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St. Patrick’s Day 2005: The Master of Suspense

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

His inner circle had moved on, his wife was ill and he was drinking.
And, added McGilligan, who at the time was a young reporter for the Boston Globe, there was the “burden of his reputation, which he carried around with him.”
That reputation was secure, however. And 25 years after his death, he is still regarded as one of the great artists in cinema history. Critics’ lists of the best 100 movies ever, which appear periodically, invariably contain several Hitchcock classics.
But the posthumous view of his personality has been shaped inordinately by one critic, Donald Spoto, whose “The Dark Side of Genius” (1983) is the biggest-selling book ever about a film director, surpassing French director Francois Truffaut’s 1967 work, “Hitchcock.”
Spoto painted a director “whose obsessions,” writes McGilligan, “led him toward a lifetime of bloody-minded crime films that trapped beautiful blondes squirming in his grip.”
McGilligan, though, who had written several biographies of actors and directors, didn’t set out to produce a corrective; rather he wanted to write a book that could draw on the 20 years of scholarship that had accumulated since the director’s death.
But the picture that emerged of Hitchcock was radically different to Spoto’s in certain respects.
“The first major surprise is that he’s not an evil dictator. Quite the opposite,” McGilligan said in an interview. “He was equable, practical, hardworking — probably the hardest-working director in Hollywood.
“He was a very social person. Everybody I talked to, even people who were quoted in other books saying something adverse, said that he was the most marvelous person to be around,” he said.
Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, however — who was born on Aug. 13, 1899, in Leytonstone, East London — was as a child a “solitary observer of everything around him, fascinated by boats and planes and trains,” according to McGilligan.
His mother, Emma Jane Whelan, was born into a London Irish family headed by policeman.
His father, William Hitchcock, was a greengrocer, as had been his grandfather, and later a fishmonger. William’s youngest brother, John Fitzpatrick Hitchcock — the director’s favorite uncle and financial backer — was the family’s successful businessman, with a chain of stores. (The uncle’s middle name suggests Alfred Hitchcock had Irish roots on his father’s side, too. Indeed, Spoto reported that Alfred Hitchcock’s paternal grandmother was one Anne Mahoney, a native of Ireland.)
McGilligan writes: “The Hitchcocks were staunchly Catholic, but they showed irreverence for everything, including Catholicism. [They] had a number of priests in the family; relatives or not, clergymen were in and out of the home, drinking, singing, laughing and making mischief.”
Alfred was a “spoilt” child, in that he wasn’t required to work in his father’s business like his brother and sister, who were nine and seven years older.
At the strictly religious St. Ignatius College, where Hitchcock said he learned “Jesuit reasoning power” and a “strong sense of fear,” he was always near the top of his class. (McGilligan shows that a Spoto witness to his alleged bullying only joined the school after the future director had left.)
At age 14, he was sent to a technical college to study navigation, but his formal education ended a year later when his father died. He soon got a job with the Henley’s Telegraph Works, where, McGilligan said, he blossomed into a social personality. He threw himself into employees’ activities, most notably serving as the editor of the literary magazine.

