“Luck is everything,” Alfred Hitchcock once remarked. “My good luck in life was to be a really frightened person. I’m fortunate to be a coward, to have a low threshold of fear, because a hero couldn’t make a good suspense film.”
Hitchcock had copious anxieties. As a fat, lonely child, he was frightened of authority figures, be they police officers, priests or teachers; he was fearful of falling, and positively phobic about eggs. But he used his visual imagination and technical mastery to turn those anxieties into movies that would reshape cinematic history.
Entire genres owe debts to his work, including modern thrillers (like “Jaws” and every Bond movie ever made), horror and slasher films, disaster pictures and psychological suspense dramas. And his distinctive use of montage, camera angles and symbolic images would be consciously or unconsciously appropriated by generations of filmmakers.
More than a century after his birth, Hitchcock remains our contemporary because the world of menace he conjured embodies our deepest, most existential fears. Fears (especially resonant today) that the universe is irrational, that evil lies around the corner, that ordinary life can be ripped apart at any moment by some random unforeseen event — in the case of his films, by mistaken identity (“North by Northwest”), flocks of murderous birds (“The Birds”), the unexpected arrival of a malign visitor (“Shadow of a Doubt”).
For all these reasons, books continue to be written about “the master of suspense,” from the lurid and trashy (“The Dark Side of Genius” by Donald Spoto) to the thoughtful and scholarly (“Hitchcock’s Films” by Robin Wood, “The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder” by David Thomson). After all these years, the one essential work on Hitchcock remains François Truffaut’s series of interviews with him, originally published as a book in 1967.
The latest volume, “Alfred Hitchcock: A Brief Life,” by the novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd, offers no new revelations, but it provides a smart, fluent overview of the director’s life and art, and the mysterious dynamic between the two. As with other serious books on Hitchcock, this volume will be judged, partly, by how closely the author’s take on various films accords with the reader’s own. In this case, “Notorious” — Hitchcock’s darkly brilliant masterpiece, in this viewer’s opinion — is hastily dismissed in a couple of pages, while the self-important “Vertigo” (which seems to be enjoying a surge in popularity these days) is minutely analyzed and dissected. Nearly as much time is spent on portentous fluff (like the dreadful “Marnie” and the oddly listless “Topaz”) as on the bravura and still stylish “North by Northwest.”
But Mr. Ackroyd does deftly situate Hitchcock’s work in the rapidly emerging film industry. He succinctly sketches in Hitchcock’s apprenticeship — how he absorbed lessons in chiaroscuro from the German Expressionist master F. W. Murnau, and the art of montage from the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein. Mr. Ackroyd also points out that his British films tend to be more grounded in a particular time and place, compared with his glossier Hollywood productions, which often “float free from social ties” and “exist in some large indefinite space.”
Mr. Ackroyd reminds us that Hitchcock believed that “civilization is as thin as ice, beneath which lie depths and darknesses,” and that his obsession with precision and control (manifested in his preference for shooting on carefully constructed sets, and his penchant for cruelly manipulating his actors) was a means of guarding against such cracks in the ice. Images and plot twists seem to have come more easily to Hitchcock than character work, which he left largely to screenwriters. And many of the famous set pieces in his movies — the shower scene in “Psycho,” the crop duster scene in “North by Northwest” — Mr. Ackroyd suggests, were part of the director’s initial inspiration.
In Mr. Ackroyd’s view, “Rear Window,” about voyeurism, was one of Hitchcock’s most personal films. In it, James Stewart plays a photographer named Jeff, immobilized by a broken leg, who watches the suspicious goings-on in an apartment building across the way. “It could even be said,” Mr. Ackroyd writes, “that in fashioning Jeff he had created an image of himself — the man hiding behind the camera who creates a fantasy world out of observable reality.”