Saturday, June 11, 2011

It's Only A Movie : Alfred Hitchcock : A Personal Biography - Charlotte Chandler

' Call me Hitch, without the cock.'

 Alfred Hitchcock as he introduced himself.

 The name Alfred Hitchcock needs absolutely no introduction. If it does then your cave needs running back to! Like many celebrities I have picked up bits and pieces about them individually over the years and I find reading a biography can fill in many of the gaps. When I finished this book I realised how much I didn't know about this most famous of directors.

 But there is a problem. This isn't a biography per se. It is more a chronological look at Hitchcock's life as a film maker rather than a biographical look at the man himself. The title is mis-leading as it isn't a biograpy at all. It took me until a third of the book to figure it out and I felt somewhat dis-gruntled and mis-lead as it wasn't what I picked the book up for. I wanted a look at Hitchcock and not an individual look at each of his films. There is nothing wrong with what Chandler has written, it is just mis-labeled. It should read something like The Movies Of Hitch or some such thing. As biography...well, in short it isn't one.

 So with that out of the way the book can be analysed for what it actually is. Hitchcock started his career in the silent film era and was employed to produce the films inter-titles. He was a talented artist who quite literally started on the bottom and worked his way up. The whole book is full of interesting anecdotes about Hitch but it still isn't biographical. Chandler has written something of a mis-mash in detailing Hitch's rise with some quite interesting facts which she fleshes out with interviews she personally conducted with those involved.

 My one concern though is why she waited until 2008 to publish this book as most of the inter-views were conducted at least thirty years ago and the interviewees are all long gone. I couldn't escape a feeling of unease at this because with them all deceased they can't refute anything she has published. I may be wrong but just a pinch of salt may be needed. After all there are other Hitch biographies written that can corroborate or dismis Chandler's views. I also have two more Hitch biographies here to read so I shall soon find out how reliable Chandler is.

 I also feel Chandler is somewhat awestruck by her subject and unwilling to write anything deferential about Hitch. She writes about his sense of humour and his good points, but there is nothing negative, except Mellanie Griffith, daughter of Tippi Hendren , calling him a 'motherfucker'. In essence Chandler has delivered Hitch as she likes to see him rather than show how he actually was. She has failed the test of the biographer in that regard.

 So what Chandler has done in fact is write a short piece on each of Hitch's movies interposd with some of those involved, from Hitch himself, the actors/actresses, script writers, and technicians, etc. It does provide some really interesting reading as she takes you behind the scenes. And in that regard this is what this book is, a look behind the scenes of Hitchcock's many films. She starts from his very early days as a studio's dog's body until 1978 when his health failed.

 I like how Hitch himself recognised in the 1920's and 30's the fact that German cinema was way ahead of Britsh and American of the time. Their film techniques were revolutionary and influenced Hitch enormously. Many of his own films mirror that debt. I was also surprised to know that the use of 3-D has been around since the 1920's! I honestly didn't know that. Hitch saw its use in German cinemas and used it in Dial M for Murder. He was keen on the technique and hoped it wasn't it a 'phase'. Dial Murder itself  had a very limited run in 3-D in theatres.

Things interesting titbits like the fact that no matter the set, or how hot things got, Hitch was always immaculately attired. He never took off his suit jacket, and only wore a short sleeve shirt once, in Marrakesch, for The Man Who Knew Too Much re-make...but still had on a tie!!. He believed in the director setting an example by his appearing professional at all times. He certainly was professional and his sets were legendary for their quietness and efficiency. Sky larking and practical jokes were virtually unknown. And little snippets like the fact the utterly lovely Grace Kelly was supposed to star in On the Waterfront but pulled out to star in Rear Window solely to be directed by Hitch. Oh!... and the blood in the famous shower scene of Psycho was actually chocolate sauce!!!

 The book itself is nicely presented with quite big text. It is easily readable ( I read it in one day ), consise and clear. The photo section is reasonable but could maybe have done with a few more. There is one of Grace Kelly that is the best I've ever seen. It is of her, Hitch, and Alma his wife. My god Kelly was a stunning woman, just stunning!! But it has faults. The title suggests the book is a biography but it clearly isn't. If you are expecting one you will be let down and somewhat mystified as to the use of the word 'biography' It is a look at Hitch's movies through the use of interviews by those involved. That is not a biography. Also Chandler is like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights, she is too awestruck by Hitchcock and too unwilling to write about his dark side, an important facet of the man. But if you want a light introduction to Alfred Hitchcock then this is a good place to start.

 I give this a 5/5 only because it isn't a biography when it quite clearly promotes itself as one. It has some useful snippets of information , but overall it is a neither here nor there type book, as it doesn't quite know what it actually is. Readble yes, essential reading, no.


  1. You certainly do a lot of reading about films and film personalities. Kudos for that.

  2. Not as much as I'd like to Lesya!! I think it adds so much to understanding what we as viewers see on the screen. I like to know what makes an actor/director tick as their personalities etc are an influence on their careers.

  3. It seems like it might be difficult to write about someone like Hitchcock without being biased or ignoring less admirable aspects of his life/career.

  4. I'm in the process of reading another Hitch biography at the moment by Patirck McGilligan. It is 750 pages long and a genuine biography where as Chandler's book isn't. The sign of a good biographer is to write both the subjects good and bad points and not to ignore one over the other. Like I stated Chandler chose to ignore Hitch's less savoury aspects.