Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, KBE (13 August 1899 – 29 April 1980) was an English film director and producer. He pioneered many techniques in thesuspense and psychological thriller genres. After a successful career in British cinema in both silent films and early talkies, renowned as England’s best director, Hitchcock moved to Hollywood in 1939 and became a U.S. citizen in 1955.
Over a career spanning more than half a century, Hitchcock fashioned for himself a distinctive and recognisable directorial style. He pioneered the use of a camera made to move in a way that mimics a person’s gaze, forcing viewers to engage in a form of voyeurism. He framed shots to maximise anxiety, fear, or empathy, and used innovative film editing. His stories often feature fugitives on the run from the law alongside “icy blonde” female characters. Many of Hitchcock’s films have twist endings and thrilling plots featuring depictions of violence, murder, and crime. Many of the mysteries, however, are used as decoys or “MacGuffins” that serve the film’s themes and the psychological examinations of the characters. Hitchcock’s films also borrow many themes from psychoanalysisand feature strong sexual overtones. Through his cameo appearances in his own films, interviews, film trailers, and the television program Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he became a cultural icon.
Hitchcock directed more than fifty feature films in a career spanning six decades. Often regarded as the greatest British filmmaker, he came first in a 2007 poll of film critics in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, which said: “Unquestionably the greatest filmmaker to emerge from these islands, Hitchcock did more than any director to shape modern cinema, which would be utterly different without him. His flair was for narrative, cruelly withholding crucial information (from his characters and from us) and engaging the emotions of the audience like no one else.” The magazine MovieMaker has described him as the most influential filmmaker of all time, and he is widely regarded as one of cinema’s most significant artists.
Born on 13 August 1899 in Leytonstone, (then part of Essex, now part of London), England, Hitchcock was the second son and the youngest of three children of William Hitchcock (1862–1914), a greengrocer and poulterer, and Emma Jane Hitchcock (née Whelan; 1863–1942). Named Alfred after his father’s brother, Hitchcock was brought up as a Roman Catholic and was sent to Salesian College and the Jesuit Classic school St Ignatius’ College in Stamford Hill, London. His parents were both of half English and half Irish ancestry. He often described a lonely and sheltered childhood worsened by his obesity.
Around age five, according to Hitchcock, he was sent by his father to the local police station with a note asking the officer to lock him away for five minutes as punishment for behaving badly. This incident not only implanted a lifetime fear of policemen in Hitchcock, but such harsh treatment and wrongful accusations would be found frequently throughout his films.
When Hitchcock was 15, his father died. In the same year, he left St. Ignatius to study at the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation in Poplar, London. After leaving, he became adraftsman and advertising designer with a cable company called Henley’s. During the First World War, Hitchcock was rejected for military service because of his obesity – sometimes thought to have been caused by a glandular condition. Nevertheless, the young man signed up to a cadet regiment of the Royal Engineers in 1917. His military stint was limited: he received theoretical briefings, weekend drills and exercises. Hitchcock would march around Hyde Park and was required to wear puttees, which he could never master how to wrap around his legs properly.
While working at Henley’s, Hitchcock began to dabble creatively. After the company’s in-house publication, The Henley Telegraph, was founded in 1919, he often submitted short articles and eventually became one of its most prolific contributors. His first piece was “Gas” (1919), published in the first issue, in which a young woman imagines that she is being assaulted one night in Paris – only for the twist to reveal that it was all just a hallucination in the dentist’s chair, induced by the anaesthetic.
Hitchcock’s second piece was “The Woman’s Part” (1919), which involves the conflicted emotions a husband feels as he watches his wife, an actress, perform onstage. “Sordid” (1920) surrounds an attempt to buy a sword from an antiques dealer, with another twist ending. The short story “And There Was No Rainbow” (1920) was Hitchcock’s first brush with possibly censurable material. A young man goes out looking for a brothel, only to stumble into the house of his best friend’s girl. “What’s Who?” (1920), while humorous, was also a forerunner to the famous Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First?” routine. “The History of Pea Eating” (1920) was a satirical disquisition on the various attempts people have made over the centuries to eat peas successfully. His final piece, “Fedora” (1921), was his shortest and most enigmatic contribution. It also gave a strikingly accurate description of his future wife, Alma Reville (whom he had not yet met).
During this period, Hitchcock became intrigued by photography and started working in film production in London, working as a title card designer for the London branch of what would become Paramount Pictures. In 1920, he received a full-time position at Islington Studios with its American owner, Famous Players-Lasky, and their British successor, Gainsborough Pictures, designing the titles for silent movies. His rise from title designer to film director took five years.
Hitchcock’s last collaboration with Graham Cutts led him to Germany in 1924. The film The Blackguard (German title Die Prinzessin und der Geiger, 1925), directed by Cutts and co-written by Hitchcock, was produced in the Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam near Berlin. Hitchcock also observed part of the making of F. W. Murnau’s film The Last Laugh (1924). He was very impressed with Murnau’s work and later used many techniques for the set design in his own productions. In a book-length interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock also said he was influenced by Fritz Lang’s film Destiny (1921). He was likewise influenced by other foreign filmmakers whose work he absorbed as one of the earliest members of the “seminal” London Film Society, formed in 1925.
Hitchcock’s first few films faced a string of bad luck. His first directing project came in 1922 with the aptly titled Number 13. The production was cancelled because of financial problems; the few scenes that had been finished at that point have been lost. In 1925, Michael Balcon of Gainsborough Pictures gave Hitchcock another opportunity for a directing credit with The Pleasure Garden made at UFA Studios in Germany; the film was a commercial flop. Next, Hitchcock directed a drama called The Mountain Eagle (possibly released under the title Fear o’ God in the United States). This film was also eventually lost.
