For a man who was destined for great things and lasting fame, Alfred Hitchcock came from a very humble background. He was born on 13th August 1899 in Leytonstone, London, England, the son of a greengrocer and poulterer. He endured a lonely childhood on account of his obesity and he would be frequently humiliated by his domineering mother. His insecurity was compunded by the death of his father when he was 14. His one escape was the cinema, a magical world which he adored. Coming from a family of devout Catholics, he was educated at a Jesuit school. He then began a course on electrical engineering at London University, but had to drop out so that he could support his family financially. He was employed as a draftsman and advertising designer for a cable company.
Then, barely twenty, the young Alfred Hitchcock did something that would change his life forever. He approached the film production company Famous Players-Lasky (later to become Paramount Pictures) and lobbied for a job designing titles for silent films, which he insisted he could do far better than anyone else. Hitchcock proved to be as good as his word and he continued in this role for Gainsborough Pictures when they took over from Famous Players-Lasky at Islington studios.
Hitchcock’s work brought him to the attention of the head and founder of Gainsborough, Michael Balcon, who offered him work revising scripts and then his first chance to direct a film. This was the inauspiciously named Number Thirteen, which was abandoned when the film’s financing collapsed. Hitchcock was then asked to complete Always Tell Your Wife (1923), when the director assigned to that film, Hugh Croise, fell ill.
Hitchcock continued his apprenticeship at the Babelsberg Studios in Berlin, Germany, where he co-scripted The Blackguard (1925) with director Graham Cutts. It was here that he fell under the spell of German expressionism, whilst working as art director on F.W. Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (1924). Hitchcock would learn a great deal from the German expressionist filmmakers, particularly how the camera could be used in a subjective way that would involve the spectator and add a greater sense of psychological realism to a film. Hitchcock also became acquainted with Eisenstein’s theories on montage and would later apply these techniques in his own films. This gestation period gave Hitchcock his notion of what he would later term "pure cinema", the idea of telling a story and stimulating a viewer reaction through pictures, and not by people merely talking to one another.
Whilst based in Germany, Hitchcock worked in various roles (set designer, script collaborator and assistant director) on several films until finally Gainsborough offered him the chance to direct his own film, The Pleasure Garden (1925). Shot at the famous UFA Studios, this film has many of the ingredients that would become closely associated with Hitchcock’s future work – dark humour, deceit, intrigue and, of course, suspense. Although this film was not a commercial success, it persuaded his superiors at Gainsborough that he had the potential to become a fine director. Hitchcock’s second film, The Mountain Eagle (1926) was also shot in Germany. This film was a total failure and is the only one of Hitchcock’s films for which no print exists today.
Then came Hitchcock’s first commercial and critical success, The Lodger (1927), which was based on the story of Jack the Ripper. This was the first of his great suspense thrillers, and one that dealt with a theme that would recur in many subsequent films, the idea of a man wrongly accused of a crime. Today, this is considered the best of Hitchcock’s silent films and has some genuinely inspired touches. Although he made some other films of great merit during the silent era – notably The Ring (1927) and The Manxman (1929) – it was not until the advent of sound that Hitchcock found his voice (so to speak). The Lodger also contains the first of Hitchcock’s famous cameo appearances. From Blackmail onwards, the director would appear briefly in almost every one of his films, usually within the first ten minutes of the film.
In December 1926, Alfred Hitchcock married Alma Reville, who had worked as his assistant director and contributed to his screenplays. Alma would collaborate on all of his subsequent films, although she is often uncredited. No other person worked more closely and so diligently with Hitchcock than she did. It was the perfect private and professional partnership and, in his many interviews, Hitchcock was effusive yet sincere in his praise for the support she gave him throughout his adult life.
