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The Alfred Hitchcock Story (Titan Books, London, 1999) by Ken Mogg and associate authors.  Foreword by Janet Leigh. Hardback, 192 pages, illustrated in colour and b/w. Includes detailed Hitchcock filmography, full list of TV shows, radio shows, the short story anthologies, selected bibliography. ISBN: 1 84023 091 6. UK price £29.99.

If I had to recommend one book on Hitchcock to anyone but an aspiring filmmaker (who should read Truffaut’s book of interviews) or a denizen of the Academy (who can choose from some 30 English-language works employing everything from myth criticism to Queer Theory), this would be the one.  In The Alfred Hitchcock Story, Ken Mogg covers every film in Hitchcock’s oeuvre in loving detail, with a wealth of information at his fingertips and a cultivated eye.  His summing-up of Hitchcock’s career has a point of view, which never gets in the way of the story being told, and it is also the most beautiful book ever put together on this subject.

Eschewing the now widely-seen production sketches (except for one drawing of a set for Mr. And Mrs. Smith [1941]), the book juxtaposes scene stills and production stills with a cornucopia of posters and lobby cards reproduced in lip-smacking color, sometimes pointing up cross-references between the two.  From the same film, for example, a photo of Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard mugging for the camera faces the poster it inspired.  The stills – including some color rarities – represent the work, while the poster art is a multinational fresco of its impact in the popular imagination, filled out with a sprinkling of book covers (illustrating a very informative piece by Martin Grams Jr. on Hitchcock’s publishing ventures) and even sheet music and board games bearing the Master’s likeness.

For information, Mogg (the editor of The Macguffin and its Internet version) draws on a lifetime’s interest in the subject, supplemented with published sources and contributions from fellow scholars on particular topics (the TV series, Hitchcock the technician, the unrealized projects, etc.), from which the prejudices and distortions that too often mar recent Hitchcock scholarship seem, for the most part, to have been judiciously filtered.

“Judicious” is also the word for Mogg’s evaluations:  scorned, little known or merely uncommercial films like Under Capricorn (1949), The Wrong Man (1956), Marnie (1964), Topaz (1969) or even Waltzes From Vienna (1934) get their due, and behind this picture of the man and the oeuvre drawn from many sources, one senses the presence of a strong, opinionated guiding hand whose opinions I, for one, seem largely to share.  To some extent, that is because serious work on Hitchcock has been going on for half a century now (antedating even the 1954 Cahiers du Cinéma Hitchcock issue), permitting something like a consensus to be achieved.  As the creator of the leading Hitchcock web site, Mogg (based in Melbourne) is in touch with the many hands that continue to shape Hitchcock studies, which his editorial work has opened to people outside the universities; most of his collaborators on the book are professional writers, but their number also includes a filmmaker and a mathematician.

Mogg himself is a university teacher, but more important, he is well-read and well-versed in aspects of film history that most American experts simply do not know.  He is probably the best writer on Hitchcock’s sources, a distinction made possible by his thorough knowledge of authors Hitchcock actually read, like E. Phillips Oppenheim and John Buchan (whose possible contribution to the twisted plot of Notorious (1946) is one of many discoveries proposed here) and of British films that I for one shall probably never see.  His net, however, is cast much wider, raising questions which another generation of Hitchcock scholars might fruitfully explore about the relationship between particular Hitchcock films and films by the likes of Frank Borzage, Tay Garnett and Elia Kazan.

One not mentioned in the book, which I found in a piece by Mogg on the web site, is David O. Selznick’s Portrait Of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948), whose similarities with Vertigo (1958) raise many interesting questions.  In my own researches, I came across an eliminated ending for Stage Fright (1950) (Jane Wyman as Eve emoting onstage while Michael Wilding, from the wings, watches her inauthenticity with growing distress) which set me looking into a possible common source for that film and All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), filmed just afterward at Fox.  There was one:  a magazine story which had been turned into a successful radio play before Mankiewicz bought it and made it into his own version of the story of the star undone by an ingenue. (I later learned that the connection had already been made in Macguffin 2.)

