Footsteps in the Fog – Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco by Jeff Kraft and Aaron Levanthal

Footsteps in the Fog – Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco by Jeff Kraft and Aaron Levanthal

2002 – Santa Monica Press – 286 pages

As Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter Pat states in her foreword to this book, Hitchcock had a fondness for the Bay Area.  He thought of San Francisco as a very cosmopolitan city, which he enjoyed both personally and professionally.

This volume details the movies that Hitchcock filmed in the greater Bay Area.   There are chapters on Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, and The Birds, as well as a chapter highlighting a few scenes from other Hitchcock films that were shot in the area.  The book closes with a chapter on Hitchcock’s personal connection to the Bay Area.

This book is a detailed pictorial representation of where the movies were filmed.  The authors go through the movies chronologically, and as the plot is outlined, they share the very specific location where every scene was filmed.  There are literally hundreds of black and white photographs, comparing the locations as they appeared in the movies, with their appearance at the time the book was being researched and written.

There are also several detailed maps and sidebars that offer more of San Francisco’s history.

For anyone who is planning a “Hitchcock tour” of Northern California, this volume is absolutely indispensable.  I had it with me when I traveled to Santa Rosa, San Francisco, and Bodega Bay, and it came in handy more than once.

I also learned quite a bit about several Hitchcock films, such as the way Hitchcock altered the geography of the Bodega Bay area on screen to serve his narrative purposes.  Also, I never knew that Hitchcock filmed some scenes from Family Plot in San Francisco, or that a handful of the “Cuban” scenes from Topaz were filmed near Salinas.

My only quibble with this book is the layout.  It is a “coffee-table” style book, about 8 inches tall and 11 wide, which makes it a bit awkward in paperback form to hold and turn pages, especially when referring to it while travelling.   This is of course no slight against the authors, who clearly spent a considerable amount of time compiling their material for this book, and did an admirable job.

If you are from the Bay Area, or plan to visit, then this book is recommended.

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Hitchcock on Hitchcock Volume 2 – Edited by Sidney Gottlieb

Hitchcock on Hitchcock – Selected Writings and Interviews, Volume 2 – Edited by Sidney Gottlieb

2015 – University of California Press – 274 pages

Those who read Sidney Gottlieb’s first volume of collected writings and interviews of Alfred Hitchcock may wonder that there was enough quality material for a follow-up.   As Gottlieb explains in his introduction, there was quite a bit of material that did not make the first volume for reasons of space limitations.  Further,  additional writings have come to light in the interval.

The origin and nature of the material in this volume is considerably varied, but the quality is consistently good.  The pieces range from the Henley Telegraph stories (brief sketches Hitchcock composed for his first employer while still a young man), to film periodical articles, to in-depth interviews.

As in the first volume, there is occasional repetition of ideas or anecdotes;  it is clear that Hitchcock had his “go-to” jokes or bon mot that he would trot out when appropriate.   But this is understandable considering the numerous interviews he consented to give over the years.

As with the first volume, the pieces are grouped thematically in sections, and chronologically in each section.  This volume has a few more pieces from later in Hitchcock’s career, which strikes a nice balance with volume one, that seemed laden with pieces from the British period.

One of the most interesting pieces in this volume is a transcription of a pre-production meeting for the film Stage Fright between Hitchcock and his production supervisor Fred Ahern.  For around twenty pages,  Hitchcock and Ahern go through the shooting script, discussing what the production needs will be for each set-up.  It is amazing what a clear idea Hitchcock already had in mind for each individual shot.  The reader can also get a sense of how much he enjoyed the planning phase of filmmaking.

Another great piece is a transcript of Hitchcock fielding questions from an audience after he has delivered a lecture.  He talks about several of his films, and film techniques.

For anyone who enjoyed the first volume in this series, volume two is a welcome edition.  I think I actually enjoyed the specific pieces in this follow-up work even more than the original.   One can only hope that there is enough material for a third volume some day.

For the die-hard fan who can’t get enough of Hitchcock this book is highly recommended.

