What is there left to say about Alfred Hitchcock? With tomes about the Master of Suspense taking up entire bookstore shelves, it seems hard to imagine that any fresh angle could sustain the length of a new book. In “The Hitchcock Murders,” critic Peter Conrad starts with a novel approach, but then resorts to more familiar analysis.
Conrad, who teaches English at Christ Church in Oxford, says he “lost his virginity” seeing “Psycho” for the first time in 1961, an experience that made him appreciate fear as “the most rational response to existence, and the most reverent tribute to its irrationality.”
Conrad became happily haunted by Hitchcock at a young age and he expresses his fetish in the opening, a confessional-style essay. Here, the author identifies with Hitchcock’s famous characters and sets out, as he says, to understand why he cannot stop his obsession. Conrad is equally personal in the concluding chapter, in which he admits, “I no longer expect or wish to be relieved” of his preoccupation.
In these sections, Conrad reveals much about himself through an intriguingly subjective style reminiscent of — though less poetic than — Geoffrey O’Brien’s memorable meditation on the cinema in The Phantom Empire.
But in between these chapters, for the bulk of the work, Conrad the stuffy English professor comes forth to posit his sociological theories about Hitchcock’s life and work. At soon as Conrad presumes to speak for us, explaining how Hitchcock profoundly influenced “our unconscious minds,” his book seems both elitist and shopworn.
Conrad is a skillful stylist and an erudite scholar, yet there is simply nothing new about his arguments that Hitchcock was a blasphemous misanthrope and a formal modernist (the director expertly stages that ultimate modern art form–murder).
Of course, Conrad bases his theories upon the old-fashioned auteur approach that is disdainful of academia (he dismisses feminism, queer polemics and post-structuralism as “bogus cerebration”).
Despite this attitude, Conrad frequently throws around contemporary academic lingo (e.g. “intertextual”).
Conrad does not even concede that Hitchcock developed in any way as a director. Thus, according to the author, there is no difference between Hitchcock’s silent and sound films, or his British and Hollywood films. “The Lodger” (1926) and Family Plot (1976) are two of a kind.
Such an ahistorical approach denies any outside influence on Hitchcock films, such as other creative forces, production limitations, and historical events. It is as if Hitchcock directed in a vacuum more insular that Carl Dreyer’s (not surprisingly, the book contrasts the spiritual dimensions of both men’s films).
Still, Conrad compensates for his tunnel vision with some keen observations and interesting trivia. One lively passage convincingly compares Hitchcock with Walt Disney and Sergei Eisenstein. Another sheds light on why Grace Kelly really turned down coming back to the screen as Marnie. And even Hitchcock buffs may be surprised to know the director wrote for Good Housekeeping and Norman Vincent Peale’s Guideposts.
Alas, these nuggets appear in a mostly turgid text. Despite the attempt to broaden the discussion to Hitchcock’s influence on society, the book is more limited in scope than if Conrad had discussed Hitchcock throughout from a personal perspective.