Friday, August 31, 2007

Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980)

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The only way to get rid of my fears is to make films about them.


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Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, KBE (born on August 13, 1899 - April 29, 1980) was a British - American film director closely associated with the thriller genre. Influenced by German expressionism, he began directing in Britain before working in the United States from 1939. With more than fifty feature films to his credit, in a career spanning six decades, he remains one of the best known and most popular directors of all time. His innovations and vision have influenced a great number of filmmakers, producers, and actors.

Hitchcock's films draw heavily on both fear and fantasy, and are known for their droll humour. They often portray innocent people caught up in circumstances beyond their control or understanding. This often involves a transference of guilt in which the "innocent" character's failings are transferred to another character and magnified. Another common theme is the exploration of the compatibility of men and women; Hitchcock's films often take a cynical view of traditional romantic relationships. Still,one of Hitchcock's directorial priorities was to work love stories into his films.

Although Hitchcock was an enormous star during his lifetime, he was not usually ranked highly by contemporary film critics. Rebecca was the only one of his films to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, although four others were nominated. He was awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for lifetime achievement in 1967, but never personally received an Academy Award of Merit.

The French New Wave critics, especially Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Francois Truffaut, were among the first to promote his films as having artistic merit beyond entertainment. Hitchcock was one of the first directors to whom they applied their auteur theory, which stresses the artistic authority of the director (over the competing authorities of the screenwriter or producer) in the movie-making process. Indeed, through his fame, public persona, and degree of creative control, Hitchcock transformed the role of the director, which had previously been eclipsed by that of the producer.

Early Life

Alfred Hitchcock was born on August 13, 1899, in Leytonstone, London, the second son and youngest of the three children of William Hitchcock, a greengrocer, and his wife, Emma Jane Hitchcock (nee Whelan). His family was mostly Irish Catholic. Hitchcock was sent to Catholic boarding schools in London. He has said his childhood was very lonely and sheltered.

At 14, Hitchcock lost his father and left the Jesuit-run St Ignatius' College, his school at the time, to study at the School for Engineering and Navigation. After graduating, he became a draftsman and advertising designer with a cable company.

About that time, Hitchcock became intrigued by photography and started working in film in London. In 1920, he obtained a full-time job at Islington Studios under its American owners, Players-Lasky, and their British successors, Gainsborough Pictures, designing the titles for silent movies. In 1925, Michael Balcon of Gainsborough Pictures gave him a chance to direct his first film, The Pleasure Garden.

Pre-war British career

As a major talent in a new industry with plenty of opportunity, he rose quickly. His third film, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog was released in 1927. In it, attractive blondes are strangled and the new lodger (Ivor Novello) in the Bunting family's upstairs apartment falls under heavy suspicion. This is the first truly "Hitchcockian" film, incorporating such themes as the "wrong man."

In 1926, Hitchcock married his assistant director Alma Reville. The two had a daughter Patricia in 1928. Alma was Hitchcock's closest collaborator. She wrote some of his screenplays and worked with him on every one of his films.

In 1929, he began work on Blackmail, his tenth film. While the film was in production, the studio decided to make it one of Britain's first sound pictures.

In 1933, Hitchcock was once again working for Michael Balcon at Gaumont-British Picture Corporation. His first film for the company, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), was a success. His second, The 39 Steps (1935), is often considered the best film from his early period.

His next major success was in 1938, The Lady Vanishes, a clever and fast-paced film about the search for a kindly old Englishwoman (Dame May Whitty), who disappears while on board a train in the fictional country of Vandrika (a thinly-veiled reference to Nazi Germany).

By the end of the 1930s, Hitchcock was at the top of his game artistically, and in a position to name his own terms when David O. Selznick managed to entice the Hitchcocks across to Hollywood.


With the prestigious picture Rebecca in 1940, Hitchcock made his first American movie, although it was set in England and based on a novel by English author Dame Daphne du Maurier. This Gothic melodrama explores the fears of a naïve young bride who enters a great English country home and must grapple with a distant husband, a predatory housekeeper, and the legacy of the dead woman who was her husband's first wife. It has also subsequently been noted for lesbian undercurrents. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1940.

