In my bookcase are four shelves of books on Alfred Hitchcock and his films. They take up three times as much space as the books on Orson Welles or any other director, and rivals only my film noir book collection, which also takes up four shelves, but on the other hand is about a diffuse genre with over 100 filmmakers making contributions. And my collection of Hitchcock books is but a fraction of the titles that are available, as any visit to a good library will reveal.
My fanatically inspired collection is only one measure of the explosion of Hitchcock studies, at least since the publication in English of Francois Truffaut's interview book with the director, and Robin Wood's pioneering critical survey, Hitchcock's Films, both in the early 1960s. Yet explosion is not quite the right word. It's been more of a steady yet increasing flow, particularly after Hitchcock's death in 1980, and the release of DVDs of the director's films since the late 1990s in a series of successive special editions.
The cynical or non-academic or even non-movie-loving person's reaction might be, Do we really need more books about Hitchcock? But what's amazing about many of the books on Hitchcock, especially since the 1980s, is how creatively critics and scholars have addressed Hitchcock's themes and visual style and how the works comment of society. For an example of how diverse the approaches to Hitchcock can be right now there is probably no better place to turn than to the new collection, The Hitchcock Annual Anthology: Selected Essays from Volumes 10 -15 (Wallflower Press, 224 pages, $26, ISBN-13: 978-1905674954), compiled by Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews and Alfred Hitchcock: Interviews) and Richard Allen (Hitchcock's Romantic Irony), both of whom are also editors of The Hitchcock Annual, the 18-year-old scholarly journal that is one of the handful of crucial clearing houses for ideas and theories about Hitchcock's work.
The Hitchcock Annual Anthology gathers 15 essays and pieces from the most recent six issues of the annual, published in the second half of the publication's life, or since 2001. The book is divided into five sections, covering collaborators of Hitchcock's, biographical investigations, general themes, individual films, and finally the director and critical theory.
In the first section there is a fascinating transcript of a panel featuring three Hitchcock screenwriters, Joe Stefano (Psycho), Arthur Laurents (Rope), and Evan Hunter (The Birds). They have differing views of both Hitchcock and the nature of his work, with Stefano being the most enthusiastic about his collaboration. The second group of essays exploring the career of Hitchcock's wife Alma Reville, and her later influence on his work, reprints articles by and about her from the 1920s, and includes an essay about the influence of D. W. Griffith on Hitchcock, accompanied by an essay credited to Hitchcock about Griffith on the occasion of the film Abraham Lincoln in 1931. Of special interest is an essay by Charles Barr on the reaction within Britain to Hitchcock's leaving just before the start of World War II, which unveils many complex issues associated with the matter than haven't been aired much since that time.
The third section is the strongest. It kicks off with a terrific essay by Robin Wood, who died just before Christmas of 2009, titled "Hitchcock and Fascism," and which may be the critic's last statement on the director, who engaged his interest throughout his life. Ostensibly about Lifeboat, the essay turns into a defense of Hitchcock as an artist who eschewed mere propaganda in favor of a nuanced exploration of how fascism invades our daily lives and interactions. Mark Hennelly's article about the carnival spirit in Hitchcock follows, and though it is densely and allusively written, it is one of the most exciting takes on Hitchcock that I've read in years, linking Hitchcock's childhood in the markets of London to his interest in circuses and carnivals, cross linked to the writings of Rebelais who also had a interest in carnivals as a way of looking at life, and finally to the explicit presence of carnivals in Hitchcock's films, such as The Ring and Strangers on a Train, and to a carnivalesque spirit found in later films, such as Frenzy. This one is followed by an equally fine and interesting essay by Thomas Elsaesser on the parallel careers of Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, the latter not having a career that is as embedded in film discourse as Hitchcock's came to be. In the process, Professor Elsaesser offers a short history of changing fashions in film criticism. His essay is as dense as Mr. Hennelly's, but just as rewarding (for example, it takes Mr. Elsaesser several paragraphs to get to the simple observation that Lang's reputation is less than Hitchcock's among both viewers and critics because Hitchcock is more viewer-friendly) . My feeling is that Lang is not quite as ignored as Mr. Elsaesser argues, though it has always struck me as odd that Lang, who had as many clunkers as Carol Reed did later in his career, yet still never suffered the kind of ridicule and disparagement that Reed endured.
The next section has detailed and helpful appraisals of the generally ignored Hitchcock films Murder and Under Capricorn, and the popular theorist Slavoj Zizek on Vertigo. Deborah Thomas's essay on Marnie is excellent and manages to say something new about this movie despite the looming legacy of Robin Wood, who heretofore wrote the definitive account of the film's strategies. The final section of the book has a fascinating and informative account of Hitchcock's importance to biographers and critical theory.
What the section on individual films shows, especially Deborah Thomas's essay, is that there is no more Hitchcock. Yes, there will continue to be biographies of the director and more critical studies, but Hitchcock the man has now fully become Hitchcock the label for a collection of stylistic flourishes and thematic concerns. In other words, it doesn't matter if Hitchcock intended Marnie, for example, to utilize doorways with such intense consistency has Ms. Thomas finds in the film. The consistency is there, and that means that the film is even more interesting and fruitful to discuss and think about. In his diaries for the 1960s, the great literary writer Edmund Wilson complained that with old age he felt that he himself were disappearing, with only the shelf of books he had authored remaining: "My appearance and personality have almost entirely disappeared and that this is little but my books marching through me." This may have been bad for Wilson's state of mine, but it is good for Hitchcock studies, where the writers need not really concern themselves with intentionality, but rather with how the films work internally and interact with other Hitchcock films and with contemporaneous pictures and also with films before and after. We don't "need" the real, biological, and historical Hitchcock for that, though it is also helpful to learn about his real life, views, and activities. The Hitchcock Annual Anthology is an exemplary example of work that occurs in both aspects of Hitchcock studies, the biographical, with the director front and center as a human being, and of Hitchcock criticism, where he is by now an aesthetic construct hovering over the work. I am happy to add this marvelous anthology to my already burgeoning shelves of Hitchcock volumes.