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Book Review

Spotlight on: Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

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Buy Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan Patrick McGilligan, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light

I don't call Patrick McGilligan's biography of Alfred Hitchcock "definitive" only because he takes up eight hundred pages. It's the way he wrote it that makes it so. Generally speaking, fans of Alfred Hitchcock are only interested in reading about his life as far as it concerns and enlightens areas of his film work. And Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light has done just that. After quickly glossing over Hitch's childhood (and the youth he does cover is always deftly tied back in to one film or another), McGilligan then proceeds to chronicle seemingly every aspect of the director's professional life -- from the early days in the publishing industry, through his introduction to the film world, to his struggles and successes, all the way to the death of one of the few Hollywood directors that can truly be said to have a "brand name."

Details are very important to McGilligan, who has also been the biographer of such cinema legends as Fritz Lang and Robert Altman; so much so that, while an extremely involving read, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light is by no means one that can be quickly tossed off. Based on his diligent research on Hitchcock, he treats us to a selection (through quotes and attributions) of the other literature available on the director. It is impossible to write a life without referring to the previous biographies written on that person, and McGilligan makes great use of the available materials -- also subtly commenting on their quality. For example, it is evident that the author values Francois Truffaut's Hitchcock over Donald Spoto's more sensationalist The Dark Side of Genius. (He is quick to point out mistakes Spoto made in his research, but often magnanimously chalks this up to information that was not available at the time.) He also makes good use of the (auto)biographies of several of the actors who worked with Hitchcock, detailing their experiences in their own words. All this makes for as well-rounded a view of a man's life in the cinema as can be presented by another individual.

Early published fiction (never before available) shows that the young Alfred Hitchcock was already exhibiting the tendencies that would become his hallmarks -- table-turning, dark humor, murder, and blondes figure just as prominently as they would later on, showing that he was a full-fledged personality even then. In fact, it's McMilligan's insight into the development of Hitchcock as a personality through his films -- his sureheadedness, his almost infallible instinct for popular entertainment, and his often-rocky relationships with his producers (especially David O. Selznick) -- that really makes this the terrific read that it is.

Darkness and Light is arranged chronologically, so if the reader is looking for information on a particular film, it is simple to find that section and fall into the storytelling of a born writer relating the tale of a born filmmaker. (Hitchcock would often have the completed film in his head before shooting began, proclaiming that the work was over and all that remained was to "get it in the camera.") The behind-the-scenes process -- from concepting to scriptwriting consultations to casting to filming to release and afterwards -- for every film of Hitchcock's is covered in detail, and the book also includes an exhaustive filmography in the back that even lists the director's cameos for each movie. One gains a pseudo-voyeuristic view into the filmmaking process, as well as the many stories behind the infamous "cattle" remark, Hitchcock's irrepressible prankster mentality, and the similarities and differences between his relationships with the two stars most associated with his films: James Stewart and Cary Grant, both actors who came to the director when they wanted an image change, but whose "images" Hitchcock often used to further his own means.

I could go on in excruciating detail about more stories and tidbits that are simply fascinating and make this a book that will not be put down until it's finished. Suffice it to say, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light is going immediately on my film reference shelf, to be consulted evermore when I need information on the man who, though more aptly called the "Master of Melodrama" (from Selznick's tagline for Rebecca), much preferred his eventual moniker of the "Master of Suspense."

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

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