The Dark side of Genius: Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto

Review By Rose

Donald Spoto unlocks the strange world of Hitchcock, revealing dark obsessions, unfulfilled desires and the power of a frightening compelling imagination transferred to screen. Spoto informs us that very few people came close to the real ‘Alfred Hitchcock’ because he was a deeply secretive man. He allowed people into his realm, but not too closely. When Charlie, the niece, in the film ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ tells her sociopathic uncle. ‘I know you don’t tell people a lot of things. I don’t either.’ Spoto tells us that this was Hitchcock talking about himself. Spoto claims there is one place that can unlock mysteries of Hitchcock’s hidden personality, unravelling his darknesses, his fears and hidden fascinations: the evidence the auteur left behind in his films. The idea that we can examine a person’s creative work and enter those chambers they chose to keep sequestered has palpable flaws. As a little boy, Hitchcock was friendless and shy his main companion his mother. Does that tell us that the unhealthy relationship between son and mother in Psycho is something Hitchcock understood?

One can make astute assumptions, but using an artists imagination to form a solid psychological profile has great weaknesses. Despite Spoto’s adherence to a weak theory at times, it is a skilfully written biography with in-depth knowledge of Hitchcock’s films. Spoto discusses his working collaborations with writers, set designers and actresses, the way that screenplays were written and how Hitchcock came up with many of his ideas. All of which make it a fascinating read for anyone interested in the film world and Hitchcock. What is revealed is a complicated difficult, talented, obsessional personality. A man that was clearly highly intelligent and knowledgeable about a wide range of intellectual topics, also a man that would, at times, use his power badly as bargaining tool with actors and unethically with actresses later in life. He is a director that could become angry if any of his close collegues walked away from a project. But this may have been a difficulty in accepting change in his life. After the success of Hitchcock’s psycho, and his move to Universal, some people stated that Hitchcock changed and became more difficult. The genius composer Bernard Hermann described this period in an interview that he found it impossible to work with Hitchcock at this time. In psycho, Normal Bates tells Miriam that ‘we are all trapped in some way.’ Hitchcock was imprisoned by his weight and his physical appearance. Despite being admired for his intellect and cinematic mastery, his fame and intellectual brilliance. Hitchcock was acutely aware of his physical body in comparison to other people. He was surrounded by beauty in Hollywood. Beauty can be cruelly evaluated in society and considered the zenith of everything. In Hollywood, the power of beauty is exalted and revered. Hitchcock was mesmerised by female beauty. He wanted to create a fantasy woman, to mould a female into his ideal image of attractiveness. But Hitchcock could never get close enough to the object of his obsession, one could say that Hitchcock lived out some desires on screen, rather than in real-life. In cinema Hitchcock was king, but in romance he could not have everything he imagined. Listening to the book, you can almost hear Hitchcock’s voice and see his deadpan expression. ‘I’d like to tell you a story.’ Hitchcock saw the power of beauty, how easily romantic relationships began with beauty. One can imagine Hitchcock speaking as you read the novel. He might say ‘It’s about a filmmaker with some very dark secrets. Sometimes, I went a little bit mad, but as Norman Bates said, in my most celebrated horror film, we all go a little mad sometimes? Haven’t you?

In this biography we learn that Hitchcock had great difficulty making friends in childhood and adulthood. However, one could say his entire focus in the adult years was cinema. The thing that gave Hitchcock his most pleasure was filmmaking. He created some of the greatest visual cinematic images ever seen, and he changed the history of cinema with his unique imagination and way of filmmaking. However, Hitchcock also had a family, a wife and daughter that he spent a great deal of his time with that he undoubtedly loved. Spoto tells us he found ‘friendships’ away from family difficult. Other collegues noticed that he was highly critical and acted superior, or held himself at a distance from others. He did not want to get too ‘close’ to other people and found it difficult to express his emotions. This might not be too unusual for an introvert who was exceptionally shy as a child and was British. It’s part of British Culture at times to ‘keep a stiff upper lip’ and keep your problems and emotional turmoil to yourself. What we do know is that Hitchcock worked very hard, he put all his energies were into his films, his creations, and they provided his deep happiness. Although it’s apparent that the biography made it clear Hitchcock could be very dififcult to work with. However, it’s also not unusual for people intensely occupied with their imaginations and creative work to shut themselves off from others and create barriers. Children who have grown up feeling different or 'left out' can grow into secretive adults, or find it impossible to express their needs.

