I truly cannot explain why so many are giving this book low ratings. It is a critically acclaimed, deeply researched, well written biography. Nearly every aspect of Hitchcock's life and art is discussed, ably and literately. The only thing that I can think is that some people are upset that the book also explores the more disturbing aspects of Hitchcock's life, primarily his increasing obsession in the fifties and sixties with his leading ladies. These are disturbing to read about, but the problem is not Spoto's. Hitchcock was, like many highly creative individuals, a very complex, many-sided individual. Not everything about him was admirable and his weird, disturbing fixations on some of his leading actresses, in particular Tippi Hedren, can not be blamed on Spoto. As a biographer, he would have been remiss in not reporting this aspects of Hitchcock's life.
As far as claims that the book was dull or poorly written, this says more about specific reviewers than the book itself. I found it fascinating, a real page turner, and read through it in only a few days.
I will temper my review by pointing out that this is only one of the three major biographies of Hitchcock that one wanting to know more about Hitchcock should consider reading. If you want a superb but shorter biography, you could consider John Russell Taylor's HITCH: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK. If you are willing to read a biography much longer than Spoto's, you could consider Patrick McGilligan's outstanding ALFRED HITCHCOCK: A LIFE IN DARKNESS AND LIGHT. But the Spoto is definitely an elite biography, completely undeserving of the ill-considered low ratings some are giving this. It is meticulously researched, well-written, and hugely informative. This book will remain on the short list of the most crucial studies of the life and films of Alfred Hitchcock, and deservedly so.
on January 18, 2005
"Some of our most exquisite murders have been domestic, performed with tenderness in simple, homey places like the kitchen table."
...and here is the Master of Suspense. While Hitchcock happens to be one of the better-known directors of the 20th century, he surely is the only master of enigma. Spoto has done an admirable job in depicting the life of a man always shrouded in mystery.
The book follows Hitch from his childhood. A rather unattractive mother's boy, he was an outcast at public school. It continues his story from humble beginnings, through the discovery of genius, and ends at his death in 1980, at the age of 81. Throughout the pages, Spoto covers Hitchcock's life in detail, including his many quirks, obsessions bizarre sense of humour.
Hitchcock's life was indeed bizarre - his personality and obsessions manifesting themselves in his over-eating and his dry, often macabre sense of humour. However, as the author rightly points out, the director also revealed this side of himself through the images of his movies. This makes a fascinating study once you have read the book and you'll never view Hitch's films at face value again.
Because of her desire to protect her father's privacy, Hitch's daughter, Pat, refused Spoto any assistance in the writing of this book. He went instead to a veritable legion of actors and screenwriters who knew him and worked with him. The result is an extremely revealing and often very dark portrait of a man whose character was as shadowed as his films.
But not all is dark and foreboding. There are several amusing anecdotes, which highlight Hitch's macabre sense of humour. Like the time he had a dummy made in his own likeness and sent it floating on its back down the Thames river as a publicity stunt for his movie "Frenzy" in 1972.
My own personal favourite is the story of a woman who accosted him and complained that the "Psycho" shower scene so frightened her daughter that the girl would no longer shower. His laconic reply was, "Then, Madam, I suggest you have her dry cleaned."
He also did not suffer actors gladly. While he did have his stable of favourites that he worked with, he once claimed that actors were cattle. Later he said, "I didn't say that actors are cattle - I said they should be treated as cattle." Another story says that when an actress asked Hitchcock if her right or left profile was better, he told her, "My dear, you're sitting on your best profile."
Some of Spoto's claims I can't help but treat with a little scepticism. I do know that Hitch had a fascination with murder but the tender way in which he presents it in his films is classic Hitchcock. However, the author's statement that scenes in Hitch's movies reflect kind of voyeurism, I feel that with his trademark camera pans through windows, the director was trying to give the audience a bird's eye view of the scene - no more and no less. It is his way of allowing us to enter the private lives of his characters.
When all is said and done, this is a fascinating book of a fascinating man. A genius in his own time, but also a frustrated enigma, with a taste for the truly macabre. I highly recommend this book to anyone remotely interested in learning about the man behind the mystery, although it is a little heavy at times.
