This innovative biography of the director – an astute torturer of audiences and colleagues – is most successful in tracking his contemporary influence
Dillnesses never recovered from the scary stories his nurse told him at bedtime, and few of us get past Hitchcock. He holds us captive by adjusting our anxieties and using cinematographic techniques – distorted viewing angles, painfully elongated time, sonic shocks to cut our nerves – to torment us deliciously. Martin Scorsese admitted that he exhibits Hitchcock’s films “repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly”. These repetitions always bring revelations: watching the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much the other day, I realized that anonymous London bobbies caught in a shootout receive a line or two of animated dialogues just before they are killed. His joke is enough to make them terribly tragic and gives the director aloof and unforgiving some credit for his compassion.
“I said the picture,” said Hitchcock once. To consolidate his power, he created a personal myth that became a profitable brand. When he asked for an autograph, he used to scribble a silhouette: a bulky head with thinning hair, its plump curves interrupted by a concave nose and two pursed lips. Hitchcock became an icon with nine economic pencil strokes; Edward White’s study of his “mixed legacies” divides it into 12 separate facets, each exposing an aspect of the “public entity he created”.
The twelve selves anatomized by White tend to overlap or contradict each other. Hitchcock the author and Hitchcock the pioneer are not the same, not a duo? And how can the fat glutton be a petulant dandy who “curated his body image” like the murderous homosexual aesthetes of Corda? One section labels him a womanizer, although he says he is powerless, says he dreamed that he had a fragile and transparent penis made of crystal and claimed to have impregnated his wife with the help of a fountain pen. Then, with a strange lack of logic, White follows these perverted whims in celebrating Hitchcock’s satisfaction as a family man who enjoyed doing the dishes after dinner. Characterizing the Catholic Hitchcock as a man of God, White argues desperately that the color of Grace Kelly’s red dress in Dial M for Murder is “liturgical”; he is certain, however, that Judith Anderson in Rebecca treats the drawer containing her dead lover’s lacy panties as a fetish sanctuary.
The problem of Hitchcock’s cruelty – truly malevolent or merely playful? – is repeated in many of these parallel lives. White deflects complaints about his harassment of successive blonde actresses, pointing to his track record as an ecumenical perpetrator. He once terrorized a seven-year-old boy cast in an episode of his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, telling him in a whisper that if he didn’t stop fidgeting, “I’m going to nail your feet to the target, and the blood will flow like milk “. In a similar mood, he rudely commented that the tapes of screaming children recorded by the Moorish killers were “very good things”.
White regards Hitchcock as “the emblematic artist of the 20th century”, who started out as a “modernist boy-prodigy” and ended up as “an astute old cynic on the path of postmodernism”; occasionally he struggles to try to prove his ambitious case. Do the running legs of the choristers in Hitchcock’s The Pleasure Garden justify a comparison with the cubistically fractured physique of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase? Psychosis allowed us to peek out from behind a shower curtain and gave us a breath of decomposition in the fruit cellar, but as a “cultural event” it doesn’t compare to the tumultuous premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I am also uneasy when White describes the shower that spills cleansing water on Janet Leigh as an allusion to the ceiling ventilation openings for Zyklon B in Auschwitz. He is best at the forefront of The Birds, a precursor of today’s cinema’s surrender to technology: a sodium vapor process mixed separate outlets to bring together those squads of attacking crows, and an old electronic synthesizer called Mixtur-Trautonium provided his screams of triumph .
Following Hitchcock’s contemporary influence, White is an entrepreneurial tour guide. I was happy to be reminded of Cornelia Parker’s PsychoBarn, built in 2016 on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Parker considers Bates’ gloomy house “the most corrupt building you could ever find”, but she made it look invitingly homely and healthy, mending it in an innocent farm barn and installing it to punish the arrogant arrogant skyscrapers in Manhattan that arose in the distance. And thanks to White, I took an excursion to Leytonstone, Hitchcock’s birthplace in East London: here, in a mosaic gallery on the walls of a sooty tunnel at the tube station, the monochrome nightmares of his films shine and sparkle as they do. Byzantine jewelry. Not to be outdone by panels showing the sapphire sky of To Catch a Thief or the flaming carousel of Strangers on a Train, Hitchcock himself is iridescent. At six, dressed in a banana-yellow military uniform, he rides heavily on a pony outside his father’s grocery store; switching to a lime green suit on the set of Stage Fright, he laughs as he tells Marlene Dietrich an undoubtedly lewd joke.
I was also happy to hear from White about the obscene tribute to Hitchcock in Eminem’s Music to Be Murdered By. After tasting the greasy “Goodnight” from the host at Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Eminem raps for the funeral march of a Gounod puppet, the theme song for the series. He first informs us that we are attached to his penis, after which he adjusts his athletic support, scratches the balls, makes a loud pee audibly and wears a Lysol handkerchief. The words travel at an almost unintelligible speed, matching those quick editorial cuts in Psycho that make you think you saw a knife tearing through Janet Leigh’s flesh; slowed down, you can hear Eminem delight in the “dirtiest rhymes” of an “obscene and perverted mind”. Cornelia Parker exorcised Psycho’s house of horrors by raising it into the fresh air above Central Park, but Eminem remains in the damp basement where Mrs. Bates squeaks in her rocking chair. As White’s book confirms, Hitchcock seduces us into the underworld, knowing that we will not resist. Then he scares us and leaves us to die laughing.