This inability to communicate well with colleagues, or overly criticise people at events may have developed from his childhood, a time when he had no friends and was considered ‘a fat boy’ that was extremely shy. His mother was his only real friend at this time. It’s a testament to Hitchcock, that in his twenties he found something that he was talented at, working in the area of film, and working his way up to a director. Not everyone liked Hitchcock but no one in Spoto’s book seems to deny he was anything but a brilliant director.

As a young man, Hitchcock was a very clever and soon became very ambitious. From a young age he thought deeply and intellectually, Spoto describes Hitchcock watching life from the sidelines as a child, rather than joining in with other children. He obviously felt awkward as he was called a ‘fat child’ but he was aware that he had other abilities and his mother encouraged his thinking and learning. He did fall back at school at one stage and had to redo a year at school to catch up, but this, which might have caused problems later in the work world, did not hold Hitchcock back from his goals.

His separation from playing with other children, though very difficult for a little boy, may have meant that he spent time thinking a little more deeply and developing his own intellectual talents. Though without a doubt it, this estrangement from normal play that most children naturally have in their lives, may have created a certain ‘distance’ with others as an adult growing up. We will never really know the whole truth, because although many are interviewed in Spoto’s book, and we learn a great deal about his childhood and young adulthood, only Hitchcock himself could enlighten us about the emotional distance witnessed by others, and if it may have been caused by lack of interaction in his childhood.

Many people described Hitchcock in Spoto’s book as ‘arrogant, aloof with a superiority complex’ and a man that could have a ‘monstrous ego’. It seems true that Hitchcock adored being admired and receiving compliments and that he could be arrogant. One could ask the question 'How could he create the films the way he did without some arrogance in a film industry where you had to fight to show your image on screen? One wonders again if this might have begun as a small boy, when he was considered ugly and struggled with his weight with other children. It may be that to move ahead in his career and move on from a working class background and portray confidence, despite knowing he could be a target for bullies, he developed certain techniques to deal with others. Perhaps that very aloofness was something that came about as a defence mechanism. He could not, like others, use his physical looks looks or any atheletic ability to stand out in the crowd. He had to use his intellect, especially when he was battling exceptional shyness.

In his later years, Spoto tells us that people avoided spending time with the Hitchcock because he could be incredibly critical of other people, even complaining about the way wine was served during meals. If things were not as he expected he would complain in a very forthright way. He didn’t seem to be able to keep his opinions to himself. He also considered himself a wine expert, and was highly interested in both wine and food. One actress said he substituted food for sex. He would tell people how to cook and the best wines to serve with meals.

Spoto attempts to do build Hitchcock's biography from childhood to adulthood with documents and the statements from others, though none of Hitchcock's family agreed to be interviewed or release any information to Spoto. As long as one understands that any psychological evaluation based purely on his films cannot be judged as wholly accurate, the book develops a three dimensional picture of Hitchcock.

Spoto reveals that Hitchcock was a prankster, often playing jokes on others for his own amusement. Sometimes the pranks are described as a little sadistic, others just humorous fun, his way of making a point to someone, or surprising someone with an unusual gift. After an actor complained his suit had been ruined, Hitchcock asked why he was making such a fuss, eventually having a suit created and sending it to the actor's hotel room, however, the suit was child size. Hitchcock had a sense of humour though sometimes he could take it too far and actually be cruel at times. Hitchock sometimes liked shocking the actresses he worked with, by telling them dirty jokes, or something that would elicit a strong reaction from them. He seemed to enjoy playing games and watching how others responded.

