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23 April 2015updated 17 Dec 2015 1:38pm

The fat man walks alone: how Hitchcock the ham became film’s greatest artist

Today, Hitchcock is revered for his contribution to cinema. But his reputation as a "serious" director came late, as new biographies from Michael Wood and Peter Ackroyd reveal.

By Leo Robson

Alfred Hitchcock
Peter Ackroyd
Chatto & Windus, 288pp, £12.99

Alfred Hitchcock: the Man Who Knew Too Much
Michael Wood
New Harvest, 144pp, $20

The 2012 Cultural Olympiad – the year-long, state-sponsored pretence that athletics is a friend of the arts – gave leading roles to a pair of men who were both Londoners, one adopted, one born and bred, and Victorians, one belonging to the 19th century, the other to the 20th, and who succeeded in breaking America. Charles Dickens, already celebrating his 200th birthday, was the subject of (or excuse for) endless talks, tours and pub crawls, as well as “Dickens on Screen”, a season at the BFI Southbank that lasted two months before making room for the Olympic summer’s retrospective “The Genius of Hitchcock”, in which the director’s English films, many of them digitally restored, were given higher billing than the frequently revived and televised American work, such as Vertigo and Psycho. (There was a certain emphasis on Shakespeare, too, but he is the focus of a non-stop Shakespeariad, unconnected to sporting events.)

Dickens and Hitchcock seemed obvious candidates for a festival that needed to please the crowd without appalling the elite – our most popular serious novelist and our most popular serious film-maker. In reality, the choices only showed how mutable, or capricious, our definitions of culture can be.

Had there been a cultural sideshow the last time London hosted an Olympics, in 1948, neither Dickens nor Hitchcock would have been sure of a spot. (Shakespeare was home and dry by then but in 1648 it might have been a different story.) The year of David Lean’s Oliver Twist, the latest sign of Dickens’s continuing commercial value, was also the year that the Cambridge don F R Leavis excluded Dickens from his high-minded book The Great Tradition for being a “popular entertainer”. (Leavis, an eager runner, compared the educating of readers to the training of Olympic athletes; in literary criticism, as in track and field, “elitism” was a tautology.) At the same time, a gang of former Oxford students, among them Lindsay Anderson, came to London with their magazine Sequence plus a set of convictions about who was and wasn’t helping film’s fragile claims to be an art. “Hitchcock has never been a ‘serious’ director,” Anderson wrote in 1949. “His films are interesting neither for their ideas nor for their characters.”

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A process of recovery began in the early 1950s and proceeded energetically for the next two decades. Dickens, who had never exactly suffered neglect, became the subject of a shelf-ful of books by academics on both sides of the Atlantic, among them Leavis, who, displaying a rare change of heart, welcomed him belatedly into the canon. In Paris, the newly founded Cahiers du Cinéma was becoming dominated by young contributors, among them François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette, who distinguished auteurs – a category that made room for Hitchcock and other Hollywood directors alongside Bergman and Dreyer – from metteurs en scène, the dunces responsible for British and French literary adaptations.

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The enthusiasm crossed the Channel and when Psycho came out in 1960, it was an English critic, Robin Wood, who wrote the Cahiers review. Wood’s book Hitchcock’s Films wasn’t published until 1965, almost a decade after Hitchcock: the First 44 Films by Chabrol and Éric Rohmer, though it was the first study of Hitchcock’s work by anyone in either the country where he was born or the country where he lived and worked.

A besotted former student of Leavis, Wood put aside his tutor’s disdain for “mass culture” but shared his appetite for being under siege. The enemies this time were not dons who preferred scholarship to criticism, or Milton to D H Lawrence, but another “critical establishment”, the former Sequence critics who by then ran Sight & Sound. It was in acknowledgment of hostile conditions that Wood asked his opening question: “Why should we take Hitchcock seriously?” The answer was not, as some might have expected, that popular entertainment is worth doing well but that Hitchcock’s work, using “cinematic” means, achieved Leavisite virtues such as “moral purity” and sensitivity to “the nature of life”.

Though wary of French excesses (Rohmer and Chabrol treated every Hitchcock film as an essay in Catholic theology and Hitchcock himself as a sort of god who was incapable of error), Wood finished off the revolt that Cahiers had started. The familiar Hitchcock – the tubby and plummy host of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, master of suspense,
quiet cameo performer in his own films, ham in television interviews, spouter of sound bites (“Some films are slices of life, mine are slices of cake”; “Actors should be treated like cattle”) – was swept aside in favour of Hitchcock the artist. It was this Hitchcock who obtained something close to a royal seal when, a few days into the 2012 Olympics, a Sight & Sound critics’ poll declared Vertigo the best film ever made. (To give an impression of the distance travelled: a review in the magazine’s autumn 1958 edition reluctantly noted “some good suspense diversions”.)

