Peter Ackroyd might be one of the few working biographers worthy of his own biography. An uncommonly prolific and erudite writer from a working-class London background, Ackroyd seems to dwell more comfortably in the labyrinths of history – and specifically English history – than the modern age. Since the 1980s he has published more than 50 books of poetry, fiction and the biographical works for which he’s become acclaimed, including exhaustive studies of Eliot, Pound, Blake, Dickens and others.
Ackroyd is a prose master as well as a human word processor. His 1996 book on William Blake is a particularly elegant work whose opening pages alone make the case for biography as an art form. He also knows what it's like on both sides of the fiction/ non-fiction divide. Hawksmoor, Ackroyd's novel partially inspired by Iain Sinclair's poem Lud Heat, is required reading for London psychogeographers and fans of historical thrillers alike, a murder mystery whose occult resonances can be located in Alan Moore's From Hell, David Peace's Red Riding trilogy and even Nic Pizzolatto's TV series True Detective.
Alfred Hitchcock is the latest instalment in Ackroyd's ongoing Brief Lives series. (Previous subjects include Chaucer, Turner, Newton, Poe and Chaplin.) He's probably written footnotes longer than this book; at 250 pages odd it's a mere pamphlet compared with Bible-sized behemoths such as London: The Biography or Thames: Sacred River. In that light, Alfred Hitchcock seems less like a labour of obsessive love than a pleasurable dalliance.
Which is surprising, given that author and subject have so much in common. Ackroyd’s home turf is London, his pet subjects visionary Londoners. Hitchcock was, broadly speaking, a cockney and, like his biographer, a portly figure more at home in the life of the mind than the flesh.(Both men admitted experiencing extended periods of celibacy, finding more consolation in food, wine and work than sex.)
Not that Alfred Hitchcock's films bypassed the carnal. Rather, they sublimated the sexual impulse, or transmuted it into violence. Again and again, in Notorious, Spellbound and Vertigo, the director explored the pathological implications of attraction and obsession.
And while he often seemed aloof and disdainful of actors, treating them like mannequins to be placed in cinematic dioramas (not to mention targets for unmerciful pranks), he was also susceptible to platonic fixations upon his leading ladies, most notably Ingrid Bergman, Tippi Hedren and Janet Leigh. (Hitchcock’s working relationship with the latter provided the subject and subtext of a recent, rather pedestrian, biopic starring Anthony Hopkins.)
Hitchcock was an artist of sensation rather than sensuality. His forefathers were the gloomy gothics: Poe and the early masters of Weimar cinema, particularly FW Murnau. (An early excursion into the German film industry between the wars gave the young Hitchcock a hands-on education in matters of production and budgeting.) His particular gift was updating 19th-century themes and conventions (Rebecca for instance) for the age of anxiety.
Anxiety, Ackroyd points out, is the key:
“By his own account he was afraid of everything; he always imagined the worst, and prepared for it... François Truffaut said of him after a series of exhaustive interviews that he was a ‘neurotic’ and ‘a fearful person’; he was ‘deeply vulnerable’ but as a result became ‘an artist of anxiety’. That was the secret. Hitchcock projected his anxiety into his films, in which fear becomes an intrinsic aspect of daily life. He was aware of the innate and uncontrollable terror that can suddenly afflict a human being, and in that instant the outer world becomes unreal . . . Hitchcock was a superb fantasist of fear . . . He had such an intimate connection with his own anxieties that he was able instinctively to stir those of the public.”
That’s about as Freudian as Ackroyd gets. Aside from speculations that the director might have habitually taken anti-depressants that sometimes caused him to nod off on set, he keeps the psychoanalytical suppositions to a minimum.
Some might criticise him for failing to animate the biographical facts with a governing point of view – an angle – that would endow Alfred Hitchcock with a clearer sense of purpose, but you can't knock his clarity and lucidity.
Mostly, Ackroyd paints Hitchcock as a practical man canny enough to surround himself with capable lieutenants, not least among them his wife Alma (herself a gifted film editor and script doctor), even as he took the credit for their efforts, purring when French theorists venerated him as a true auteur.
Success in the system
Any professional director who reads this book will admire Hitchcock’s adroitness at navigating the studio system, and the seeming ease with which he made the leap from Elstree to Hollywood. For much of his career he managed a picture, sometimes two, a year. He was an incurable workaholic. He barely had time to enjoy the fruits of his successes or brood over his failures before he was on to the next project.
And like his most notable cinematic disciples (among them Martin Scorsese and David Lynch, whose sensibility owes much to Vertigo and Rear Window), Hitchcock could produce signature work within the confines of the studio system. Technically proficient even under duress, he did not often go over budget without good reason.
Even when Hollywood moguls such as David O Selznick farmed him out as a director for hire, Hitchcock’s considerable repertoire of stylistic tics and tricks, his vision, was singular enough to transcend the impositions of intruders in the editing bay. And it’s worth remembering that, despite his Master of Suspense sobriquet, Hitchcock proved himself open to – if not equally adept at – romances, melodramas and even screwball farces.
Perhaps predictably, Ackroyd's book is most alive when it concentrates on Hitchcock's immortal quartet of Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds. In these pages he gilds the narrative with a level of detail and critical imagination absent from the rest of the story.
Alfred Hitchcock doesn't offer anything startlingly new for the hardcore aficionado, but it does succeed as an accessible and efficient primer to the man's life and work.
Peter Murphy is the author of John the Revelator and Shall We Gather at the River