A conversation with Peter Ackroyd
Over the course of a magisterial career in cinema that lasted six decades, Alfred Hitchcock directed fifty-two feature films. These included such titles as Vertigo, The Birds, Psycho, North By Northwest, Rope, and Strangers on a Train. Global success at the box office made Hitchcock phenomenally wealthy, but his films also ensured him a rightful place as a Hollywood legend and as an auteur director.
With his recognizable psychological thrillers, Hitchcock is rather aptly referred to as the master of suspense, menace, and the macabre. His films are places where absurdity, suspense, comedic ironies, and chaotic nightmares—usually of a violent, paranoid, and sexual nature—haunt the characters’ lives.
Born in Leytonstone, East London in 1889, Hitchcock moved to Hollywood in 1939, during the golden age of the studio system. He became a U.S. citizen in 1955, and died in Los Angeles in 1980.
Peter Ackroyd, an award-winning British historian, biographer, novelist, poet, and broadcaster—who holds a CBE for services to literature—has recently published a short biography of the film director titled Alfred Hitchcock.
You write in the book about how Hitchcock had a horror of life that could only be assuaged by his imagination. Where did these horrors principally arise from?
It is not possible to explain satisfactorily the origins of his anxiety. Some say that it derives from the baby in the womb imbibing the anxieties of his mother.
Can you talk a little bit about the extent of his anxiety condition?
It can be seen as a floating cloud that is always present but attaches itself to an event or character and taken on exaggerated dimensions.
How important was Hitchcock’s Catholic education in shaping his worldview as both an artist and a man. You write how “he learned from the Jesuits the virtues of order, control, and precision.”
Well yes. But he also learned from the Jesuits a fear of retribution and punishment which would make him wary of the body and its passions. The Jesuits were well known for their ability to fabricate arguments on tortuous questions, and for turning equivocation into an art form. Hitchcock suffered from guilt at manifesting signs of sexual desire. This was made worse by his sense that he was physically unattractive and perhaps unworthy of love.
What kind of influence did Edgar Allen Poe have on Hitchcock?
He encountered Poe’s work at the age of sixteen. It greatly influenced his work. Like Hitchcock, Poe’s childhood had been one of fear. Poe’s unhappy life made a deep impression on the young Hitchcock.
Can you talk about Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife, who shared all the stages of his life and career? You’ve described their marriage as sexless.
His wife could even be said to have been the masculine partner of their marriage. They were like working partners rather than husband and wife. He relied upon her strength and judgment in all the major decisions of their lives and in particular he considered her the best judge of his films.
How important was German cinema in unlocking Hitchcock’s imagination?
It taught him the role of the director in creating a self-enclosed visionary world together with the use of the fluid camera as equivalent to a painter’s brush in capturing mood and tone.
Let’s talk about two characteristic Hitchcock motifs: voyeurism and violence towards women. Why do you think these came to define his career as a director so much? What do they say about him as a film maker?
It is proof that he touches upon his own fantasies and desires in his work as a director, and that he almost projected the nature of the unconscious onto cinema screens.
What do you think of how Hitchcock created his own mythology as an artist? For instance, you say that he would never say anything out of turn, surprising, or revelatory. The secret was that he would never reveal himself. Did he believe that a true artist only reveals himself in his work?
He knew that he revealed himself in his work. However he tried to belittle this by saying “it’s only a movie.” He understood that his outward life and temperament were simply the scaffolding to keep up his true vision. So he created a persona that he maintained the rest of his life. It was the carapace in which he could hide himself.
Rear Window, you write in this book, was an unsettling film that presents an ordinary world that is anything but ordinary. You say it is a world of confused identities and thwarted desires, of loneliness and pain. In many ways, can’t these words describe most of Hitchcock’s movies?
Yes, I believe that has been the case. He saw the world as fragile and easily broken. That was another symptom of what might be called his horror of life.
Towards the end of his life, under the influence of drink or medication, you say that Hitchcock sometimes made improper suggestions to female members of staff.
Under the influence of drink he reverted helplessly to his old fantasies and dreams. It may also have been the case that a life of near-celibacy was suddenly irradiated with the knowledge that he had lost out on sexual desire and so felt the need to catch up.
How important were audiences to Hitchcock when he was making his films? Did he have a knack in understanding—in a global sense—what his audiences sought from the experience of cinema itself?
He was of such a delicate temperament that he had an uncanny ability to tap into the nervous fears of his audiences.
How can we view the dichotomy between Hitchcock the artist and Hitchcock the clever man of business? Which side do you see him closer to: an artist or an entrepreneur?
There was no dichotomy. As the examples of Shakespeare and Dickens demonstrate, a superb artist can also be a thoroughly efficient businessman. They run along parallel lines.
How important was Hitchcock’s move to the United States, in terms of his commercial success?
England made him but America polished him. With its money and technological superiority, American cinema allowed him to explore the possibilities of color, sound, and general technical expertise.
What do you make of the rumors that Hitchcock was a snobby and elitist individual? Did fame and fortune change him?
Not at all. I do not believe that he was in any sense a snob or elitist. His nervous temperament would not have been able to sustain it. Fame and fortune were the only props of his self-esteem. And he needed them.
JP O’Malley is an Irish writer living in London.
O’Malley speaks with Peter Ackroyd CBE about his new biography of Alfred Hitchcock and the great director’s life and work.