Created | Updated May 19, 2011
The most famous film-maker of all time, Alfred Hitchcock's career spanned the history of the film industry, from the early silent movies through the birth of the British talkies, surviving trends like cinemascope, 3D and (gasp) colour. He developed many of the techniques film-makers use today (that zoom-in / pull back trick that Steven Spielberg used in Jaws? That was originally Hitchcock's) and the brutality of Psycho kickstarted the whole slasher film genre.
Hitchcock was exceptionally prolific for a time when cameras were big, equipment heavy and cumbersome, and productions were measured in months rather than hours. Considering the size of the crews needed and the often lengthy pre-production necessary to produce films during Hitchcock's era, this is something of a feat in itself.
In the Beginning
Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born in Leytonstone, East London, on 13 August, 1899. Leytonstone itself always had a certain gothic charm (somewhat spoilt these days by the M11 bypass), and many like to think that the general ambience of the area inspired him a little. Leytonstone is quite proud nowadays of their most famous son. Recently the council put an interactive light show in one of the parks, with a pavement that has apparently random coloured tiles in it - until you look at the pavement from a certain angle, and there's Hitch looking back at you..! There's also the Alfred Hitchcock pub on Whipps Cross Road, a suitably gothic pile. There are also some great mosaics of his films in the entrance to the Leytonstone tube station. The Suspicion and Psycho mosaics are particularly terrifying.
Hitchcock was the son of Emma Whelan Hitchcock and East End grocer William Hitchcock. He was raised as a strict Catholic at the Jesuit-run college of Saint Ignatius. As an adult, Hitchcock liked to tell the tale of when his father sent him to the police station with a note that informed the desk sergeant to lock the young Alfred up for a short while, as punishment for a minor misdemeanour. He later claimed it caused his deep mistrust of establishment figures.
When he was 16 years old he began studying engineering and navigation at the University of London and a few years later was hired as an estimator at the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company. It was during these teenage working years that Hitchcock became interested in movies, regularly visiting the cinema and reading US trade journals. In 1920 he secured a job at the Players-Lasky Corporation studio in London (formerly inaugurated as the Famous Players Film Company and latterly known as Paramount Pictures Inc) as a title designer where he created the title and caption cards for many of the movies made by the studios over the next two years.
The 1920s - The Silent Years
Hitchcock progressed through the departments of the Lasky studio, beginning as a writer of captions for the silent films. It was while serving as an apprentice that Hitchcock was given the chance to direct the film Always Tell Your Wife (1922) when the original director Hugh Croise fell ill. Impressed with his work, the studio offered Hitchcock a feature project, but the company closed down its British operations before it could be completed, condemning Hitchcock's first directorial attempt, a comedy entitled Number 13 (aka 'Mrs Peabody'), to the back-burner, never to be completed. Hitchcock was to gain other credits on films produced by the Lasky studio before they closed, including assistant director and writer on the Graham Cutts film Woman to Woman (1923).
After his initiation at Lasky, Hitchcock was hired by Gainsborough Pictures in Islington, London, honing his trade and craft under the auspices of founder and legendary producer Michael Balcon. Balcon, heavily influenced by German film practices, encouraged the young Hitchcock to study their methods and techniques; this education in German cinema proved invaluable to him as he progressed in his career. It was during this tenure that he took on a variety of production roles, acting as designer, script collaborator and assistant director on The White Shadow (1923), The Prude's Fall (1923), The Passionate Adventure (1924) and The Blackguard (1925), broadening and refining his film-making talents.
Eventually, Hitchcock was given the chance to make his full directorial debut with The Pleasure Garden and in the same year directed The Mountain Eagle in Berlin. It was due to Hitchcock's apprenticeship at the Players-Lasky Corporation and the tutelage of Balcon that this 'first' film was so universally accepted as an 'American' movie, even though it was shot entirely in Munich for 50,000 US Dollars. It contained many of what were to become Hitchcock trademarks: in particular his technical appreciation of lighting (especially dramatic lighting, which he learned at Players-Lasky) and his naturally brilliant storytelling and direction.
