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Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980)


English film director, who greatly contributed to the medium's growth as an art. Hitchcock's career as a director spanned over 50 years, beginning from the technically innovative silent films of the 1920s to Psycho (1960), an avant-garde horror film, and ending with the old-fashioned thriller Family Plot (1976). When Alfred Hitchcock received the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1979, he dedicated it to his wife Alma Reville, "a film editor, a script writer, the mother of his daughter and a talented cook."

"Subjective treatment, putting the audience in the mind of the character, is, to me, the purest form of the cinema. I suppose Rear Window is the best example of it." (Hitchcock in Who the Devil Made It by Peter Bogdanovich, 1997)

Alfred Hitchcock was born in London, the son of William Hitchcock, a poultry dealer and fruit importer, and Emma Jane Hitchcock (née Whelan). He was educated at a Jesuit school, London's St. Ignatius College, and the School of Engineering and Navigation, where he studied mechanics, electricity, acoustics, and navigation. He then worked for a telegraph company and took art courses at the University of London. In 1920 he entered the film industry as designer of titles for Hollywood's Famous Players-Lasky (Paramount).

When the Famous Players studios was taken over by a British production company, Hitchcock became an assistant director, working also as screenwriter and art director in several films. His first assignment as a director came in 1925. Next year he married Alma Reville, a film editor and script girl, who would later collaborate with him in several films. In 1926 Hitchcock directed The Lodger, which was commercially successful. It also marked his debut as an extra. The trademark of Hitchcock's personal appearances continued in later productions. In 1929 he directed Blackmail, the first British feature film with synchronous sound.

Hitchcock made his international breakthrough in 1934 with The Man Who Knew Too Much. The next film, The 39 Steps, was an even greater success, and one of the earliest Hitchcock's examples of the "innocent man on the run." Before leaving England, he made The Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage  (1937), Young and Innocent (1937), The Lady Vanishes (1938), and Jamaica Inn (1939).

John Buchan's spy thriller The Thirty Nine Steps was published in 1915. Buchan was one of Hitchcock's favorite writers and many consider The Thirty-nine Steps Hitchcock's best British film. However, Graham Greene considered the story "inexcusably spoilt" by the director. The story begins with the assassination of a secret agent. Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), the hero, bumps into a beautiful woman who calls herself 'Miss Smith'. She asks Hannay if he has ever heard of "the 39 Steps," and claims she must go to Scotland the next day to stop some vital secrets falling into enemy hands. Miss Smith is murdered and Hannay becomes the prime suspect for her murder. Hannay is hunted by the police and captured. He manages to escape, and continues his run with a blonde, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll). In the end the secret of the 39 Steps is revealed – it is an organization of spies collecting information on behalf of a foreign government. Hannay spends a good portion of the film handcuffed to Pamela, which has been interpreted as Hitchcock's bondage fantasy or a criticism of the institution of marriage. The Thirty-nine Steps was remade with Keith More as Hannay in 1956 and in 1978 by Don Sharp, starring Robert Powell.

Hitchcock's first American movie, Rebecca (1940), won the Best Picture Academy Award. However, the critic in Variety (March 27, 1940) gave it a bad review. "Dave Selznick's picture is too tragic and deeply psychological to hit the fancy of wide audience appeal... General audiences will tab it as a long-drawn out drama that could have been told better in less footage." The film was based on Daphne du Maurier's novel, which drew mostly from Charlotte Brontë's classic Jane Eyre. In the 1940s Hitchcock also directed among other films Shadow of Doubt (1943), starring Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten, Spellbound  (1945), which won an Academy Award for Best Music for Miklós Rózsa, Notorious (1946), starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, and Rope (1948), shot in a series of eight-minute continuous takes. It was the director's first color movie – he had to re-shoot more than half of the film after he noticed that the color of the setting sun appeared too vulgar on film. Hitchcock had also used in Lifeboat (1944) limited cinematic space – the film was shot in a gigantic water tank with back projections. He once said: "It is possible to be cinematic in the confined space of the telephone booth." Rope consisted of only eleven shots; usually Hitchcock's films contained one thousand shots.

