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The Many Selves of Alfred Hitchcock, Phobias, Fetishes and All

New York Times - Wed Apr 7 14:02

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In the world of Alfred Hitchcock, resemblance is fatal. It is the story of “Vertigo,” of Charlie, in “Shadow of a Doubt,” named for a beloved uncle who turns out to be a notorious murderer of wealthy widows. Think of the falsely accused men in “The Lodger,” “The Wrong Man,” “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” “I Confess,” “North by Northwest” and “Frenzy.”

Of course, there was no one to resemble him. With his uniform of dark suits, his Victorian manner, he was a relic in his own time. Only Mickey Mouse cut a more distinctive profile. And for all the influence of his films, he has no real inheritors, no one who combines silence, suspense and wit in that particular way, with his winking self-referentiality and the thicket of fetishes and symbols that became a grammar of their own — the staircases, suitcases and icy blondes, the parallel lines, the sinister glasses of milk.

It’s said that more books have been written about Hitchcock than any other filmmaker. Edward White’s sleek and modest “The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock” does not offer grand revelation but a provocative new way of thinking about biography.

Any life is a study in contradiction — Hitchcock’s perhaps more than most. He was a man afraid of the dark who was in love with the movies. (Other phobias included crowds and solitude.) He was a famously uxorious husband said to have preyed upon his actresses and assistants. A man shamed for his body (the “300-pound prophet,” as The Saturday Evening Post called him), beset by self-loathing, who nevertheless possessed an enormous desire to be seen and relentlessly used his body as a promotional tool.

Those films — were they art or entertainment? Were they “mousetraps,” per Pauline Kael, or was Hitchcock “the greatest creator of forms of the 20th century,” as Godard put it? “Hitchcock succeeded where Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon and Hitler failed,” Godard wrote: “in taking control of the universe.” Hitchcock himself shrugged off such seriousness. Let other directors foist slices of life on the public; he wanted his films to be “slices of cake.”

White doesn’t reconcile these contradictions. He never needs to. He presents the reader with 12 portraits of Hitchcock, taken from 12 different angles — including “The Boy Who Couldn’t Grow Up,” “The Voyeur,” “The Pioneer,” “The Family Man,” “The Womanizer,” “The Dandy.” There is no verdict to be issued, no single identity most authentic or true. His selves clash and coexist, as they did in a life that spanned the emergence of feminism, psychoanalysis and mass advertising, and a career that mapped onto the history of film itself, from the silent era to the rise of television.

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Strangely, through these refractions, we receive a smoother, more cohesive sense of a man so adept at toying with his audience, on and off the screen. (I would have added a 13th angle, however: “The Dissembler,” for Hitchcock’s own joy in issuing contradictory statements about his life.)

In the filmmaker’s own words, “the man is not different from the boy.” The traditional task of the Hitchcock biographer has been to locate the defining event that became the wellspring for his lifelong interest in paranoia, surveillance and sexual violence. The biographer as detective, as it were, wandering the Bates home in “Psycho,” searching for the body of the mother, the all-revealing trauma. Hitchcock was only too happy to play along (or dissemble), offering up theories: the harsh beatings by Jesuit priests, early fascination with Edgar Allan Poe, the day his father had him inexplicably locked up in a prison for a few hours to teach him a lesson as a small child.

White indulges these explanations while subtly shifting the focus to what Hitchcock rarely discussed — the death of his father and the strain of living through war — “the very type of tortuous suspense and grinding anxiety that was the adult Hitchcock’s stock in trade.” Neighborhood children and infants died in the air raids, and White suggests that “The Birds” — with the attacks on a school, and the pioneering aerial shots — can be seen as Hitchcock’s way of reliving the terror.

White’s style is unadorned and unobtrusive; only occasionally does he allow himself a little turn of phrase (on Jimmy Stewart: “If Cary Grant was Hitchcock’s favorite man of action, some heroic, imaginary version of himself, Stewart was surely his favorite man of reaction”). The psychologizing is of a delicate sort — far from Hitchcock’s own ham-handed attempts, which his own characters seemed to mock. “You Freud, me Jane,” Tippi Hedren says to Sean Connery in “Marnie.” White’s real interest, and talent, lies in synthesizing the scholarship, and in troubling easy assumptions.

Three Hitchcock films — “Rear Window,” “Vertigo” and “Marnie” — served as the basis of Laura Mulvey’s conception of the “male gaze,” the idea that Hollywood movies presented a vision of the world rooted in male experience, with women existing as objects of desire.

Hitchcock’s work is rich with references to the tradition of the “watched woman.” The very first shot in a Hitchcock movie, “The Pleasure Garden,” features the bare legs of dancers running down a spiral staircase, which White ties to Duchamp’s painting “Nude Descending a Staircase,” which itself recalls Eadweard Muybridge’s time-lapse photographic study of a naked woman walking down a flight of stairs. In “Psycho,” again, we see this palimpsest effect: The peephole Norman Bates uses to spy on Marion Crane as she undresses is concealed by a framed print of Willem van Mieris’s “Susannah and the Elders,” the biblical story of two men preying on a woman while she bathes. But obsessive looking is full of complication in Hitchcock, White argues; it is almost always punished. Scottie, in “Vertigo,” is “driven mad by silent watching.”

Thwarted, unfulfilled desire is the wire running through Hitchcock’s work. Oddly enough, biographies of artists can inspire a similar feeling. As readers, we can expect to see the life neatly documented and the work analyzed, but the connection, the filament between the two? White never forces an explanation or coherence. The radial structure vibrates, like Hitchcock’s best films, with intuition and mystery.