After decades of numerous in-depth biographies, studies, analyses and memoirs of those who knew and worked with director Alfred Hitchcock, one question must spring to mind when considering any new bio of the esteemed director: what can any new book provide that hasn’t been covered before?
A few answers occur to me. While it’s difficult to imagine any full biography can ever supersede Donald Spoto’s 1983 The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock or Patrick Mcgilligan’s 2003 Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, I think there’s room for a “brief life” geared for the general reader without all the scholarly discussions appropriate for film students or serious movie aficionados. “Brief” implies there’s no attempt for Ackroyd’s biography to be exhaustive or authoritative but rather is a book for those who would like a history of how Hitchcock’s film canon came to be in a non-academic presentation.
It’s also fair to say any important artist should be viewed through new critical lenses anew from time to time as new generations will see creators of the past in very different ways from their predecessors. In addition, readers of books written in previous decades were far more likely to be familiar with many of the master’s films while new readers may have seen few of Hitchcock’s productions. This is most likely true of Hitchcock’s early silent films, his British efforts, or his final movies made after the success of The Birds.
Of course, most books of the past pay considerable homage to critic
François Truffaut due to the exhaustive interviews he conducted with Hitchcock in 1962 which probed the director’s artistic visions much deeper than anyone else was able to accomplish first-hand. Ackroyd too spends some time summarizing the highlights of Truffaut’s conversations with “Hitch” and Truffaut’s popularizing the notion that Hitchcock was an “auteur”—a director that was completely and individually responsible for his work. While not overtly saying it, Ackroyd signals that Hitch was far more collaborative then he’d publically admit, the director always downplaying the contributions of, in particular, script writers and actors.
Ackroyd’s book opens with a quick biography of Hitchcock’s childhood, pointing to the sorts of events that would influence the films to come, in particular the traumas that set the stage for the fears and anxieties present throughout Hitchcock’s life and canon. From that point forward, Ackroyd discusses each film in chronological order with brief overviews of how each came to be, some bits of production history, critical reaction to each film, and how each fit the development of the director’s cinematic trajectory. Along the way, Ackkroyd makes clear what he thinks of each movie and readers can match their own critical analyses with the author. For example, Ackroyd is far kinder to Torn Curtain than most reviewers would be, then or now.
A Brief Life, it seems to me, shouldn’t be dismissed by serious Hitchcock fans, no matter how many previous books they may have already read. Ackroyd does give us fresh perspectives and doesn’t shy away from being controversial. For example, he largely dismisses Tippi Hedron’s tails of near rape by Hitchcock during the making of The Birds and Marni. While Ackroyd is usually balanced in his appreciations and critiques of Hitchcock as a man, this was one instance I found the author a tad unkind.
If you’ve never read a Hitchcock bio, A Brief Life is a good place to start. If you haven’t seen many of the master’s films, A Brief Life should give you a list of films you’ll want to check out. If you’re a Hitch expert, perhaps you will think about movies or personal incidents in new ways. In other words, A Brief Life is well worth exploring by scholars or general film buffs alike.
This review first appeared Jan. 8, 2016 at: