Magazine article The Spectator

'Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much', by Michael Wood - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much', by Michael Wood - Review

Article excerpt

Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much Michael Wood

New Harvest, pp.129, £14, ISBN: 9780544456228

Alfred Hitchcock Peter Ackroyd

Chatto, pp.279, £12.99, ISBN: 9780701169930

'Do it with scissors' was Alfred Hitchcock's advice for prospective murderers, though a glance at these two biographies reminds us that scissors are also the chosen implement of the silhouettist. Hitchcock's profile --beaky nose, protuberant lips, conjoined chin and neck -- is emblazoned on both dustjackets like a logo.

A logo is what it was. You don't get to be the most famous movie director in the world merely by directing movies. Hence the wordless walk-ons Hitchcock made in almost every one of his 53 pictures. Hence the city gent uniform (blue suit, white shirt, black tie) worn throughout even the most stifling Californian summers. Hence, one sometimes suspects, the pendulous jowls and gargantuan gut -- trademarks made flesh. Long before the marketing boys, Hitchcock knew all there was to know about brand creation.

Certainly he knew how he didn't want to be labelled. Happy to be called the Master of Suspense, he was rather less pleased with any suggestion that he might be some kind of artist. Peter Ackroyd says that when, in the mid-Fifties, Cahiers du Cinema started talking about Hitchcock as some kind of moralist visionary, this son of a cockney greengrocer rolled his eyes in bafflement.

There was commercial logic behind that reaction. Thrills merchants are pretty much bound to reach a bigger audience than moody threnodists -- and Hitchcock never made any bones about the need to get punters on seats. Yet disparage the heavyweight exegetes though he might, Hitchcock was forever discussing his work in the language of high modernist theory. Content, he said, was of no import, story and characterneither here nor there. What counted was emotion engendered by cutting andcamera placement -- 'pure cinema' as this Clement Greenberg of the clapperboard liked to put it.

Pure cinema got its effects, as anyone who has seen Sabotage or Strangers on a Train or what Michael Wood rightly calls the underrated Family Plot can attest. Still, as Wood shows in his introduction to Hitchcock studies, in the master's greatest movies the formal perfection was at the service of something more knotted and nervy than he perhaps knew.

Hitchcock liked to say that a movie wasn't a slice of life but a slice of cake. …

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