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Alfred Hitchcock

Peter Ackroyd

(London Times)

IN 1971, the composer Ron Goodwin had a meeting with Alfred Hitchcock about writing the score for Frenzy, the serial-killer spree that would become the director’s penultimate film. During their encounter, Hitchcock lifted a replica of his distinctively pendulous head from a box and asked Goodwin what he thought. 'Very nice,' the composer answered, uncertainly. The model was to be used for promotional purposes, said Hitchcock, and it would later be seen floating down the Thames in Frenzy's violently tasteless theatrical trailer ('Here you may buy the fruits of evil and the horrors of vegetables,' intones Hitchcock from Covent Garden market, as a dead woman's leg pops out of a potato sack) or staring from production photographs, cradled in the director’s arms. For a man obsessed with duality, it was the perfect double.

As Peter Ackroyd's potently distilled biography suggests, by his final years, Hitchcock didn't need such a macabre accessory: he had already become an impassive plasticised version of himself. He was always acutely aware of image, adopting a uniform of identical suits early in his career. By the 1960s, though, he had achieved a sky-high profile, boosted by the runaway, screaming success of Psycho and a television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which allowed him to lurk in his audience's sitting rooms, a genuine household name. Starting every weekly episode, there was his instantly recognisable silhouette: a lugubrious logo for his sinister brand. For Ackroyd, this stark public persona was the mask the director had always wanted, capable of deflecting intrusion and interference: 'He had become what he aspired to be, imperturbable and indifferent.'

Just why he yearned for such a forbidding facade is carefully unpicked in this book, the latest in Ackroyd's series of brisk portraits of eminent Londoners. Born in Leytonstone in 1899, Hitchcock was the son of a greengrocer who diversified into fishmongery. The clinging odour of the family business didn't help the playground popularity of young 'Cockie', already an outsider on account of his size and appearance. He was also unusually obsessed with courts and crime (he enjoyed Thomas De Quincey's On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts, set in his London patch); Ackroyd ventures that, even from an early age, he might have felt he nursed interests and desires that were best concealed. Instead, he found a way of projecting them, moving from an early career in engineering to work on silent films, the British film industry then being clustered around east London.

Hitchcock isn't the only one in these pages prone to obsessions: Ackroyd has a place for him in his long-cherished theory of the 'Cockney visionary', a line that includes Blake, Turner, Chaplin and Dickens. It is Dickens whom Ackroyd most closely identifies with Hitchcock, pinpointing their shared meticulousness, ability to balance art and commerce, and their understanding of 'the association of terror with comedy'. He also follows the film director Francois Truffaut's line that Hitchcock was 'an artist of anxiety', his pervasive fears and fascinations - death, predators, birds - allowing him to anticipate audiences' terrors and desires with uncanny sensitivity.

For all this skill in control, Ackroyd identifies 'a small sphere of hysteria in him'. He was notoriously fond of filthy stories and practical jokes, often to the point of cruelty. He challenged a property man to spend the night chained to a camera in a dark studio, giving him a bottle of laxative-laced brandy to 'help' him. In 1953, at a post-filming party for I Confess, he plied the alcoholic star Montgomery Clift with drink until he collapsed. Behind the gloomy buttoned-down carapace, there lay the possibility of not knowing when to stop.

Despite the florid oddity of its subject, this is largely a measured, steady book, shaped by the novelist's eye for the significant detail and an elegant analysis of the films. Even so, there are moments of more lurid conjecture. Hitchcock was known for falling asleep at peculiar moments - in the middle of a conversation with Thomas Mann about film and fiction, for example. He once invited Clark Gable and his wife Carole Lombard out for dinner and, according to his wife Alma, dozed off 'before the salad was served'. Ackroyd mentions theories that this drowsiness was weight-related, but he also speculates it might have been from mixing alcohol with opiates prescribed to dampen his anxiety, plausible in the pill-happy Hollywood culture to which he, Alma and daughter Patricia emigrated in 1939.

When it comes to the most sensational material of Hitchcock's life, however, Ackroyd is almost unfashionably restrained. The director's relationship with his leading ladies was famously controlling, and the book contains examples across the spectrum of unsettling behaviour: embarrassing Anny Ondra, the star of Blackmail, with salacious questions; contriving to 'replace' Grace Kelly with new girl Vera Miles; panicking Doris Day by refusing to comment on her performance in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Most extreme, however, was his treatment of Tippi Hedren, a controversy that flared up again when Julian Jarrold's 2012 film The Girl dramatised their relationship when filming The Birds during 1962. Hedren has stated that Hitchcock became sexually fixated on her, torturing her by dragging out the shooting of the key bird attack for days, only stopping when she got a beak in the eye. He would later proposition her during the making of Marnie. Ackroyd doesn't diminish Hedren's claims, but nor does he dwell on them. He can also seem indulgent towards other rumoured transgressions: later accusations that the director propositioned female staff are weakly blamed on Hitchcock 'behaving like an old fool, and a drunken one at that'.

For all the joyful achievement of Hitchcock's life, Ackroyd acutely conveys this sense of decline, of Hitchcock being run to ground by the things he feared most. The book fades out with his death from renal failure in 1980. The director was notoriously not interested in character, believing technique was all: 'If you were painting a still life of some apples on a plate, it's like you’d be worrying whether the apples were sweet or sour. Who cares?'

Ackroyd does. He doesn't necessarily chase the big picture, but what he does find through his careful arrangement of the story, is the small man standing inside his silhouette, unable to escape his own shadow.

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