Graves Registry: Mr. HItchcock's strange genius


Alfred Hitchcock left Great Britain at the end of the 1930s to make a film for David O. Selznick about the Titanic. He had grand visions for his American debut, envisioning the construction of a life-size replica of the doomed ocean liner and even telling Selznick that he had some experience with icebergs having worked with Madeleine Carroll.

The definitive Titanic movie would have to wait for another 60 years. Selznick, submerged in the costs of producing "Gone With the Wind," abandoned the shipwreck epic and handed his new director another assignment. It was an adaptation of a popular mystery by the daughter of Sir Gerald du Maurier, an actor with whom Hitch had worked in England.

While the storm clouds raged over his native country, Hitchcock basked in the sunshine of the critical and popular success of "Rebecca." It was the only film in the director's 54-movie career that won a Best Picture Oscar. Hitch lost the director statuette to John Ford for "The Grapes of Wrath." He would never win an Academy Award for direction.

The reception accorded to "Rebecca" meant that the hardscrabble days of working in the technically challenged British film industry were over. Hitchcock's instinct for financial advancement was nearly as fine-tuned as his skill at scaring an audience and California promised green pastures in every sense of the term. He would return to England infrequently, most notably to make the intense, dark thriller, "Frenzy," in the early 1970s.

Peter Ackroyd's new biography of the man often referred to as The Master will be released in October. Simply titled "Alfred Hitchcock," the book offers a brief, but concise and informative summary of his troubled -- and frequently triumphant -- personal and professional life. From a childhood spent in self-imposed isolation, he cultivated an almost shameless zest for self-promotion and succeeded in transforming himself into the most recognizable movie director since Charlie Chaplin hung up his cane and baggy pants.

Hitch learned his craft when the British film industry was in its infancy, advancing in a few short years from writing the title cards for silent pictures to directing his first feature, "The Pleasure Garden," in 1925. He met Alma Reville, a film editor, at the studio. They would marry in 1926 and she would become the single greatest influence on her husband's body of work. For reasons known only to him, however, Hitchcock never tired of telling interviewers that he practiced celibacy, one daughter notwithstanding.

He was always acutely aware of his own physical unattractiveness, which was probably aggravated by his prominent place in a world filled with beautiful people. He compulsively shied away from confrontations and professed to be terrified of the police. He treated internationally famous actors with a scrupulously perfected detachment, was reluctant to dispense praise for significant contributions to his own films, and affected a total disinterest in other directors' work ("I thought Woody Allen was a national forest.").

Mr. Ackroyd's book is filled with fond reminiscences of Hitchcock by the people who worked on the technical aspects of his movies. Not surprisingly, he was not as fondly remembered by many of his actors. In 1947, he made a final picture for Selznick. Gregory Peck would later state that, if he could burn one film he made during his long career, it would be "The Paradine Case." (Actually, it is one of perhaps three or four movies featuring the wooden Mr. Peck that is worth watching twice.)

Peck's co-star was the British actress Ann Todd, who had this to say about her director: "He was a very complex man -- an overgrown schoolboy really who never grew up and lived in his own special fantasy world. He had a schoolboy's obsession with sex that went on and on in a very peculiar way. I think he was a very sad person."

Marlene Dietrich wondered why anyone thought he was so great. "He was a strange little man," she said. "I didn't like him." She incorporated "The Laziest Gal in Town," which she first sang in "Stage Fright," into her nightclub act, introducing it with an eyebrow-raising emphasis on the second syllable of her director's last name. Hitch would have appreciated the naughty humor.

Ackroyd's book touches on most of Hitchcock's films and, more importantly, illuminates some of the pivotal moments in his life that molded his character and was constantly reflected in his work. Without the fears and the foibles, we might never have wondered with Roger Thornhill why there was a crop duster where there were no crops, and Marion Crane might never have taken her memorable last shower. Perhaps the best aspect of reading the book is that it instills a desire to experience those wonderful movies all over again.

Alden Graves is a regular Banner columnist.


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