Hitchcock was aware of his weight throughout his career as a filmmaker. At one point in America he found it difficult to fasten his shoelaces due to his excess weight. Possibly, due to his brother’s death at one point, he lost a great deal of weight, seeing a doctor regularly about his heart. He would be a very strict disciplined eater in company but often binged when no one watched him. Still he worked heard to keep his weight down so that he was well enough to finish all the film productions. There is no doubt that being surrounded by handsome actors and beautiful actresses he definitely understood the power of beauty, especially in Hollywood, and there is no doubt it affected him, despite his fame and the way he was admired for his filmmaking ability.

Later, complaints about his behaviour towards certain actresses, the most prominent claims of harrasssment from Tippi Hedren, who describes emotional abuse and sexual harrasment. One wonder if it was fuelled by years of unfulfilled desires that he allowed to get out of control. The fact that he was not able to ever have those desires for real in his life could have created a disturbed mind over time. He may though have also allowed the power he had at this time to affect the way he treated other people, especially actresses he found attractive. There is strong evidence by Hedren to show that Hitchcock would later abuse his power as a director by crossing an ethical line. Hedren would have struggled to do anything about it at that time as sexual harrassment was not taken as seriously in that age. Hitchcock had a very powerful position after making psycho, and was given free rein to choose his projects and what he did. Hedren was divorced with a small child to support and she was offered a regular weekly wage, even though it was much lwoer than many actresses at the time.

Hitchcock didn’t see his mother three years before her death. Not long after her death, his brother, William, committed suicide. However, as a child and young man, Hitchcock was very close to his mother. She doted on him. Hitchcock had over time distanced himself from his family. He seemed to find it difficult to be around his family once he’d moved to Hollywood to talk to them. Even in London he had problems having them visit. Hitchcock was an intellectual and although he’d been close to his family, it’s possible that this intellectualism caused problems with him communicating with his family in later years. He is said to have described his brother as boring, and though invited to Hitchcock’s home in London, his brother’s family soon tired of Hitchcock’s lack of hospitality and criticism. Nevertheless, Hitchcock was a good father to his daughter and his own family.

Hitchcock at times used his power to procure bargain prices or low wages for actors and actresses in his films. Especially in the later years, with psycho and the birds. He knew that his name was a powerful tool in the industry and just by saying you’d worked from him and starred in one of his films was prestigious. There is no doubt that at times he used power to his advantage and sometimes wielded it in an abusive way, telling people that they would come back when they need money. So there is strong evidence that Hitchcock could be very difficult to work for, still he had members of his team with him for long years, which demonstrates that some people were happy to work with Hitchcock for long periods.

What is fascinating about Spoto’s book is the breadth of information about Hitchcock’s life and work. It’s a must for anyone wanting to know more about the filmmaker and his filmmaking techniques. There is a wealth of knowledge on set design, screenplay writing, his collbarorations with other writers and actresses and his techcnial skills and innovative ideas on set. Although there is a great deal of personal information about Hitchcock, to me, the most fascinatiing information in Spoto's biography is about his filmmaking, his technical prowess and the way he came up with his film ideas. It’s through the words of others in the book that Hitchcock begins to come alive. What comes to light is a very complex personality. Spoto has gathered in one place vivid statements from actresses that worked with Hitchcock. Grace Kelly seems to have been the actress that had very little negative to say about the director. She felt he’d taught her a great deal and that he had listened to her ideas. In ‘M for Murder’ Hitchcock wanted Kelly to wear a lavish dress when she answered the ringing telephone. Kelly insisted that this was wrong for the scene, as no female would get up in the middle of the night to answer a phone in a lavish ornate gown. Eventually, Hitchcock agreed to Kelly’s suggestion that she wear a simple nightdress.