However, director Graham Cutts managed to convince the studio heads that Hitchcock's works were flops. The Lodger was re-edited without Hitchcock's approval and the other films shelved. It was only down to a shortage of completed films that Hitchcock's films eventually received limited screenings. Suddenly, he became a critical success; Graham Cutts' career meanwhile began to diminish.
Hitchcock's first 15 films were silent films: The Lodger (1926), The Ring (1927) and The Farmer's Wife (1928) were well received by film critics at a time when the film industry in Britain was developing and expanding. But with the arrival of sound technology, the race was on for Britain to produce its own 'talkie' movies...
To many, the 1930s were Hitchcock's finest years, in which he proved the advent of sound in film could complement the image without losing any of the style. When Hitchcock filmed Blackmail (1929) – now acknowledged as Britain's first full-length 'talkie' - Hitchcock was considered the country's favourite film director. The film began as a silent picture, but slowly some scenes were reshot to incorporate sound. One particular scene stands out, in which a girl who has just knifed to death a man who was attempting to rape her is sitting in her family kitchen. The news of the murder has already spread through the neighbourhood and one local gossip, discussing the incident, keeps using the word 'knife'. As the camera locks on the girl's face, the gossip's voice becomes indistinct - except for the word 'knife', which seems to be shouted and sets the girl on edge.
Successful though this early use of sound was, the film still worked well enough without the dialogue - Hitch's experience with silent movies had already taught him how to use images and montage to tell a story.
Hitch's next film, Murder! overcame another sound problem in an inventive if cumbersome way. For a scene where the would-be detective discusses the case, the accompanying music was actually played live by an orchestra just out of shot. A subtle comedy, Murder! is now a film that many would consider horrifically racist but back then merely reflected the opinions of the time.
During this time, Hitchcock directed such outstanding films as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), and The Lady Vanishes (1938), all of which were suspense films that placed ordinary people in life-or-death situations, often being chased by the authorities as well as the villains. It was in these movies where Hitchcock began to impress not just the film-making community, but more importantly, his audience. Hitchcock was fast becoming critically acclaimed and, as an ambassador of British film-making, was viewed by many as more imaginative and proficient than any Hollywood or European contemporary.
By the time Hitchcock shot The 39 Steps (1935) he was an admired and prominent figure in British film culture, so much so that a newspaper report on the premiere of The 39 Steps affectionately referred to him as 'the Buddha of British films'. He went on to film other less well received films with Young and Innocent (1937) effectively a remake of The 39 Steps, and Jamaica Inn (1939) propping up the end of the 1930s Hitchcock career, and the end of his film-making career in Britain.
The 1940s and '50s - Hollywood
Although fertile creatively, Hitchcock was becoming more and more disillusioned with the financial failures of filming in Britain. Films were produced inefficiently, and many studios were forced to shut down, and it was at this point Hitchcock turned his attentions to the more lucrative shores of tinseltown, Hollywood. Initially facing endless closed doors, Hitchcock eventually came across the producer David O. Selznick, with whom he signed a four picture deal on 14 July, 1938. So began his Hollywood career, a move that coincidentally removed Hitchcock from Britain for the duration of World War II.
His first American picture, Rebecca (1940), was his only film to receive an Oscar for Best Picture. However, Hitchcock didn't get the accolade - according to the rules of the Academy, the Best Picture award goes to the Producer (in this case, Selznick), so Hitchcock missed out on what could have been his first and only Academy Award. That wasn't the only thing that caused problems between Hitchcock and Selznick however. Selznick was really only interested in completing Gone With The Wind (1939) at the time, and so spent almost no time on the production of Rebecca.
