Thirty five years after his death, Alfred Hitchcock remains as popular and influential as ever, the most famous British director of all time. The past few years alone have seen three biographical movies (Hitchcock, The Girl and Grace of Monaco) and a hit US television series, Bates Motel, which expands on one of his most notorious films, Psycho. In 2012, his 1958 Vertigo was voted “the greatest film of all time” in Sight and Sound’s once-a-decade polling of the world’s most influential directors and critics. Yet in spite of this popularity, he remains in some ways a mysterious figure, one of those pop culture icons about whom so much has been written and yet there is so much left to be said.
The novelist, biographer and historian Peter Ackroyd has good form for tackling so important a figure, having written clear and authoritative books on Pound, Eliot, Shakespeare and Blake, as well as brief lives of Chaucer and Poe (the latter a strong influence on Hitchcock). At first glance, it seems unlikely that his 280-page new book, titled simply and authoritatively Alfred Hitchcock, will be long enough to do justice to its subject’s substantial filmography, let alone the psychological quirks that have provided meat for past biographies such as Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius. But Ackroyd has a keen eye for the details that unlock a life, the most interesting here being the way he uses Hitchcock’s Catholicism to unpack the themes, motifs and imagery present in his work from 1925’s The Pleasure Garden to Family Plot in 1976.
Hitchcock was born, Ackroyd notes, into a deeply Catholic family. Three of his grandparents were Irish Catholics and Hitchcock’s father referred to him as “my lamb without a spot”. Fans of Psycho prepared to psychoanalyse where the author does not will relish the detail of the young Hitchcock reciting his misadventures at his mother’s bedside each day, which Ackroyd refers to as “a form of familial confession”.
Many of Hitchcock’s protagonists, most notably Norman Bates and Marnie Edgar, have complex relationships with their mothers, but Ackroyd ignores this connection, pointing out that the director never mentioned his mother when discussing his interest in judgment and punishment, suggesting instead that it was the result of his Jesuit education. At the age of 10 Hitchcock started at St Ignatius College in Stamford Hill, north-east London, a school run by Jesuits in “the strict fashion of that order”. Hitchcock told an interviewer that he learnt from the Jesuits “the virtues of order, control and precision”. He described himself thus: “I was born a Catholic, I went to a Catholic school and now I have a conscience with lots of trials over belief.” His Catholic education, Ackroyd believes, “instilled in him a tremendous sense of guilt”.
For Ackroyd, Hitchcock’s films are shaped by “a Catholic vision which is designed to have power that is emotional and conscious”. He believes that although Hitchcock explored this vision in early films, including Downhill and Rich and Strange, it only fully came to fruition in his 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much, and consisted of an underlying belief that “hidden laws govern the universe” and “individuals are at the mercy of impersonal forces”.
Ackroyd suggests that two other films in particular demonstrate Hitchcock’s Catholic worldview. He believes he was attracted to the psychiatry that inspired 1945’s Spellbound because he saw it as the secular equivalent of the Catholic confessional. The Catholic underpinnings of 1953’s I Confess – the tale of a priest, played by Montgomery Clift, unable to divulge the identity of a killer because it was revealed to him during Confession – are even more apparent. Though this film is important to Ackroyd’s reading of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, he does not overpraise it, accepting Hitchcock’s own verdict that it was only so-so, lacking his trademark mix of humour and the macabre.
For the most part, Ackroyd is even-handed in regard to all of Hitchcock’s films, noting the reception of critics and the commercial performance of each before providing his own brief appraisal. The only opinion likely to raise eyebrows is his enthusiasm for 1966’s Torn Curtain, commonly regarded as among Hitchcock’s weakest late films.
Towards the end of the book, Ackroyd grows distant from his subject. The tremendous insight he brings to Hitchcock’s early life is absent when he addresses indisputable masterpieces such as Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds. He depicts Hitchcock as being baffled by the commercial success of Psycho and Ackroyd seems to share his surprise – he regards most late Hitchcock as experiments in style, drawing comparisons with abstract artists rather than digging deep into the substance of these films.
The tailing-off disappoints, but is not fatal: while the first half of this book offers a genuinely arresting reading of Hitchcock’s film and life, the second works almost as well as a basic primer, with an excellent bibliography offering plenty of suggestions for further reading.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (17/4/15).