I'll leave the last word to the Master of Suspense himself:
"Television has brought back murder into the home - where it belongs.
on October 1, 2000
Took a little time to get going but once it did I read the book in two days. Extremely well researched and insightful. Have always been a Hitch fan, but was never aware of what a disturbed and internalized individual he was. The depth of this portrayal of the subject is surprising. Typically, a story like this will delve into relationships in the subject's life but Hitchcock really didn't have any. The author does a nice job of explaining the probable reasons for this. I recommend this book to fans of Hitchcock the man because it goes a long way in explaining why he made the films he did. Not to be confused with a technical "anthology", it's more like a psychological analysis into the twists and turns of the inside of Hitchcock's head. He was a strange dude!
on June 5, 2013
It must be tough to write a biography of a man who kept no diaries and who let few people inside his inner circle, much less his confidence. So I applaud the author for unearthing so much detail about the fascinating and disturbing life of Alfred Hitchcock. What I could have done without is the author's compulsion to find deep symbolic meaning in absolutely everything about Hitchcock--even the amount of toilet paper the director kept at his home. And while I enjoyed the detailed dissections of the director's films, I found myself rolling my eyes more than once at being told definitively what Hitchcock meant by every symbol in his movies. I'm guessing even Hitch was vague on some of those himself. But I quibble. It's an interesting book, confirming what I've heard about Hitchcock's genius and his inner demons. But what I think the book taught me more than anything is that Hitchcock knew how to "brand" himself long before the term was invented. If you'd rather remember the witty and confident Hitchcock the public knew, this book may not be for you. It's sad to watch his descent into growing obsession and self-imposed loneliness. You might just want to pop in a Hitchcock DVD instead. For despite the man's imperfections, there's no disputing his films are classics.
on October 27, 2003
Spoto has done an admirable job at putting together 500 compelling pages of reading. Unfortunately, he mentions the fundamental problem with this book in the very preface...that Hitchcock left few records and let his guard down for few individuals. The Hitchcock most knew was no more personal than what we know from his television persona. So right away, we have a biography that doesn't have much basis. So Spoto tries to compensate by drawing conclusions about Hitchcock based on his films. Kind of silly, really. Spotos analysis of the films could be interesting, but it's very uneven...he'll spend 10 pages on one film, and barely mention the existence of another. And the only revealing passage on anything regarding Hitchcock's life itself is on his Tippi Hedren years.
However, my chief problem with The Dark Side of Genius is Spoto's tendency to excuse Hitchcock when convenient. It's ridiculously facile. EVERY time Spoto reached an unsuccessful Hitchcock film, he explains how Hitchcock was preoccupied, depressed, or altogether uninterested in the that film. Can't we allow that a genius is fallible? His classics were the product of passion; his failures were due do lack of interest. That's way too black and white a stance for any serious biographer or film scholar to promote. He never allows that Hitchcock tried and failed at times. To Spoto, when he failed, it's because he didn't care.
on June 15, 2013
I am sad to mention that like many works by Spoto; this book contains some highly questionable content. It is a very compelling book, but it is also a fabrication. Spoto is a very talented and engaging writer and I find it extremely frustrating that he has no scruples when it comes to fact versus his own pet theories. He is convincing because of his skill as a writer, but his pet theories are presented as fact. This is not an isolated indecent. Other Spoto biographies are guilty of the same sin (for example, his book on Laurence Olivier and his other Hitchcock biography, "Spellbound by Beauty"). If you want to read a compelling book about Alfred Hitchcock, there are many other more accurate books available. The one Spoto book that I would recommend is, "The Art of Alfred Hitchcock" (if you are into film theory and analysis). Biographies should be held to a higher standard. The truth cannot be sacrificed to support ones own agenda. People buy biographies hoping to learn about someone's life and not to learn about someone's theories about the person's life.
on October 31, 2000
Spoto's life of Hitchcock, originally published in 1983, is one of the best biographies of a film director we have in English. It's a warts and all portrait, but instead of pitying or disliking Hitchcock for his idiosyncrasies and meannesses, we come to admire him even more for his singular dedication to the art of movies (and he was an artist, not merely "the master of suspense", to use an essentially narrow and insulting characterization). And as far as sheer technique goes, sheer mastery of the medium, Hitchcock probably was/is unsurpassed among modern day filmmakers.
Spoto gives us detailed accounts of the making of each of Hitchcock's major films. He really did dislike actors, calling them cattle, but he of course had a fascination with blonde actresses. The book's most poignant segment is the episode invovling Hitchcock's infatuation with Tippi Hedren (a mediocre performer at best who should have been grateful for a great man's attention and adoration), which ultimately ended in humiliation and unhappiness for both of them. Spoto is wrong, however, about MARNIE. It is one of the director's greatest movies, as moving and sad a depiction of desperation as has been committed to celluoid. It fully deserves its late revival in critical favor.