Hitchcock's gallows humour continues in his American work, together with the suspense that became his trademark. Due to Selznick's perennial money problems and Hitchcock's unhappiness with the amount of creative control demanded by Selznick over his films, Hitchcock was subsequently loaned to the larger studios more often than producing Hitchcock films himself.

Hitchcock's work during the early 1940's was very diverse, ranging from the romantic comedy, Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941), to the dark and disturbing Shadow of a Doubt (1943).

Shadow of a Doubt, his personal favorite, was about young Charlotte "Charlie" Newton (Teresa Wright), who suspects her beloved uncle Charlie Spencer (Joseph Cotten) of murder. In its use of overlapping characters, dialogue, and closeups it has provided a generation of film theorists with psychoanalytic potential, including Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizek. The film also harkens to one of Cotten's better known film, Citizen Kane.

Spellbound explored the then very fashionable subject of psychoanalysis and featured a dream sequence which was designed by Salvador Dali. The actual dream sequence in the film was considerably cut from the original planned scene that was to run for some minutes but proved too disturbing for the finished film.

Notorious (1946), with Ingrid Bergman, linked her to another of his most prominently recurring stars, Cary Grant. Featuring a plot about Nazis, radium and South America, Notorious is considered by many critics as Hitchcock's masterpiece. Its inventive use of suspense and props briefly led to Hitchcock being under surveillance by the CIA due to his use of uranium as a plot device.

Rope (his first colour film) came next in 1948. Here Hitchcock experimented with marshalling suspense via the use of exceptionally long takes - up to ten minutes (see Themes and devices). Rope features Jimmy Stewart in the leading role. Based on the Leopold and Loeb case of the 1920s, Rope is among the earliest openly gay-themed films to emerge from the Hays Office controlled Hollywood studio era.

Under Capricorn, set in nineteenth-century Australia, also used this short-lived technique, but to a more limited extent. For these two films he formed a production company with Sidney Bernstein, called Transatlantic Pictures, which folded after these two unsuccessful pictures.

With Strangers on a Train (1951), Hitchcock combined many of the best elements from his preceding British and American films. Two men casually meet and speculate on removing people who are causing them difficulty. One of the men, though, takes this banter entirely seriously. With Farley Granger reprising some elements of his role from Rope, Strangers continues the director's interest in the narrative possiblities of homosexual blackmail and murder.

Three very popular films, all starring Grace Kelly, followed. Dial M for Murder was adapted from the popular stage play by Frederick Knott. This was originally another experimental film, with Hitchcock using the technique of 3D cinematography, although the film was never released in the 3D format. Rear Window, starred Stewart again, as well as Thelma Ritter and Raymond Burr. Here the wheelchair-bound Stewart observes the movements of his neighbours across the courtyard. He becomes convinced that the wife of a near neighbour has been murdered. To Catch a Thief, set in the French Riviera, starred Kelly and Cary Grant.

In 1958, Hitchcock released Vertigo, a film almost universally agreed to be his masterpiece, which starred Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, and Barbara Bel Geddes. Three more recognised classics followed: North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963). The latter two were particularly notable for their unconventional soundtracks, both by Bernard Herrmann: the screeching strings in the murder scene in Psycho pushed the limits of the time, and The Birds dispensed completely with conventional instruments, using the first electronically produced soundtrack in a commercial film. These were his last great films, after which his career slowly wound down. In 1972 Hitchcock returned to London to film Frenzy, his last major success. For the first time, Hitchcock allowed nudity and profane language, which had before been taboo, in one of his films. Failing health slowed down his output over the last two decades of his life.

Family Plot (1976) was his last film. It related the escapades of "Madam" Blanche Tyler played by Barbara Harris, a fradulent spiritualist, and her taxi driver lover Bruce Dern making a living from her phony powers. William Devane and Katherine Helmond co-starred.

Hitchcock was made a Knight Commander of the British Empire on January 3, 1980, by Queen Elizabeth II, just four months before his death on April 29 and long after he had become a U.S. citizen. Alfred Hitchcock died of renal failure in his Bel Air, Los Angeles, home at the age of 80 and was survived by his wife Alma Reville Hitchcock, and their daughter, Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell. His body was cremated, and apparently there was no public funeral or memorial service.

Themes and devices

Hitchcock preferred the use of suspense over surprise in his films. In surprise, the director assaults the viewer with frightening things. In suspense, the director tells or shows things to the audience which the characters in the film do not know, and then artfully builds tension around what will happen when the characters finally learn the truth.

