Anybody who's ever watched an Alfred Hitchcock movie--and who hasn't, really? --has probably assumed that the obese auteur was one odd duck. After all, this is the man from whose peculiar mind sprung the strange and sinister tales that are Psycho, Vertigo and The Birds.
Author Peter Ackroyd's engaging (and blessedly brief) new biography, Alfred Hitchcock (Nan A. Talese, 2016, 276 pgs., U.S.$26.95), all but confirms this hypothesis with an abundance of anecdotes from the British director's life, yet also manages to humanize the weird and wonderful man who arguably had the most famous silhouette in the world.
That silhouette--which appeared during the title sequence of each and every episode of his hugely popular American anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents that aired on both CBS and NBC between 1955 and 1965--depicted the moviemaker as he saw himself: tubby and unusual.
But from a very young age, Hitch, as he preferred to be called, figured out how to make this otherness work for him. The son of a greengrocer father and housewife mother, the devoutly Catholic Englishman--who would become known as "The Master of Suspense" for being the first to employ many elements of the thriller genre that today feel cliched, including using decoys (that Hitch called MacGuffins) to throw viewers off of a mystery's trail--realized early on that being unpopular meant he could watch folks go about their daily lives and go largely unnoticed.
"He was plump, and shy," writes Ackroyd, "and without physical skills of any kind; he may have exhibited that mild effeminacy that was evident in later life. It is also reported that he smelled of fish, from close proximity to his father's fishmongery. This is the sort of detail that boys remark."
He goes on: "He was not necessarily bullied, but he was known to be odd.... So he invented games for himself, and played alone ... And he watched. He watched the others in the class and in the playground ... Watching provides a definite form of pleasure. It involves the mastery of the observer, absorbing the details of people and of places, even discerning plots and patterns not seen by the participants. It is the gaze that captures the world. It also furnishes a sense of safety, and even of invulnerability. The observer is removed from any threatening consequences."
He was to use these observational skills--honed on the schoolyard--for the rest of his career. (In fact, one might argue that a part of him would forever remain that rotund...