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‘Twelve Lives,’ one master of suspense

A new biography looks at Alfred Hitchcock from a dozen revealing angles

Alfred Hitchcock at the Cannes Film Festival in 1972.
Alfred Hitchcock at the Cannes Film Festival in 1972.RALPH GATTI/AFP via Getty Images

Alfred Hitchcock was not sentimental about children. How could he be, when youthful admirers sent him letters as cheerfully gruesome as the opening monologues on his popular television show? One Texas boy wrote to describe the gallows he’d designed just for the director, with “a 3 foot 9 inch drop . . . sufficient to break your honorable neck.” The master of the macabre was, of course, more than capable of holding his own with juveniles. One fidgety 7-year-old star of an “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episode could still recall more than a half-century later the director whispering into his ear, “If you don’t stop moving about, I’m going to get a nail and nail your feet to your mark, and the blood will come pouring out like milk.”

These two anecdotes are characteristic of what British writer Edward White has unearthed in his incisive new cultural biography. There have been many books written about Hitchcock, ranging from adulatory (“Hitchcock/Truffaut”) to thoroughly nasty (Donald Spoto’s “The Dark Side of Genius”). Do we really need another? The answer turns out to be yes: White makes multiple connections between Hitchcock’s complex personality and unsettling films in fresh and stimulating ways. The director’s carefully cultivated public persona, White shrewdly comments, “was the active ingredient in the most celebrated of his fifty-three films, the way Oscar Wilde’s was in his plays, and Andy Warhol’s was in his art.” White probes the conflicted man concealed behind the persona but respects Hitchcock’s jovially sinister facade as a means of placing uncomfortable personal emotions under the control of his creativity.

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Francois Truffaut (left) and Alfred Hitchcock.
Francois Truffaut (left) and Alfred Hitchcock.Philippe Halsman/Cohen Media Group

And Hitchcock was all about control, we see with increasing clarity as White progresses through a book he describes as “twelve close-up portraits, each revealing something fundamental about the man, the public entity he crafted, and the mythological creature he has become.” “The Boy Who Couldn’t Grow Up,” by his own account afraid of practically everything, in fact did grow up to be a filmmaker who made fear “the fuel on which the Hitchcock juggernaut ran,” a strategy to mold his audiences into terror-stricken pawns of his vision. “The Fat Man” who hated how he looked and struggled with his appetites for food and alcohol rigorously supervised the appearance of the beautiful women in his movies: hair, clothes, shoes, makeup, accessories, all incorporated into color schemes that made visible their characters’ psychological and emotional states. He transformed his insecurities into assets: the opening credits of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” made his rotund profile the most famous silhouette in popular culture.

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James Stewart in "Rear Window."
James Stewart in "Rear Window."

White’s 12 “lives” are not simplistic one-to-one mappings of Hitchcock’s biography onto his films; each chapter is a jumping-off point for associative rambles through various aspects of his intertwined life and art. “The Voyeur,” for example, doesn’t claim that Hitchcock was a Peeping Tom in real life, but suggests persuasively that “Rear Window” — a film basically about a man spying on his neighbors, “a festival of watching and projecting” — is “the closest we will ever get to experiencing the world as Hitchcock saw it.” White goes on to assert that “Hitchcock was acutely aware of the centrality of the watched woman in the history of his medium” and to acknowledge that it’s always men doing the looking, but also notes that “Hitchcock’s male voyeurs are rarely gleeful. . . . Often their ogling causes them either guilt or regret and hastens their downfall.”

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White’s measured take on Hitchcock is evident throughout — as is his fondness for meandering. “The Entertainer” begins with the television programs that made him a household name, pointing out that “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” showcased “the comedian and the people pleaser” and satisfied his need to be the center of attention. White examines “the tension between wanting to be an artist and being an entertainer who gives the people what they want” and Hitchcock’s use of humor to ridicule those he considered pompous or self-satisfied. He then segues to a psychological assessment of the director’s frequently cruel practical jokes: “the ability to be the one to make others squirm and feel like outsiders . . . was ultimately about his desire for control — of his body, his emotions, his reputation.” White wraps up the chapter by linking “Hitchcock’s predilection for undermining dignity in the name of entertainment” to his relish for making scary movies like “The Birds” and creepy ones like “Vertigo” that undermine our confidence in a safe, certain world: “His mantra was to give the audience what they want — whether they like it or not.”

Edward White, author of “The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock.”
Edward White, author of “The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock.”Paul Unwin

As in “The Tastemaker,” his brilliant biography of the writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten, White perceptively explores the interplay between someone whose tastes and neuroses might have made him an outsider, but who instead asserted himself to make an enormous impact on the culture of his time. Dealing with a much more famous subject, “The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock” can’t be as revelatory. but it offers an intriguing approach to a much-chronicled career. Hitchcock the insecure man and Hitchcock the supremely self-assured artist each get his due.

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THE TWELVE LIVES OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK: AN ANATOMY OF THE MASTER OF SUSPENSE

By Edward White

W.W. Norton, 400 pages, $28.95

Wendy Smith is a contributing editor at The American Scholar and reviews books frequently for The Washington Post. She is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”