East Virtue (1927), an adaptation of a Noel Coward play, was the last film that Hitchcock made for Gainsborough. Lured by the prospect of greater directorial freedom, he joined British International Pictures at Elstree studios and immediately made The Ring (1927). After this promising start, Hitchcock soon found that he was being artistically restrained by his paymasters. He particularly resented having to adapt stage plays, a favourite genre of the studio bosses because such films tended to be popular with audiences. Hitchcock’s attempts at experimentation would often prove unsuccessful and after the failure of Number Seventeen (1932) he ended his association with BIP. Perhaps the most notable of the films that Hitchcock made during his time with BIP was Blackmail (1929), his first sound film and a return to the suspense thriller genre for which he seemed to have a particular affinity and aptitude.
Michael Balcon, now head of Gaumont-British (the successor to Gainsborough), would come to Hitchcock’s aid a second time, although the first film that he put Hitchcock’s way was something of a poisoned chalice. Waltzes from Vienna (1933) was a lightweight musical comedy about the life of Johann Strauss II, the kind of film that was least likely to appeal to Hitchcock, as can be seen from the tepid end result. Fortunately, what followed was a series of films that were far better suited to the director – six thrillers that would earn Hitchcock his reputation as one of Britain’s foremost directors.
This run of good luck began with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), which proved to be popular with both audiences and critics. This was followed by The 39 Steps (1935), considered by many to be the highpoint of the British phase of Hitchock’s career. This film introduced the concept of the Macguffin, a device around which the plot revolves but which is not actually central to the film. Hitchcock often said that he was more interested in technique rather than the content of a film. The plot mechanics rarely interested him. What he sought to do was not so much tell a story as to create an experience for the spectator. The Macguffin epitomised this philosophy. Often, the least important element of a Hitchcock film is the plot.
The winning formula of suspense thriller and political intrigue was repeated in Secret Agent (1936) and Sabotage (1936), although the latter was severely criticised for killing off a sympathetic character. In The Lady Vanishes (1938), Hitchcock demonstrated his flair for comedy. During this fruitful period, Hitchcock was beginning to receive invitations from American film producers to work in Hollywood. He was finally persuaded to make the move when independent film producer David O. Selznick offered him a seven year contract to make five full-length films.
Whilst awaiting his first Selznick project, Hitchcock completed his run of British films with Jamaica Inn (1939), a half-hearted adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier novel. The historical drama was the kind of film which the director least liked and he would only make one other film in the genre, Under Capricorn (1949). Hitchcock claimed that the reason he found costume dramas so unappealing was because he found it hard to surprise his audience in such films, since these were so far removed from the spectator’s own experiences.
On his arrival in Hollywood in 1939, Hitchcock was originally assigned to work on a film about the Titanic, but this was abandoned and he was instead requested by Selznick to adapt another Daphne Du Maurier novel, Rebecca (1940). Although the film was a great success and won the Best Picture Oscar in 1941, Hitchcock found working with Selznick difficult and resented his frequent interventions. He preferred to be hired out to other studios than work for such a hands on producer.
With the outbreak of WWII, Hitchcock’s contribution to the war effort was a series of films with an obvious propaganda slant: Foreign Correspondent (1940), Saboteur (1942) and Lifeboat (1944). During this period, he made two films for RKO: the bland screwball comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) and the suspense thriller Suspicion (1941), the latter marking his first collaboration with Cary Grant, who starred in four of his films. Saboteur, a virtual remake of The 39 Steps, was followed by the superlative film noir thriller Shadow of a Doubt (1943), which Hitchcock always considered to be his best film.
In this early American period, the film that presented Hitchcock with the greatest technical challenge was Lifeboat (1944), which he made for 20th Century Fox. Despite the fact that all the action takes place in a forty-foot long rowing boat, this is one of Hitchcock’s most compelling and best crafted films, although it is perhaps slightly dated by its overt anti-Nazi propaganda messages. Ironically, this film was judged pro-Nazi by some critics and this resulted in it being given a very limited release. Darryl F. Zanuck’s reluctance to defend the film upset Hitchcock and the director would never make another film for 20th Century Fox.
