The Dark Side of Genius

Some time ago I read Donald Spoto’s 1999 book, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock.  Here are my thoughts on the book and its infinitely fascinating subject…

As soon as one begins to read Daniel Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius it is apparent that the book’s emphasis is on the parallels between Alfred Hitchcock’s life and what he chose to show us on the big screen through his films.  For the most part I enjoy reading biographies.  However, I tend to take an author’s claim on a subject’s psychology with a grain of salt as authors of biographies are rarely psychologists.  I also always keep in mind that books about famous personalities who happen to be well balanced and serene would not sell.  Having said that however, Spoto seems to have done extensive research and all his conclusions about Alfred Hitchcock’s private life make perfect sense and are backed by many interviews and documentation.  Ultimately, The Dark Side of Genius is a compelling and enjoyable read, a fascinating study about one of Hollywood’s most fascinating personalities.

By far the parts of Spoto’s book I found most enjoyable are those that tell the behind the scenes stories of Hitchcock’s movie-making techniques and practices and the stories of the other Hollywood legends that were a part of his life – the Gables being one favored couple.  Spoto goes into great detail about the meticulous way Hitchcock would prepare for his films.  Many of the director’s stars and co-workers quoted in this book comment on the way Hitchcock would have every single scene and every single shot planned out prior to shooting so that he often sat off to the side on sets, rarely looking through the camera as is the practice of most directors, or, how he would take naps during filming, trusting that his meticulous direction, all carefully documented, would be strictly followed.  Theresa Wright, one of the stars of Hitchcock’s 1943 film, Shadow of a Doubt, said her film experience with Hitchcock was very unique.   Unlike her experiences working with other directors, Shadow had been completely foreseen before the first day of shooting, nothing was left to chance.  This was true of all his films.  As a result, most actors in Hitchcock films agreed he was not an actor’s director.  Hitchcock knew where he wanted the camera and the exact, desired effect that should result – how the actors got there was of little concern to him.  This becomes very clear and easily seen in his films, even for a novice.

In his “real” life, Alfred Hitchcock was not particularly comfortable around people, preferring to entertain at home or with the same small group of “regulars” all the time.  When things in his life were going well the food and party atmosphere seemed to grow in proportion, when things were sour, so were his moods and celebrations.  Even the work he enjoyed most was the pre-production phase of filmmaking, the planning, the work he did on his own, or with his writing collaborators (including wife, Alma).  Spoto goes on to say that Hitchcock “developed his film fantasies as he did those of his real life – privately!”

There is very interesting information concerning Hitchcock’s relationship with the stars and staff of his films – his compulsion to control and dominate such cool, blonde actresses as Grace Kelly, Vera Miles (his first and only choice for the female lead in Vertigo), Kim Novak, and Eva Marie Saint, a compulsion he had apparently all of his life but that would come to fruition after his arrival in Hollywood.  It seems the “tough-minded and cold” British actresses he worked with in England would allow him no control over them.  Along these same lines of compulsion and obsession Spoto delineates much more about Hitchcock’s psyche and how it is represented through his films.  Spoto discusses (in great detail) Hitchcock’s love for Ingrid Bergman and his great personal disappointment when Vera Miles became pregnant and was unable to do Vertigo.  Bergman’s huge scandal caused by her leaving her husband for Director Rossellini paled in comparison to the betrayal Hitchcock felt that she would leave him to work with another director.  Similarly, Hitchcock was insulted by the gall Vera Miles had in becoming pregnant with her third child.  Something he found insulting – why would anyone want another child when they already had two?  He felt Miles literally threw away her one big change to become a big star and he’d been molding her to become the next, definitive “Hitchcock blonde.”

Also quite interesting in The Dark Side of Genius are the descriptions of the way Hitchcock was involved in all aspects of movie-making – from choosing the screenwriters, to the writing itself, to the costuming and so on.  He arrived in Hollywood longing to be considered an artist, something the class-conscious Brits could not ascribe to a film director (also because he wanted complete control and autonomy over his films.)  Unfortunately, he signed a contract with David O. Selznick, a very powerful and talented producer who also always wanted complete control over all the films he produced.  Spoto explains that Hitchcock and Selznick rarely agreed but how Hitchcock almost always got his way.  Selznick quickly began to sell Hitchcock to other studios for a profit.  Selznick got Hitchcock out of his hair for a profit and Hitchcock got control over his projects without butting heads with less controlling studio heads.  It’s interesting that Hitchcock’s need for complete control lead him to create what would be part of his signature in his films, those wonderful angles.  He developed a technique called “cutting in the camera,” which meant that he filmed only angles that he would use in final cuts of his films, thus ensuring he, not the editor or producer, got control over the final released film.  He simply left them no other shot to choose from.

Spoto explains one thematic element present in many Hitchcock films that I paid little attention to prior to reading the book – that of duality, or the dual nature that Hitchcock
(and all of us) have in our personalities.  For instance, the duality of good/evil in Strangers on a Train, the duality represented in Notorious, in Ingrid Bergman’s character, the innocent/loose woman, and the obvious duality seen in Vertigo, just to name a few.  Spoto does go deeper and in much detail about the many layers represented in each Hitchcock film and finds a connection between each and every event in Hitchcock’s life and each film he shot at a particular time.

Daniel Spoto’s study of Alfred Hitchcock here is not a positive portrayal by any means.  He describes a severely repressed and sometimes twisted man who grew more so as he faced difficulties in his life.  According to Spoto most of Hitchcock’s relationships were very complicated and bordered on illness – and these included his relationship with sex and with food.  However, whatever his real fears, relationships, neurosis, or sensibilities, Hitchcock caused severe ones in us as well, as voyeurs of his films – to a certain degree we shared his feelings as he dictated.  Daniel Spoto makes one thing clear and certain; Alfred Hitchcock was more than just a Hollywood director or personality.  “He drew so deeply from the human reservoir of imagery and dream and fear and longing that he achieved universal appeal.  Had his films been simple incarnations of his own fantasies and dreams, with no wider reference, he would have perhaps won a small and devoted group of admirers.  But he expressed those elusive images and half-remembered dreams in terms that moved and astounded and delighted and aroused awe from millions around the world.”

Enough said.  Well written and researched, A Dark Side of Genius, is worth reading for anyone interested in Alfred Hitchcock and/or his films if for nothing more than pure, dark fun.

“The Donald Spoto biography of Hitchcock was absolute nonsense.  Hitchcock couldn’t have been a nicer fellow.  I whistled coming to work on his films.”  Cary Grant

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