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New biography "Presents" Alfred Hitchcock not as Odd Duck, but surely a strange bird.

Anybody who's ever watched an Alfred Hitchcock movie--and who hasn't, really? --has probably assumed that the obese auteur was one odd duck. After all, this is the man from whose peculiar mind sprung the strange and sinister tales that are Psycho, Vertigo and The Birds.

Author Peter Ackroyd's engaging (and blessedly brief) new biography, Alfred Hitchcock (Nan A. Talese, 2016, 276 pgs., U.S.$26.95), all but confirms this hypothesis with an abundance of anecdotes from the British director's life, yet also manages to humanize the weird and wonderful man who arguably had the most famous silhouette in the world.

That silhouette--which appeared during the title sequence of each and every episode of his hugely popular American anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents that aired on both CBS and NBC between 1955 and 1965--depicted the moviemaker as he saw himself: tubby and unusual.

But from a very young age, Hitch, as he preferred to be called, figured out how to make this otherness work for him. The son of a greengrocer father and housewife mother, the devoutly Catholic Englishman--who would become known as "The Master of Suspense" for being the first to employ many elements of the thriller genre that today feel cliched, including using decoys (that Hitch called MacGuffins) to throw viewers off of a mystery's trail--realized early on that being unpopular meant he could watch folks go about their daily lives and go largely unnoticed.

"He was plump, and shy," writes Ackroyd, "and without physical skills of any kind; he may have exhibited that mild effeminacy that was evident in later life. It is also reported that he smelled of fish, from close proximity to his father's fishmongery. This is the sort of detail that boys remark."

He goes on: "He was not necessarily bullied, but he was known to be odd.... So he invented games for himself, and played alone ... And he watched. He watched the others in the class and in the playground ... Watching provides a definite form of pleasure. It involves the mastery of the observer, absorbing the details of people and of places, even discerning plots and patterns not seen by the participants. It is the gaze that captures the world. It also furnishes a sense of safety, and even of invulnerability. The observer is removed from any threatening consequences."

He was to use these observational skills--honed on the schoolyard--for the rest of his career. (In fact, one might argue that a part of him would forever remain that rotund schoolboy.) Even when he began helming popular films, he would often stay silent for long, discomfiting stretches on set, rarely giving those performing any sort of direction--verbal or otherwise. The actors and actresses he employed--who were used to being lavished with praise (or abuse, depending on the director) at any and every turn, were often confused, believing that Hitchcock disliked them or bore them some ill will over an imagined slight.

While filming 1950's Stage Fright starring Marlene Dietrich, Ackroyd writes that Hitchcock would ask the "first assistant director to set the actors in position for their moves; he would then disappear into his office, and only return when the cameras were about to roll ...

"Dietrich said of him that 'he frightened the daylights out of me. He knew exactly what he wanted, a fact that I adore, but I was never quite sure if I did it right.'" Actor Gregory Peck, who appeared in Hitchcock's 1945 psychological thriller Spellbound, "remembered that he gave very little direction at all." And during filming of 1938's The Lady Vanishes, actress Margaret Lockwood noted that "Hitchcock 'didn't seem to direct us at all. He was a dozing, nodding Buddha with an enigmatic smile on his face.'"

But remaining silent so that he could mull things over was simply Hitch's way. And it wasn't the strangest thing about him either. Hitchcock was definitely a character.

"He ... wore a uniform with almost military precision," writes Ackroyd. "He had a wardrobe of six dark suits, all of the same cut but subtly different in size ... He also possessed six identical pairs of shoes, 10 identical ties, and 15 identical pairs of socks and underwear. He appreciated the restraint, the external order and discipline that they imposed."

The director was practically a narcoleptic. "He would close his eyes, or fall asleep, at inopportune moments," writes Ackroyd. "If he was not the centre of conversation or attention at a dinner table, he would often doze off."

His most remarked upon habit was throwing a porcelain cup over his shoulder following morning or afternoon tea each day so he could hear it "crash and splinter." He told people it was "good for the nerves."

Hitchcock was also a lover of practical jokes. Writes Ackroyd: "At a party to celebrate the end of filming [The Farmer's Wife], Hitchcock invited the members of cast and crew to a West End restaurant; but he had hired the smallest room he could find. The 40 guests were crowded into a space designed for 12.... When friends went abroad or on holiday, he would order the largest and most awkward furniture to fill their rooms. He had a set of whoopee cushions at home, and brought them out for the more grand or formal guests. He painted clown faces on his sleeping daughter."

Those were the funny ones. Other pranks were downright cruel, according to Ackroyd. The director once bet a staffer that he wouldn't be able to spend an entire night chained to a camera in a dark studio. "Hitchcock presented him with a bottle of brandy to beguile the hours away. It was laced with a very strong laxative."

In addition to all of this, Hitchcock was known to become creepily and obsessively infatuated with many of his leading ladies, leaving them feeling unsettled by his attentions. Actress Tippi Hedren, star of 1963's The Birds--who famously had a miserable time shooting the picture, claiming that Hitchcock had actual birds attack her, instead of the mechanical ones he'd promised--has even accused the famed director of sexual harassment.

Writes Ackroyd of the experience: "[Hitchcock] superintended every detail of her dress, hair and makeup ... It was soon being whispered that he had asked members of the crew to follow her and report on her movements. He took samples of her handwriting, and sent them to a graphologist for analysis. He presented her with flowers and wine."

Although this behavior surely signaled to all that Hitchcock was an unconventional sort, people accepted him because he was also clearly a genius. And a forward-thinking genius at that.

Hitchcock was one of the first directors to jump on the talkies bandwagon, practically chomping at the bit to use the newfangled technology on 1929's Blackmail. He also used a number of innovative storytelling devices, such as moving the camera in such a way as to simulate an audience member's gaze. In addition, he storyboarded everything down to the smallest, most minute detail--which most directors do today--before starting work on a new film.

Ackroyd does a great job describing Hitchcock's thought process while making each of his films --from the forgettable ones he directed purely for the money to the ones that film students have dissected and will continue to dissect for decades. This reader's only real quibble with Alfred Hitchcock is the author's insistence on using such words as "threnody," "persiflage" and "appurtenances" throughout the text. Hitch--who usually had a good sense of what audiences were looking for--would have known that such fancy, incomprehensible words just make people want to turn away. They would have ended up on the cutting room floor.
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Comment:New biography "Presents" Alfred Hitchcock not as Odd Duck, but surely a strange bird.
Author:Rosner, Leah Hochbaum
Publication:Video Age International
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2016
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