He did, however, impose a strict 'no rewrite' rule on Hitchcock - Hitchcock's first script had included many passages that were not in Daphne Du Maurier's novel, whereas Selznick had wanted a slavish adaptation. Having been effectively his own boss for almost two decades, Hitchcock suddenly became the employee. Unlike in Britain where the director was king, the power of the studios in Hollywood put the producers in charge, and Selznick was one of the most domineering and controlling, brought up in an industry where screenwriters and directors were interchangeable technicians. Unable to effectively stamp his authority on the script, he filmed it shot for shot as Selznick wanted, leaving little room to manoeuvre in the edit and immediately creating friction in his relationship with Selznick.
Hitchcock's Bag of Tricks
Hitchcock often said that he planned and storyboarded his films so thoroughly that by the time it came for him to shoot the thing he'd grown bored with it; all he'd be doing is remaking the film he already had in his head. As a consequence, many of his films centred around a gimmick or trick.
Location, Location, Location
Lifeboat (1943) is set entirely within the confines of a lifeboat from a torpedoed ship, adrift in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Such a small location increases the tension in an already fraught situation, which is then made even worse when it's discovered that one of the survivors has come from the German U-boat that sank their ship...
Rope – Hitchcock's first colour movie – was an experiment in shooting a film that looked like it was one long, continuous shot, just like a filmed stage drama. He used techniques such as moving the camera behind someone's back or behind an object before the reel ran out, getting everyone to hold their positions, reloading the camera and moving the camera out from behind the actor or object. Edited together it appears as if the camera had simply moved behind someone or something and passed out the other side. Rope, in essence, is a series of eight ten-minute takes tied together at the ends to look like one continuous take.
Dial M for Murder (1954) tapped into the fad for 3D on its first release, with one particularly memorable shot involving Grace Kelly's hand reaching out into the audience as she fends off her would-be strangler. Spellbound played with psychotherapy and featured a dream sequence utilising designs by Salvadore Dali. Hitchcock even predicted a future trend by remaking one of his own movies before anyone else could - The Man Who Knew Too Much - which in 1956 was remade in colour starring James Stewart and Doris Day (the film also included a near-shot-for-shot remount of the climactic scene in the Albert Hall from the original).
Hitchcock has been described as having a 'bottomless bag of tricks' he used to dip into when he felt a film needed more than just plot and story suspense. In many of Hitchcock's first films, the idea that a camera could move was still a concept. Much of the equipment easily available in contemporary film-making wasn't as readily available then, and in many cases not at all. What were available were often bulky, heavy and cumbersome, requiring many hands to enable successful use; hence a lot of Hitchcock's early films had little camera movement.
However, as Hitchcock progressed, so did technology and his keen eye for the manipulation of it. Hitchcock, wise to the use of a moving camera to heighten the fear he affected in his audience, increasingly utilised movement until eventually the camera was almost permanently on the go. Movement became the staple for Hitchcock's heightened suspense, used to great effect in Vertigo . In this film he pioneered the use of the 'zoom in, track out' camera trick more commonly known today as the 'Trombone' shot, or the 'Contra Zoom'1.
There's also Hitchcock's masterful use of camera positioning, and he would often move it to a location offering unorthodox (for his time) views, such as Point Of View (POV) shots, where the camera takes the place a character, and overhead shots – often for heightened perspective, such as above a spiral staircase looking straight down (a Hitchcock favourite) or over the side of a building. Hitchcock often made use of the tracking shot and POV shot combined, allowing an audience to experience a personal view of the character's world. This is something Hitchcock has been quoted describing as 'pure cinema'.
An example of this is in The Birds (1963), when Melanie Daniels delivers the Love Birds. As the rowing boat approaches the house, Hitchcock shows her point of view as the camera tracks and cuts to her looking across to it. Hitchcock doesn't use any music in The Birds either, instead playing with natural sounds, (eg birds, water and ambience), allowing the audience to experience their personal view of the story. As an audience we become more involved with her story and also Hitch's victims, identifying with the character, her desire and excitement.
