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

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 50-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.

Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: The British Years in Print, Part 1

Alfred Hitchcock reading a script, c. 1940

Reading a script, c. 1940

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 to venerable. 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 works, including an audio commentary for MGM’s superb, near definitive DVD of The Lodger and the superlative Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (2003, Kindle). Paying almost equal attention to his early life and both sides of his transatlantic career, it 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.

The 39 Stats: Charting Alfred Hitchcock's Obsessions infographic by Adam Frost and Zhenia Vasiliev, 2013

Infographic by Adam Frost and Zhenia Vasiliev, 2013

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, 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).

But one of the greatest unsung heroes deserving of more credit for Hitch’s success is his friend and writer Charles Bennett. 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 the screenplay for Hitch’s second Hollywood film, Foreign Correspondent, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. He had an incredibly lengthy and accomplished career as an actor, playwright, director and screenwriter. In the latter guise, he also penned many major films of the 1920s–1960s, both in his native England and the US. His unfinished memoirs were published as Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense: The Life of Screenwriter Charles Bennett (2014, Kindle). 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. I urge everyone with even a passing interest in film and theatre history to read this wonderful book.

Bennett recorded an audio commentary for Blackmail at the age of 91 and was the subject of several late-life interviews, including a substantial one for film historian Tom Weaver at the age of 94. It was published in Attack of the Monster Movie Makers: Interviews with 20 Genre Giants (1994, reissued 2014).

Patrick McGilligan’s Backstory 1: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age (1986), part of an extensive series, kicks off with a mammoth 27-page interview with Bennett, his most extensive in print.

Yet another Hitch associate, and perhaps 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 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, Kindle), edited by R. Barton Palmer and David Boyd, seeks to redress this imbalance of misattributed authorship. More than a third is taken up with 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 three fine tomes devoted to particular British productions, also noted at the end of their main sections: The Mountain EagleBlackmail and The 39 Steps.

Ultimately, of course, the single best commentator on Hitch’s early years is the man himself. But again, one must constantly bear in mind that he frequently glossed over the input of others, and was apt to be derisive or even entirely mendacious about films he did not enjoy making. 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, and 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.”

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.

Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: The British Years in Print, Part 1

Alfred Hitchcock reading the script for Rebecca (1940)

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

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


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