Book of the week: The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock by Edward White

White’s unorthodox biography ‘dismembers Hitchcock into a dozen parts’ 

Alfred Hitchcock
(Image credit: STF/AFP via Getty Images )

“Four decades on from his death, Alfred Hitchcock remains the most famous moviemaker of them all,” said Christopher Bray in the Daily Mail. The “tubby, lugubrious cockney in a banker’s suit”, with a walk-on part in all 50 of his films, is a figure everybody knows. Yet much about the man remains an enigma. Was he (as he wanted us to believe) a “serious business type who turned up on time, did his work and went happily home to his family”? Or was he (as his films suggest) a “leering pervert”, obsessed with humanity’s dark side? “Edward White’s answer to this conundrum is to dismember Hitchcock into a dozen parts.” He offers a series of thematic portraits, each focused on a different aspect of the director’s personality: Hitchcock the Dandy, Hitchcock the Voyeur, Hitchcock the Londoner, and so on. The conceit “largely works”: this is an original, absorbing study which captures the contradictory nature of “the Master of Suspense”.

One of its best chapters, entitled “The Fat Man”, concerns Hitchcock’s troubled attitude to his body, said Farran Smith Nehme in The Wall Street Journal. It circles back to the director’s friendless childhood, as the son of a grocer in Leytonstone, east London. Although as an adult Hitchcock’s appetite was legendary – he sometimes ate three steaks in a single meal – White argues that his frequent jokes about his weight betrayed a deep-rooted sensitivity. Elsewhere, the book’s fragmented structure produces moments of “odd illogic”, said Peter Conrad in The Observer. One chapter labels him “The Womaniser”, though Hitchcock claimed to be impotent, and dreamed he had a penis made of crystal that his wife Alma tried to smash. In a section considering him as a Catholic, White “rather desperately” argues that Grace Kelly’s red dress in Dial M for Murder was“liturgical”.

Hitchcock’s “desire for control” is a major theme, said Victoria Segal in The Sunday Times. He was “famous for tormenting his stars”. While filming The Birds, Tippi Hedren “spent days having live birds thrown at her head” – and later accused Hitchcock of sexually assaulting her. Without downplaying such incidents, White suggests that Hitchcock himself exaggerated his own cruelty, in order to “play up to sadistic legend”. Much like Craig Brown’s acclaimed Beatles study, One Two Three Four, this is a work that “swerves chronology in favour of the thematic, the tangential, the marginal”. And it yields many insights. “With these 12 scalpel strokes, White cuts close to his subject’s heart.”

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W.W. Norton 400pp £22.99; The Week Bookshop £17.99

The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock by Edward White

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