Further blurring the moral distinction between the innocent and the guilty, occasionally making this indictment clear, Hitchcock also makes voyeurs of his "respectable" audience. In Rear Window (1954), after L. B. Jeffries (played by James Stewart) has been staring across the courtyard at him for most of the film, Lars Thorwald (played by Raymond Burr) confronts Jeffries by saying "What do you want of me?" Burr might as well have been addressing the audience. In fact, shortly before asking this, Thorwald turns to face the camera directly for the first time -- at this point, audiences often gasp.

One of Hitchcock's favourite devices for driving the plots of his stories and creating suspense was what he called the "MacGuffin." The plots of many of his suspense films revolve around a "MacGuffin": a detail which, by inciting curiosity and desire, drives the plot and motivates the actions of characters within the story, but whose specific identity and nature is unimportant to the spectator of the film. In Vertigo, for instance, "Carlotta Valdes" is a MacGuffin; she never appears and the details of her death are unimportant to the viewer, but the story about her ghost's haunting of Madeleine Elster is the spur for Scottie's investigation of her, and hence the film's entire plot. In Notorious the uranium that the main characters must recover before it reaches Nazi hands serves as a similarly arbitrary motivation: any dangerous object would suffice. And state secrets of various kinds serve as MacGuffins in several of the spy films, like The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Most of Hitchcock's films contain cameo appearances by Hitchcock himself: the director would be seen for a brief moment boarding a bus, crossing in front of a building, standing in an apartment across the courtyard, or appearing in a photograph. This playful gesture became one of Hitchcock's signatures. As a recurring theme he would carry a musical instrument -- especially memorable was the large cello case that he wrestles onto the train at the beginning of Strangers on a Train. In his earliest appearances he would fill in as an obscure extra, standing in a crowd or walking through a scene in a long camera shot. But he became more prominent in his later appearances, as when he turns to see Jane Wyman's disguise when she passes him on the street in Stage Fright, and in stark silhouette in his final film Family Plot.

Hitchcock also uses the number 13 in his films. Adding up various dates, street addresses, license plates, and other numbered items brings up the number 13 on a regular basis. Psycho (1960) provides several good examples. Norman Bates moves to select room 3, then room 1. The most recent date of entry in the logbook on check-in adds up to 13.

Hitchcock seemed to delight in the technical challenges of filmmaking. In Lifeboat, Hitchcock sets the entire action of the movie in a small boat, yet manages to keep the cinematography from monotonous repetition. His trademark cameo appearance was a dilemma, given the claustrophobic setting; so Hitchcock appeared on camera in a fictitious newspaper ad for a weight loss product.

In Spellbound two unprecedented point-of-view shots were achieved by constructing a large wooden hand (which would appear to belong to the character whose point of view the camera took) and outsized props for it to hold: a bucket-sized glass of milk and a large wooden gun. For added novelty and impact, the climactic gunshot was hand-colored red on some copies of the black-and-white print of the film.

Rope (1948) was another technical challenge: a film that appears to have been shot entirely in a single take. The film was actually shot in eight takes of approximately 10 minutes each, which was the amount of film that would fit in a single camera reel; the transitions between reels were hidden by having a dark object fill the entire screen for a moment. Hitchcock used those points to hide the cut, and began the next take with the camera in the same place.

His 1958 film Vertigo contains a camera trick that has been imitated and re-used so many times by filmmakers, it has become known as the Hitchcock zoom.

Although famous for inventive camera angles, Hitchcock generally avoided points of view that were physically impossible from a human perspective. For example, he would never place the camera looking out from inside a refrigerator.

His character and its effects on his films

Hitchcock was in his mid-twenties, and a professional film director, before he'd ever drunk alcohol or been on a date. His films sometimes feature male characters struggling in their relationships with their mothers. In North by Northwest (1959), Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant's character) is an innocent man ridiculed by his mother for insisting that shadowy, murderous men are after him (in this case, they are). In The Birds (1963), the Rod Taylor character, an innocent man, finds his world under attack by vicious birds, and struggles to free himself of a clinging mother. The killer in Frenzy (1972) has a loathing of women but idolizes his mother. The villain Bruno in Strangers on a Train hates his father, but has an incredibly close relationship with his mother. Norman Bates' troubles with his mother in Psycho are infamous.

