Wednesday, February 14, 2024

How Alfred Hitchcock's childhood and murderous interests shaped his movies

Psycho remains my favorite movie and so it makes sense that I am likewise fascinated with its creator Alfred Hitchcock. I’ve read a lot about the master, and I’m particularly enjoying the 2022 book The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock. Author Edward White (pictured) places Hitchcock into 12 categories: the boy who could not grow up, the murderer, the auteur, the womanizer, the fat man, the dandy, the family man, the voyeur, the entertainer, the pioneer, the Londoner, and the man of god.

Early on, in the Introduction, White doesn’t really reveal anything fans don’t know about the man who made an impressive 54 films. Hitch obviously had many contradictions, so the argument is presented that at least 12 of his personas are needed to explore in order to understand the full person. The parts I probably know the least about are the first two: about his childhood and why White refers to him as “the murderer.” Here’s what I learned in those two sections:

  • Hitchcock himself articulated most of what is known about his childhood, mainly that he was a mostly solitary but not unhappy child. One oft-told story about the origin of his anxiety was how his father sent him to a police station with a note when Alfred was about five years old and they locked him in jail for a while. 
  • His films were heavily influenced by the long-forgotten authors he loved as a boy, and also Edgar Allan Poe.
  • Hitch didn’t treat children as children, both in his movies and at home. But both adults and children loved him, especially with his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents and his Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.
  • Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie, in particular, deal with repressed childhood memories and may have become more interesting stories to him after a series of health scares possibly led him to think more about his own immortality.
  • Hitch never much talked about his own childhood traumas. But his father died of emphysema when he was 15 and the war soon began with about six years of trouble, as German bombs rained down on London., often very close to his home. The Spanish flu showed up for the last year of the war.
  • Moving from childhood, the next “life” of the director is as the murderer. 
  • Many critics initially trashed Psycho, dismissing it as gratuitous violence. But it was an immediate smash hit with audiences, making tons of money at the box office despite its small budget (the studio didn’t have any faith in it either).
  • Hitch didn’t want to actually be a 9-to5-type serial killer, but “violence and cruelty spurred his creativity.” His fascination with famous serial killers led him to often give books and materials about them to his writers and actors.
  • His stories of murder weren’t about the victims but rather about male destructiveness, lashing out at women, other men, the government, or civilization as a whole. He said the best murderers regard their actions as a fine art, and he zoned in on that idea.
  • Capturing evil at its utmost came in the form of his hiring to lead a film documenting Holocaust concentration camp atrocities. Night Will Fall (5 out of 5 stars) was not released until 2014, but it truly captures those unimaginable days in Europe, often with long shots, not panning away, from images like the piles of clothes of the dead and the "shower heads" in the gas chambers that were much like the notorious one in Psycho.
Up to this point, 12 Lives is a winner and I'm looking forward to the rest of it. The analysis of Hitchcock the man as well as his films is told in both an academic and engaging way. Zeroing in on the subject from 12 different directions allows White to dig deeper than some other Hitchcock bios have done with their straight, chronological formats.

5 out of 5 stars

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