The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock by Edward White review – looking for Mr Fright

Dickens never recovered from the spooky stories his nurse told him at bedtime, and few of us ever outgrow Hitchcock. He holds us captive by tweaking our anxieties and using cinematic techniques – warped angles of vision, painfully elongated time, nerve-shredding sonic shocks – to delectably torment us. Martin Scorsese has admitted that he screens Hitchcock’s films “repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly”. Such repetitions always deliver revelations: watching the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much again the other day, I noticed that the anonymous London bobbies caught in a shootout are granted a line or two of jaunty dialogue just before they’re killed. Their banter is enough to make them pitiably tragic, and it earns the aloof, unmerciful director some credit for compassion.

“I dictate the picture,” Hitchcock once said. To consolidate his power, he created a personal myth that became a lucrative commercial brand. When asked for an autograph, he often scribbled a silhouette: a blobby head with wispy hair, its plump curves interrupted by a concave nose and two puckered lips. Hitchcock made an icon of himself using nine economical pencil strokes; Edward White’s study of his “variegated legacies” disassembles him into 12 separate facets, each exposing an aspect of “the public entity he crafted”.

The dozen selves anatomised by White do tend to overlap or to contradict one another. Aren’t Hitchcock the auteur and Hitchcock the pioneer the same, not a duo? And how can the gluttonous fat man also be a foppish dandy who “curated his body image” like the murderous gay aesthetes in Rope? One section labels him a womaniser, even though he claimed to be impotent, said he dreamed that he possessed a frail, transparent penis made of crystal, and claimed to have impregnated his wife with the aid of a fountain pen. Then, with odd illogic, White follows these kinky whimsies by celebrating Hitchcock’s contentment as a family man who liked to do the washing-up after dinner. Characterising the Catholic Hitchcock as a man of God, White rather desperately argues that the colour of Grace Kelly’s red dress in Dial M for Murder is “liturgical”; he’s right, however, that Judith Anderson in Rebecca treats the drawer containing her dead mistress’s lacy underwear as a fetishistic shrine.

The problem of Hitchcock’s cruelty – truly malevolent or merely jocular? – recurs in many of these parallel lives. White deflects complaints about his harassment of successive blonde actresses by pointing to his record as an ecumenical abuser. He once terrorised a seven-year-old boy cast in an episode of his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents by telling him in a whisper that if he didn’t stop fidgeting “I’m going to nail your feet to your mark, and the blood will pour out like milk”. In a similar mood, he crassly remarked that the tapes of screaming children recorded by the Moors murderers were “jolly good stuff”.

White regards Hitchcock as “the emblematic artist of the 20th century”, who began as a “modernist whiz-kid” and ended as “a wily old cynic on the path of postmodernism”; occasionally he over-reaches in trying to prove his ambitious case. Do the scampering legs of the chorus girls in Hitchcock’s The Pleasure Garden justify a comparison with the cubistically fractured physique of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase? Psycho allowed us to peep behind a shower curtain and gave us a whiff of decomposition in the fruit cellar, but as a “cultural happening” it doesn’t quite rank with the riotous premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I’m uneasy too when White describes the shower head that spurts cleansing water on to Janet Leigh as an allusion to the ceiling vents for Zyklon B at Auschwitz. He is better on the avant-gardism of The Birds, a precursor of cinema’s current surrender to technology: a sodium vapour process merged separate shots to amass those squadrons of attacking crows, and an early electronic synthesiser called the Mixtur-Trautonium supplied their squawks of triumph.

Tracking Hitchcock’s contemporary influence, White is an enterprising tour guide. I was happy to be reminded of Cornelia Parker’s PsychoBarn, constructed in 2016 on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Parker considers the gloomy gabled Bates house to be “the most corrupt building you could find”, yet she made it look invitingly homey and healthy by splicing it on to an innocent agricultural barn and setting it to chasten the arrogant Manhattan skyscrapers that poked up in the distance. And thanks to White, I went on an excursion to Leytonstone, Hitchcock’s birthplace in east London: here, in a gallery of mosaics on the walls of a sooty tunnel in the tube station, the monochrome nightmares from his films glow and glisten like Byzantine jewels. Not to be outdone by panels that show the sapphire sky from To Catch a Thief or the flaming carousel from Strangers on a Train, Hitchcock himself turns iridescent. At the age of six, dressed in a banana-yellow military uniform, he chubbily straddles a pony outside his father’s grocery shop; changing to a lime-green suit on the set of Stage Fright, he chortles as he tells Marlene Dietrich a no doubt salacious joke.

I was also pleased to learn from White about the lewd Hitchcock tribute in Eminem’s Music to Be Murdered By. After sampling the host’s unctuous “Good evening” from Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Eminem raps to Gounod’s unmournful Funeral March of a Marionette, the theme tune of the series. He first informs us that we’re hitched to his cock, after which he adjusts his jockstrap, scratches his balls, takes an audibly splashy pee and deploys a Lysol wipe. The words trip along at near-unintelligible speed, matching those quick editorial cuts in Psycho that make you think you’ve seen a knife ripping Janet Leigh’s flesh; decelerated, you can hear Eminem delight in the “dirtiest rhymes” of an “obscene, pervertedest mind”. Cornelia Parker exorcised Psycho‘s house of horrors by lifting it into the fresh air above Central Park, but Eminem lingers in the dank basement where Mrs Bates creaks in her rocking chair. As White’s book confirms, Hitchcock entices us down into that underworld, knowing we won’t resist. Then he frightens the life out of us and leaves us to die laughing.

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