By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by: Jeff Riggenbach
The Dark Side of Genius is a biography of Alfred Hitchcock. A fan of Hitchcock movies will relish Donald Spoto’s insight to Hitchcock’s fascinating and enigmatic genius. A listener with little interest in movies may be put-off by Spoto’s psychological dissection of Hitchcock, but Spoto’s intimate understanding of Hitchcock’s films; his personal acquaintance with Hitchcock, Hitchcock’s family, Hitchcock movie’s stars, writers, and producers, make The Dark Side of Genius highly entertaining and intuitively believable.
Spoto’s admiration and appreciation of Hitchcock’s films vivifies Hitchcock’s creative genius. Hitchcock lives in the era of two world wars; birth of the movie industry, and maturity of television. Hitchcock graduates from a Jesuit-school education in the early 1900s just as public interest in picture-films is growing. Spoto’s biography recounts the history of a repressed young man who exorcised intimate inhibitions by directing movies. In the medium of film, Hitchcock not only reveals himself, but shows how entertaining, insightful, and enlightening movies are about the nature of human beings; and in Hitchcock’s case–the repressed nature of men.
(For comic relief, the following shows Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos–A trademark of his films that he eventually regretted because of advancing age.)
A prescient film, though not a particularly good one, that suggests how great Hitchcock will become, is “The Lady Vanishes”, released in 1938. This is Hitchcock’s last film before venturing to America from England. Spoto suggests “The Lady Vanishes” displays Hitchcock’s interest in the mystery of sensuality, human repression, self-interest, and the presence of good and evil in all human beings.
“The Lady Vanishes” shows how self-interest induces lies. Bystanders on a train in “The Lady Vanishes” refuse to say they have seen the missing woman because it may delay their arrival at a planned destination. A common thread in Hitchcock movies is duality; i.e. a mirrored existence of good and evil in all human beings, an internal struggle that reveals itself when critical decisions must be made. Spoto explains how Hitchcock uses sexual attraction in his movies to suggest not only female/male bonding but male/male intimacy.
Spoto shows many examples of a Pygmalion-like intent of Hitchcock to create un-reciprocated intimacy with leading female actresses like Ingrid Bergman, Vera Miles, and Grace Kelly, knowing (or repressively presuming) that Hitchcock’s physical appearance (weighing near 300 lbs) precludes any real intimate relationship. Spoto suggests Hitchcock re-makes lead actresses into idealized women (sex objects) to gratify a repressed desire for intimacy.
Spoto suggests “Vertigo” is the closest visual representation of Hitchcock’s feelings about women. In the movie, James Stewart’s relationship with Kim Novak wavers between obsession and fear. Stewart is obsessed with an idealized Kim Novak as a sexual goddess but fears intimacy that exposes his, and maybe her imperfection. Stewart attempts to re-make Novak into his ideal by dressing her and changing the color of her hair to match the appearance of a woman he believes lost. At the same time Stewart visualizes sensual intimacy, he fears loss of personal control; like the vertigo he feels, and the faint that occurs, when looking down from a great height.
Up to the movie “Psycho”, Spoto argues Hitchcock’s repressed feelings about women resolve themselves in non-violence through his Pygmalion efforts to create idealized women (sex objects) on film. However, Spoto suggests a turning point in Hitchcock’s life occurs when his mother dies and when personal medical problems remind Hitchcock of his own mortality. The power of Hitchcock’s technical ability and success in movies evolves into a more sinister view of male/female relationship; i.e. rather than a Pygmalion, Hitchcock becomes a more punitive avenger of imagined female duplicity, maternal domination, and erotic disappointment.
Spoto draws on Hitchcock’s films to show how mother-fixation is a motivational factor in men’s lives. The motivation may be dire as in “Psycho” or more subtle as in “To Catch a Thief” but the reverence and idolatry, contrasted with the terror of loss of control appear in most, if not all, of Hitchcock’s films. The big difference is that in “Psycho” a woman is brutally murdered; while, in previous films, women are saved.
In “The Birds”, Hitchcock’s vengeance upon women is not only acted upon in film but devolves into vengeance taken by Hitchcock on his newest leading lady, Tippi Hedren. Spoto notes that Hedren is picked by Hitchcock to be his next great star. As in Pygmalion efforts of the past, Hitchcock remakes Hedren’s image into his view of the ideal woman. However, Hitchcock (now in his sixties) crosses the line between imagination and reality. He propositions Hedren in her dressing room. Hedren rejects Hitchcock’s proposal, returns to star in “Marnie” (a Hitchcock critical failure), but largely disappears from cinema after Hitchcock’s indecent proposal.
Throughout Hitchcock’s sixty plus years of marriage, Alma Reville Hitchcock is a stalwart wife, partner, and companion. As an accomplished director, screenwriter, and editor in her own right she provided technical support and stability to Hitchcock’s life. Alma Hitchcock seems the heroine in Spoto’s biography of Alfred Hitchcock. Without Alma, one wonders if the genius of Alfred Hitchcock would have survived the “sturm und drang” of a repressed and complicated life.
In his spectacular cinematic career, Hitchcock taps into a subconscious reservoir of human repression. Spoto illustrates Hitchcock’s genius for translating male’ repression into film. It is there for the entire world to see; and for the few to fully appreciate or understand. The following is considered by some to be representative of Hitchcock’s top ten movies: