The Mystery and the Mask of Alfred Hitchcock

Peter Ackroyd’s new biography of the legendary director is pleasant enough but offers nothing new by way of content or analysis

Following hard on the heels of last year’s fascinating Charlie Chaplin, Peter Ackroyd turns his attention to yet another ‘Cockney visionary’ with the publication of Alfred Hitchcock (Chatto & Windus).

Hitchcock is one of the most written about directors in the history of cinema, certainly in the English-speaking world. What could be left to say of a man about whom it has all been said? And, in his case, many times over in the 35 years since his death on April 29, 1980.

That said, Ackroyd is a formidable author, writing across the spectrum of fiction and non-fiction; the awards listed against his name are as impressive as his subjects are varied. His London: The Biography (2000) took the city of his birth and charted just about everything in it: love and hate, food and drink, reality and magic. It was no mean achievement, as well as a critical and commercial success. Given that London and its inhabitants are Ackroyd’s forte, the stage appeared set for something special in regard to this most famous Cockney.

In the case of Alfred Hitchcock, there is much to document as he was past 80 when he died. When one considers that Hitchcock was involved in film making—first as a title designer and then relatively quickly as director—from the early 1920s through to his last feature, Family Plot, in 1976 (to say nothing of his countless television series from the 1950s onwards), then it is a monumental body of work to be researched and explicated. Since his was a life that flowed from the reign of Queen Victoria to the Carter Presidency, from Imperial England to the hills of Hollywood, through two World Wars and massive social changes, then it really does become as broad a canvas as any.

Nevertheless, if anyone was capable of capturing all this then surely it was Ackroyd. Not only had he managed to sum up London, but, in 2002, he had also produced a mammoth life (1200 pages) of another ‘Cockney visionary’, Charles Dickens. Therefore, the talent of the author appeared more than a match for the scale of the endeavor.

But, as in so many Hitchcock movies, appearances can be deceptive.

With Hitchcock’s life condensed into less than 300 pages, we have a pleasant trot through that life but—putting it bluntly—not much else. Although our guide is an entertaining storyteller, there is nothing new here, nothing that hasn’t been aired already, and some of it little more than the usual vague and stale rumors once again regurgitated. Worryingly, by the end, we seem to have a central figure even more remote and inaccessible than when we started. Perhaps, unwittingly, this is essentially the core of what Ackroyd’s biography is about: a lack of anything meaningful to contemplate and communicate.

Perhaps it is fitting, however, since it is fully in keeping with a film director who was always more interested in the mechanics of his art than its meaning. The constant joking dismissal of any sub-text to his movies may at first have been a convenient mask behind which to hide when Hitchcock was starting out, but one cannot help feeling that it was a mask that stuck, and by the close becoming so much a part of the director that his whole life also seemed to lack meaning. This is demonstrated most pitiably in the description of Hitchcock’s helplessness after his wife and long-time collaborator, Alma, had suffered a series of strokes in the 1970s. The portrait of those final years is one of an artist alone with an art form to which he was no longer able to contribute.

As is well known, Hitchcock was born and raised a Catholic. His Catholicism was heavily influenced by his Irish forebears and distilled further by the London Jesuits who taught him. His wife converted to the faith just prior to their marriage in 1926; their only child, Patricia, was brought up Catholic; the family was often to be seen on Sundays at the Good Shepherd Church in Beverly Hills. Otherwise, Hitchcock’s faith remains largely a mystery. Over the years some have tried to use it as the rationale for the twisted themes he explored in his work as critics located his constant cinematic motifs of guilt and fear in Hitchcock’s Catholic sensibilities, even if these appeared more Jansenist than Catholic to the informed viewer (but a ‘repressed Catholic’ is always an easy target in the world of film theory). Thankfully, Ackroyd doesn’t belabor any of this, but then neither does he explore the recent revelations made by Jesuits who knew the Englishman at the end of his life that suggested some form of final peace found in his lifelong faith.

Maybe the simple truth is Hitchcock’s Catholicism was very much of its time: private and unspoken, something that people simply adhered to—the then social Catholicism of Sunday observance and a daughter safely away at a convent school. What more there was to it, like one of his ingenious MacGuffins, remains hidden ‘off screen’. In regard to all this, Ackroyd’s book lacks anything specific; ironically, its approach is just too catholic.

The same point can be made for the book’s overall treatment of its subject’s life. Its portrayal of the early London years is by far the most interesting part. The impression given of the later years, from the 1940s on, is as uneventful as the Californian weather they were lived out in. While he was making his way, Hitchcock’s tale is as interesting as that of any Dickensian hero. Once ensconced in Hollywood he had indeed ‘made it’, and, thereafter there was only the tragedy of losing what had been gained.

From the start, his relationship with actors was distant for most, overly controlling for some, and unsatisfying for all concerned. More than likely he did think of them as mere ‘cattle’—oftentimes just getting in the way of the artistic realization of a project. Similarly, although he did have a number of long-term artists and technicians working alongside him, he was never to give them the credit they deserved in the building of the Hitchcock ‘brand’. Many admired him—fellow filmmakers and critics alike—few really knew him and, it appears, even fewer still came to love him. As to why this was, ultimately it remains the riddle of Hitchcock the man, albeit one with a whole host of possible clues set out in his films. But beware searching these out as there are likely as many red herrings up on screen as there are real insights displayed.

The eventual descent was gradual and solitary, with little by way of drama; instead, it was to be the slowing of a creative genius before the inevitable physical deterioration. In the life of Alfred Hitchcock, there is probably a tragic tale locked away somewhere, one of Shakespearean proportions, but it is not to be found in this biography.

Alfred Hitchcock is not groundbreaking stuff, but given the amount published on the man already and the lack of any fresh revelations coming from living witnesses, perhaps this was to be expected. For those who know nothing about the director, his life, and his art, this book is an excellent place to start. Its attractions will be far less compelling for those already steeped in the artist’s life and work.

So, as the lights come on, the ‘mask’ remains, but I suspect that is exactly how the very private Alfred Hitchcock would have wanted it.

Alfred Hitchcock
By Peter Ackroyd
Chatto & Windus, 2015.
Hardback, 279 pages.

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About K. V. Turley 61 Articles
K.V. Turley writes from London.