Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Sometimes difficult, but never a monster

As a kid, I always liked hearing a story my dad told of when he saw The Birds in the theater. He said a young man strutted in with two girls, one under each arm, and sat in front of him and my uncle (Uncle Dean, I think). At one tense point in the movie the hero picks up a rock, intending to throw it at some birds. But the cool young man with the two girls suddenly lost his cool and leapt up yelling "Don't do it!" while the two girls - now very embarrassed! - shrank as low as possible in their seats. We would laugh at that as kids, that a grownup would get so caught up in a movie. But after I watched The Birds with my kids a couple years ago I could see how easy it was to be pulled into the frightening world of the Master of Suspense, and my kids still talk of how much fun it was to watch that movie.

But while I'd enjoyed plenty of Hitchcock's scary stories (he didn't write them, they were collections with his name on them) and the whole Three Investigators series as a kid (rereading them several times, in fact), I'd never bothered to watch any of his movies and didn't know anything about him. But in addition to war histories, I also like biographies about some of the greats of Hollywood. (After all, who's had a greater impact on our culture than Hollywood?) So I bought Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan.

Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and LightAlfred Hitchcock started in the era of silent movies. He once lamented the advent of talking pictures, saying it ruined a good story. But he was always innovating and challenging himself, whether it was through intricate camera shots or complex plot twists. He had a fascination for the dark and macabre, and appreciated stories that shocked and surprised. Such themes filled his movies, usually with a touch of his English wit and humor. And yet, there was another side to the man who frightened so many. He was a loving husband and father, was generous with friends and relatives, and loved watching plays and films including anything by Walt Disney. And he had a soft spot for animals. (Who'd have thought the Master of Suspense liked animals and Disney films?!?)

There are a number of biographies about Alfred Hitchcock, but I thought McGilligan's was outstanding. He provides a balanced portrayal of the famous director, often pointing out inaccuracies in Donald Spoto's Dark Side of Genius. But he doesn't shy away from showing Hitchcock's crude side, from the dirty jokes he often told to his penchant for pushing the limits of censorship. He tells how difficult and demanding he could be to work with, as well as the admiration and awe held by many in the business - a long list that is a veritable "who's who" of the Hollywood elite. It is a story told largely through the lens of the director's camera, and chronicles the films he made. And it's a long story, too - 750 pages before the notes - but worth it.

And since reading this book I've tracked down quite a few of his movies and I'm very impressed. They may not have the flashy special effects we've become accustomed to seeing now (although a few had impressive effects for the time), but they're usually far superior in telling a suspenseful story. And when you notice some of his unique touches and realize how skilled he was, it gives you a greater appreciation for such classics. (And I'll post some reviews on some of those movies in the future.)

No comments:

Post a Comment