In 1926, Hitchcock’s luck changed with his first thriller, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. The film, released in January 1927, was a major commercial and critical success in the United Kingdom. As with many of his earlier works, this film was influenced by Expressionist techniques Hitchcock had witnessed first-hand in Germany. Some commentators regard this piece as the first truly “Hitchcockian” film, incorporating such themes as the “wrong man”.
Following the success of The Lodger, Hitchcock hired a publicist to help strengthen his growing reputation. On 2 December 1926, Hitchcock married his assistant director, Alma Reville, at the Brompton Oratory in South Kensington, London. Their only child, daughter Patricia, was born on 7 July 1928. Alma was to become Hitchcock’s closest collaborator, but her contributions to his films (some of which were credited on screen) Hitchcock would discuss only in private, as she was keen to avoid public attention.
In 1929, Hitchcock began work on his tenth film Blackmail. While the film was still in production, the studio, British International Pictures (BIP), decided to convert it to sound. As an early ‘talkie’, the film is often cited by film historians as a landmark film, and is often considered to be the first British sound feature film. 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. It also features one of his longest cameo appearances, which shows him being bothered by a small boy as he reads a book on the London Underground. In the PBS series The Men Who Made The Movies, Hitchcock explained how he used early sound recording as a special element of the film, stressing the word “knife” in a conversation with the woman suspected of murder. During this period, Hitchcock directed segments for a BIP musical film revueElstree Calling (1930) and directed a short film featuring two Film Weekly scholarship winners, An Elastic Affair (1930). Another BIP musical revue, Harmony Heaven(1929), reportedly had minor input from Hitchcock, but his name does not appear in the credits.
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 with the British Film Institute ranking it the fourth best British film of the 20th century. This film was also one of the first to introduce the “MacGuffin”. In The 39 Steps, the MacGuffin is a stolen set of design plans. Hitchcock told French director François Truffaut:
There are two men sitting in a train going to Scotland and one man says to the other, “Excuse me, sir, but what is that strange parcel you have on the luggage rack above you?”, “Oh”, says the other, “that’s a Macguffin.”, “Well”, says the first man, “what’s a Macguffin?”, The other answers, “It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.”, “But”, says the first man, “there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands.”, “Well”, says the other, “then that’s no Macguffin.”
Hitchcock’s next major success was his 1938 film The Lady Vanishes, a fast-paced film about the search for a kindly old Englishwoman Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who disappears while on board a train in the fictional country of Bandrika.
By 1938, Hitchcock had become known for his alleged observation, “Actors are cattle”. He once said that he first made this remark as early as the late 1920s, in connection to stage actors who were snobbish about motion pictures. However, Michael Redgrave said that Hitchcock had made the statement during the filming of The Lady Vanishes. The phrase would haunt Hitchcock for years to come. During the filming of his 1941 production of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Carole Lombard brought some heifers onto the set with name tags of Lombard, Robert Montgomery, and Gene Raymond, the stars of the film, to surprise the director. Hitchcock said he was misquoted: “I said ‘Actors should be treated like cattle’.”
Lauded in Britain where he was dubbed “Alfred the Great” by Picturegoer magazine, by the end of the 1930s Hitchcock’s reputation was beginning to soar overseas, with a New York Times feature writer stating; “Three unique and valuable institutions the British have that we in America have not. Magna Carta, the Tower Bridge and Alfred Hitchcock, the greatest director of screen melodramas in the world.” Variety magazine referred to him as, “probably the best native director in England.” David O. Selznick signed Hitchcock to a seven-year contract beginning in March 1939, and the Hitchcocks moved to Hollywood.
In Hollywood, the suspense and the gallows humour that had become Hitchcock’s trademark in film continued to appear in his productions. The working arrangements with Selznick were less than ideal. Selznick suffered from constant money problems, and Hitchcock was often displeased with Selznick’s creative control over his films. In a later interview, Hitchcock summarised the working relationship thus:
[Selznick] was the Big Producer. … Producer was king, The most flattering thing Mr. Selznick ever said about me—and it shows you the amount of control—he said I was the “only director” he’d “trust with a film”.
Selznick lent Hitchcock to the larger studios more often than producing Hitchcock’s films himself. In addition, Selznick, as well as fellow independent producer Samuel Goldwyn, made only a few films each year, so he did not always have projects for Hitchcock to direct. Goldwyn had also negotiated with Hitchcock on a possible contract, only to be outbid by Selznick. Hitchcock was quickly impressed with the superior resources of the American studios compared with the financial limits he had often faced in England.
With the prestigious Selznick picture Rebecca in 1940, Hitchcock made his first American movie, set in a Hollywood version of the West Country and based on a novel by English author Daphne du Maurier. The film starred Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. The story concerns a naïve (and unnamed) young woman who marries a widowed aristocrat. She goes to live in his huge English country house, and struggles with the lingering reputation of the elegant and worldly first wife, whose name was Rebecca, and who died under mysterious circumstances. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1940. The statuette was given to Selznick, as the film’s producer. Hitchcock was nominated for the Best Director award, his first of five such nominations, but did not win.
There were additional problems between Selznick and Hitchcock, with Selznick known to impose restrictive rules on Hitchcock. At the same time, Selznick complained about Hitchcock’s “goddamn 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. Rebecca was the fourth longest of Hitchcock’s films, at 130 minutes, exceeded only by The Paradine Case (132 minutes), North by Northwest (136 minutes), andTopaz (142 minutes).
