Book Review


Donald Spoto.

New York, Harmony Books, 2008. 352 pp.


Johannes bockwoldt Filmmaker/screenwriter

Rochester, NY

journal of film and video fall 2010

When Hitchcock launched his TV show Hitchcock Presents in 1955,

he turned himself and his instantly recognizable silhouette into a trademark.

Historically, Hitchock’s career blatantly exposed the relationship between merit and savvy marketing. Then came the film- by-film interview with Francois Truffaut, first published as a book in 1968. The book-length interview turned Hitchcock into an “auteur” in the public eye. Truffaut defined the British-born director as the single most important creative force behind all of his films. The auteur theory and its inherent near-deification of the direc- tor exemplified the theoretical approach of the Nouvelle Vague critics-turned-filmmakers.

At the time, this idolization was practically unheard of for a commercially successful director thoroughly entrenched in the Hollywood mainstream. Today, however, when we utter names such as Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese, we evoke the same critical auteur perspective. Spoto published his first book, a film-by- film analysis of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, in 1976. In 2008, New York Times critic Janet Maslin called it “a work of polite hagiography.” The success of his debut book jumpstarted Donald Spoto’s career as a celebrity biographer. His next book, the Hitchcock biography The Dark Side of Ge- nius, was published in 1983, three years after the director’s death. In this book, Spoto re- sponded to

Truffaut’s perspective of Hitchcock: “It also hurt and disappointed just about every- body who had ever worked with Alfred Hitch- cock, for the interviews reduced the writers, the designers, the photographers, the composers, and the actors to little else than elves in the master carpenter’s workshop” (495). Thoroughly researched and based on countless interviews with every key collaborator, as well as the director himself, The Dark Side of Genius was the first book to question the myth “Hitch” himself had worked hard to create. All subsequent literature on Hitchcock has increas- ingly dispelled the fiction that in Hitchcock’s words, as quoted in Spoto’s latest book, Spell- bound by Beauty, “when moving pictures are really artistic, they will be entirely created by one man” (84). Spellbound by Beauty is the final book of an unofficial Hitchcock trilogy by the now-accom- plished celebrity specialist. In it, he tries to give Hitchcock’s leading ladies the recognition they have been denied so far not only in the litera- ture about the director but also in comments by the director himself. “That he [Hitchcock] main- tained an insistent silence about the quality of their performance is a curiosity that cannot be ignored” (xvi). In the same preface, Spoto further clarifies his quest: “But the craft of biog- raphy requires that the shadow side of subjects be set forth and comprehended—otherwise, their humanity is diminished, their pain mini- mized, and those they hurt are ignored” (xx).

Spoto’s book is not just another study of Hitchcock’s work but a revelatory personal biography that fits perfectly into the market- place of the early twenty-first century where the personal and private by now have become intensely public. Any Hitchcock biographer is faced with at least two problems: The richness and intricacy of his body of work have led to a vast research where every aspect seems to have been scrutinized. The other problem is of course how, in the age of American Idol audi- ences, to generate interest in a director whose beginnings reach back into the silent film era and whose work is by now decidedly classical. Spoto’s solution seems to lie in nothing short of sensationalism. 63 Spellbound dutifully records Hitchcock’s career-long obsession with blondes. The di- rector’s obsession seems to be matched by Spoto’s determination to document, actress by actress, how Hitchcock abused his power as a director. The most prominent actresses to star in his most celebrated films were, consecu- tively, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, and finally, Tippi Hedren. A key piece of Spellbound is the descrip- tion of how his professional relationship with Tippi Hedren crossed over into personal and (possibly sexual) harassment starting during the filming of The Birds (1962) and escalating during production of Marnie (1964). The two pertinent chapters are aptly titled “Obses- sion” and “The End of Art.” Spoto charts nothing less than the story of a creative implosion. “After Marnie [starring for the last time Tippi Hedren], no subsequent Hitch- cock picture has any emotional statement to make” (281). In 2003 Patrick McGilligan published Alfred Hitchcock—A Study in Dark- ness and Light, a study that matches Spoto’s dedication to research. McGilligan seems to explain away allegations of sexual harass- ment by interpreting it as a desperate director trying “to force her [Tippi Hedren] to be Mar- nie” (646). Similar to Spoto, McGilligan interviewed sev- eral of Hitchcock’s collaborators. The findings of the two biographers are decidedly different, resulting in a “Rashomon” effect—Kurosawa’s film of the same title that dissects the disparate meanings a story takes on when told by the dif- ferent participants. As in this film, the “truth” about Hitchcock and how his obsessions ended his career will forever be open to interpretation. obsession with making over a female according to one’s own fantasies.

In the most poignant chapter of his at-times gossipy book, Spoto characterizes the very disparate and consecu- tive triptych of Vertigo, North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960) as some of the most personal work Hitchcock ever produced. “All three films have as their emotional focus a des- perate, duplicitous blonde; all three films have at the center a person who is unknown, nonex- istent or dead” (240). Spoto has been building up to his central thesis of Hitchcock as a person without a center in the preceding 239 pages. He concludes his three-book and virtually lifelong “romance” with Hitchcock as describing him forever trapped in his Victorian character corset that forced him to realize in his films what he was never able to do in the time not spent working for the movies. Spoto ends his book on a bewildering note. He writes about Hitchcock’s wife Alma and how, at the end of her life, she “seemed more at peace with herself, and much calmer” when she ignored pictures of her late husband altogether. This ending points to a general problem: too often Spoto’s writing begs the question of whether mere speculation is not subverting the potential for careful analysis.

In Spoto’s words, if this is “not a revisionist biography” (xxii) then what exactly is it, and how does it contribute to the understanding of an already-overanalyzed star director? Spoto has earned an important place in the canon of Hitch- cock literature in the past, but his latest book might not be more than a footnote in his oeuvre.