In 1943, Hitchcock returned to England to make two short films for the Ministry of Information: Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache. These were intended for the Free French and are his only French language films. His patriotic duty done, Hitchcock then returned to the United States to work out his contract with Selznick. Although he was contracted to direct another four films, he managed to get off with just three: Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), The Paradine Case (1947), the success of the first two more than making up for the failure of the latter,
Hitchcock’s first act after he managed to break off Selznick’s leash was to found his own production company with Sidney Bernstein. That company, Transatlantic Pictures, would have a short life, however. Hitchcock made just two films for Transatlantic, Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949) – his first two colour films, noted for their use of very long takes (up to ten minutes, the longest that was possible with the film recording equipment at the time). The company was wound up when both of these films failed at the box office. Rope was the first time that Hitchcock worked with James Stewart, who would star in three of his subsequent films and become one of his closest friends.
Under Capricorn, a lavish costume drama, was made in England, as was Hitchcock’s next film Stage Fright (1950), his first commission from Warner Brothers. Once again, Hitchcock failed to attract an audience. With four box office failures in a row, the director finally managed to redeem himself with his next film, Strangers on a Train (1951). This marked the beginning of Hitchcock’s successful middle period in Hollywood, when the director was at his most inspired and most confident, and when box office takings were at their zenith.
The sombre I Confess (1953) was followed by a trio of films featuring Grace Kelly – Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955). Dial M for Murder is significant in that it was filmed in 3D, although by the time it was released the 3D fad had come and gone and most cinemas showed it in conventional flat screen format. Rear Window is one of Hitchcock’s most highly regarded films, noted for its confined setting and its voyeuristic camerawork.
The quirky The Trouble with Harry (1955) shows Hitchcock’s penchant for black comedy, although it was not a success in America. This was followed by his popular 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. This is the film in which the lead actress Doris Day sang Que Sera, Sera, a song that would be an international hit.
The Wrong Man (1957) then offered a stark change of style. A comparatively modest film, shot almost as a documentary, this film revisited one of Hitchcock’s favourite themes, the idea of a man wrongly accused of a crime. This was followed by Vertigo (1958), a film that was badly received at the time but which is now widely regarded as Hitchcock’s best film.
It was around this time that the French film critics on the review magazine Les Cahiers du Cinéma - Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut – began championing the work of Hitchcock. Hitherto, the director had not been taken too seriously by the critics and his mainstream success made it easy for the critics merely to dismiss him as just a competent technician. By contrast, the French critics considered Hitchcock to be one of the shining examples of the auteur principle and promoted him as one of the greatest film directors of the day.
Both Truffaut and Chabrol would be influenced by Hitchcock in the films they would go on to make. Truffaut’s La Mariée était en noir is an obvious homage to Hitchcock, whilst Chabrol would earn himself the epithet of the "Hitchcock of French cinema" with his series of psychological thrillers. In 1967, François Truffaut published a book containing interviews that he had with Hitchcock over a six day period in 1962. No other book has shed as much light on Hitchcock’s approach to filmmaking and it helped to secure his reputation as a serious filmmaker across the world.
The late 1950s, early 1960s, marked the highpoint of Hitchcock’s career. The popular thriller North by Northwest (1959) was followed by Psycho (1960), his best known film and biggest commercial success. Audiences were shocked to see the lead actress in Psycho (Janet Leight) killed off in the first third of the film, and were just as surprised by the manner of her departure, in the infamous shower sequence. Just as thrilling was The Birds (1963), a sci-fi / fantasy masterpiece which is noted for its remarkable special effects and visceral horror.
Marnie (1964) marked the beginning of Hitchcock’s decline in Hollywood. Although well regarded today, this film was badly received at the time. The downward trend continued with Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969), both commercial and critical disasters. With Hitchcock now in his seventieth year, it looked as if his career was going to end in ignominious failure. But, to everyone’s surprise, he made a stunning comeback with his next film, Frenzy (1972), a surprisingly violent psycho-thriller shot in London, not far from where he grew up. His next, and final film, Family Plot (1976), was not quite so impressive, but has all the ingredients of a good suspense thriller. Whilst working on pre-production for another film, The Short Night, Hitchcock finally decided that he had to retire for health reasons.
