cinema. But instead of German expressionism or Soviet avant-garde, Hitchcock now turned to Italian neorealism as the guiding aesthetic to tell the true story of a man falsely arrested in New York City.
McGilligan rightly exults in this period, for many films of that era are great works of art. During these years, Hitchcock scored casting coups with the male leads for his films, primarily Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda. His female stars in the 1950s included Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly, and Eva Marie Saint, with Kelly epitomizing the cool blonde.
In the 1950s, Hitchcock gained acceptance within his own industry. It may sound ironic, but he was not as accepted in Hollywood as his reputation deserved. McGilligan records numerous instances of actors and writers thinking Hitchcock’s work and genre were second-rate. It took young critics from the French film magazine Cahiers du cinema—some of whom, such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Eric Rohmer, would become great film directors in their own right—to cement Hitchcock’s artistic reputation. They managed to convince the world of his artistry. This nouvelle vague acclaim culminated in the 1960s with the publication of Truffaut’s interview book, Hitchcock. Also at this time, he became a recognizable figure to the public because of his television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a half-hour anthology series of suspense. (Toward the end of it seven-year run the program expanded to an hour.) The producer was Joan Harrison, a “third Hitchcock” dating back to his Gaumont British days.
For Hitchcock, the 1960s were the beginning of the end, despite the early decade triumphs of Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963). McGilligan goes about his task of recording and explaining Hitchcock’s decline, as a biographer should, but he takes no pleasure in it, and, likewise, neither does the reader. A number of factors played into this decline: Hitchcock’s age and his health, Alma’s own declining health, and the loss of friends and colleagues, especially some of the production people he had relied on for years at Paramount. Changing trends in the industry contributed to his own sense that his style had become dated. His last two films of the decade, Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969) were, according to McGilligan, attempts to reclaim the spy genre from the Bond films and their imitators, all of which Hitchcock thought cartoonish. Unfortunately, both were commercial and critical failures.
Hitchcock managed a brief comeback with Frenzy (1972), a serial-killer tale set in London, as though he were bidding a final goodbye to the city that nurtured his career. But McGilligan’s account of the making of this film is tinged with pathos. From here on, the story of Hitchcock’s life is saturated with Hollywood clichés of the aging filmmaker that were certainly absent from his films. To his credit, McGilligan conveys the psychological pain and loneliness of the great man in winter, but does not overdo it.
And in case the reader has forgotten one of the reasons for the book’s existence, McGillgan added a coda that summarizes the greatness of Hitchcock’s career, though the preceding 700-plus pages hardly needed a recapitulation of their major theme.
Freelance writer and editor residing in Hartford, CT. He is the author of “Robert Altman: In the American Grain.”