Hitchcock “saw everything,” according to production designer Robert Boyle – an important observation that was confirmed for me by Gary Graver, who shot such great Orson Welles films as F For Fake (1975) and the still-unfinished Other Side Of The Wind (1972-2000).  The manager of a small repertory cinema in Hollywood during his salad days, Gary told me that Hitchcock and his wife Alma came almost every week.  That says a lot right there:  I know few cinephile couples, but those I do know are an awfully lot like Hitch and Alma, as described jokingly by Hitchcock himself and later by writers like Donald Spoto, for whom such a relationship could only be proof of some underlying pathology – one with which Spoto was obviously unacquainted.

I digress, but there are pleasant invitations to do so on every page of Mogg’s book, which constitutes, among other things, a gold mine for fellow scholars.  The author’s own point of view, made without undue cutting and chopping of the specimens on the block, is that Hitchcock was a vitalist like Schopenhauer, Bergson or Nietzsche (referred to in Rope [1948] and the unproduced drafts of a radical experiment called Kaleidoscope, which is described in a sidebar).  Although I would be more inclined to say simply “a Romantic,” the Schopenhauer connection has the advantage of throwing into relief a side of Hitchcock that is too often overlooked, which Mogg sees ideally expressed in The Trouble With Harry (1955).

Schopenhauer’s “Will” is an ambivalent force, allied both with Life and Death, and I can think of worse ways to understand the forms devised and discarded by Hitchcock’s genius as he went from film to film.  Perhaps the darkest night of the soul in all of Hitchcock is The Wrong Man, which inspires this sample of Mogg at his best, expanding a fellow scholar’s insight into a poetic evocation of that great film’s style, which he compares to Dickens’ Bleak House:

The hefty role of coincidence in the film is thoroughly Dickensian, being expressive of something the characters can’t comprehend…One such ‘coincidence’ is the fact that     all the alibi-witnesses have died or disappeared.  It’s as if the people concerned had been spirited away…In a series of near-invisible dissolves [during the credit sequence], we watch as the patrons of the Stork Club “dematerialise.”  The effect, as critic William Pechter noted, is positively eerie – and much facilitated by Bernard Herrman’s reedy modulations of the rhumba score.  The suggestion of death-in-life is soon extended to Manny’s own home, and again the score contributes to the effect:  the double bass, Manny’s own instrument, seems to stalk him down the hallway (cf. the use of the famous “Adagio” in Orson Welles’ The Trial [1962]). But death is everywhere in Hitchcock’s film.  Pedestrians in Queens caught in car headlights look like wraiths (2).

“Death-in-life” refers unostentatiously to Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which turns on a twist of fate as incomprehensible as the one that almost destroys Manny and drives his wife insane.  Hitchcock followed The Wrong Man with Vertigo, the next in an uninterrupted series of ’50s masterpieces that led to North By Northwest (1959) (whose hero seems to have inherited his first name from an early version of Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo), where Roger Thornhill’s will-to-life ultimately triumphs over his own hollow lifestyle (imaged as Mogg says in that reflected, bustling city under the credits) and his adversary’s murderous aestheticism.

That opposition was replayed one last time in Family Plot’s (1976) parallel couples, with Hitchcock coming down unambiguously on the side of Life.  (The famous high-angle shot of the cemetery and the scene following are accompanied by a minister’s voice droning a theological text the director dug up somewhere about the Resurrection of the Body.)  It could be argued that Hitchcock in the ’70s was reduced by readings that emphasize death-dealing powers of his cinema, but overlook the affirmations in films like Family Plot and The Trouble With Harry, one of the wisest visions of Utopia ever committed to celluloid.  The Alfred Hitchcock Story gives us Hitchcock whole again, and that is not the least of its achievements.

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Endnotes

  1. This is a review of the British not the American version.  All quotes from the book are from this version.
  2. The Alfred Hitchcock Story, p.145

About The Author

Bill Krohn is the author of Hitchcock au travail (1999), available in English as Hitchcock at Work (Phaidon Press, 2000). He has also been the Hollywood correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma since 1978.