Hitchcock’s second American film, the European-set thriller Foreign Correspondent (1940), based on Vincent Sheean’s Personal History and produced by Walter Wanger, was nominated for Best Picture that year. Hitchcock and other British subjects felt uneasy living and working in Hollywood while their country was at war; his concern resulted in a film that overtly supported the British war effort. The movie was filmed in the first year of the Second World War and was inspired by the rapidly changing events in Europe, as fictionally covered by an American newspaper reporter portrayed by Joel McCrea. The film mixed footage of European scenes with scenes filmed on a Hollywood back lot. The film avoided direct references to Nazism, Germany, and Germans to comply with Hollywood’s Production Code censorship.
Hitchcock’s films during the 1940s were diverse, ranging from the romantic comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) to the courtroom drama The Paradine Case (1947) to the dark and disturbing film noir Shadow of a Doubt (1943).
In September 1940, the Hitchcocks bought the 200-acre (0.81 km2) Cornwall Ranch near Scotts Valley in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The ranch became the primary residence of the Hitchcocks for the rest of their lives, although they kept their Bel Air home. Suspicion (1941) marked Hitchcock’s first film as a producer as well as director. The film was set in England, and Hitchcock used the north coast of Santa Cruz, California, for the English coastline sequence. This film was to be actorCary Grant’s first time working with Hitchcock, and it was one of the few times that Grant would be cast in a sinister role. Joan Fontaine won Best ActressOscar and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for her “outstanding performance in Suspicion“. Grant plays an irresponsible English con man whose actions raise suspicion and anxiety in his shy young English wife (Fontaine). In a notable scene, Hitchcock uses a lightbulb to illuminate what might be a fatal glass of milk that Grant is bringing to his wife. In the book the movie is based on (Before the Fact by Francis Iles), the Grant character is a killer, but Hitchcock and the studio felt Grant’s image would be tarnished by that ending. Though a homicide would have suited him better, as he stated to François Truffaut, Hitchcock settled for an ambiguous finale.
Saboteur (1942) was the first of two films that Hitchcock made for Universal, a studio where he would continue his career during his later years. Hitchcock was forced to use Universal contract players Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane, both known for their work in comedies and light dramas. Breaking with Hollywood conventions of the time, Hitchcock did extensive location filming, especially in New York City, and depicted a confrontation between a suspected saboteur (Cummings) and a real saboteur (Norman Lloyd) atop the Statue of Liberty. That year he also directed Have You Heard?, a photographic dramatisation of the dangers of rumours during wartime, for Life magazine.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Hitchcock’s 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. Critics have said that 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. Hitchcock again filmed extensively on location, this time in the Northern California city of Santa Rosa, during the summer of 1942. The director showcased his personal fascination with crime and criminals when he had two of his characters discuss various ways of killing people, to the obvious annoyance of Charlotte.
Working at 20th Century Fox, Hitchcock adapted a script of John Steinbeck’s that recorded the experiences of the survivors of a German U-boat attack in the film Lifeboat (1944). The action sequences were shot in a small boat in the studio water tank. The locale also posed problems for Hitchcock’s traditional cameo appearance. That was solved by having Hitchcock’s image appear in a newspaper that William Bendix is reading in the boat, showing the director in a before-and-after advertisement for “Reduco-Obesity Slayer”.
While at Fox, Hitchcock seriously considered directing the film version of A. J. Cronin’s novel about a Catholic priest in China, The Keys of the Kingdom, but the plans for this fell through. John M. Stahlended up directing the 1944 film, which was produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and starred Gregory Peck, among other luminaries.
Returning to England for an extended visit in late 1943 and early 1944, Hitchcock made two short films for the Ministry of Information, Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache. Made for the Free French, these were the only films Hitchcock made in the French language, and “feature typical Hitchcockian touches”. In the 1990s, the two films were shown by Turner Classic Movies and released on home video.
In 1945, Hitchcock served as “treatment advisor” (in effect, a film editor) for a Holocaust documentary produced by the British Army. The film, which recorded the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, remained unreleased until 1985, when it was completed by PBS Frontline and distributed under the title Memory of the Camps.
Hitchcock worked for Selznick again when he directed Spellbound (1945), which explored psychoanalysis and featured a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dalí. Gregory Peck plays amnesiac Dr. Anthony Edwardes under the treatment of analyst Dr. Peterson (Ingrid Bergman), who falls in love with him while trying to unlock his repressed past. The dream sequence as it appears in the film is ten minutes shorter than was originally envisioned, having been edited by Selznick to make it “play” more effectively. Two point-of-view shots were achieved by building a large wooden hand (which would appear to belong to the character whose point of view the camera took) and out-sized 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 film. Some of the original musical score by Miklós Rózsa (which makes use of the theremin) was later adapted by the composer into a concert piano concerto.
Notorious (1946) followed Spellbound. According to Hitchcock, in his book-length interview with François Truffaut, Selznick sold the director, the two stars (Grant and Bergman) and the screenplay (by Ben Hecht) to RKO Radio Pictures as a “package” for $500,000 due to cost overruns on Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (1946).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. His use of uranium as a plot device led to Hitchcock’s being briefly under FBI surveillance. McGilligan writes that Hitchcock consulted Dr. Robert Millikan of Caltech about the development of an atomic bomb. Selznick complained that the notion was “science fiction”, only to be confronted by the news stories of the detonation of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945.