In the 1950s Hitchcock made some of his most acclaimed films, Strangers on a Train (1951), Vertigo (1958), and North by Northwest (1959) – all of them dealt with psychically more or less disturbed people, anticipating Psycho (1960). Hitchcock himself suffered from all kinds of fears – he was frightened of police, authorities, his own emotions, and sex. Many of his films feature spies, "people who are not what they seem."

In Rear Window (1954) James Stewart played a sympathetic Peeping Tom, Jeff, a photographer and an alter ego of Hitchcock, a professional voyeur as a director. Stewart has a broken leg; he spends his time at home watching his neighbours, and his nurse Stella says: "We've become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is to get outside their own house and look in for a change." Vertigo, Hitchcock's most ingenious film, was dismissed by several critics. "... it pursues its theme of false identity with such plodding persistence that, by the time the climactic cat is let out of the bag, the audience has long since had kittens..." (Arthur Knight in Saturday Review, June 7, 1958)

Rear Window, starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly, was treated coldly in the New Yorker: "What isn't understandable... is Alfred Hitchcock's association with this enterprise... I fear that Rear Window must be taken as another example of his footless ambition to make a movie that stands absolutely still... Maybe one of these days he's going to bust out the way he used to, and then we'll have some satisfactory films." (John McCarten, August 7, 1954) In the United States Hitchcock produced a TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-1965). Several book anthologies, juvenile series Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators (based on characters created by Robert Arthur), and a monthly mystery magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, also used Hitchcock's name as part of the title.

Psycho was based on Robert Bloch's novel about Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), proprietor of Norman Bates motel, who keeps the preserved corpse of his mother in his cellar. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) has stolen $40,000 from her employer and after having driven for almost a day and a half, she decides to stay for the night at the motel. Dressed as an old lady, his mother, Norman kills Marion, when she takes a shower. The scene is among the most famous in film history. Hitchcock later told Francois Truffaut that the suddenness of the murder, out of the blue – only one-third of the way through the Bloch novel – did not hold him back from making the film in the first place. Norman also kills Milton Arbogast, a private detective, who is on the trail of the money. Marion's sister Lila and Sam Loomis eventually reveal Norman's secret.

The composer Bernard Herrman provided for Psycho an unforgettable score, as he had done in North by Northwest. The overture was described by the composer as "a kaleidoscope orchestral fandango designed to kick off the exciting rout which follows." Hitchcock himself once said that "The basis of the cinema's appeal is emotional. Music's appeal is to a great extent emotional, too. To neglect music, I think, is to surrender, willfully or not, a chance of progress in filmmaking." 

In 1998 Psycho was listed as one of the American Film Institute's top 100 films of the century (number 18). Some critics realized that Hitchcock had made a hit, but others not, among them Moira Walsh in America (July 9, 1960): "Hitchcock seems to have been more interested in shocking his audience with the bloodiest bathtub murder in screen history, and in photographing Janet Leigh in various stages of undress, than in observing the ordinary rules of good film construction. This is a dangerous corner for a gifted movie maker to place himself in."

Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) was basically a monster film, but instead of a "creature from the Black Lagoon" it featured ordinary birds. Hitchcock tormented the star, Tippi Hedren, with live birds and hand-puppets for a week, to get an emotional reaction from her. He first had spotted Hedren in a commercial for Sergo, a diet drink. In Marnie  (1964), he allegedly made advances to her. In the film she played a compulsive thief who also happens to be frigid. A key scene in this work involves a marital rape. "Blondes are the best victims. They're like virgin snow which shows up the bloody footprints." (Hitchcock in Sunday Times, 1 September 1973, from Dictionary of Film Quotations, ed. by Tony Crawley, 1994) Torn Curtain (1966), starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, is perhaps best known for its long murder scene. Newman tries to kill an East German named Gromek, a police spy who refuses to die – he is battered, stabbed, nearly strangled and finally Newman manages to kill him by holding Gromek's head inside a gas oven.

The political thriller Topaz (1969) was slightly delayed when André Malraux, the French Minister of Culture, withdrew the crew's shooting permit as he felt the film was anti-French. In the 1970s Hitchcock continued with Frenzy (1971), which marked the only time the director shot a nude scene (Psycho not included) and Family Plot (1976), which was his last production. In 1979 Hitchcock received the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. In the last years Hitchcock's drinking had increased. His famous unrealized final project was The Short Night, set partly in Finland. The writer David Freeman had prepared the script and Catherine Deneuve had agreed to star in it. The film director Peter Bogdanovich offered to shoot all the Finland sequences from a storyboard prepared with Hitchcock.

