Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: The British Years in Print, Part 2

by Brent Reid

Best of the Rest

  • Numerous Hitchcock books make mention of his very successful pre-Hollywood phase
  • But most only do so cursorily; few have a sizeable amount of well-informed content
  • However, there are several essential volumes that are impossible to overlook
  • Many of these lean heavily on testimony from the great man himself

Note: this is one of 100-odd Hitchcock articles coming over the next few months. Any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.

The British Years in Print, Part 1

Alfred Hitchcock reading a script, c. 1940

Reading a script, c. 1940

TL;DR: You’ll find the single most essential volume on Hitch here.

Following my overview of books focused entirely on Hitch’s British years, we come to those that still cover them extensively but expand into his later American career. This is where the literary waters begin to get really deep and murky; as with those previously discussed, they run the gamut from awful upstarts to decidedly venerable volumes. But here the range is exponentially greater, making it even more of a minefield for those looking for a reliable yet enjoyable read.

Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (2003) by Patrick McGilligan

Noted film historian Patrick McGilligan has produced many Hitch-related writings and sundry other works, including an audio commentary for MGM’s superb, near-definitive DVD of The Lodger. His superlative Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (2003, Kindle) pays almost equal attention to the great man’s early life and both sides of his transatlantic career, and remains for many the definitive overview.

A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock (2011) edited by Thomas Leitch and Leland Poague

The mammoth A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock (2011, Kindle), edited by Thomas Leitch and Leland Poague, is perhaps the single most comprehensive and in-depth anthology of the man’s life and work yet published. Among its 30 chapters are contributions from the cream of the world’s leading experts on both Hitch and film, including several authors I’ve already mentioned. Absolutely indispensable.

Though long overdue, when it finally came the pendulum of critical opinion previously against Hitch swung too far, and his elevation came at the expense of many vital collaborators. Now he was seen as the consummate auteur, and the likes of Robin Wood still managed to completely overlook the pivotal contributions of others, especially in Hitch’s early years. These included writer Eliot Stannard who worked on all nine of Hitch’s silents up to the penultimate, The Manxman. Two others were Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, who were among the most important writer-filmmakers ever and responsible for the scintillating screenplay of The Lady Vanishes and its quasi-follow-up Night Train to Munich (1940).

Another of the greatest unsung heroes deserving of more credit for Hitch’s success is his friend, screenwriter Charles Bennett (1899–1995). Starting with the silent and sound versions of Blackmail, he would go on to became one of Hitch’s most significant collaborators, writing the first five of his golden run of six thrillers, commencing with The Man Who Knew Too Much. Bennett also co-wrote, along with Joan Harrison, the screenplay for Hitch’s second Hollywood film, Foreign Correspondent, for which they received one of its six Academy Award nominations. In all, he had an incredibly lengthy and accomplished career as an actor, playwright, director and screenwriter. In the latter guise, Bennett was responsible for many other major films of the 1920s–1960s, both in his native England and the US.

Charles Barr: Hitchcock and his Writers

His unfinished memoirs were published as Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense (2014). It’s edited and annotated by his son John Bennett (interview), who spent two decades completing it by assiduously sifting through his father’s vast archive, now housed at the American Film Institute’s Margaret Herrick Library. Coincidentally, it’s also home to the Alfred Hitchcock Collection. The book’s title, chosen by his son, is a bit of a misnomer, albeit a deliberate, attention-grabbing one. The Hitch-Bennett collaborations, significant as they are, necessarily make up only a small part of the latter’s long and storied life. Bennett senior’s intended title was the typically witty but somewhat cynical Life is a Four-Letter Word. He worked right up until the end of his days and has unfortunately become, just as he feared, little more than a footnote in the Hitchcock legend. But he was so much more than that and deserves to be more widely recognised as such. More recently, Bennett junior published The Rise of the Modern Thriller (2020), a slavishly researched, richly detailed two-volume biography of his father. I urge everyone with even a passing interest in film and theatre history to read all three of these wonderful books.

Charles Bennett and the Typical Hitchcock ScenarioJohn Belton, Film History (1997)

At the age grand old of 91, Bennett recorded an audio commentary for Blackmail, which he planned to remake, and was the subject of several late-life interviews. His clear-eyed recollections were published widely and resulted in substantial chapters in various books. One of the first to appear, part of an extensive series, kicks off with a mammoth 27-page interview which is Bennett’s longest in print, while his last published interview was conducted at the age of 94.

The Writer Speaks: Charles Bennett

Yet another Hitch collaborator, and easily the most important of all, was his own wife Alma Reville, who worked closely alongside him throughout his career. Hitch claimed sole credit for only one original screenplay, that of The Ring, though even then two more writers contributed significant input. Meanwhile, the rest of his films were adapted from stage or literary sources, or written by other screenwriters. Nonetheless, various commentators to this day are happy to describe these authors as being incidental, with the finished items being effectively the Master’s sole creations. Hitch himself is as much to blame for this state of affairs as anyone: he was always notoriously reticent to credit or mention even long-term collaborators and oftentimes was outright dismissive of them.