After completing his final film for Selznick, The Paradine Case (a courtroom drama that critics found lost momentum because it apparently ran too long and exhausted its resource of ideas), Hitchcock filmed his first colour film, Rope (1948). Here Hitchcock experimented with marshaling suspense in a confined environment, as he had done earlier with Lifeboat (1943). Appearing to have been shot in a single take, Rope (1948) was actually shot in 10 takes ranging from four and a half to 10 minutes each; a 10-minute length of film being the maximum a camera’s film magazine could hold at the time. Some 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. Featuring James Stewart in the leading role, Rope was the first of four films Stewart would make with Hitchcock. It was based on the Leopold and Loeb case of the 1920s. Somehow Hitchcock’s cameraman managed to move the bulky, heavy Technicolor camera quickly around the set as it followed the continuous action of the long takes.
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 Rope and Under Capricorn, Hitchcock formed a production company with Sidney Bernstein called Transatlantic Pictures, which became inactive after these two unsuccessful pictures. Hitchcock continued to produce his own films for the rest of his life.
Hitchcock filmed Stage Fright (1950) in the UK. For the first time, he matched one of Warner Bros.’ most popular stars, Jane Wyman, with the sultry German actress Marlene Dietrich. Hitchcock used several prominent British actors, including Michael Wilding, Richard Todd, and Alastair Sim. This was Hitchcock’s first production for Warner Bros., which had distributed Rope and Under Capricorn, because Transatlantic Pictures was experiencing financial difficulties.
With the film Strangers on a Train (1951), based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, Hitchcock combined many elements from his preceding films. He approachedDashiell Hammett to write the dialogue but Raymond Chandler took over, then left over disagreements with the director. Two men casually meet, one of whom speculates on a foolproof murder technique. He suggests that two people, each wishing to do away with someone, should each perform the other’s murder. Farley Granger’s role was as the innocent victim of the scheme, while Robert Walker, previously known for “boy-next-door” roles, played the villain.
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.
After I Confess (1953) with Montgomery Clift, three popular films starring Grace Kelly followed. Dial M for Murder (1954) was adapted from the stage play by Frederick Knott. Ray Milland plays the scheming villain, an ex-tennis pro who tries to murder his unfaithful wife Grace Kelly for her money. When she kills the hired assassin in self-defense, Milland manipulates the evidence to pin the death on his wife. Her lover, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), and Police Inspector Hubbard (John Williams), work urgently to save her from execution. Hitchcock experimented with 3D cinematography. The depth effect was utilised in a major way only in one key scene. The public was growing weary of 3D by the time of the film’s release, however, and it was shown in 3D only in a few first-run engagements. The 3D version has been revived occasionally, including a brief reissue in some major US cities in the 1980s. The film marked a return to color productions for Hitchcock.
Hitchcock then moved to Paramount Pictures and filmed Rear Window (1954), starring James Stewart and Kelly again, as well as Thelma Ritter and Raymond Burr. Stewart’s character, a photographer based on Robert Capa, must temporarily use a wheelchair; out of boredom he begins observing his neighbours across the courtyard, and becomes convinced one of them (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife. Stewart tries to sway both his glamorous model-girlfriend (Kelly), whom screenwriter John Michael Hayes based on his own wife, and his policeman buddy (Wendell Corey) to his theory, and eventually succeeds. As with Lifeboat and Rope, the principal characters were almost entirely confined to a small space, in this case Stewart’s tiny studio apartment overlooking a massive courtyard. Hitchcock used close-ups of Stewart’s face to show his character’s reactions to all he sees, “from the comic voyeurism directed at his neighbours to his helpless terror watching Kelly and Burr in the villain’s apartment”.
In 1955, Hitchcock became a United States citizen. His third Kelly film, To Catch a Thief (1955), set in the French Riviera, paired her with Cary Grant. He plays retired thief John Robie, who becomes the prime suspect for a spate of robberies in the Riviera. An American heiress played by Kelly surmises his true identity, tries to seduce him. “Despite the obvious age disparity between Grant and Kelly and a lightweight plot, the witty script (loaded with double entendres) and the good-natured acting proved a commercial success.” It was Hitchcock’s last film with Kelly. She married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956, and the residents of her new land were against her making any more films.
Hitchcock successfully remade his own 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956. This time, the film starred Stewart and Doris Day, who sang the theme song, “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)”, which won the Oscar for Best Original Song and became a big hit for her. They play a couple whose son is kidnapped to prevent them from interfering with an assassination. As in the 1934 film, the climax takes place at the Royal Albert Hall, London.
The Wrong Man (1957), Hitchcock’s final film for Warner Bros., was a low-key black-and-white production based on a real-life case of mistaken identity reported in Life Magazine in 1953. This was the only film of Hitchcock’s to star Henry Fonda. Fonda plays a Stork Club musician mistaken for a liquor store thief who is arrested and tried for robbery while his wife (newcomer Vera Miles) emotionally collapses under the strain. Hitchcock told Truffaut that his lifelong fear of the police attracted him to the subject and was embedded in many scenes.
Vertigo (1958) again starred Stewart, this time with Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes. Stewart plays “Scottie”, a former police investigator suffering fromacrophobia, who develops an obsession with a woman he is shadowing (Novak). Scottie’s obsession leads to tragedy, and this time Hitchcock does not opt for a happy ending. The film contains a camera technique developed by Irmin Roberts that has been copied many times by filmmakers, wherein the image appears to “stretch”. This is achieved by moving the camera in the opposite direction of the camera’s zoom. It has become known by many nicknames, including Dolly zoom, “Zolly,” “Hitchcock Zoom,” and “Vertigo Effect.”
Although the film is widely considered a classic today, Vertigo met with negative reviews and poor box office receipts upon its release, and was the last collaboration between Stewart and Hitchcock. Although ranked second (behind Citizen Kane) for almost 50 years the film was voted top by critics in the 2012 Sight & Sound decade poll. It was premiered in the San Sebastián International Film Festival, where Hitchcock won a Silver Seashell.
By this time, Hitchcock had filmed in many areas of the United States. He followed Vertigo with three more successful films. Two are also recognised as among his best movies: North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960). The third film was The Birds (1963).
In North by Northwest, Cary Grant portrays Roger Thornhill, a Madison Avenue advertising executive who is mistaken for a government secret agent. He is hotly pursued across the United States by enemy agents, apparently one of them being Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), in fact working undercover.
Psycho is almost certainly Hitchcock’s best-known film. Produced on a constrained budget of $800,000, it was shot in black-and-white on a spare set. The unprecedented violence of the shower scene, the early death of the heroine, the innocent lives extinguished by a disturbed murderer became the defining hallmarks of Hitchcock’s new horror movie genre and have been copied by many authors of subsequent horror films.
The public loved the film, with lines stretching outside of theatres as people had to wait for the next showing. It broke box-office records in China and the rest of Asia, France, Britain, South America, the United States and Canada, and was a moderate success in Australia for a brief period. It was the most profitable black-and-white sound film ever made, and Hitchcock personally realized well in excess of $15 million. He subsequently swapped his rights to Psycho and his TV anthology for 150,000 shares of MCA, making him the third largest shareholder in MCA Inc. and his own boss at Universal, in theory at least. But that did not stop them from interfering with him. Psycho was the most profitable film of Hitchcock’s career, earning $15 million by the end of the first year. Hitchcock’s second most profitable was Family Plot, earning $7.5 million, and third place was a tie between Torn Curtain (1966) and Frenzy (1972), each earning $6.5 million.
The Birds, inspired by a Daphne du Maurier short story and by a news story about a mysterious infestation of birds in Santa Cruz, California, was Hitchcock’s 49th film. Newcomer Tippi Hedren made her screen debut in the film, co-starring Rod Taylor and Suzanne Pleshette. The scenes of the birds attacking included hundreds of shots mixing live and animated sequences. The cause of the birds’ attack is left unanswered, “perhaps highlighting the mystery of forces unknown”. Hitchcock cast Hedren again opposite Sean Connery in his next film, Marnie, a romantic drama and psychological thriller. Decades later, Hedren called Hitchcock a misogynist and said that Hitchcock effectively ended her career by keeping her to an exclusive contract for two years when she rebuffed his sexual advances. In 2012, Hedren described Hitchcock as a “sad character”; a man of “unusual genius”, yet “evil, and deviant, almost to the point of dangerous, because of the effect that he could have on people that were totally unsuspecting.” In response, a Daily Telegraph article quoted several actresses who had worked with Hitchcock, including Eva Marie Saint, Doris Day and Kim Novak, none of whom shared Hedren’s opinion about him. Novak, who worked on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, told the Telegraph “I never saw him make a pass at anybody or act strange to anybody.”
Psycho and The Birds had unconventional soundtracks: the screeching strings played in the murder scene in Psycho were unusually dissonant, and The Birds dispensed with any conventional score, instead using a new technique of electronically produced sound effects. Bernard Herrmann composed the former and was a consultant on the latter.
Failing health reduced Hitchcock’s output during the last two decades of his career. Biographer Stephen Rebello claimed Universal “forced” two movies on him, Torn Curtain and Topaz. Both were spy thrillers set with Cold War-related themes. The first, Torn Curtain (1966), with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, displays the bitter end of the twelve-year collaboration between Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann was fired when Hitchcock was unsatisfied with his score. Topaz (1969), based on a Leon Uris novel, is partly set in Cuba. Both received mixed reviews from critics.
In 1972, Hitchcock returned to England to film his penultimate film Frenzy. After two only moderately successful espionage films, the plot marks a return to the murder thriller genre of earlier in his career, and is based upon the novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square. The plot centres on a serial killer in contemporary London. In a very early scene there is dialogue that mentions two actual London serial murder cases: the Christie murders in the early 1950s, and the Jack the Rippermurders in 1888. The basic story recycles his early film The Lodger. Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), a volatile barkeeper with a history of explosive anger, becomes the prime suspect for the “Necktie Murders,” which are actually committed by his friend Bob Rusk (Barry Foster). This time, Hitchcock makes the victim and villain twins, rather than opposites, as in Strangers on a Train. Only one of them, however, has crossed the line to murder. For the first time, Hitchcock allowed nudity and profane language, which had before been taboo, in one of his films. He also shows rare sympathy for the chief inspector and his comic domestic life.
Biographers have noted that Hitchcock had always pushed the limits of film censorship, often managing to fool Joseph Breen, the longtime head of Hollywood’sProduction Code. Many times Hitchcock slipped in subtle hints of improprieties forbidden by censorship until the mid-1960s. Yet Patrick McGilligan wrote that Breen and others often realised that Hitchcock was inserting such things and were actually amused as well as alarmed by Hitchcock’s “inescapable inferences”. Beginning with Torn Curtain, Hitchcock was finally able to blatantly include plot elements previously forbidden in American films and this continued for the remainder of his film career.
Family Plot (1976) was Hitchcock’s last film. It relates the escapades of “Madam” Blanche Tyler, played by Barbara Harris, a fraudulent spiritualist, and her taxi driver loverBruce Dern, making a living from her phoney powers. William Devane, Karen Black and Cathleen Nesbitt co-starred. It is the only Hitchcock film scored by John Williams. Based on the Victor Canning novel The Rainbird Pattern, the novel’s tone is more sinister and dark than what Hitchcock wanted for the film. Screenwriter Ernest Lehmanoriginally wrote the film with a dark tone but was pushed to a lighter, more comical tone by Hitchcock. The film went through various titles including Deceit and Missing Heir. It was changed to Family Plot at the suggestion of the studio.
Last project and death
Near the end of his life, Hitchcock had worked on the script for a projected spy thriller, The Short Night, collaborating with screenwriters James Costigan and Ernest Lehman. Despite some preliminary work, the story was never filmed. This was caused primarily by Hitchcock’s own failing health and his concerns over the health of his wife, Alma, who had suffered a stroke. The script was eventually published posthumously, in a book on Hitchcock’s last years.
Hitchcock died in his Bel Air home of renal failure at 9:17 am on 29 April 1980. While biographer Spoto wrote that Hitchcock “rejected suggestions that he allow a priest … to come for a visit, or celebrate a quiet, informal ritual at the house for his comfort,” Jesuit priest Mark Henninger wrote that he and fellow priest Tom Sullivan celebrated Mass at the filmmaker’s home; Father Sullivan heard Hitchcock’s confession. He was survived by his wife and their daughter. Hitchcock’s funeral Mass was held at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Beverly Hills, after which his body was cremated and his remains were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.
Themes, plot devices and motifs
Signature appearances in his films
Psychology of characters
Hitchcock’s films sometimes feature 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 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 (Jessica Tandy). The killer in Frenzy (1972) has a loathing of women but idolises his mother. The villain Bruno in Strangers on a Train hates his father, but has an incredibly close relationship with his mother (played by Marion Lorne). Sebastian (Claude Rains) in Notorious has a clearly conflictual relationship with his mother, who is (correctly) suspicious of his new bride Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman). Norman Bates has troubles with his mother in Psycho.
Hitchcock heroines tend to be blondes. The famous victims in The Lodger are all blondes. In The 39 Steps, Hitchcock’s glamorous blonde star, Madeleine Carroll, is put in handcuffs. In Marnie (1964), the title character (played by Tippi Hedren) is a thief. In To Catch a Thief (1955), Francie (Grace Kelly) offers to help a man she believes is a burglar. In Rear Window, Lisa (Grace Kelly again) risks her life by breaking into Lars Thorwald’s apartment. The best-known example is in Psycho where Janet Leigh’s unfortunate character steals $40,000 and is murdered by a reclusive psychopath. Hitchcock’s last blonde heroine was—years after Dany Robin and her “daughter” Claude Jade in Topaz—Barbara Harris as a phony psychic turned amateur sleuth in his final film, 1976’s Family Plot. In the same film, the diamond smuggler played by Karen Black could also fit that role, as she wears a long blonde wig in various scenes and becomes increasingly uncomfortable about her line of work.
Some critics and Hitchcock scholars, including Donald Spoto and Roger Ebert, agree that Vertigo represents the director’s most personal and revealing film, dealing with the obsessions of a man who crafts a woman into the woman he desires. Vertigo explores more frankly and at greater length his interest in the relation between sex and death than any other film in his filmography.
Hitchcock often said that his favourite film (of his own work) was Shadow of a Doubt.
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.” In an interview with Roger Ebert in 1969, Hitchcock elaborated further:
Once the screenplay is finished, I’d just as soon not make the film at all… I have a strongly visual mind. I visualise a picture right down to the final cuts. I write all this out in the greatest detail in the script, and then I don’t look at the script while I’m shooting. I know it off by heart, just as an orchestra conductor needs not look at the score… When you finish the script, the film is perfect. But in shooting it you lose perhaps 40 percent of your original conception.
In Writing with Hitchcock, a book-length study of Hitchcock’s working method with his writers, author Steven DeRosa noted that “Although he rarely did any actual ‘writing’, especially on his Hollywood productions, Hitchcock supervised and guided his writers through every draft, insisting on a strict attention to detail and a preference for telling the story through visual rather than verbal means. While this exasperated some writers, others admitted the director inspired them to do their very best work. Hitchcock often emphasised that he took no screen credit for the writing of his films. However, over time the work of many of his writers has been attributed solely to Hitchcock’s creative genius, a misconception he rarely went out of his way to correct. Notwithstanding his technical brilliance as a director, Hitchcock relied on his writers a great deal.”
Storyboards and production
Hitchcock’s films were strongly believed to have been extensively storyboarded to the finest detail by the majority of commentators over the years. He was reported to have never even bothered looking through the viewfinder, since he did not need to, though in publicity photos he was shown doing so. He also used this as an excuse to never have to change his films from his initial vision. If a studio asked him to change a film, he would claim that it was already shot in a single way, and that there were no alternate takes to consider.
However, this view of Hitchcock as a director who relied more on pre-production than on the actual production itself has been challenged by the book Hitchcock at Work, written by Bill Krohn, the American correspondent of Cahiers du cinéma. Krohn, after investigating several script revisions, notes to other production personnel written by or to Hitchcock alongside inspection of storyboards, and other production material, has observed that Hitchcock’s work often deviated from how the screenplay was written or how the film was originally envisioned. He noted that the myth of storyboards in relation to Hitchcock, often regurgitated by generations of commentators on his movies, was to a great degree perpetuated by Hitchcock himself or the publicity arm of the studios. A great example would be the celebrated crop-spraying sequence of North by Northwestwhich was not storyboarded at all. After the scene was filmed, the publicity department asked Hitchcock to make storyboards to promote the film and Hitchcock in turn hired an artist to match the scenes in detail.
Even when storyboards were made, scenes that were shot differed from them significantly. Krohn’s extensive analysis of the production of Hitchcock classics like Notoriousreveals that Hitchcock was flexible enough to change a film’s conception during its production. Another example Krohn notes is the American remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, whose shooting schedule commenced without a finished script and moreover went over schedule, something that, as Krohn notes, was not an uncommon occurrence on many of Hitchcock’s films, including Strangers on a Train and Topaz. While Hitchcock did do a great deal of preparation for all his movies, he was fully cognizant that the actual film-making process often deviated from the best-laid plans and was flexible to adapt to the changes and needs of production as his films were not free from the normal hassles faced and common routines utilized during many other film productions.
Krohn’s work also sheds light on Hitchcock’s practice of generally shooting in chronological order, which he notes sent many films over budget and over schedule and, more importantly, differed from the standard operating procedure of Hollywood in the Studio System Era. Equally important is Hitchcock’s tendency to shoot alternate takes of scenes. This differed from coverage in that the films were not necessarily shot from varying angles so as to give the editor options to shape the film how he/she chooses (often under the producer’s aegis). Rather they represented Hitchcock’s tendency of giving himself options in the editing room, where he would provide advice to his editors after viewing a rough cut of the work. According to Krohn, this and a great deal of other information revealed through his research of Hitchcock’s personal papers, script revisions and the like refute the notion of Hitchcock as a director who was always in control of his films, whose vision of his films did not change during production, which Krohn notes has remained the central long-standing myth of Alfred Hitchcock.
His fastidiousness and attention to detail also found its way into each film poster for his films. Hitchcock preferred to work with the best talent of his day—film poster designers such as Bill Gold and Saul Bass—and kept them busy with countless rounds of revision until he felt that the single image of the poster accurately represented his entire film.
Approach to actors
“The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”
Similarly, much of Hitchcock’s supposed dislike of actors has been exaggerated. Hitchcock simply did not tolerate the method approach, as he believed that actors should only concentrate on their performances and leave work on script and character to the directors and screenwriters. In a Sight and Soundinterview, he stated that, ‘the method actor is OK in the theatre because he has a free space to move about. But when it comes to cutting the face and what he sees and so forth, there must be some discipline’. He often used the same actors in many of his films.
During the making of Lifeboat, Walter Slezak, who played the German character, stated that Hitchcock knew the mechanics of acting better than anyone he knew. Several critics have observed that despite his reputation as a man who disliked actors, several actors who worked with him gave fine, often brilliant performances and these performances contribute to the film’s success. As more fully discussed above, in “Inter-War British Career,” actress Dolly Haas, who was a personal friend of Hitchcock’s and who acted for him in the 1953 film I Confess, stated that Hitchcock regarded actors as “animated props.”
For Hitchcock, the actors, like the props, were part of the film’s setting, as he said to Truffaut:
In my opinion, the chief requisite for an actor is the ability to do nothing well, which is by no means as easy as it sounds. He should be willing to be utilised and wholly integrated into the picture by the director and the camera. He must allow the camera to determine the proper emphasis and the most effective dramatic highlights.
Regarding Hitchcock’s sometimes less than pleasant relationship with actors, there was a persistent rumour that he had said that actors were cattle. Hitchcock addressed this story in his interview with François Truffaut:
I’m not quite sure in what context I might have made such a statement. It may have been made…when we used actors who were simultaneously performing in stage plays. When they had a matinee, and I suspected they were allowing themselves plenty of time for a very leisurely lunch. And this meant that we had to shoot our scenes at breakneck speed so that the actors could get out on time. I couldn’t help feeling that if they’d been really conscientious, they’d have swallowed their sandwich in the cab, on the way to the theatre, and get there in time to put on their make-up and go on stage. I had no use for that kind of actor.
Carole Lombard, tweaking Hitchcock and drumming up a little publicity, brought some cows along with her when she reported to the set of Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
In the late 1950s, French New Wave critics, especially Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut, were among the first to see and promote Hitchcock’s 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.
Hitchcock was a multiple nominee and winner of a number of prestigious awards, receiving two Golden Globes, eight Laurel Awards and five lifetime achievement awards, as well as being five times nominated for, albeit never winning, an Academy Award as Best Director. His film Rebecca (nominated for 11 Oscars) won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1940—particularly notable as another Hitchcock film,Foreign Correspondent, was also nominated that same year.
In addition to these, Hitchcock received a knighthood in 1980 when he was appointed a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (KBE) by Queen Elizabeth II in the 1980 New Year Honours. Asked by a reporter why it had taken the Queen so long, Hitchcock quipped, “I suppose it was a matter of carelessness”. An English Heritage blue plaque, unveiled in 1999, marks where Sir Alfred Hitchcock lived in London at 153 Cromwell Road, Kensington and Chelsea, SW5.
In June 2013, nine restored versions of Hitchcock’s early silent films, including his 1925 directorial debut, The Pleasure Garden, were shown at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater. Known as “The Hitchcock 9,” the traveling tribute was made possible by a $3 million program organized by the British Film Institute.
Along with Walt Disney, Hitchcock was among the first prominent motion picture producers to fully envisage just how popular the medium of television would become. From 1955 to 1965, Hitchcock was the host and producer of a television series titled 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 and signature droll delivery, gallows humour, iconic image and mannerisms became instantly recognisable and were often the subject of parody.