Of the several-hundred volumes on Hitchcock published over the past half-century, the majority divide into acts of critical exegesis indifferent to his public persona or even his private self and brisk, myth-laden biography in which Hitchcock emerges as a superb technician, the man who invented the inverse zoom, who got Detective Arbogast to fall backwards so brilliantly down Mrs Bates’s staircase.

Peter Ackroyd, a biographer of Dickens, Blake and London, belongs comfortably to the second camp but nonetheless finds himself in a challenging position. He can’t really argue in 2015 that Hitchcock wasn’t some kind of genius, at least not with the hectic casualness that has characterised his recent work, from his ongoing history of Britain to the series of Brief Lives of which this is the latest. On the other hand, he cannot, as a sceptical Englishman, accept the highfalutin terms in which this tickled showman is routinely praised. But his attempt to rebuff this sort of criticism is undone by the impression that he has never read any.

In one passage, he uses a profile written in 1954 by André Bazin, the founder of Cahiers, to emphasise the shortcomings of that magazine: “Hitchcock seemed to be puzzled by the French critic’s insistence on the ‘meaning’ or ‘message’ of his films . . . The French theorists were characteristically interested in what might be called the deep structures of everyday reality; when they were confronted with the formal, methodical and highly organised nature of Hitchcock’s films, they found their ideal.”

Bazin, atypical in virtually every respect, was the only Cahiers critic whose responses to individual films were bound up with broader articulated theories about cinema’s relationship with reality. And it was for this reason, among others, that he wasn’t very keen on Hitchcock. The cinema, for Bazin, best exploited its realist potential by using the uninterrupted long take (real time) and deep-focus photography (real space). Hitchcock stressed the opposite impulse and made much use of montage, in which time and space are cut to ribbons. Bazin wasn’t even “associated with the ‘auteur’ theory”, as Ackroyd maintains, except as a sceptic. The ambivalence of his Hitchcock article was also rooted in ambivalence to his younger colleagues’ zeal, which anyway was only a “policy”. (It didn’t become a “theory” until 1962, by which point Bazin was dead and his colleagues had handed in their ballpoints and become the French new wave.)

Michael Wood, in his sharp-witted contribution to the Amazon/New Harvest Icons series, is in a different sort of difficult position, because the kind of criticism he likes to write rarely has the need of biographical back-up. Readers of the LRB and the NYRB, for which he has written a combined total of about 400 articles, do not rush to his work for calm synopsis but a kind of critical drunkenness – high-spirited, infectiously giddy, sometimes wayward. When Ackroyd gets to Vertigo, he tells us all about the production before praising, or volubly defining, the result: “a meditation on fate itself . . . a film of coincidence and double identity, of fatality and suspense . . .  an exercise in nostalgia as well as obsession . . . a reverie and a lament, a threnody and a hymn”. Wood, mostly diligent at providing the facts, dives straight in and asks a central question: why would the “very good” novel on which Vertigo is based “never be taken for a great work of fiction”, while Vertigo is “thought to be a great movie”? It leads to the best ten pages in the book.

The differences of temperament arise in the reading of facts as well as of films. In his writing on London, Ackroyd’s connections are as free-spirited and fanciful as those of the loopiest Frenchman. But in writing about Hitchcock’s health, he is terrified of conjecture. Of the period before Vertigo, Ackroyd writes: “There is a theory that certain people become ill in order to prepare themselves . . . for some great enterprise. His medical records contain the more mundane truth that he was suffering from a hernia and colitis.” Wood, considering Hitchcock’s death in 1980, goes for broke: “His doctor said that Hitchcock had years of life left in him, in spite of his various ailments and failures of function, but something in him – maybe not his will but something deeper than the will, a submerged bodily self that decides when the party is over – took control and closed the system down.” The words “renal failure” are never used.

It’s clear whose approach is riskier. Ackroyd, plodding along, only now and again goes off course. But rationalism never did anything for Hitchcock and Michael Wood is dancing on the shoulders of giants. If Claude Chabrol or Robin Wood had worried about looking silly, or going “too far”, Hitchcock would still have been remembered in 2012. But how? As a fat man whose Psycho caused a stink and as the one-time Englishman who did The Lady Vanishes, a jolly film to stick on at Christmas.

Leo Robson is the NS lead fiction reviewer