"Practically all of Hitchcock's dramatic ideas were visual. If a cameraman is supposed to 'paint with light,' Hitchcock painted with moving camera." (Jack Cardiff, in Hitchcock's Notebooks by Dan Auiler, 1999)

Several of Hitchcock's film were based on novels, short stories or plays by writers such as Daphne du Maurier, John Steinbeck, John Galsworthy, Leon Uris, Victor Canning, Robert Bloch, W. Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad, Josephine Tey, John Buchan, Cornell Woolrich, Patricia Highsmith and Winston Graham. Central themes are the thin line between sanity and insanity, the random nature of events, the concept of shared guilt, and how an innocent man's world can be destroyed by crime. Characteristic of his plots is the MacGuffin, the catalyst that sets the drama in motion, but which is at the same time something totally irrelevant. It can be a secret plan, or the uncovering of a spy ring as in The Thirty-nine Steps, or uranium, as in Notorious.

For further reading: Hitchcock by Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol (1957); Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock by François Truffaut (1966); Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze by William Rothman (1982); The Dark Side of Genius by Donald Spoto (1983); The Art of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto (1992); The Alfred Hitchcock Quote Book by Laurent Bouzereau (1993); The Movies of Alfred Hitchcock by Judy Arginteanu (1994); Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock by John Russel Taylor (1996); Who the Devil Made It by Peter Bogdanovich (1997); The Complete Hitchcock by Paul Condon and Jim Sangster (1999); Hitchcock's Notebooks by Dan Auiler (1999); The Architecture of Image by Juhani Pallasmaa (2001); The Hitchcock Murders by Peter Conrad (2001); Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan (2004); Hitchcock, Piece by Piece by Laurent Bouzereau and Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell (2010); Scripting Hitchcock: Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie by Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick (2011); Alfred Hitchcock by Paul Duncan (2011); Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy: The Last Masterpiece by Raymond Foery (2012) - Alfred Hitchcock Presents: catchy theme tune made the show phenomenally popular; Hitchcock directed fever than 20 episodes (260 approx x 25 min), in 1962-64 the series moved from CBS to NBC and become and hour for 93 episodes - among the script writers were Sterling Silliphant, Sarett Rudley, Roald Dahl, Robert C. Dennis, James P. Cavanagh, Francis Cockrell, Bernard Schoenfeld, Fredric Brown, Evan Hunter, Bill S. Ballinger, Charlotte Armstrong, Alan Crosland, Henry Sleasar, William Fay, Helen Nielsen

Films as director:

