I’m not quite sure when I discovered Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. It was sometime after Nancy Drew books and James Bond films aired on commercial television as the movie of the week. My best friend’s parents had a small selection of movies and we watched and re-watched Rear Window and To Catch a Thief over and over. Then, my freshman year in high school, we had a teacher who looked so much like Anthony Perkins in Psycho, we couldn’t help but dive deeper into the Hitchcock library of films. The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspense by Edward White explores Hitch’s films and life through twelve different facets of his personality.
” In The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock, Edward White explores the Hitchcock phenomenon—what defines it, how it was invented, what it reveals about the man at its core, and how its legacy continues to shape our cultural world.
From Hitchcock’s early work in England to his most celebrated films, White astutely analyzes Hitchcock’s oeuvre and provides new interpretations. He also delves into Hitchcock’s ideas about gender; his complicated relationships with “his women”—not only Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren but also his female audiences—as well as leading men such as Cary Grant, and writes movingly of Hitchcock’s devotion to his wife and lifelong companion, Alma, who made vital contributions to numerous classic Hitchcock films, and burnished his mythology. And White is trenchant in his assessment of the Hitchcock persona, so carefully created that Hitchcock became not only a figurehead for his own industry but nothing less than a cultural icon.”
Who was the man behind some of cinema’s most classic suspense films? That’s what The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock attempts to explore, through different parts of his personality. Some chapters work better than others. “The Boy Who Couldn’t Grow Up”, “The Family Man”, and “The Voyeur” were some of the better chapters because they rely on Hitchcock’s real life as well as his films to study his personality.
“The Man of God” was very interesting; I had no idea Hitchcock was raised Catholic. Either this wasn’t mentioned in the biography I read years ago or it wasn’t touched upon other than a mention. White shows how certain Catholic teachings remained with Hitchcock as an adult, even though he did not go out of his way to show his Catholicism. But his daughter was raised Catholic and her children as well, and when Hitch was at the end of his life, he had regular visits from a priest to receive communion and a prayer service. I always thought I Confess, the Hitchcock movie that has a priest being accused of murder because he can’t reveal the confession of the real murderer due to his oat a rather good film, but Hitchcock didn’t like the end result.
“The Voyeur” was also a treat to read, because really, all Hitchcock’s films are about voyeurism in one way or another, but none so much as Rear Window, where James Stewart is house-bound by a broken leg and he looks out on the apartment building across the courtyard of his Greenwich Village home. Hitchcock took great delight in showing us things that hadn’t been seen before in movies, like a toilet in a bathroom in Psycho, or a woman still half-dressed after a mid-day romp in the same film.
The book goes back and forth in time, discussing Hitchcock’s films from Hollywood as well as his time in England. Indeed, I found a wealth of information about his early films, of which I’ve only seen a few. I’ve never seen his silent films, but count The 39 Steps and his original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much one of my favorite of his. He enjoyed the story so much he later re-filmed it in Hollywood with James Stewart and Doris Day. I enjoy both films, but the original seems more intense.
“The Fat Man” was a chapter I had issues with, only because in this day and age to call someone fat is offensive. Hitchcock constantly referred to himself as fat, and made frequent references to his girth. His repeated diets, his drawing of the Hitchcock silhouette with the extra chin, in fact, walking on camera in profile so one could see that rotund silhouette was something Hitch never shied from. He often made jokes at his own expense, which can be seen as a defensive mechanism: laugh about yourself so others don’t start teasing you.
Still, despite the thorough look at Hitchcock’s life through these facets of personality, I found him a man hard to know. He kept so much of himself private that only his wife and daughter and later grandchildren really knew him. Hitch constantly projected this serious side when in public, but he had an incredible sense of humor, which is often found in his films to break up the suspense. I’ve seen home movies of Hitchcock where he’s laughing and playing about in his rolled up shirt sleeves, and they’re odd to see since he always projected this image of a proper English gentleman with his dark suits and droll way of talking.
The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock is released to the general public April 13, 2021. Thanks to NetGalley and W.W. Norton Company for the ARC in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.