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Book Review - Alfred Hitchcock: A Lifetime in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

by Matthew Bartley

There are probably more books on Alfred Hitchcock than on any other film director. And for good reason: few directors can boast a resume as impressive as his, both in terms of quantity and quality. McGilligans book is probably not the most definitive book about Hitchcock, but it's certainly one of the most entertaining.

McGilligan writes with the true passion of both a fan, and someone who wants to right some wrongs about his subject. Thus, he takes issue with other writers about Hitchcock who have discussed and portrayed the man in less then flattering terms. He also seeks to debunk the myths about the man, such as him being a callous practical joker, with no regard for others feelings. So the old story about his daughter, Patricia Hitchcock, and the ferris wheel in 'Strangers On A Train' is wheeled out, but this time with Patricia's express input.

It manages to shine a light on a man who could be difficult, but also brilliant. If it does sometimes go a little easy on Hitchcock's less than admirable qualities (McGilligan sometimes doesn't bother discussing the feelings of those affected by Hitch), then it also highlights just what made the man so damn special.

It's particularly good at describing his silent years working in England, and like all good film books should, makes you immediately want to go out and re-watch all his films, particularly the early ones. It's certainly exhaustive as co-workers and employees from all eras of his life are interviewed and sought, not just those from his glory years in Hollywood. This throws up some interesting facts about the man and shows just where he got his imaginative styling from. A frequently witty man, it balances out those who felt aggrieved with Hitchcock, and those who loved him dearly, with tales of strife with difficult actors and temperamental writers (John Steinbeck for one).

If it sometimes assumes too much of a familiarity with his work (I would have liked to have seen more indepth reviews of all his work, not just the lesser-known ones), then it also assumes that you want to know about the ones that got away or the ones you didn't know about (did you know Hitchcock looked at some problematic scenes in 'Gone With the Wind?'). Even the failures such as 'Topaz' or 'Under Capricorn' are examined as to why Hitchcock couldn't make them into his usual success. And it's intriguing to see just which ones he dismissed and which ones he liked. Even his Best Picture winning 'Rebecca' doesn't particularly inspire fond memories in him.

And it also pulls off a trick that few biographies of this nature do - it has an emotional layer to it. So as Hitchcock moves towards his last few days, you can't help but be saddened by his demise, and by the fact that at least his penultimate film, 'Frenzy', recaptured a lot of his old spark - even if it wasn't recognised at the time.

There are probably a few better Hitchcock books out there (Truffaut's still being the most definitive) - but there won't be many.

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originally posted: 06/24/05 00:53:31
last updated: 06/24/05 08:08:27
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