Hitchcock heroines tend to be lovely, cool blondes who seem at first to be proper but, when aroused by passion or danger, respond in a more sensual, animal, perhaps criminal way. As noted, the famous victim in The Lodger is a blonde. In The 39 Steps, Hitchcock's glamorous blonde star, Madeleine Carroll, is put in handcuffs. In Marnie (1964), glamorous blonde Tippi Hedren is a kleptomaniac. In To Catch a Thief (1955), glamorous blonde Grace Kelly offers to help someone she believes is a cat burglar. After becoming interested in Thorwald's life in Rear Window, Lisa breaks into Thorwald's apartment. And, most notoriously, in Psycho,Janet Leigh's character steals $40,000 and gets murdered by a young man named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who thought he was his own mother. (Or, as Norman put it himself, "My mother is -- what's the phrase? -- she isn't really herself today.") His last blonde heroine was French actress Claude Jade as the secret agent's worried daughter Michele in Topaz (1969).

Hitchcock saw that reliance on actors and actresses was a holdover from the theater tradition. He was a pioneer in using camera movement, camera set ups and montage to explore the outer reaches of cinematic art.

Hitchcock's most personal films are probably Notorious (1946) and Vertigo -- both about the obsessions and neuroses of men who manipulate women. Hitchcock often said that his personal favourite was Shadow of a Doubt.

Vertigo explores more frankly and at greater length his interest in the relation between sex and death. Kim Novak's character is most attractive as a blonde, and though Jimmy Stewart's character believes she is suicidal (he later discovers the truth about her), he falls in love with her and she with him. Stewart's character feels an angry need to control his lover, to dress her, to fetishise her clothes, her shoes, her hair.

His style of working

Hitchcock had trouble giving proper credit to the screenwriters who did so much to make his visions come to life on the screen. Gifted writers worked with him, including Raymond Chandler and John Michael Hayes, but rarely felt they had been treated as equals.

Hitchcock once commented, "The writer and I plan out the entire script down to the smallest detail, and when we're finished all that's left to do is to shoot the film. Actually, it's only when one enters the studio that one enters the area of compromise. Really, the novelist has the best casting since he doesn't have to cope with the actors and all the rest." Hitchcock was often critical of his actors and actresses as well, dismissing, for example, Kim Novak's performance in Vertigo, and once famously remarking that actors were to be treated like cattle. (In response to being accused of saying 'actors are cattle', he said 'I never said they were cattle; I said they were to be treated like cattle'.

The first book devoted to the director is simply named Hitchcock. It is a document of a one-week interview by Francois Truffaut in 1967. (ISBN 0671604295).


Hitchcock's film Rebecca (1940) won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1940, although the award was given to producer David O. Selznick. As a producer, Hitchcock received one Academy Award Best Picture nomination for Suspicion (1941). He was nominated as Best Director for five of his films: Rebecca, Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945), Rear Window, and Psycho. He received an honorary Oscar in 1968 and was knighted in 1980.

  • Like Freud, Hitchcock diagnosed the discontents that chafe and rankle beneath the decorum of civilization. Like Dali, he registered the phenomenological threat of an abruptly modernised world." -- Peter Conrad
  • "I'd like to know more about his relationships with women. No, on second thought, I wouldn't." -- Ingrid Bergman
  • "I'm a philanthropist: I give people what they want. People love being horrified, terrified." -- Alfred Hitchcock
  • "I never said actors were cattle. All I said is that actors should be treated as cattle" -- Alfred Hitchcock
  • "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out." -- Alfred Hitchcock
  • "Seeing a murder on television... can help work off one's antagonisms. And if you haven't any antagonisms, the commercials will give you some." -- Alfred Hitchcock
  • "Here is someone, who has an enormous, inordinate, neurotic fear of disorder. And that's from which he makes his art. He always has his people in a moment of disorder. They think they're in control, they think they have power, they think they have order, and then he just slips the rug out from under them to see what they're going to do."
Other notes

From 1955 to 1965, Hitchcock was the host and producer of a long-running television series entitled Alfred Hitchcock Presents. While his films had made Hitchcock's name strongly associated with suspense, the TV series made Hitchcock a celebrity himself. His irony-tinged voice, image, and mannerisms became instantly recognizable and were often the subject of parody. He directed a few episodes of the TV series himself and he upset a number of movie production companies when he insisted on using his TV production crew to produce his motion picture Psycho. In the late 1980s, a new version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents was produced for television, making use of Hitchcock's original introductions.

