Creating a cinema of suspense and psychological complexity (Book Review)

Title: Alfred Hitchcock; Author: Peter Ackroyd; Publisher: Vintage/Random House India; Pages: 288; Price: Rs 499

Featuring ordinary persons propelled into extraordinary situations, in toxic relationships or mistaken for someone notorious and plunged into danger, the films of Alfred Hitchcock kept the audience forward on their seats in suspense, thrill or horror with their complex but disturbing psychological themes. What inspired him?

Active from the very dawn of cinema, making the transition from silent to sound, from black and white to colour, Hitchcock pioneered a distinct style in the films he helmed, but exemplified as many contradictions as he showcased to his audiences.

As this simple but detailed biography — cum criticism — brings out, he often played a showman and was quite fond of practical jokes (usually morbid, sordid or tasteless) but was highly insecure and anxious, paid more attention to visual impact than script or actors (who he likened to cattle), was more keen on commercial success than artistic, while nothing in his life seemed to be as traumatic as the effect he left on his film’s viewers.

Ackroyd, a historian, novelist and biographer, whose subjects have included Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Chaplin, doesn’t make any pretence to a comprehensive biography, choosing to only focus on Hitchcock’s professional life, with personal details and fears only figuring to the extent they concern his films.

It is also not an analysis of his films though the conceptualisation, writing, filming and post-production of many of the major ones come up. So does Hitchcock’s relations, usually tempestuous, with top producers in London and Hollywood, with stars like Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly and many others, but especially the back-room film personnel like editors and script-writers.

The story starts right from London where Hitchcock was born in a middle-class Catholic family in 1899, traces his childhood (especially his fascination with crime and penchant for loneliness, and sharp observation), schooling and early jobs, until he entered the world of cinema. And how he did is a story of determination, enterprise and diligence – and Ackroyd tells it well.

But the narrative really picks up pace when it begins with a break he got in film direction — and never looked back. It follows his initial days in England, a stint in Germany (where he was most impressed by German Expressionism), the move to Hollywood and making of the cinematic classics that have made him a legend, and the final disappointing and unproductive decade or so of his life and work.

A major part of the story deals with the relationship with his wife, Alma, who was also an infallible advisor in his work. It is also notable that when they first met, she, a film cutter, had far greater film experience than him. And though their marriage was “sexless” (they just had one daughter), they were also devoted to each other, with Hitchcock almost frantic with worry when she once was severely ill.

Also dealt with quite in length is his penchant for blonde women — who were heroines in almost all his movies.

The book doesn’t stint on dealing with his movies and their making. Here are not only precious details about the famous Hollywood ones like “Dial M for Murder” (1954), “Rear Window” (1954), “Vertigo” (1958), “North by Northwest”, (1959), “Psycho” (1960) and “The Birds” (1963), or his earlier London ouevre like “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” (1927), “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934), “The 39 Steps” (1935), “Secret Agent” (1936), “Sabotage” (1936), and, “The Lady Vanishes” (1938), but also those not so known despite their quality, and the frankly bad ones.

As said, this is by no means a comprehensive biography, but is still incisive while accessible and balanced, where Ackroyd gives his subject credit when due but makes no attempt to varnish over quirks and shortcomings, while raising questions about origins and expression of creativity and genius, no matter how warped. It will leave you determined to watch Hitchcock films and then a re-reading will prove more valuable.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at