By Peter Ackroyd, Chatto & Windus, 279 pages, $24.99
Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much
By Michael Wood, New Harvest, 144 pages, $26
By now, reasserting the artistic legacy of Alfred Hitchcock feels old hat. Or worse: boring. This is, after all, the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard (no slouch himself, artistic legacy-wise) hailed as "the greatest curator of forms of the 20th century." Circa 2015, praising Hitchcock is about as shocking as saying "The Sopranos is a good show!" or "pizza is delicious!" It's not so much an opinion as an axiom.
So, in a way, the recent publication of two fairly slender volumes on Hitchcock's life and work, Peter Ackroyd's Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Wood's Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much feels totally superfluous. There are, at barest minimum, three major biographical studies of Hitchcock: John Russell Taylor's Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock (1978), Donald Spoto's gossipy and sensationalist The Dark Side of Genius (1983), and Patrick McGilligan's Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (2003). There are also innumerable volumes dedicated to his films, sidestepping speculations on the anguished personal life and creepiness of the Master of Suspense, such as François Truffaut's 1967 book-length interview with Hitchcock and Raymond Durgnat's terrific book-appraisal of Hitchcock's game-changing horror movie in A Long Hard Look at 'Psycho' . There's no shortage of books on Alfred Hitchcock, is what I'm saying.
The publication of these two new books strikes me as a little baffling. Was there some anniversary? Does 2015 mark Hitchcock's 100th birthday? No. That was 1999. Was there some spike in interest tied to the release or rerelease of some of his films? Again: no. Last year saw nine early Hitchcock silent films cleaned up and restored for a touring exhibition. And late 2012, the same year Hitchcock's Vertigo topped the British Film Institute's Greatest Films of All Time poll, saw a one-two of Hitchcock biopics, one released theatrically (the lousy Anthony Hopkins-starring Hitchcock) and the other on premium cable (the less-lousy The Girl, with Toby Jones playing Hitch as a stout gargoyle obsessing over Birds star Tippi Hedren). What the release of these books suggest is that discussing, or just rehashing, Hitchcock's life and work doesn't require a newsworthy peg or special occasion any more than you'd need a particular reason to rewatch The Sopranos or order a piping hot pizza, made fresh, just the way you like it.
The worse of the two is for sure Michael Wood's. For one thing, the title is entirely annoying. It points to Hitchcock's two films of the same name, but says little of relevance about the filmmaker who, if anything, curated a persona of careful aloofness that often made it seem like he knew very little, or just enough. ("It's only a movie after all, and we're all grossly overpaid," Hitchock remarked during filming of The Trouble With Harry, a flippant comment that typifies his reaction to his own work.) Wood's book is an entry into Icons, a publishing venture spearheaded by Amazon. Icons is, per press release pro forma, "a series of brief, thought-provoking biographies" dedicated to figures of perpetual interest, available free to anyone who subscribes to Amazon's Kindle Unlimited service. So far, the line also includes such titles as Anne C. Heller's Hannah Arendt: A Life In Dark Times, Paul Johnson's Stalin: The Kremlin Mountaineer and Jay Parini's Jesus: The Human Face of God. No doubt, Hitchcock belongs in this Icons pantheon, falling somewhere between Arendt and Jesus in terms of looming cultural repute. But Wood's book reads like little more than perfunctory lip service, a grab bag of warmed-over reflections (such as Hitchcock's collaborative relationships with his writers, producers and, especially, his creative partner/spouse, Alma Reville) and bewildering observational doublespeak. Stuff like: "Things keep happening in Hitchcock films that are wildly improbable if not downright impossible, but also, mysteriously, just what we expected."
Ackroyd's book is full of comparably overwrought rhetorical curlicues. Of Hitch's early detective thriller Murder!, in which the camera pulls out to reveal that we're watching a play and all the action has been mediated thusly, Ackroyd gets hilariously ponderous. "What is real and what is unreal?" he asks. "Is performance an intrinsic aspect of the human condition? Is London simply a great stage on which we are players? Who knows? Who cares?" More authors should have the gall to resolve seemingly meaningful questions with a violent shrug and a "Who cares?"
For even a casual appreciator of Hitchcock's work (i.e. myself), the "who cares?" loomed large while reading both books. It's not that Hitchcock's films are uninteresting. Quite the opposite, obviously. It's that it feels like nobody has to bother making a case for the interestingness, especially when such cases have been made, with various degrees of sophistication and depth of inquiry, for the past half-century. As a survey, Ackroyd's book approaches something like depth and breadth of insight. In any event, it's a brisk and thorough survey for anyone first encountering, or becoming reacquainted with, Hitchcock's formidable body of work. Wood, on the other hand, merely recertifies Hitchcock's taken-for-granted "icon" status – which, I suspect, is about all you can expect from an Amazon-published Kindle promo imprint.
This, however, is precisely how legacies are consolidated: opinions restated until they're taken as truth. The validity of such legacies becomes tricky, if not impossible, to reckon with an echo chamber built to strengthen them. Is Vertigo really the best movie of all time? Is pizza actually, factually, unequivocally a yummy food to eat? Who cares?