Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius

I’m reading Donald Spoto’s 1982 tome, “The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock.” After Hitchcock died in 1980, Spoto approached Pat Hitchcock, Alfred’s daughter, about doing an authorized autobiography of the great film director. Pat Hitchcock declined. It appears that family privacy has always been a priority with the Hitchcocks. So Spoto wrote an unauthorized biography instead.

The book is extensive in its coverage of Hitchcock’s life and career. Alfred Hitchcock began making movies in Great Britain in the 1920’s, when they were still silent films. The book chronicles Hitchcock’s triumphs and disasters, the successful films as well as the clunkers. Most of the clunkers were the result of Hitchcock having less than full control of the film – he was sometimes on contract to various producers who told him what he would film, whether he liked it or not.

Spoto gives a lot of detail about a side to Alfred Hitchcock that I never suspected: Hitch’s love for playing practical jokes on friends and actors. Some of these are quite funny, as when he had an argument with actor Peter Lorre over a suit of Lorre’s that was ruined during filming. Lorre complained and Hitchcock told him he was acting like a child. So Hitchcock sent him a new, tailored suit, specially made – in the small size of a child. Lorre got even by delivering 200 singing canaries to Hitchcock’s residence in the middle of the night.

Other practical jokes Hitch allegedly pulled were mean-spirited and bordered on the sadistic. Putting an actress who was allergic to cigarette smoke in a closed phone booth, then flooding it with smoke, was one example. In another, he invited an actor to a “costume party” at his home. The actor showed up in a Scottish kilt with his face painted in bright colors, only to find the other guests dressed in black tie formality. He fled the scene in humiliation.

However, that was not the worst of his pranks. The worst undoubtedly was when he bet a camera man that he could not stay handcuffed to his camera overnight. The camera man accepted the bet. Hitch handcuffed him to the camera and offered him some brandy to help him sleep. The cameraman accepted the brandy, which was laced with a strong laxative. The next morning they found the distraught cameraman still handcuffed to the camera, with his pants well soiled as well as the area around the camera.

It’s hard to understand what such pranks could accomplish, except perhaps to make an enemy for life. But are these stories completely true? If anyone pulled such a “joke” today, he would get his fanny sued off. On the other hand, I have heard critics of Spoto’s book say that some of his material was derived from sources that were less than credible or even hostile to Alfred Hitchcock. It does seem contrary to Hitchcock’s rather shy personality that he would behave so outrageously.

Spoto’s book is very engaging and I am thoroughly enjoying it, but I do understand why Spoto might not be the Hitchcocks’ favorite author. He was right, I think, about the Hitchcocks’ desire for privacy.

When Pat Hitchcock visited the Scotts Valley estate of her late father at the invitation of its current owners, I was there. I asked her if she would give us a tour of the place, instead of the other way around, and share her memories of the place with us, the famous visitors, the family events, etc. She declined to do so. The only fact she imparted to us is which of the upstairs bedrooms was hers as a child. She almost didn’t do that. When we were touring that particular room, she started to say something, then clammed up. We encouraged her to speak, and then she said, “This was my room.”

Spoto is respectful of Pat in his book, in fact, he is complimentary, saying that she was a charming child, much beloved by the Hitchcock entourage.

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