Alfred Hitchcock changed the way we watch films, yet he remains a complete unknown

Plus: Can it be true that Agatha Christie had a mole in MI5?

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Alfred Hitchcock must be the best-known, yet unknown, director of the 20th century. A household name who directed more than 50 films, he was in front of the camera as often as he was behind it: making cameo appearances, starring in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, rendering himself as much of a star as his actors.

He certainly changed the way we watched films. Before Psycho, you simply turned up at the picture house and watched the film from whichever point it was at. You stayed till you’d seen the beginning of the next screening, and then left. Hitchcock was the first director to demand absolute commitment to the story. Psycho had set start times, and audiences were begged not to give away the ending.

The film that was almost never made – so shocking and trashy was the Robert Bloch novel on which it is based – is such a pop culture mainstay that the Bates Motel now appears in theme parks, complete with knife-wielding Anthony Perkins lookalikes. No one but Hitchcock could have produced so many films which simultaneously appalled censors, delighted audiences, and impressed critics. He was the ultimate mixer of high and low art: fiercely conscious of the mass appeal of cinema, and yet turning out artistic masterpieces, sometimes twice in one year.

Hitchcock has finally been reappraised, and is the subject of not one, but two recent biopics; The Girl, which aired over Christmas on television, and now Hitchcock, which opens this weekend, starring Anthony Hopkins as the Master of Suspense and Helen Mirren as his brilliant, underappreciated wife, Alma.

Though both have their virtues, neither comes close to giving us a comprehensive view of the man. Was he really a misogynist, or did he just hate particular women who rejected him? Was he a cuddly, petulant man-child who loved his wife even as he yearned for younger, blonder models or was their marriage a business relationship in all but name? Was he fat because he didn’t care what people thought of him, or because he consumed calories to cheer himself up? And did he resent the lack of respect he felt Hollywood had for him? He never won a Best Director Oscar, which (as with the same omission for Stanley Kubrick) makes the Academy look like they were in a parallel universe to the rest of us.

The release of two biopics in two months is probably more than we need, and yet it turns out to be insufficient, since the real Hitchcock remains hidden as much as the MacGuffin that animates so many of his movies.

Another Agatha Christie mystery?

Can it be true that MI5 investigated Agatha Christie over her wartime novel, N or M? The mystery is over the identity of a spy, codenamed N or M, investigated by the detective couple Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. It features a boring old Army man called Major Bletchley. On its publication in 1941, intelligence chiefs apparently had kittens at the idea Christie might have a spy at the code-breaking centre, Bletchley Park, to whom the Major was a not-very-subtle reference. The military insight Major Bletchley supplies in N or M? is largely bluster. Even the most paranoid of readers would struggle to see insider knowledge in his mutterings about the North-West frontier. Code-breakers can rest easy.

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