Some brief information found in the book about a few of Hitchcock’s films


Rope was a play about two homosexual lovers that kill a friend purely for intellectual reasons and the experience of killing, a very nihilistic idea but also a terrifying story. The filming of Rope was difficult as anyone who as watched it will be aware that all the scenes are shot in the flat. The actors are contained inside a building with no outside shots. Hitchcock was very precise about how he wanted for the lighting during the scenes, which apparently caused great distress to the technical people working with him. One quote by in Spoto’s book is  ‘Each miniature building in the distance was wired separately for globes ranging from 25 to 150 watts in the tiny windows of the skyscraper-miniature and 26,000 feet of wire carried 126,000 watts of electricity for the window illumination.’ Rope demonstrated Hitchcock’s capability to be inventive and show technical prowess as the film was shot in very long takes, this was something that caused some technical problems. Spoto tells us that Hitchcock was fascinated at trying out new ideas in filmmaking. When the film was finally shown, some critics condemned the ideas in the film as ‘dangerous’. Nevertheless, Rope, is one of my favourite Hitchcock films, as the tension created by both of the main actors who are killers is incredible to watch. One killer is evidently weaker than the other and this psychological difference in personality is eventually their downfall. The idea may have been too dark for some audiences at that time. Hitchcock knew the characters were gay, but he also knew what he was allowed to show on screen culturally and historically at that time. He knew how to work around the censors and get the picture made.



Psyco starring Antony Perkins changed cinematic techniques forever, it’s regarding as the Hitchcock film that changed cinema history. Perkins and Leigh really wanted to work for Hitchcock. Both were happy to act in Psycho and both were less expensive as other actors and actresses at that time, Perkins owed paramount a picture and was available. Spoto tells us that Hitchcock was aware that people could advance their acting careers simply by saying they had done a picture with him. This meant he was a good negotiator when it came to discussing wages. Coleman who had worked on Hitchcock films for six years decided to quit at the time Psycho was being prepared and branch out on his own on new projects. Hitchcock is said to have difficulty letting people he worked with go and that he liked people do do things his way, nor not at all. There is an extract in Spoto’s book that describes Hitchcock’s anger that Coleman would leave.

‘He just couldn't understand me, and he wouldn't even talk to me for weeks afterward. I think he felt he owned me and my family for life. He felt this way about others, too. He just couldn't imagine that we'd want a change in our careers, or the chance to broaden our experience. I said I wanted to remain a friend, but for a while he made that difficult. I don't think Hitch ever really formed any lasting friendships. He was afraid that if he did, he would have to give of himself, and he simply didn't know how to do that in any way except in a movie.’

We cannot say if this is what happened with other people during Hitchcock’s career, but Spoto demonstrates other instances when anyone pulled away from working with Hitchcock, people who had worked with him a long time, and describes how upset he would become. He obviously developed attachments and perhaps disliked change, as he’d worked with Coleman so long. He also seemed to like to have control over some of the people that worked frequently with him. He appears to have found losing control of people difficult. He liked people to do what he expected and could be difficult if he did not get his own way, this is what we learn from Spoto's book. We also learn that techncially he was incredibly innovative as a filmmaker and many details of his camera work and set design give evidenece to this.

The Birds

Tippi Hedren was a model that did not have a regular salary. She wanted to a nice stable home with a garden and trees for her daughter and was recently divorced. So she was in a difficult situation and concerned how long the modelling jobs could carry on when she met Hitchcock and he made her an offer. Using a model that had never acted in a film to star in a Hitchcock movie was unusual. However, Hitchcock wanted someone who would be relatively cheap, as he wanted the money for special effects in ‘The Birds.’ Although Hitchcock could be controlling about the actresses dresses and their makeup, even lipstick at times in the past. It was with Tippi Hedren that his obsession with beauty and the need to mould a female into his ‘perfect woman’ crossed ethical borders and later Tippi Hedren would describe how she felt sexually harassed by Hitchcock.

Spoto’s book goes into much more detail than this brief review, there is something in the biography anyone interested in film would enjoy. It’s a huge book, and there are many moments of learning, moments of surprise and Spoto makes many psychological evaluations based on Hitchcock’s films and the statements of others around Hitchcock. I’m not sure this book would be used as an academic reference in Universities in film studies, as there is a great deal of personal information in the book, but it’s still a must for anyone interested in Hitchcock’s career.  What is revealed is a very complex personality, yes there are some very dark sides revealed, but there are also humourous moments that make you laugh out loud. Any biography written by one person could have a bias towards presentation. Spoto may have been gearing his presentation to what he believed. And Spoto's book was not written with family members, though it contains a great deal of statements made by collegues.