Although he was a reserved man who liked to live a quiet life, Hitchcock did not shun publicity and in fact went to great lengths to promote his image, almost to the point of self-parody. He gave innumerable interviews, in which he talked at length about his work and his life, but the thing that most made him familiar with the public were his appearances on "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", a popular TV series of mysteries that ran from 1955 to 1962.
Hitchcock’s extraordinary success as a mainstream filmmaker robbed him of the recognition that he merited throughout most of his career. Although he was nominated five times for the Best Director Oscar, he never won the award, although he was given an honorary Oscar (the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award) in 1968.
During his stay in Hollywood, Hitchcock grew to love America as much as he loved his native England. He became an American citizen in 1956 and made America his new home. Not long after he was awarded his knighthood, he died from renal failure at his home in Bel-Air, Los Angeles, on 29th April 1980, aged 80.
Whilst much has been said and written about Alfred Hitchcock, he remains something of a mystery, an enigma about whom several myths prevail. One myth is that he hated actors, that he considered them to be cattle. The fact is (as is apparent in the many interviews he gave in his later years), he had the greatest admiration for actors and what he meant was that they should be treated like cattle, i.e. not be allowed to roam at will across a set and do just what they want. The only actors he had difficulty with were the so-called method actors, since they challenged his directorial authority. In particular, he had problems with Montgomery Clift and Paul Newman. To quote Hitchcock: "When an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, ’It’s in the script.’ If he says, ’But what’s my motivation?, ’ I say, ’Your salary.’" In general, Hitchcock loved and admired actors and they loved and admired him in return – a fact that is borne out by the quality of the performances they gave in his films.
Another myth, which is even more prevalent, is that Hitchcock planned every last detail of the film before going to the studio, meticulously storyboarding every shot and leaving nothing to chance. Whilst it is true that Hitchcock did this on some of his films – particularly the more technically challenging films such as Lifeboat and Rope – it is not the case for all of his films. There are several documented instances where Hitchcock was either obliged or inspired to depart from the shooting script, and making a film is never so predictable that every shot goes according to plan. A classic example is the crop dusting sequence in North By Northwest, which was entirely improvised, although Hitchcock was later requested by the studio to have a set of storyboards created to perpetuate the myth that he had everything worked out before the filming began.
Although there is considerable diversity in Hitchcock’s work, it is the suspense thriller genre with which he is most associated. One recurring theme in these films is a man wrongly accused of a crime which he did not commit. In interviews, Hitchcock revealed that this idea stems from when, as a small boy, he was sent to the police station by his father, with a note requesting that he be locked up in a cell for ten minutes. This experience left him with a profound phobia of the police that lasted all his life.
Fear is the defining characteristic of Hitchcock the man and his work. A shy and sensitive man, the director found the process of filmmaking intimidating and the way he overcame this fear was to cast it as a set of technical challenges that had to be solved. Most of his films are studies in fear – fear of the unexpected, fear of being found out, fear of death, even fear of fear itself. As Hitchcock said: "The only way to get rid of my fears is to make films about them." Well, that sounds more fun than psycho-therapy, doesn’t it Norman? "Yes, Mother, I guess it does..."
© filmsdefrance.com 2009
Alfred Hitchcock is best-known for the following films:
The Film DirectorAlfred Hitchcock directed the following films:
Always Tell Your Wife (1923) (short)
An Elastic Affair (1930) (short)
Aventure malgache (1944) (short)
Bon Voyage (1944) (short)
Watchtower Over Tomorrow (1945) (short)
The WriterAlfred Hitchcock contributed to the screenplay for the following films:
An Elastic Affair (1930) (short)
The ActorAlfred Hitchcock has appeared in the following films: