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Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock KBE (August 13, 1899 – April 29, 1980) was a highly influential film director and producer who pioneered many techniques in the suspense and thriller genres.
He directed more than fifty feature films in a career spanning six decades, from the silent film era, through the invention of talkies, to the colour era. Hitchcock was among the most consistently successful and publicly recognizable directors in the world during his lifetime, and remains one of the best known and most popular directors of all time, famous for his expert and largely unrivalled control of pace and suspense throughout his movies.
Hitchcock was born and raised in Leytonstone, London, England. He began his directing career in the United Kingdom in 1922, but from 1939 he worked primarily in the United States and applied for U.S. citizenship in 1956. Hitchcock and his family lived in a mountaintop estate high above Scotts Valley, California, from 1940 to 1972. He died of renal failure in 1980.
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.
Rebecca was the only one of his films to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, although four others were nominated. However, Hitchcock never won an Academy Award for Best Director. He was awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for lifetime achievement in 1967, but never personally received an Academy Award of Merit.
Until the later part of his career, Hitchcock was far more popular with film audiences than with film critics, especially the elite British and American critics. In the late 1950s the French New Wave critics, especially Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and François Truffaut, were among the first to see and promote his films as artistic works. Hitchcock was one of the first directors to whom they applied their auteur theory, which stresses the artistic authority of the director in the film-making process.
Hitchcock's innovations and vision have influenced a great number of filmmakers, producers, and actors. His influence helped start a trend for film directors to control artistic aspects of their movies without answering to the movie's producer.
Childhood and youth
Alfred Hitchcock was born on August 13, 1899, in Leytonstone, Essex (now London), the second son and youngest of three children of William Hitchcock (1862-1914), a greengrocer and poulterer, and his wife, Emma Jane Hitchcock (née Whelan; 1863-1942). His family was mostly Roman Catholic. Hitchcock was sent to the Catholic school St. Ignatius College in London. He often described his childhood as being very lonely and sheltered, which was undoubtedly compounded by his weight issues.
Hitchcock claimed that on one occasion, early in his life, after he had acted childishly, his father sent him to the local police station carrying a note. When he presented the police officer on duty with the note, he was locked in a cell for a few moments, long enough to be petrified. This was a favorite anecdote of his, and the incident is often cited in connection with the theme of distrust of police which runs through many of his films. His mother would often make him address her while standing at the foot of her bed, especially if he behaved badly, forcing him to stand there for hours. This would be recalled by the character Norman Bates in Psycho.
When Hitchcock was 14, his father died; the same year, he left the Jesuit-run St Ignatius' College in Stamford Hill, 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, Famous Players-Lasky, and their British successors, Gainsborough Pictures, designing the titles for silent movies.
Pre-war British career
In 1925, Michael Balcon of Gainsborough Pictures gave him a chance to direct his first film, The Pleasure Garden made at Ufa studios in Germany. The commercial failure of this film threatened to derail his promising career. In 1926, however, Hitchcock made his debut in the thriller genre. The resulting film, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog was a major commercial and critical success. Like many of his earlier works, it was influenced by Expressionist techniques he had witnessed firsthand in Germany. This is the first truly "Hitchcockian" film, incorporating such themes as the "wrong man".
Following the success of The Lodger, Hitchcock began his first efforts to promote himself in the media, and hired a publicist to cement his growing reputation as one of the British film industry's rising stars. On December 2, 1926, he married his assistant director Alma Reville at Brompton Oratory. Their daughter Patricia was born in 1928. Alma was Hitchcock's closest collaborator. She wrote some of his screenplays and (though often uncredited) worked with him on every one of his films.
In 1929, he began work on his tenth film Blackmail. While the film was in production, the studio decided to make it one of Britain's first sound pictures. With the climax of the film taking place on the dome of the British Museum, Blackmail began the Hitchcock tradition of using famous landmarks as a backdrop for suspense sequences.
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 and his second, The 39 Steps (1935), is often considered one of the best films from his early period. It was also one of the first to introduce the concept of the "MacGuffin", a plot device around which a whole story would revolve. In The 39 Steps, the MacGuffin is a stolen set of blueprints.
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 version of 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 to Hollywood.
Hitchcock's gallows humour and the suspense that became his trademark continued in his American work. However, working arrangements with his new producer were less than optimal. Selznick suffered from perennial money problems and Hitchcock was often unhappy with the amount of creative control demanded by Selznick over his films. Consequently, Selznick ended up "loaning" Hitchcock to the larger studios more often than producing Hitchcock's films himself.
With the prestigious Selznick 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 the problems of a distant husband, a predatory housekeeper, and the legacy of her husband's late wife, the beautiful, mysterious Rebecca. The film has also subsequently been noted for the lesbian undercurrents in Judith Anderson's performance. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1940. However, the statuette went to Selznick as the film's producer, and the film did not win the Best Director award. There were additional problems between Selznick and Hitchcock; Selznick, as he usually did, imposed very restrictive rules upon Hitchcock, hindering his creative control. Hitchcock was forced to shoot the film as Selznick wanted, immediately creating friction within their relationship. At the same time, Selznick complained about Hitchcock's "goddam jigsaw cutting," which meant that the producer did not have nearly the leeway to create his own film as he liked, but had to follow Hitchcock's vision of the finished product.
Hitchcock's second American film, the European-set thriller Foreign Correspondent, was also nominated for Best Picture that year. It was filmed in the first year of World War II and inspired by the rapidly-changing events in Europe, as covered by an American newspaper reporter portrayed by a wise-cracking Joel McCrea. The film cleverly used actual footage of European scenes and scenes filmed on a Hollywood backlot.
Hitchcock's work during the 1940s was diverse, ranging from the romantic comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) and the courtroom drama The Paradine Case (1947) to the dark and disturbing Shadow of a Doubt (1943).
Suspicion (1941) marked Hitchcock's first film as a producer as well as director. This was Cary Grant's first film with Hitchcock. Joan Fontaine won Best Actress Oscar and New York Film Critics Circle Award for her outstanding performance in Suspicion.
Saboteur (1942) was the first of two films that Hitchcock made for Universal, a studio where he would work in his later years. Hitchcock was forced to utilize Universal contract players Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane, both known for their work in comedies and light dramas; Hitchcock made the most of the situation and got remarkably good performances from the two lead actors. Breaking with Hollywood conventions of the time, Hitchcock did extensive location filming, especially in New York City, and memorably depicted a confrontation between a suspected saboteur (Cummings) and a real saboteur (Norman Lloyd) atop the Statue of Liberty.
Shadow of a Doubt, his personal favourite of all his films and the second of the early Universal films, was about young Charlotte "Charlie" Newton (Teresa Wright), who suspects her beloved uncle Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) of being a serial murderer. 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 Žižek. The film also harkens back to one of Cotten's best known films, Citizen Kane. Hitchcock again filmed extensively on location, this time in the Northern California city of Santa Rosa.
In 1945 Hitchcock served as "treatment advisor" (in effect, editor) for a Holocaust documentary produced by the British Army. The film, which recorded the liberation of Concentration Camps, remained unreleased until 1985, when it was completed by PBS Frontline and distributed under the title Memory of the Camps.
Spellbound explored the then-fashionable subject of psychoanalysis and featured a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dalí. The dream sequence as it actually appears in the film is considerably shorter than was originally envisioned, which was to be several minutes long, because it proved to be too disturbing for the audience.
Notorious (1946) followed Spellbound. As Selznick failed to see its potential, he allowed Hitchcock to make the film for RKO. From this point onwards, Hitchcock would produce his own films, giving him a far greater degree of freedom to pursue the projects that interested him. Notorious starred Hitchcock regulars Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant and features a plot about Nazis, uranium, and South America. It was a huge box office success and has remained one of Hitchcock's most acclaimed films. Its inventive use of suspense and props briefly led to Hitchcock's being under surveillance by the CIA due to his use of uranium as a plot device.
After completing his final film for Selznick, The Paradine Case, Hitchcock filmed his first colour film, Rope, which appeared in 1948. Here Hitchcock experimented with marshalling suspense in a confined environment, as he had done earlier with Lifeboat (1943). He also experimented with exceptionally long takes — up to ten minutes long (see Themes and devices). Featuring James Stewart in the leading role, Rope was the first of four films Stewart would make for Hitchcock. Based on the Leopold and Loeb case of the 1920s, Rope is also among several films with homosexual subtext to emerge from the Hays Office–controlled Hollywood studio era.
Under Capricorn (1949), set in nineteenth-century Australia, also used the short-lived technique of long takes, but to a more limited extent. He again used Technicolor in this production, then returned to black and white films for several years. For these two films Hitchcock formed a production company with Sidney Bernstein, called Transatlantic Pictures, which folded after these two unsuccessful pictures.
Peak years and decline
With Strangers on a Train (1951), based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, 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 continued the director's interest in the narrative possibilities of homosexual blackmail and murder. This was Hitchcock's first production for Warner Brothers, which had distributed Rope and Under Capricorn.
MCA head Lew Wasserman, whose client list included James Stewart, Janet Leigh, and other actors who would appear in Hitchcock's films, had a significant impact in packaging and marketing Hitchcock's films beginning in the 1950s. With Wasserman's help, Hitchcock received tremendous creative freedom from the studios, as well as substantive financial rewards as a result of Paramount's profit-sharing contract.
Three very popular films starring Grace Kelly followed. Dial M for Murder (1954) 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 not released in this format at first; it did receive screenings in the early 1980s in 3D form. The film also marked a return to Technicolor productions for Hitchcock. Rear Window starred James Stewart again, as well as Thelma Ritter and Raymond Burr. Here, the wheelchair-bound Stewart observes the movements of his neighbours across the courtyard and becomes convinced one of them has murdered his wife. Like Lifeboat and Rope, the movie was photographed almost entirely within the confines of a small space: Stewart's tiny studio apartment overlooking the massive courtyard set. To Catch a Thief, set in the French Riviera, starred Kelly and Cary Grant.
A remake of his own 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much followed, this time with James Stewart and Doris Day, who sang the theme song, "Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)" (which became a big hit for Day). The Wrong Man (1957), based on a real-life case of mistaken identity, was the only film of Hitchcock's to star Henry Fonda.
Vertigo (1958) again starred Stewart, this time with Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes. The film was a commercial failure, but has come to be viewed by many as one of Hitchcock's masterpieces; it is now placed highly in the Sight & Sound decade polls.
Hitchcock followed Vertigo with three more successful pictures. All are also recognised as among his very best films: 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 an electronically produced soundtrack. These were his last great films, after which his career slowly wound down (although some critics such as Robin Wood and Donald Spoto contend that Marnie, from 1964, is first-class Hitchcock). Failing health also reduced his output over the last two decades of his life. 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.
Family Plot (1976) was his last film. It related the escapades of "Madam" Blanche Tyler played by Barbara Harris, a fraudulent spiritualist, and her taxi driver lover Bruce Dern making a living from her phony powers. William Devane, Karen Black and Cathleen Nesbitt co-starred.
Near the end of his life, Hitchcock worked on the script for a project spy thriller, The Short Night, which was never filmed. The script was published in book form after Hitchcock's death.
Hitchcock was created a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in the 1980 New Year's Honours. He died just four months later, on April 29, before he had the opportunity to be formally invested by the Queen. Despite the brief period between his knighthood and death, he was nevertheless entitled to be known as Sir Alfred Hitchcock and to use the postnominal letters "KBE", because he remained a British subject when he adopted American citizenship in 1956.
Alfred Hitchcock died from renal failure in his Bel-Air, Los Angeles home, aged 80, and was survived by his wife Alma Reville, and their daughter, Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell. A funeral service was held at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Beverly Hills. His body was cremated and the ashes scattered over the Pacific.