Alfred Hitchcock is also immortalised in print and appeared as himself in the very popular juvenile detective series, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators. The long-running detective series was clever and well-written with characters much younger than the Hardy Boys. Alfred Hitchcock agreed to introduce the cases of the Three Investigators after they succeeded in solving a very difficult case involving a castle and thereafter a parrot. Alfred Hitchcock formerly introduced each case at the beginning of the book. As a director, he even often gave them new cases to solve. At the end of each book, Alfred Hitchcock would discuss the specifics of the case with Jupiter Jones, Bob Andrews and Peter Crenshaw and every so often the three boys would give Alfred Hitchcock mementos of their case.

When Alfred Hitchcock passed away, his chores as the boys' mentor/friend would be done by a fictional character: a retired detective named Hector Sebastian. Due to the popularity of the series, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators scored several reprints and out of respect, the latter reprints were changed to just The Three Investigators. Over the years, more than one name has been used to replace Alfred Hitchcock's character, especially for the earlier books when his role was emphasised.

At the height of Hitchcock's success, he was also asked to introduce a set of books with his name attached. The series was a collection of short stories by popular short story writers. They were primarily focused on suspense and thrillers. These titles included Alfred Hitchcock's Monster Museum, Alfred Hithcock's Supernatural Tales of Terror and Suspense, Alfred Hitchock's Spellbinders in Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock's Witch's Brew, Alfred Hitchcock's Ghostly Gallery and Alfred Hitchcock's Haunted Houseful.

Some notable writers whose works were used in the collection include Shirley Jackson (Strangers in Town, The Lottery), T.H. White (The Sword in the Stone), Robert Bloch, H. G. Wells (The War of the Worlds), Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain and the creator of The Three Investigators, Robert Arthur.


Silent filmsSound FilmsFrequent collaborators

Sara Allgood, Charles Bennett (screenwriter), Ingrid Bergman, Carl Brisson, Madeleine Carroll, Leo G. Carroll, Joseph Cotten, Hume Cronyn, Robert Cummings, Joan Fontaine, John Forsythe, Farley Granger, Cary Grant, Clare Greet, Lilian Hall-Davis, Gordon Harker, Tippi Hedren, Bernard Herrmann (composer), Hannah Jones, Malcolm Keen, Grace Kelly, Charles Laughton, John Longden, Peter Lorre, Miles Mander, Vera Miles, Ivor Novello, Anny Ondra, Gregory Peck, Jessie Royce Landis, James Stewart, John Williams.

  • Truffaut, Francois: Hitchcock. Simon and Schuster, 1985. A series of interviews of Hitchcock by the influential French director. This is an important source, but some have criticised Truffaut for taking an uncritical stance.
  • Leitch, Thomas: The Encyclopedia of Alfred Hitchcock. Checkmark Books, 2002. An excellent single-volume encyclopedia of all things Hitchcock.
  • Deutelbaum, Marshall; Poague, Leland (ed.): A Hitchcock Reader. Iowa State University Press, 1986. A wide-ranging collection of scholarly essays on Hitchcock.
  • Spoto, Donald: The Art of Alfred Hitchcock. Anchor Books, 1992. The first detailed critical survey of Hitchcock's work by an American.
  • Spoto, Donald: The Dark Side of Genius. Ballantine Books, 1983. A biography of Hitchcock, featuring a controversial exploration of Hitchcock's psychology.
  • Gottlieb, Sidney: Alfred Hitchcock: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2003. A collection of Hitchcock interviews.
  • Conrad, Peter: The Hitchcock Murders. Faber and Faber, 2000. A highly personal and idiosyncratic discussion of Hitchcock's oeuvre.
  • Rebello, Stephen: Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. St. Martin's, 1990. Intimately researched and detailed history of the making of Psycho, praised as one of the best books on moviemaking ever.
  • McGilligan, Patrick: Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. Regan Books, 2003. A comprehensive biography of the director.
[This article in part is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Alfred Hitchcock.]

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