Hitchcock at the Source: The Auteur as Adapter (2011), edited by R. Barton Palmer and David Boyd, seeks to redress this imbalance of misattributed authorship. More than a third is taken up with the British films and again it features many of the same expert contributors as A Companion.

Hitchcock at the Source - The Auteur as Adapter (2011) edited by R. Barton Palmer and David Boyd

In addition to the many books on individual US-made Hitch films, there are four fine examples devoted to specific British productions, also noted in their main articles: The Mountain EagleBlackmail, The 39 Steps and The Lodger.

Ultimately, of course, the single best commentator on Hitch’s early years is the man himself, most notably via his famous interviews with François Truffaut. But again, one must constantly bear in mind Hitch frequently glossed over the input of others, and was apt to be derisive or even entirely mendacious about films he did not enjoy making, or that were commercially unsuccessful. His powers of recall of even the tiniest details of the filmmaking process were second to none, but so too was his willingness to rewrite history, so objectivity is often sadly absent. Additionally, although one gets the impression Hitch was flattered by the fawning attentions of theorists, outwardly he expressed little patience for them. Prolific author Peter Ackroyd, summarising his description of the Truffaut interviews in his concise 2015 biography, said:

“Hitchcock preferred anecdotes and technical detail to any disquisitions on theme or meaning. He did not wish to enquire too deeply into his motives, or the reasons for any particular subject or film. He was only interested in content or plot in so far as they prompted his visual imagination. He had said, on more than one occasion, ‘I don’t give a damn what the film is about.’ It had only to be seen and not interpreted. No philosophical theory or analysis interested him in the least.”

It’s a supreme irony that Hitch, with his lifelong focus on the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, and resolute deflection of any attempts at analysing his works for subtext, has become the most psychoanalysed and dissected director of all. His oeuvre as a whole has been raised to near-mystical level by relentless attempts to find obscure hidden meanings in their comparatively straightforward narratives. A veritable multifaceted industry, steeped in artifice, has sprung up around him. Ackroyd’s book also relates a couple of anecdotes describing the experience of one Mary Stone, someone with an especially unique perspective:

“Hitchcock’s granddaughter entered a course on film at her school. She asked him of one film, ‘Did you mean this in this scene? Because that’s what we were taught.’ Hitchcock rolled his eyes. ‘Where do they think of these things?’ On another occasion he helped her on an essay concerning… [his favourite own film] Shadow of a Doubt. She earned only a C grade. [“Grandpa, we only got a ‘C’!”] ‘Well, I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘that’s the best I can do.'”

But then, what would Hitch know about the film? I wonder wither the professor who likely spent his entire career blowing hot air, presented as fact, out of his rear end? Whoever he was, unfortunately he’s far from being an exception. Stone goes into more detail on this phenomenon in “Hitchcock 101” (2008), a featurette on the US MGM DVD of The Lodger. Nonetheless, as recounted in Alfred Hitchcock: Interviews (2003, p. 78, 89), an undaunted Hitch would often repeat his assertion that “I don’t give a damn what the film is about.”

Hitchcock Talks About Lights, Camera, Action – American Cinematographer, May 1967

Alfred Hitchcock reading the script for Rebecca (1940)

Hitch, keeping it real. Not theoretical. Reading the script for Rebecca (1940).

So take heed, all you grandiloquent film scholars, when endlessly waxing nonsensical about the Master’s work. You know who you are. Hitch wasn’t the only artist with this viewpoint: as I’ve written elsewhere, celebrated early C20th sculptor Constantin Brâncuși had no time for pretentious prattle and theorising either. His work was labelled as abstract and pored over by critics, but he pronounced, “There are idiots who define my work as abstract; yet what they call abstract is what is most realistic.” He also provided my favourite art-related quote: “Don’t look for obscure formulas or mystery in my work. It is pure joy that I offer you.”

With the exception of 2015’s Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films, every book I’ve mentioned was published prior to the 2012 completion of the Hitchcock 9 project which restored all of his surviving silent films. In several cases, the improvements are revelatory and doubtless the increasing availability of this crucial body of work in its long unseen form will continue to usher in a new wave of early career reappraisal. With Hitchcock books, as with life in general, I believe the best is always yet to come.

Just for fun: the Wall Street Journal’s Saturday Crossword for August 10th, 2019 was a Hitchcock special!

The British Years in Print, Part 1

Infographic by Adam Frost and Zhenia Vasiliev, 2013

For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This article is regularly updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.

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