"Alfred Hitchcock: A Brief Life" by Peter Ackroyd.
Peter Ackroyd, author of "Alfred Hitchcock."
By Virginia Kopas Joe / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Cue the violins and lock the bathroom door: Hitchcock is back.
In Peter Ackroyd’s “Alfred Hitchcock: A Brief Life,” readers not only revisit the groundbreaking cinematic thriller “Psycho” and its iconic shower scene that’s arguably the granddaddy of all slasher films, they become equally mesmerized by the man who made horror, well, haute. Mr. Ackroyd’s book is the perfect companion for those who didn’t get enough of the director during Alfred Hitchcock Day on March 12.
To the uninitiated, Sir Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) was an English film director and producer, often called the “Master of Suspense.” His career spanned six decades and more than 60 films. Mr. Ackroyd, an acclaimed biographer, takes us behind the scenes to the sets of Hitchcock’s unforgettable taut, twist-filled classics, such as “Notorious,” “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest” and, of course, “Psycho.’’
Readers also visit the backlots of his 1955-65 eponymous television series. And we get plenty of cameo appearances from his stars, such as Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Shirley MacLaine and Clark Gable.
"ALFRED HITCHCOCK: A BRIEF LIFE"
By Peter Ackroyd Nan Talese/Doubleday ($26.95).
But most entertaining and informative is Mr. Hitchcock’s own real-life story. Born in 1899 to a London greengrocer and housewife, Mr. Hitchcock himself said he was known as “a child who never cried.’’ Odd that he would go on to make so many people scream.
Overweight, lonely and imaginative, the young Mr. Hitchcock spent his childhood daydreaming of adventure, and Mr. Ackroyd follows this fearful yet ambitious child from the floorboards above his father’s market to the spotlight of international fame.
“Hitchcock: A Brief Life” is more melancholy than macabre. He is portrayed as a sad, solitary figure who once described himself as an “odd, misshapen corporeal presence.’’ The book outlines how he managed his fears by developing a self-deprecating humor and sarcasm; he had a fund of anecdotes and aphorisms that became part of his carapace.
The book also does a nice job of illustrating the bond between Mr. Hitchcock and his most trusted adviser, his wife of 54 years, screenwriter Alma Reville. She was always on set and it is documented that Mr. Hitchcock would not move on to another shot without her approval.
Still, it was not your typical marriage. Ms. Reville accepted the fact that her husband had a fondness for the icy blondes he chose to star in his films. But the author found that Hitchcock probably did not consummate those casting couch opportunities.
Mr. Hitchcock’s own tics and quirks were as interesting as his films and sometimes incorporated in them. Among them:
• He hated bodily functions. Anytime he went to the lavatory, he cleaned it to remove all traces of being there. Yet it was Mr. Hitchcock who would battle Hollywood censors to keep a shot of a toilet — long forbidden by the notorious Hays Code — as crucial to the “Psycho” plot.
• He feared birds and was affected by reports of a flock of 1,000 birds that plummeted down the chimney of a house in La Jolla, Calif., and attacked a woman. His version became “The Birds.”
Ever the crafter promoter, Mr. Hitchcock easily adjusted to television in the 1950s. For a decade he hosted with sepulchral diction and sphinx-like demeanor “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” still in reruns on late-late night TV.
Mr. Ackroyd is known for his biographies of T.S. Eliot and Charles Dickens, as well as a number of successful novels. His “Hitchcock” is as mesmerizing as the subject — and just creepy enough. It’s the perfect bedtime read in this time between winter and spring.
Virginia Kopas Joe: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1414.
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