Murder, execution
Hitchcock had acquired many of the requisite skills by the time he joined a film company at age 21. In some respects, nonetheless, he was a late starter. The colleague who became his closest friend had been working in the industry since she was 15. He eventually married Alma Reville, his junior by one day, when they were 26.
McGilligan said that while Hitchcock’s relationship with Reville has been downplayed, and they downplayed it themselves publicly, she was the most important person in his life for 55 years.
“His wife was a tremendous asset, both in terms of writing and in terms of editing, from the very first in his career,” he said.
In those early years of his adulthood, Hitchcock had two indirect brushes with death and execution that, McGilligan believes, had an important influence on his work.
The first was the June 1922 doorstep assassination of Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson by IRA men Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan.
Both men were veterans of Wilson’s army, having served during the Great War. O’Sullivan lost a leg at Ypres, a disability that led to their almost immediate capture. They confessed and were executed. Dunne had been a popular leading student at St. Igniatius College during Hitchcock’s time there.
(Wilson’s killing took place against the backdrop of worsening sectarian strife in Belfast. It has been linked to Michael Collins, but Dunne and O’Sullivan were just as likely to have acted alone. In any case, the British government blamed the anti-Treaty forces headquartered in Dublin’s Four Courts and pressed Collins, head of the new Irish government and army, to take action against them, which he did, touching off the 10-month civil war.)
The second case involved the daughter of a man, William Graydon, from whom Hitchcock took dancing lessons in the early 1920s. The year after Dunne’s execution, Edith Thompson and her lover were hanged for the murder of her husband. The biographer writes that the Hitchcocks and the Graydons, both Catholic families from Leytonstone with an interest in theater, were likely acquainted with each other. McGilligan feels certain that the future director knew Thompson, a woman whom people in England were convinced was innocent of inciting her lover to murder.
“He didn’t believe in earthly punishment at all; he thought it was kind of foolish,” McGilligan said. “You’re trusting yourself to the courts and the police, who are ultimately idiotic. That’s a very subversive aspect to his work — I’d say an Irish aspect, to be so distrustful and quite different from all other films and literature of the period.”
The writer added: “He doesn’t have a heroic cop and heroic courtroom scenes. The criminal is always brought down by his own evil — giving himself away, going too far.”
Hitchcock connected with his Irish roots directly when he and his wife adapted the Sean O’Casey play “Juno and the Paycock” for the screen in 1929. McGilligan believes it was a fine film for its time, although Hitchcock was embarrassed by the rave reviews it got, thinking that its merits were attributable to the playwright’s interesting characters.
There were plans for a further collaboration between the Hitchcocks and the self-exiled O’Casey. The Irishman recorded that the director left him one evening “bubbling with excitement” but never saw him again. It’s thought that Reville didn’t want her husband involved with a writer who was fundamentally hostile to film as an art form.
The Dublin setting was a rare foray out of Hitchcock’s native city in his early work. McGilligan speculated that these movies, which have a documentary feel, must be particularly interesting for Londoners now. “They’re very sharp and vivid and wonderful,” he said.
After his 1939 move to America, he remained deeply attached to his native city. (He continued to follow the fortunes of West Ham United soccer club in the English papers.) He found ways, too, to support an embattled Britain before America’s entry into World War II.
His Catholic faith remained important also, although in interviews in later life he said he was “sometimes neglectful” of his religious duties.
McGilligan said the Catholic influence is both “reverent” and “sophisticated” in the Hitchcock films: “Nuns, and churches and church-like buildings; and in the arc of the stories, from crime to punishment to redemption.
“He was someone who was very conscious of his influences,” he said. “He took his Catholicism and wielded it in a very fascinating way. He was much more Catholic that John Ford, who some people might say is the quintessential Catholic artist.
“He stayed involved with priests, with the church; he was a churchgoer. He brought his daughter up that way, all the way up through college, and his grandchildren, I believe.”
In 1952, Patricia Hitchcock married Joseph O’Connell, the grandnephew of Cardinal William O’Connell, the late archbishop of Boston.
Hitchcock fretted about his daughter during her pregnancies, McGilligan reports, and doted on her three children: Mary, Teresa and Kathleen.
If Hitchcock had three granddaughters with impeccably Irish-sounding names, his own English name was one reason why his roots didn’t come up in interviews, his biographers said.
“I don’t think people talked about it in those terms in that time period,” said McGilligan, who lives in Milwaukee. “They didn’t say: ‘How Irish are you? How do you feel Irish?'”
McGilligan, who is of mixed ethnic heritage, said his own Irish ancestors reached Wisconsin in the 1840s and ’50s; he doesn’t know when they left Ireland.
“I never think about it,” he said. “I’ve never been to Ireland. I don’t go to church, but believe me when I see the garbage man, it clicks in my brain that most of my relatives started here collecting garbage. Even when I was growing up, my uncles were still collecting garbage or bartending.”

French champions
McGilligan, for his part, has forged a successful career as an author and editor, with more than a dozen titles to his name — among them an oral history of the Hollywood blacklist.
His predecessors as Hitchcock writers include three giants of French cinema. Critics Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer, who at 74 and 84 are still directing films, wrote the first book about Hitchcock, which was published in 1958. Jean-Luc Godard was also an enthusiast and a champion of the Londoner’s work, though it was Truffaut who shaped his legacy in a lasting way.
Most of what we think about Hollywood’s Golden Age derives from the French, McGilligan argued.
“They have a tremendous influence, because they seriously study, they seriously follow, they seriously analyze and then they seriously proselytize,” he said.
The French may not always be right, but when Americans feel they are, they embrace their ideas.
Hitchcock’s own golden age was between 1954 and 1960, when he made “Rear Window”, “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” and “Psycho,” which, said McGilligan, was the most spectacular run ever by a director.
He also directed four other well-regarded movies in that period, including the Jackson Heights, Queens-set “The Wrong Man.”
“He was a man who started in the Silent Era, most of his peers were quitting and the studio system was breaking down,” McGilligan said. “He was just revving up, and also producing a successful TV show.”
By the end, he’d directed 53 features in 50 years.
Alfred Hitchcock died on April 29, 1980, at age 80. At a memorial Mass at the Church of Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, his friend Fr. Thomas Sullivan told mourners that Hitchcock was unafraid of death and “knew we only live twice — that the best is yet to come.”
Alma Hitchcock died two years later.
McGilligan said there are some who prefer their vision of Hitchcock as someone who was very dark psychologically: “You can’t really change them,” he said. However, his book has been very well received critically.
“My portrait makes a great deal more sense,” he concluded.
(“Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light,” by Patrick McGilligan, published in paperback by Regan Books, is $19.99.)

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