 

HITCHCOCK AND SELZNICK by Leonard J. Leff

HITCHCOCK and SELZNICK by Leonard J. Leff

1987 – University of California Press – 383 pages

In retrospect, Alfred Hitchcock’s triumphant arrival in the United States in 1939 seems like a fait accompli, something destined by the movie gods many years before.  Behind the scenes there was a considerable period of indecision by Hitchcock.  He certainly knew he wanted to come to the States, but he had offers from multiple studios to consider.   Ultimately he decided to sign with David O. Selznick, at the time the most powerful independent producer in Hollywood.

For the next eight years, the lives and careers of these two men would be linked together, in a relationship that was was often tumultuous.    Author Leonard J. Leff chose this intersecting period in the lives of Hitchcock and Selznick as the subject for his book.

Leff gives us some brief introductory material, setting the scene of precisely where these two men were in their careers at this time.  Hitchcock was a big fish in a small pond, and he knew he would have to sacrifice a little creative control, at least at first, in coming to Hollywood.  Selznick was riding high, a celebrated producer who was making what would become his greatest triumph, Gone With the Wind.

The meat of this book is the four chapters that focus on the collaborative projects between the two men:  Rebecca, Spellbound, Notorious and The Paradine Case.    Leff has researched his subjects meticulously, and provides in-depth descriptions of how these films were made, from inception to release.  The reader gets a strong feel for the working relationship between Hitchcock and Selznick, the give and take that resulted in some high-quality films.

Leff also provides a chapter titled “Between Engagements” that covers all of the films Hitchcock made on loan-out for other studios while under contract to Selznick.  Finally, the book closes with a summation of the immediate aftermath of the partnership.

In most biographies of Alfred Hitchcock, Selznick is cast as an antagonist of sorts, the meddlesome mogul who won’t give Hitchcock the creative freedom he desires.  This book, providing an impartial view of both men, shows us a different side of Selznick.   At his best, Selznick had wonderful ideas to contribute to a film’s story and structure.  He was often indulgent of Hitchcock, even when Selznick felt that Hitch might be taking advantage of him.   And yes, he could be overbearing and controlling, but there is no doubt that he cared passionately about the product being released by his studio.

Leff’s narrative is smart, insightful and a pleasure to read, and this book comes highly recommended.

 

 

 

Hitchcock on Hitchcock – Edited by Sidney Gottlieb

 

HITCHCOCK ON HITCHCOCK:  SELECTED WRITINGS AND INTERVIEWS, Edited by Sidney Gottlieb

1995 – University of California Press – 339 pages

There is certainly no dearth of written material on the the life and films of Alfred Hitchcock.  In the mid-1990’s, Professor Sidney Gottlieb had the bright idea of publishing a book by Alfred Hitchcock.  Gottlieb gathered together a collection of magazine articles, interviews, and speeches given by Hitchcock over the course of his career.  The end result is very rewarding, if occasionally uneven or repetitious.

In his introduction Sidney Gottlieb addresses the question of authorship.  These articles were all published under Hitchcock’s byline, but that does not mean he is responsible for writing every word.  It was very common in the days of the studio system for pieces to be written for the director and submitted to the press in order to generate publicity.   It is also a well-known fact that for several years in the late 50’s through mid-60’s James Allerdice wrote almost all of Hitchcock’s speeches for him.  The end result is that some of these pieces might not have been penned by Alfred Hitchcock, although he would certainly have endorsed them.

Sidney Gottlieb curates the pieces by subject, with sections on actors, film production, technique, etc.   The pieces are chronological within each individual section, with short introductions to each section penned by Gottlieb.   It is certainly possible to find a distinct Hitchcock voice running through most of these pieces.   In a piece written while he was still a young director working in Britain in the 1930’s he talks about his desire to obtain major stars for his leading roles.  He describes movie stars as “the jam around the pill” which will help the audience swallow his plot.

One can also see how he tailors his voice to his audience.  At one end of the spectrum are one-off pieces written  for British film magazines, injected with his typical wry humor.   But we also get pieces like a 1966 interview for American Cinematographer magazine, in which Hitchcock delves into very specific technical detail about the lighting and design of Torn Curtain.

One minor drawback to this material is that it is front-loaded.  There are far more pieces from the 1930’s than there are from the 50’s and 60’s.  There is also some repetition, as he narrates various versions of the same stories or ideas.  One recurring theme which he mentions in three different articles written in the 30’s is the desire for an all-powerful producer-director, who would have total control of a film.  He actually cites David O. Selznick as an example of an ideal candidate for such a person.  Rather ironic, considering that Selznick’s very control would be giving Hitchcock major headaches in a few short years.