  • Number 13, 1922 (aka Mrs Peabody; unfinished)
  • Always Tell Your Wife, 1922 (with Seymour Hicks)
  • The Pleasure Garden, 1925, based on Oliver Sandys's novel
  • The Mountain Eagle, 1926
  • The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, 1926, (released in 1927)based on Mrs Belloc-Lowndes's novel
  • Downhill, 1927, based on a play by Novello and Constance Collier
  • Easy Virtue, 1927, based on Noel Coward's story
  • The Ring, 1927
  • The Farmer's Wife, 1928, based on Eden Philpotts's play
  • Champagne, 1928
  • Harmony Heaven, 1929 (co.dir. with Eddie Pola and Edward Brandt)
  • The Manxman, 1929, based on Hall Caine's novel
  • Blackmail, 1929, based on Charles Bennett's play
  • Elstree Calling, 1930 (co.dir. with Andre Charlot, Jack Hulbert, and Paul Murray with supervision of Adrian Brunel)
  • Juno and the Paycock, 1930, based on Sean O'Casey's play
  • Murder!, 1930
  • The Skin Game, 1931 - based on John Galsworthy's play
  • Rich and Strange, 1932
  • Number Seventeen, 1932, based on Jefferson Farjeon's novel and play
  • Waltzes from Vienna, 1933, based on Guy Bolton's play
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934
  • The 39 Steps, 1935, based on John Buchan's novel
  • Secret Agent, 1936, based on W. Somerset Maugham's novel
  • Sabotage, 1936, based on Joseph Conrad's novel
  • Young and Innocent, 1937, based on Josephine Tey's novel
  • The Lady Vanishes, 1938, based on Ethel Lina White's novel
  • Jamaica Inn, 1939, based on Daphne du Maurier's novel
  • Rebecca, 1940, based on Daphne du Maurier's novel
  • Foreign Correspondent, 1940
  • Mr. & Mrs. Smith, 1941
  • Suspicion, 1941, based on Francic Iles's novel
  • Saboteur, 1942, screenplay by Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, Dorothy Parker
  • Shadow of a Doubt 1943, screenplay by Thrornton Wilder, Alma Reville, Sally Benson
  • Lifeboat, 1943, based on John Steinbeck's story
  • Bon Voyage, 1944
  • Aventure Malgache, 1944
  • Spellbound, 1945, screenplay by Ben Hecht, based on Francis Beeding's, Hilary St George's and John Palmer's novel
  • Notorious, 1946, screenplay by Ben Hecht
  • The Paradine Case , 1947, based on Robert Hichens novel
  • Rope, 1948, based on Patrick Hamilton's play
  • Under Capricorn, 1949, based on Helen Simpson's novel
  • Stage Fright, 1950, based on Selwyn Jepson's story
  • Strangers on a Train, 1951, based on Patricia Highsmith's novel, screenplay by Raymond Chandler, Czenci Ormonde
  • I Confess, 1952, based on Paul Anthelme's play
  • Dial M for Murder, 1954, based on Fredrick Knott's play
  • Rear Window, 1954, based on Cornell Woolrich's novel
  • To Catch a Thief, 1955, based on David Doge's novel
  • The Trouble with Harry, 1956, based on John Trevor Story''s story
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956
  • The Wrong Man, 1957
  • Vertigo, 1958, based on Boileau-Narcejac novel
  • North by Northwest, 1959
  • Psycho, 1960, based on Robert Bloch's novel
  • The Birds, 1963, based on Daphne du Maurier's story
  • Marnie, 1964, based on Winston Graham's novel
  • Torn Curtain, 1966, screenpaly by Brian Moore
  • Topaz, 1969, based on Leon Uris's novel
  • Frenzy, 1971, screenplay by Anthony Shaffer, based on Arthur La Bern's novel
  • Family Plot, 1976, based on Victor Canning's novel, screenplay Ernest Lehman
  • Screenplays: Blackmail (1929); Juno and the Paycock / The Shame of Mary Boyle (1929, with Alma Reville); The Skin Game (1931, with Alma Reville); Number Seventeen (1932, with Alma Reville and Rodney Ackland); Rich and Strange / East of Shanghai (1932, with Alma Reville and Val Valentine); Saboteur (the story, 1942); Notorious (the story, 1946) - Co-scriptwriter: Woman to Woman (1923); The Passionate Adventurer (1924); A Story of the London Fog / The Case of Jonathan Drew (1926); The Ring (1927); The Farmer's Wife (1928); Champagne (adaptation, 1928); Murder / Mary / Sir John greif ein! (1931, with Alma Reville and Walter C. Mycroft) - Editor: Suspense Stories (1945); Bar the Doors (1946); Fireside Book of Suspense (1947); Fear and Trembling (1948); Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Do (1957); Alfred Hitchcock Presents: My Favorites in Suspense (1959); Clean Crimes and Neat Murders (1960); Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories for Late Night (1961); Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Thirteen More Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Do on TV (1961); Haunted Houseful (1961); Ghostly Gallery (1962); Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Sixteen Skeletons from My Closet (1963); Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories My Mother Never Told Me (1963); Solve-Them-Yourself Mysteries (1963); Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories Not for the Nervous (1965); Alfred Hithcock's Monster Museum (1965); Alfred Hitchcock's Sinister Spies (1966); Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories That Scared Even Me (1967); Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbinders in Suspense (1967); Alfred Hitchcock Presents: A Month of Mystery (1969); Murders I Fell in Love With (1969); Death Can Be Beautiful (1972); A Hearse of a Different Color (1972); Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories to Be Read with the Lights On (1971); Alfred Hitchcock's Supernatural Tales of Terror and Suspense (1973); Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories to Be Read with the Door Locked (1975); Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories That Go Bump in the Night (1977); Alfred Hitchcock's Witch Brew (1977); Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Master's Choice (1979)

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