The title-theme of the show pictured a minimalist caricature of Hitchcock’s profile (he drew it himself; it is composed of only nine strokes), which his real silhouette then filled. His introductions before the stories in his program always included some sort of wry humour, such as the description of a recent multi-person execution hampered by having only one electric chair, while two are now shown with a sign “Two chairs—no waiting!” 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 picturePsycho. In the late 1980s, a new version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents was produced for television, making use of Hitchcock’s original introductions in a colourised form.
The series used a curious little tune by the French composer Charles Gounod (1818–1893), the composer of the 1859 opera Faust, as the theme for his television programs, after it was suggested to him by composer Bernard Herrmann. Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra included the piece, Funeral March of a Marionette, on one of their extended play 45-rpm discs for RCA Victor during the 1950s.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents was parodied by Friz Freleng’s 1961 cartoon The Last Hungry Cat, which contains a plot similar to Blackmail.
Hitchcock appears as a character in the popular juvenile detective book series, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators. The long-running detective series was created by Robert Arthur, who wrote the first several books, although other authors took over after he left the series. The Three Investigators—Jupiter Jones, Bob Andrews and Peter Crenshaw—were amateur detectives, slightly younger than the Hardy Boys. In the introduction to each book, “Alfred Hitchcock” introduces the mystery, and he sometimes refers a case to the boys to solve. At the end of each book, the boys report to Hitchcock, and sometimes give him a memento of their case.
When the real Hitchcock died, the fictional Hitchcock in the Three Investigators books was replaced by a retired detective named Hector Sebastian. At this time, the series title was changed from Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators to The Three Investigators.
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, primarily focused on suspense and thrillers. These titles included Alfred Hitchcock’s Anthology, Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories to be Read with the Door Locked, Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum, Alfred Hitchcock’s Supernatural Tales of Terror and Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbinders in Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock’s Witch’s Brew, Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery, Alfred Hitchcock’s A Hangman’s Dozen, Alfred Hitchcock’s Stories Not For the Nervous and Alfred Hitchcock’s Haunted Houseful. Hitchcock himself was not actually involved in the reading, reviewing, editing or selection of the short stories; in fact, even his introductions were ghost-written. The entire extent of his involvement with the project was to lend his name and collect a check.
Some notable writers whose works were used in the collection include Shirley Jackson (Strangers in Town, The Lottery), T.H. White (The Once and Future King), 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.
In a similar manner, Hitchcock’s name was licensed for a digest-sized monthly, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, which has been published since 1956.
Hitchcock also wrote a mystery story for Look magazine in 1943, “The Murder of Monty Woolley”. This was a sequence of captioned photographs inviting the reader to inspect the pictures for clues to the murderer’s identity; Hitchcock cast the performers as themselves, such as Woolley, Doris Merrick and make-up man Guy Pearce, whom Hitchcock identified, in the last photo, as the murderer. The article was reprinted in Games Magazine in November/December 1980.
In September 2010, BBC Radio 7 broadcast a series of five fifteen-minute programs entitled The Late Alfred Hitchcock Presents with Michael Roberts impersonating Alfred Hitchcock for introductory/concluding comments and reading the stories in his own voice. These five stories were originally intended for the television series, but were rejected because of their rather gruesome nature:
- “The Waxwork” by A. M. Burrage (broadcast 13 September 2010)
- “Sredni Vashtar” by Saki (broadcast 14 September 2010)
- “The Perfectionist” by Margaret St. Clair (broadcast 15 September 2010)
- “Being a Murderer Myself” by Arthur Williams[disambiguation needed] (broadcast 16 September 2010)
- “The Dancing Partner” by Jerome K. Jerome (broadcast 17 September 2010)
Frequently cast actors and actresses
- Clare Greet: Number 13 (1922), The Ring (1927), The Manxman (1929), Murder! (1930), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Sabotage (1936), Jamaica Inn (1939)
- Leo G. Carroll: Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945), The Paradine Case (1947), Strangers on a Train (1951), and North By Northwest (1959)
- Hannah Jones: Downhill (1927), Champagne (1928), Blackmail (1929), Murder! (1930), and Rich and Strange (1932)
- Donald Calthrop: Blackmail (1929), Murder! (1930), Juno and the Paycock (1930), and Number Seventeen (1932)
- Cary Grant: Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955), and North By Northwest (1959)
- Edmund Gwenn: The Skin Game (1931), Waltzes from Vienna (1934), Foreign Correspondent (1940), and The Trouble with Harry (1955)
- Phyllis Konstam: Champagne (1928), Blackmail (1929), Murder! (1930), and The Skin Game (1931)
- John Longden: Blackmail (1929), Juno and the Paycock (1930), The Skin Game (1931), and Young and Innocent (1937)
- James Stewart: Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and Vertigo (1958)
- Ingrid Bergman: Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), Under Capricorn (1949)
- Charles Halton: Foreign Correspondent (1940), Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941), Saboteur (1942)
- Patricia Hitchcock: Stage Fright (1950), Strangers on a Train (1951), Psycho (1960)
- Ian Hunter: The Ring (1927), Downhill (1927), Easy Virtue (1928)
- Grace Kelly: Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), and To Catch a Thief (1955)
- Basil Radford: Young and Innocent (1937), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Jamaica Inn (1939)
- John Williams: The Paradine Case (1947), Dial M for Murder, (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955)
Portrayals in film and television
- Anthony Hopkins, in the 2012 film Hitchcock.
- Toby Jones, in the 2012 HBO telefilm The Girl.
- Roger Ashton-Griffiths, in the 2014 film Grace of Monaco.