IT'S ONLY A MOVIE: Alfred Hitchcock -- A Personal Biography is the latest (and certainly not the greatest) look at the life of the famed suspense director.
Charlotte Chandler, whose other celebrity biographies include NOBODY'S PERFECT: Billy Wilder -- A Personal Biography; I, FELLINI; and HELLO, I MUST BE GOING: Groucho and His Friends, concentrates on Hitchcock primarily as a movie maker. The aspects of his early and later life get relatively short shrift, which many readers will no doubt appreciate, wanting to get to the meat of the matter.
Chandler presents the talented "Hitch" as a visionary, creating cinematic effects and manipulating the emotions of moviegoers for more than fifty years. His classics --- The Man Who Knew Too Much (both versions), Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window, Rebecca, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Notorious...the list of work from one person seems ridiculous and unfair --- defined fright films that endure to this day, despite the pyrotechnical toys and other gimmicks modern directors employ to get a rise out of us. Hitchcock knew how to use a patch of light or the absence of sound to set up the audience for the constant rude awakening. He was the master of the "MacGuffin," a plot device that defies conventional explanation, which Chandler describes as "something that motivates characters to take dangerous chances for something they must have.... In The 39 Steps it's a secret airplane engine design. In The Lady Vanishes and in Foreign Correspondent it's a secret diplomatic message...."
Hitchcock was a bit of an overgrown imp, she writes, not a stuffed shirt. Despite his formal bearing, he always enjoyed a good joke, particularly when it came at the good-natured expense of one of his actors. And what actors! Jimmy Stewart, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, James Mason, Anthony Perkins --- a veritable "who's who" of Hollywood nobility.
Although his art was complex, Hitchcock's directorial style was simple: actors should be able to get by with a minimum of instruction. Those looking for guidance learned that it must come from within. Insecurity was tolerated with great reluctance. Hitchcock had little patience for "method" actors who needed to know their motivation. Basically, he believed their motivation should be to do a good job to earn their paycheck. Chandler employs the filmmaker's catchphrase, "It's only a movie," on several occasions as evidence of Hitchcock's refusal to take anything (or anybody) too seriously.
Chandler breaks down Hitchcock's story movie by movie. Each section deals anecdotally with each film, noting the little triumphs and failures inherent in any project and including the actors' impressions of working for the master of suspense (overwhelmingly positive). Many were in awe of the legend, especially those early in their career. There are many recollections of small kindnesses, such as dinner invitations, that portray Hitchcock in an almost saintly light, despite the evil inclinations of many of his characters.
Because of its style, IT'S ONLY A MOVIE gives short shrift to the fine points that define a thorough biography, despite the title. For example, although Chandler devotes a section of the book to "The Last Years," she does not go into any substantial details about Hitchcock's own physical ailments, only that he had lost the will to live, ostensibly depressed over the illness of Alma, his beloved helpmeet.
Chandler writes in a very gossipy mien, insinuating herself into the narrative, letting the reader know that she was in with the "in crowd." One wonders what she had in mind with the subtitle "A Personal Biography." Which "person" is she talking about? It often seems to be herself. She peppers her remarks with phrases like, "He told me..." or "I said to him...." Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it can be wearing after a while.
IT'S ONLY A MOVIE may not be on a scholarly par with other Hitchcock biographies, such as Patrick McGilligan's ALFRED HITCHCOCK: A Life in Darkness and Light or THE A-Z OF HITCHCOCK: The Ultimate Reference Guide, by Howard Maxford, or the dozens of studies of specific films or groups of films (Murray Pomerance's AN EYE FOR HITCHCOCK or FRAMING HITCHCOCK: Selected Essays from the Hitchcock Annual, edited by Sidney Gottlieb and Christopher Brookhouse). But it is a gentle, entertaining look at a paradoxically gentle and entertaining man.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (RonK23@aol.com) on January 22, 2011