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.
Audience as voyeur
Further blurring the moral distinction between the innocent and the guilty, occasionally making this indictment inescapably clear to viewers one and all, 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.
Similarly, Psycho begins with the camera moving toward a hotel-room window, through which the audience is introduced to Marion (Janet Leigh) and her divorced boyfriend. They are partially undressed, having apparently had sex though they are not married and Marion is on her lunch "hour." Later, along with Norman (Tony Perkins), we watch Marion undress through a peephole.
One of Hitchcock's favourite devices for driving the plots of his stories and creating suspense was what he called the "MacGuffin." The Oxford English Dictionary, however, credits Hitchcock's friend, the Scottish screenwriter Angus McPhail, as being the true inventor of the term. Hitchcock defined this term in an interview to François Truffaut, in 1966. Hitchcock would use this plot device extensively. Many of his suspense films revolve around this device: 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, especially his earlier British films The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes. In Psycho, what might be mistaken for a MacGuffin at the beginning of the film (a package containing $40,000 in stolen money) is actually a red herring.
Signature appearances in his films
Many 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 double bass 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. (See a list of Hitchcock cameo appearances)
Recurring items and themes
Hitchcock includes the consumption of brandy in nearly every sound film. "I'll get you some brandy. Drink this down. Just like medicine ..." says James Stewart's character to Kim Novak, in Vertigo. In a real-life incident, Hitchcock dared Montgomery Clift at a dinner party around the filming of I Confess (1953) to swallow a carafe of brandy, which caused the actor to pass out almost immediately. This near obsession with brandy remains unexplained. In Torn Curtain and Topaz, brandy is defined more closely as cognac.
Another almost inexplicable feature of any Hitchcock film is the inclusion of a staircase. Of course, stairways inspire many suspenseful moments, most notably the final sequence in Notorious and the detective's demise in the Bates' mansion in Psycho. However, a completely nonfunctional staircase adorns the apartment of the James Stewart character in Rear Window, as if Hitchcock feels compelled to its inclusion by some unspoken superstition. This, too, could be Hitchcock under the influence of German Expressionism, the films of which often featured heavily stylized and menacing staircases (cf. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). In fact, early director Leopold Jessner is often credited with creating the first dramatic, filmic staircases in his 1921 film Hintertreppe.
A recurring theme in Hitchcock's movies is mistaken identity. Audiences see this theme in almost all of Hitchcock's movies. A prime example can be found in North By Northwest, when Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for George Kaplan, a non-existent government agent made up by the CIA.
Another recurring theme is presence of the main character's mother - or some other character's mother - and the hold she either has or wishes to maintain, as seen in Rope, Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds.
In many of Hitchcock's movies, an ordinary person is thrust into an extraordinary situation. In The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) Dr. Ben McKenna is an ordinary man from Indianapolis who is on a vacation in Morocco and he winds up with his son getting kidnapped. This entangling of an ordinary protagonist in peril and guilt is also evident in Strangers on a Train, I Confess, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Saboteur, Psycho, The Birds and others.
Hitchcock loved the number 7. He often placed numbers that added up to 7 in his movies.
Another recurring theme in Hitchcock's films is that of the bumbling authorities. In almost every single film, the police have little to no impact, often mistaking important clues or letting the villain go. This reportedly stems from an incident when Hitchcock was a young man, when as part of a tour to a police station he was locked in a cell briefly.
Hitchcock often dealt with matters that he felt were sexually perverse or kinky, and many of his films aimed to subvert the restrictive Hollywood Production Code that prohibited any mention of homosexuality.
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 limitations of the 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-coloured 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. This helps to draw audience members into the film's action. (A notable exception is the pacing of the mysterious lodger being viewed through the floor from beneath in The Lodger (1927), giving the audience a visual to what the family is imagining in response to the sound of footsteps - which otherwise wouldn't come across as strongly in a silent film.)