Sidney Gottlieb went to great length to find and assemble this collection, and while it may be a bit much for the casual fan, for any scholar of Hitchcock this is an essential work, and comes highly recommended.

 

 

The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto

THE DARK SIDE OF GENIUS:  THE LIFE OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK by Donald Spoto

1983 – Ballantine Books – 665 pages

Coming just three years after Hitchcock’s death, Donald Spoto’s biography was at the time the heftiest tome (both in size and scope) to focus on the life and career of Alfred Hitchcock.

John Russell Taylor’s 1978 book was the only authorized biography of Hitchcock.   Donald Spoto did approach the Hitchcock family in 1980 asking for their blessing, but was told by daughter Patricia that the family would not actively cooperate with any authors after her father’s death.

That may be the best thing that could have happened to Spoto, for it freed him to explore some territory (the “dark side” of the title) that the family almost certainly would have objected to.

Donald Spoto met Alfred Hitchcock in 1975, during the making of Family Plot.  He had the opportunity to interview Hitchcock, as he prepared a book about Hitch’s films.  The seed for the ultimate Hitchcock biography was almost certainly planted at this time.

The one thing this book shares with the Taylor biography is a chronological narrative structure.    Spoto’s book doubles the earlier bio in length, and much of that extra detail is focused on the themes of Hitchcock’s films, and how they relate to his personal life.

Spoto is definitely a student of the auteur theory, believing that Hitchcock imbued his works with a personal, signature style.  As Spoto says in his preface:

…it became clear that Hitchcock’s films were indeed his notebooks and journals and that his almost maniacal secrecy was a deliberate means of defelecting attention away from what those films really are:  astonishingly personal documents.

While there is considerable merit in Spoto’s auteur theory analysis of Hitchcock’s films, there is a danger in reading too much of the personal into the films’ narratives.  This book reminded me at times of Stephen Greenblatt’s William Shakespeare biography Will in the World, which is at the forefront of the “new historicism” movement, an attempt to understand intellectual history through an interpretation of literary and artistic works.  Many of the connections here are speculative;  no matter how brilliant they may seem on paper, one can never know how much an artist is projecting his personal life upon his works, unless he expressly describes it.

Keeping that caveat in mind, this book is a delightful read, for a couple of reasons.  First of all, Spoto is a master wordsmith, who does not just compile chronological narrative in a dry style, but adds a distinctive personal touch that enriches his material.  To give just one example, here is Spoto talking about Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo:

In Bernard Herrmann’s musical score…the lost world of California’s Spanish past is everywhere evoked.  Memories and fragments of forgotten hopes float like lily pads in the score…The music and the sound effects are elusive and lonely, fragile and ghostly.

What a perfect description of Herrmann’s brilliant contribution to this film.  Spoto provided many details that had never been disclosed about Hitchcock’s movies.  Such as the fact the the painting Anthony Perkins’ character Norman Bates pulls from the wall in Psycho, in order to spy on Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane, is a painting of Susanna and the elders, a biblical story detailing men spying on a woman as she prepares to bathe.

Donald Spoto was also the first to expose the depth’s of Hitchcock’s obsession with his leading ladies, describing the times he crossed the line with Tippi Hedren.  Spoto also describes a Hitchcock who descended into alcoholism and depression in his later years.  While some found these episodes to be scandalous, they are an essential part of Hitchcock’s life and narrative.   Spoto is not muckraking;  clearly he has a fondness for his titular subject.

While I do not consider this the definitive documentary on Alfred Hitchcock, it is an important work, both well-written and enlightening.   It is a much deeper dive that the earlier authorized biography of Taylor, and therefore is highly recommended to fans of the master of suspense.

