My Name is Alfred Hitchcock

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writer and Director: Mark Cousins

Aiming at the auteur with a “new and radical approach”, Mark Cousins’ documentary, My Name is Alfred Hitchcock, is an obsessively-detailed, heady experience.

Cousins makes it clear this is not your standard documentary. The film is given the structure of a visual essay, divided into six sections: Escape, Desire, Loneliness, Time, Fulfilment and Height. Hitchcock’s films are examined through each spectrum, with Cousins signposting themes and motifs. The documentary embeds itself in Hitchcock’s sense of mischief; his fondness for misdirection. Even down to the voicing of the man himself: comedian Alastair McGowan nails the accent, leaning into Hitchcock’s East End roots. But it’s the scrambling of words, turning fact into fiction, that has you questioning whether you should take Hitchcock at his word (you probably shouldn’t).

Cousins begins the documentary with the opening of doors in Stage Fright; left open for us to wander through. This is Hitchcock casting us in the role of voyeur, and he challenges us to keep looking through the darkest scenes: Blackmail’s murderous Alice White (played by Anny Ondra) is silently tracked by Hitchcock’s camera as she leaves a crime scene; Michael Caine’s serial killer firmly closes a bedroom door, trapping his victim in Frenzy. We are allowed no further – not all desires should be satisfied.

While Cousins covers the basics: the sexual dynamic between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly (Desire) and the hot pursuit of Robert Donat in The Thirty-Nine Steps (Escape), it’s the analysis of the director’s early work, including silent films, that really elevates the documentary. We are given a true cross-section of Hitchcock’s career and how it evolved. In a discussion on Height, an establishing shot in Hitchcock’s 1929 film, Juno and the Paycock, is used alongside the opening scene of Vertigo (1958) to illustrate how information is conveyed to an audience. From his earliest films, Hitchcock is positioning the camera to reveal the psychology of the character’s situation. Cousins’ encyclopaedic knowledge enables him to draw parallels across Hitchcock’s career: the Everyman quality of Ivor Novello in The Lodger echoes James Stewart in Rear Window, the coyly-veiled references to lesbianism in The Pleasure Garden (1925) are brought into sharper focus with the fanatical devotion of Judith Anderson’s Mrs Danvers in Rebecca (1940).

Cousins casts Hitchcock as an artist and trickster, straddling the line between commerce and art. While Saul Bass’ opening credits for Vertigo are a reflection of Hitchcock’s taste for abstract art, Cary Grant’s sun-baked shoulders in To Catch a Thief have us reaching for the aftersun. But in allowing Hitchcock to be his own narrator, the documentary omits key aspects. His unsettling behaviour on and off-set; his treatment of female stars such as Tippi Hedren, is never alluded to. This documentary is very much a director’s cut, and Hitchcock dodges controversy at every turn. As a summation of his work, My Name is Alfred Hitchcock is comprehensive, impressively so. But Hitchcock himself remains stubbornly evasive: he insists on knowing our “weaknesses”, we are never allowed to get as close.

My Name is Alfred Hitchcock is in cinemas from 21 July.

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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