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'Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock': Incisive anatomy of the director

Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren explore Cannes, France,

Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren explore Cannes, France, together after the premiere of "The Birds" in May 1963. Credit: Getty Images/Keystone

THE TWELVE LIVES OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK by Edward White (W.W. Norton, 384 pp., $28.95)

Locked down, scrutinizing one another through windows and screens, suspicious of neighbors' intentions, psychological soundness and political inclinations, we all live now in Alfred Hitchcock's world.

Cultural historian and Paris Review contributor Edward White brings home to us the film titan's enduring presence in "The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspense." While not essential to casual filmgoers, the study helpfully dissects, for Hitchcock obsessives, this most calculatingly self-conscious director's methods and compulsions.

White's shrewd, interlocking essays yield no new juicy gossip about the occasionally wayward and chronically manipulative director, but they draw from the huge trove of revelations by Donald Spoto, Patrick McGilligan and other biographers.

White illustrates how disparate facets of the director's personality fit together. Some of those elements, like "The Murderer," speak to Hitchcock's gleefully sinister imagination. Others, like "The Womanizer," refer in part to twisted relationships with Joan Fontaine, Tippi Hedren and other actresses. That ugly aspect of his character seems superficially at odds with Hitchcock "The Family Man." The self-ridiculing "Fat Man" and "The Dandy" would also appear to be mutually exclusive, as would the suspense-ratcheting "Entertainer" and the more quietly reflective Roman Catholic "Man of God."

White persuades us, however, that they are not. Indeed, the great strength of "The Twelve Lives" is that a reader comes away from it with a vivid sense of how Hitchcock ignited screen masterpieces with the fires of his inner discord and contradictions.

"Spellbound," "Marnie" and other dream-drenched Hitchcock fare lean heavily on Freudian conceits. Hitchcockian superego, ego and id are all caged feverishly together within his more than 50 films.

His work inspired shameless imitations like Brian De Palma's "Dressed to Kill," not to mention fond parodies like Mel Brooks's "High Anxiety." But, more importantly, Hitchcockian fixations and modes shaped espionage, suspense, horror and action pictures generally — so widely that audiences may have become desensitized to that influence.

The blackmailed and the wrongly accused, on the run, out to clear their names. Voyeurs with questionable motives and long camera lenses. Psychopaths who view murder as a game. Shattered heroes haunted by a perished heartthrob from the past. Women randomly pursued by supernatural forces or serial killers. Suffocating mothers. And on and on. Hitchcockian tropes inescapably flood our contemporary screen consciousness.

White draws vectors to that galaxy from the childhood of the London grocer's son. Hitchcock started as a film jack of all trades in the silent era, was a star British director by the time the talkies emerged, and then, lured to the States by David O. Selznick, became a midcentury Hollywood icon with an exacting reputation. Beyond film, Hitchcock developed, in the 1950s and '60s, a lucrative international TV and pop-culture empire before his health failed and his career sputtered in the '70s.

"The Twelve Lives" also explores a central paradox of Hitchcock's work: how a director who infamously referred to actors as cattle drew from them some of their best work. A case in point: Jimmy Stewart in "Vertigo," which some critics have ranked as the greatest film of all time.

The flip side was his callous treatment of some of his featured women, Hedren especially. Hitchcock's abuse of the actress during the filming of "The Birds" may have been overstated in the 2012 movie "The Girl," but by most accounts, his handling of her was traumatizing.

As with all things Hitchcock, however, there are layers to peel. Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly "declared themselves smitten with Hitchcock, his gracious manners, his humor and his talent." White emphasizes in "The Womanizer" chapter that if the "male gaze" had a predatory component, it also had a mystical, venerational one. For instance, White writes, in her three star turns in Hitchcock's work, "there is something extraterrestrial about Kelly's characters. She doesn't enter 'Rear Window' so much as she manifests, from nowhere in the pitch black, as though beamed in from another dimension."

"In Hitchcock films," White declares, "men and women are separated not only by biology but also by plains of experience: men — excluding the insane ones — inhabit a world governed by fact and rationality, while women … have access to mysterious reserves of instinct and intuition."

If that kind of appreciation seems dated and unwelcome, it's still a staple of our entertainment universe. And that phrase "excluding the insane ones" is telling. In Hitchcock, the glamour underlies the threat, but threats underlie the glamour. That is a deeply disturbing dynamic, on and off screen, and a legacy with which Hollywood and its ambivalently rapt audiences continue to wrestle.

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