Wednesday’s Book Review: “Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation”

0226424898Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation. By Robert E. Kapsis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

The recent movies that have been made about Alfred Hitchcock—Hitchcock (2012) and The Girl (2012), both of which deal with obsessions and misbehavior in the filming of The Birds and Psycho—call to mind a very good biography I read about the iconic filmmaker, Robert E. Kapsis’s scholarly study, Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation. Here are my thoughts on this book and its fascinating subject.

For more than fifty years Alfred Hitchcock dominated the film genre of mystery and suspense, first in England and after 1939 in Hollywood. Many of his films are viewed as classics–especially Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963)–and as an artist in his chosen field Hitchcock was without parallel.

Such was not always the always the case, however, for Hitchcock worked diligently for many years to build this reputation and for much of his career he was considered a capable director of entertaining films but certainly not an artist of overwhelming stature. Not until the 1960s, and especially the 1970s when the French “autuer” theory of film criticism began to dominate, did Hitchcock’s reputation rise.

In this book Robert E. Kapsis, a professor of film studies in New York, traces the change of Hitchcock’s reputation from journeyman director, to capable maker of suspense entertainment, to artist. In so doing, Kapsis draws on a broad range of materials to show how Hitchcock orchestrated his own image and ultimately gained the recognition that he craved. Because of the French “autuer” theory, which held that over a career a director shaped a body of work that could be analyzed in the same way as a composer’s or an artist’s body of work.

In that context, Hitchcock’s films could be assessed and their effect on the thriller and horror genres of film determined. The rise of this school of film analysis served Hitchcock well, for even such films as “Vertigo,” which were criticized as flawed when they first appeared, were later reassessed as significant parts of a larger body of work.

This is a very good analysis, and Kapsis does well in making clear how Hitchcock’s reputation changed over time in response to his own efforts, as well as those of others, and the changes of scholarly convention. It is scholarly and well-reasoned, but somewhat repetitious and written without a distinctive style. Even so, it is must reading for anyone seeking to understand the place of Alfred Hitchcock in the history of cinema.

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