This is a clearly written, highly entertaining biography, and one of the closest glimpses we are liking to get straight from the director's chair.
on March 19, 2000
Don't buy this book if you are looking for objective and truthful information about Hitchcock or if you admire Hitchcock and his films. Buy this book only if you are interested in the self-absorbed ratings of an author upset because he would get no official help from those close to Hitchcock and decided to spend 600 pages attempting to assassinate Hitchcock's character with his own uninformed 70's style pop psychology. It is clear from his preface that Spoto felt some special entitlement to writing an official biography of the director because he met with Hitchcock twice, once over lunch. However, the Hitchcock family did not cooperate with his "biography" citing Hitchcock's wishes. Perhaps they were simply being polite - they probably had read his earlier efforts on Hitchcock's films and realized what an untalented hack the guy is. Nevertheless, he pressed forward and did his very best to ruin Hitchcock by steeping everything that Hitch did with dark sexual motivations. Most of it is patent nonsense. For example take this gem of psyhobabble from his discussion of Rear Window (pg. 346): "That romantic involvement is treating is also indicated by the screenplay's association of Raymond Burr (the wife-murder): Stewart is a traveling photographer, Burr a traveling salesman, and each is pressured by emotional demands from an attractive blond." Anyone who has seen the film will note that, while Grace Kelly is indeed blond, Burr's wife is a dark brunette. While this may not seem a major flaw, it does give an example of the kind of psychobabble that permeates this book. Basically, Spoto attempts to tie virtually everything the director did during his life to Spoto's own amateur theories about Hitch's sexual repressions and fantasies. Spoto does not turn a hair at stretching the truth or telling outright lies to attempt to fit reality into his twisted vision of Hitchcock. His nonsense conjectures are usually so farfetched that any reader with an IQ greater than a grape will spot them, but why support such nonsense? It is a weary read, because Spoto's little-boy revenge is so plain to see on the page. Especially when he makes up lies regarding the family, for example claiming that Hitchcock forced his daughter to audition for her part on "Strangers on a Train," a claim she politely but firmly refutes. In short, Spoto does everything he can to put the worst interpretation on everything Hitchcock and his family did. If you want to read a book that reveals much more about Spoto than about Hitchcock, then buy this steaming pile of rubbish. If you admire one of the foremost geniuses of filmmaking, please don't buy this book.
on July 4, 2000
This is a far better book than Spoto's Art of Alfred Hitchcock, where he makes terrible mistakes. Spoto is an ambitious writer who obviously enjoys his subject's films. His vision of Alfred Hitchcock as a tormented and sexually frustrated artist is not entirely convincing. Spoto piles on the anecdotes but cannot create a staisfactory synthesis of tormented genius.
Hitchcock eludes him as he has eluded most biographers. The central problem of Hitchcock was that he was an entertainer and no amount of intellectual analysis can deny this fact. His films were to be commercial successes and he aimed steadily at his market. Spoto focuses far too much on the sexual underpinnings of Hitchock's work and ignores the enormous fun of the films.
This book is a fair introduction to Hitchcock. Writers like Robin Wood,have gone further and better. Yet in the end, the sheer volume of his research will make this obligatory reading on Hitchcock. It will never be defintive.
on September 2, 2015
Alfred Hitchcock is quickly becoming one of my favorite film directors, and for good reason. He was able to tap into primal emotions in a way that many couldn't. And for this same reason I love this biography by Donald Spoto. Seeing as he featured prominently in the various retrospective documentaries packaged with the fifteen films I watched last month, I knew I had to get my hands on this book because he seemed to be the definitive interpreter of Hitchcock's oeuvre and personality. While arranged in typical biography fashion, i.e., chronologically, Spoto interweaves his own assessment of Hitchcock's psychology and how this manifested itself in his art. That aspect was most fascinating and keeps it from being a by-the-numbers list of facts/filmography. It's also packed with anecdotes and footnotes that provide additional insight. From a literary perspective, it's one of the best biographies I've ever read and I was able to power my way through it because I was so invested in the material and the way it was presented. Although I was familiar with bits and pieces of Hitchcock's personal life, there were certain details revealed (towards the end of his career) that alternately made my stomach turn and yet still feel pity for him. In no small part I feel the latter because I saw a lot of psychological similarities between him and myself (at least in the way we approach human relationships). If you're the least bit interested in film history, or Hitchcock in particular, I would highly recommend this. It's well-organized, fun to read, and contains a wealth of information and analysis.