 

 

HITCH: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock by John Russell Taylor

Hitch:  The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock by John Russell Taylor

1978 – Berkley Publishing – 333 pages

I’m not sure which phrase on a book’s cover bothers me more:  “authorized biography” or “unauthorized biography.”   This book is the one and only instance of the former for Alfred Hitchcock.  John Russell Taylor was a film and theater critic who came to prominence in Britain in the 1960’s.  Over time he became friendly with Hitchcock, and at some point in the early 70’s he proposed penning Hitchcock’s biography. At first Hitchcock politely declined, but eventually he consented, in his usual roundabout way.  He didn’t say yes directly; rather he said to Taylor, almost as an aside “When you write that book of yours…”

On the one hand, an authorized biography means cooperation with the subject, and often with family members and work associates as well.  And that seems to be the case here.  There are even a couple of direct quotes from Alma Hitchcock.  I wish there were more.  I find it very frustrating that, for all the praise Alma received and continues to receive (and deservedly so) as half of the Hitchcock team, there are very few interviews available.   Taylor also spoke to many people from throughout Hitchcock’s career;  several people from the early British period were still alive in the 1970’s, such as Charles Bennett and Michael Balcon.  That makes this the only significant biography of Hitchcock for which the author was able to speak directly not only with Hitch himself, but also a great number of those who were close to him.  That alone makes it an interesting read.

The danger of an authorized biography is that the subject may have a final say in what information is included, and what omitted.   Certainly Taylor was a great fan of Hitchcock; he was not on a muck-raking expedition.  There may not have been all that much muck to rake anyway.  But one does occasionally wonder if certain incidents were “spun” to cast Hitchcock in a good light.

The book balances the personal and the professional, covering the major milestones in Hitchcock’s life, as well as every movie he directed.  Now, many of those movies may have only half a page dedicated to them, but at least nothing is completely glossed over.  Pat Hitchcock, Alfred and Alma’s only child, also gets considerable coverage of her personal and professional life;  I imagine Hitchcock wanted her achievements included, and they are a nice touch.

In light of many weightier Hitchcock tomes written subsequently, the biggest complaint one can level towards Russell is that his book feels very slight at a hair over 300 pages.  It is also, as are many biographies, front loaded; much more time is spent on the early years, while time becomes more compressed the closer one gets to the present day.

That being said, it is a charming read.  If one wishes to read only one biography on Hitchcock, head for Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock:  A Life in Darkness and Light, which I consider definitive.  For the more than casual fan, that can’t get enough of Hitchcock lore, this biography comes highly recommended.

Hitchcock’s Rear Window: The Well Made Film by John Fawell

HITCHCOCK’S REAR WINDOW:  THE WELL-MADE FILM by John Fawell

2001 – Southern Illinois University Press – 179 pages

I first became aware of John Fawell when I purchased Rear Window on blu ray.  It is Fawell’s erudite and entertaining commentary track that appears as one of the bonus features.  This book explores many of the same themes addressed in the commentary track, but in greater depth.

What sets this book apart from most other Hitchcock books focused on one film is that this is not a nuts and bolts “making of” book.  If you are interested in learning which scenes were shot on which day, this is not the book for you.  Fawell focuses exclusively on themes and ideas.  He references many works that preceeded him, while putting forth many of his own ideas as well.

While Fawell is somewhat scholarly in tone, he writes in a way that is still accessible to the fan.  As he says in his introduction:  “I wrote the book even more for the nonacademic, the person who is looking for a careful explanation of why Hitchcock is taken so seriously.”

It is clear that Fawell is not just a professor, but a fan as well.   He is someone who has watched this movie, and thought about it, many times.  The chapters are broken down into different thematic elements.  Perhaps the most enlightening for me are the sections on the soundtrack.   The visuals of Rear Window are so powerful and entertaining that one can easily miss some of the background music and sounds.  I think Rear Window has one of the greatest diegetic soundtracks ever constructed, and Fawell gives this subject the time and attention it deserves.

Fawell also examines each of the characters who Jeff watches from his window, looking at what they represent thematically.  He has a chapter focused on loneliness, another on Jeff’s emasculation, and another on the subject of Jeff as Hitchcock.  He also focuses on the brief instances when Hitchcock takes us outside Jeff’s point of view.  Again, Fawell provides the best insight yet recorded on this aspect of the film.

This book is a treasure trove of ideas for anyone who is a fan of this movie, and wants to dig a little deeper into the possible meaning and subtext.  I would recommend giving Fawell’s excellent commentary track on the blu ray a try first.   It is very engaging and full of ideas.  If you enjoy that, and want a deeper dive into some of those themes, then the book is highly recommended.