Books: Losing sight of a man who knew best

Hitchcock's Secret Notebooks by Dan Auiler Bloomsbury pounds 20

Great pitch; shame it's not true. Hitchcock never kept notebooks, at least not in the sense of intimate diaries or private journals, and the wealth of notes he did make were unpublished rather than secret: draft screenplays, rough drawings, taped discussions, and studio memoranda, all filed away by his lifelong personal assistant, his wife Alma, and donated by their daughter to the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences.

Together with a sinister cover photograph of the famous jowly profile, the sensationalist title is worthy of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but don't be fooled. Auiler's mammoth trawl through half a century of personal papers generated by the Master of Suspense sidesteps the pop psychology of your average cut-and-paste film biog so decisively that it suffers from a completely opposite drawback: losing sight of the man by focusing too closely on the movies.

Auiler, a critic and academic, introduces this approach as a "working biography", which means that Hitchcock's methods shape the chapters. Half of the 500 pages are devoted to scenes from, treatments of and comments on various scripts written for him, and a further quarter deals with his preparations for committing many of these scripts to celluloid. The actual productions are documented in a series of stills showing the director on set, post-production is disposed of with a selection of his detailed notes on sound effects, and the exclusive material on unfinished or discarded projects bookends the text. In other words, if you're a screenwriter, a storyboard artist or a sound editor, this is for you, but if you're looking for a guide to the art and craft of film- making from concept to completion, it's not a patch on Sidney Lumet's Making Movies, also brought to you by Bloomsbury.

Psycho and Vertigo fans will be disappointed: recent studies of Hitch's most famous and favourite works (Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello, and Auiler's own Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic) are enough to exclude discussions of these films from the book. The Birds and Marnie, on the other hand, which formed the subject of the memoir Me and Hitch by screenwriter Evan Hunter, still play a major part. Luckily The Birds, a bland romantic comedy which turns into a brutal allegory of man versus nature, and its follow-up, Marnie, the unconvincing story of a frigid kleptomaniac with a father complex, both shed a lot of light on their maker: his meticulous work on the screenplay and storyboards, his overbearing treatment of Tippi Hedren in an attempt to mould her into the next Grace Kelly, and the start of his decline after moving from Paramount to Universal.

Marnie, the third effort for his new masters, marked the last time Hitchcock would work with four long-time collaborators: composer Bernard Herrmann, cinematographer Robert Burks, film editor George Tomasini, and production designer Robert Boyle. Burks and Tomasini both died before his next film, Torn Curtain, he fell out with Herrmann over the score, and transcripts of a conference with Boyle and Evan Hunter - who wrote the early drafts of Marnie - show a director whose talent for picking the right men for the job and harnessing them to his vision seems to be giving way to the intransigence of someone convinced he knows best. Further evidence is provided by another transcript, a scene-by-scene dissection of The Birds for the benefit of Hedren, which is more or less a monologue by Hitchcock, the nervous actress scarcely able to get a word in edgeways about her film debut.

If the production stills are anything to go by (and some of them are obviously posed) Hitchcock was equally ebullient behind the camera. We see him directing his lost second film The Mountain Eagle, arm outstretched dramatically; recreating Scotland around Robert Donat for The 39 Steps; watching the cast and crew set up a crowd scene for Sabotage, master of all he surveys; gesturing for more from Joel McCrea on Foreign Correspondent; rehearsing one of the 10-minute takes of Rope, the art direction resembling a stage play; sprawling beneath a merry-go-round to plan the climax of Strangers on a Train; making his usual cameo in The Wrong Man, later cut to suit the tone of the piece; giving instructions by microphone to James Stewart on Rear Window; and apparently sharing a joke with Grace Kelly on Dial M for Murder, perhaps a glimpse of the man behind the myth.

Three months from the centenary of his birth, and in the wake of big and small screen remakes of Psycho, Rear Window and Dial M for Murder (as A Perfect Murder), Hitchcock is clearly as influential as ever. The storyboards of the classic crop- dusting sequence from North by Northwest look mighty familiar to anyone who sat through The X-Files: Fight the Future, and the full text of a bravura trailer for Spellbound puts all the fuss about The Phantom Menace and its creator George Lucas into perspective by showing a real entertainer at work. Hitchcock, though, was never a true movie mogul, which explains why he was forced to abandon the most interesting project of his twilight years. Kaleidoscope, a serial-killer yarn influenced by Antonioni, promised to be more innovative than the lurid mess it turned into, Frenzy, but then even genius has to compromise occasionally.

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