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Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light

Growing up, Alfred Hitchcock was my favorite director. I know, that sounds rather, well, pretentious: how many ten year olds have a “favorite” director, even today? But as the son of hippie artists heavily involved in the “university scene” of the 1970s (my father was, and is, an art professor), I saw a lot of films at an early age. My parents would have a Friday “film night” where a film professor (and local movie critic) would haul in a projector and they’d screen a wide assortment of classic and foreign films for a rowdy group of art students. As my family supplied the forum (in the form of the huge former drug and alcohol rehabilitation center my parents had converted into a private residence), my brother and I usually got to stay up late and watch as well.

As such, film and film analysis became rather second nature. We’d talk about the interplay of light and shadow in various film noir features and discuss the techniques used by Akira Kurasawa in his films (my father remains rather attached to the uncertain reality of Rashamon, while I still prefer Yojimbo). But Alfred Hitchcock was always a favorite because of his sly wit, his attention to detail, and his carefully constructed stories.

For Hitchock fans, Patrick McGilligan’s recent biography (now available in trade paperback) is one of those “must have” type of things. It’s a sprawling, exhaustive exploration of the man behind the trademark Hitchcock outline. It tracks his life from his days as the quiet Catholic boy from London’s East End, the son of green grocers who became fishmongers, his work as a production designer on silent films, his ascension to the role of Britian’s premier movie director, his transition “across the pond” to America, and his ultimate recognition as a master of cinema.

Hitchcock’s films “mingled light with darkness,” and the director himself was similarly conflicted. He developed innovative camera angles and other visual tricks in efforts to further the visual nature of his storytelling and his wife Alma worked with him on every project he undertook. He liked the occasional dirty joke and when meeting people for the first time took great delight in saying, “It’s Hitch, without the cock.” His onscreen “romance” with numerous icy blondes may have reflected a form of voyeurism and sexual impotence, and while cruel on occasion he remained generous and loyal to friends.

McGilligan’s book is an amazing testament to Hitchcock’s genius and a “back room guide” to the many struggles he encountered along the way. Together with thirty two pages of black and white archival photos, McGilligan manages to paint a fascinating portrait of a cinematic icon, as well as offering revealing glimpses of the Hollywood studio system and the stars of the “golden age” of the silver screen.

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