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Alfred Hitchcock

Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, KBE (August 13, 1899 - April 29, 1980) was a British movie director who began his career as an engineering student interested in design. Hitchcock's films frequently portray innocent people caught up in circumstances beyond their control or even understanding; a common theme of his movies is that these characters are guilty, but only of minor, unrelated failings. The films draw heavily on both fear and fantasy, and are known for their droll humor. There are also known for featuring Alfred Hitchhock in minor parts in the film-a technique used by other directors and writers including Colin Dexter in the ITV Inspector Morse series.

Born in London into a mostly Irish Catholic family, Hitchcock was sent to Jesuit schools. He grew intrigued by photography and got his start in film in London in 1920 designing the titles for silent movies. In 1925, he became a director, almost by accident.

Table of contents

Pre-war British Career

As a major talent in a new industry with plenty of opportunity, he rose quickly. His first important film, The Lodger[?] was released in 1926. In it, an attractive blonde is murdered, and the new lodger in a nearby apartment falls under heavy suspicion. He is, in fact, innocent of the crime.

Downhill[?] (1927) portrayed another innocent man accused, this time a young man accused of a theft at his school and thrown out of his house as a result. The man later has an affair with an older woman, and in the morning, as she wakes in their bed of passion, he sees her aged face, while people carry a coffin by outside their window. Hitchcock would repeatedly return in his films to the notion that sex and death are linked.

Hitchcock developed his unique style of storytelling during the 1930s, reaching the peak of his British filmmaking career with The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). By this time, he had caught the attention of Hollywood, and was invited to make films in America.


David O. Selznick pursued Hitchcock to make some Hollywood films. With Rebecca in 1940, Hitchcock made his first American film, and he worked in America for the rest of his career. Rebecca evokes the fears of a naive young bride who enters a great English country home and must grapple with the legacy of the dead woman who was her husband's first wife. The droll touches of humor are still there in his American work, but suspense became his trademark.

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 synonymous with "suspense," the TV series made Hitchcock a celebrity himself. His 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.

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.

Hitchcock took pride in his ability to sustain suspense. Once at a French airport, a dubious customs official looked at Hitchcock's passport, which was marked simply PRODUCER. The official frowned and asked, "And what do you produce?" "Gooseflesh," replied Hitchcock.

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, 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; and in fact, shortly before that Thorwald turns to face the camera directly for the first time--at this point, audiences invariably gasp.

One of Hitchcock's favorite devices for driving the plots of his stories and creating suspense was described as a "MacGuffin" by the director himself. Hitchcock described the "MacGuffin" as a red herring: a meaningless, unimportant detail that solely existed to serve as a reason for the story to exist. (See MacGuffin for more details about this plot device.)

Rope was another technical challenge that Hitchcock set for himself: a film shot entirely on a single set with limited camera movement that nevertheless succeeds in compelling our attention. The film is commonly thought to have been shot in one take, or to have been assembled without cuts, or with only a few, but this is not the case. The film was shot in 10-minute takes; a few of the edits are apparent, and the rest are hidden by having an object fill the entire screen. Hitchcock uses that point to cut, and begins the next take from the same point, from which the object or the camera moves.

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.

His Character and its Effects on his Films

Hitchcock was a lonely, imaginative, obese child, raised Catholic and trained to give his mother the day's confession every night.

As an adult, driving in Switzerland one day, Hitchcock pointed out the window and told a friend, "That is the most frightening sight I have ever seen." The friend looked out with alarm and saw only a priest with his arm around a young boy. But Hitchcock leaned out of the car: "Run, little boy! Run for your life!"

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 Roger O. 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 the Rod Taylor[?] character, an innocent man, finds his world under attack by vicious birds, and struggles to free himself of a grasping mother. The killer in Frenzy[?] is also living in the same house 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[?], glamorous blonde Tippie Hedren[?] is a kleptomaniac[?]. In To Catch a Thief, glamorous blonde Grace Kelly 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."

Hitchcock saw that a 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 loved to eat. One unrealized film idea was to show 24 hours in the life of a city, with the frame being the food: how it was imported and prepared and eaten and then at the end of the day thrown away into the sewers. Hitchcock did set his film Frenzy in the part of London where food arrived, was processed and distributed. The killer found himself and one of his corpses in a truck with sacks of potatoes.

Once, toward the end of a small private dinner party with meager portions, Hitchcock heard his hostess say, "I do hope you'll dine again with us soon." Hitchcock replied, "By all means. Let's start now."

Hitchcock's most personal films are probably Notorious and Vertigo -- both about the obsessions and neuroses of men who manipulate women.

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 knows she is an accessory to murder, 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 fetishize her clothes, her shoes, her hair.

His Workstyle

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, 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.

Most of his films contain a short appearance of Hitchcock himself: the director was sometimes boarding a bus, or crossing in front of a business, or across the courtyard in an apartment, or in a newspaper advertisement. It is a widely popular game to find Hitchcock's appearance in his films. There are books and websites dedicated to this particular hobby.

The probably most intriguing insight of Hitchcock's understanding of his own work can be found in a book simply named Hitchcock. It is a document of a one-week interview by Francois Truffaut in 1967, showing how Hitchcock's mind worked, picking the films apart piece by piece. (ISBN 0671604295).

Hitchcock did not rank highly with film critics of his own day. Except for Rebecca, none of his films won an Academy Award for Best Picture. As a producer, Hitchcock received one Best Picture nomination for Suspicion. He was nominated Best Director for five of his films: Rebecca, Lifeboat[?], Spellbound, Rear Window, and Psycho. Still, the only Academy Award that he ever received was the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award[?] in 1968. Hitchcock would be knighted in January 1980 by Queen Elizabeth II just four months before his death in Los Angeles. Alfred Hitchcock was cremated.


  • "Like Freud, Hitchcock diagnosed the discontents that chafe and rankle beneath the decorum of civilization. Like Picasso or Dali[?], he registered the phenomenological threat of an abruptly modernized world." -- Peter Conrad

  • "I'd like to know more about his relationships with women. No, on second thought, I wouldn't." -- Ingmar Bergman

  • "I'm a philanthropist: I give people what they want. People love being horrified, terrified." -- Alfred Hitchcock


Silent Films (all dates are for release)

Sound Films

Further Reading

  • Truffaut, Francois: Hitchcock. Simon and Schuster, 1985. A series of interviews of Hitchcock given by the influential French director. This is an important source, but some have criticized 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.

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