Playing with light and light effects was another trademark of Hitchcock. One notable moment was when he illuminated a glass of milk carried upstairs by Cary Grant's character Johnnie in Suspicion (1941) to make the glass appear more sinister. In Psycho, Hitchcock used chocolate syrup as a substitute for blood in the infamous shower scene with Janet Leigh.
One of the storytelling tricks Hitchcock introduced was the concept of 'The McGuffin'. Popular legend has it that a 'McGuffin' was originally the point of an old shaggy dog story. For Hitchcock, it meant an excuse to get the plot moving. There was often a box, a bag, a secret formula, an unrevealed secret of an undefined nature, or, in a couple of instances, just a rumour that was chased, carried or hidden by the characters until such time as the film had gathered enough momentum that the 'red herring' could be dropped from the storyline and the action continued without the audience caring that the 'snipe' or 'wild goose' had withered into thin air. In the case of Psycho, there are perhaps three McGuffins present in the film: the embezzled funds; the search for the missing sister; and the mother.
However, Hitchcock didn't use the McGuffin in every film. Hitchcock often constrained himself to 'one location' films - Lifeboat (1944), Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954) - to challenge himself, making use of his camera trickery, photographic effects and clever editing to keep the film moving and the audience trembling in their seats. Today the idea of a 'one location' shoot has more to do with budget constraints than creative wizardry, but this pioneering Hitchcockian restraint on production is a quick way to learn the ropes for any aspiring young director and film-maker.
Hitchcock and the Censors
Hitchcock also constantly walked a wire with the ever present censors, most notably in Psycho (1960) with the 'almost' full nude of Janet Leigh (playing the character Marion Crane) in a long take in the shower. This was made more graphic simply by the violent nature of her death, stabbed repeatedly by 'Mrs Bates'. In Notorious (1946), Hitchcock circumvented the restrictive Hayes Code of Conduct regulating taste and decency in film productions by getting Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman to repeat a series of short kisses instead of one long one. This overcame the 'two-second rule' for on-screen kissing, but was an obvious attempt to break the rules without the scene being cut. According to Hitchcock, both the actors found the scene awkward to film, which needed several long takes and complicated blocking to produce. Frenzy (1972) was the first Hitchcock film to contain 'proper' nude scenes; however, both actresses (Barbara Leigh-Hunt and Anna Massey) had stand-ins for their nude scenes.
Hitchcock's Work Ethic
Hitchcock was very much the perfectionist. He didn't make or shoot films, but spent agonising hours creating them, writing down everything on paper frame by frame, working out every shot, every camera movement, every technical issue and actor's repositioning. Once Hitchcock was certain he had it all down on paper and worked out, it was only then he stepped onto the set, the physical aspect of filming a mere matter of going through the motions. This has prevailed today, though very few aspiring directors understand the need for this extensive pre-production period. It didn't always mean painting by numbers though; with the production process being a highly organic practice, even the best-laid plans can come unstuck.
There is a story of Hitchcock saying that he didn't want a musical score for Lifeboat, arguing 'The audience will be wondering where the orchestra are hiding, on this tiny lifeboat'. Apparently, the less-than-patient reply was 'In that case, where's the camera, dummy?'
Hitchcock was also a very shrewd businessman and knew the power of advertising. The fact that he gave himself a cameo (which functioned as a stamp or signature as well as hint at his dry sense of humour) in nearly all his films, and the complete control he had over their advertising was incredible. A good example is the poster for The Birds (1963) as he stands in the left side margin bigger than the picture of the actress2. In Psycho, he also ordered all the cinemas not to allow people into the theatre if the film had already started3. By ensuring everything was prepared well in advance, Hitchcock not only streamlined the production process and sped up the filming of a project, he also saved the studios money, which, lets face it, is what studios like – film is a business like any other, after all.
The Final Curtain
His last film The Short Night was never produced, and was really just an excuse for Hitchcock to pretend he was still working, even though his failing health and his wife Alma's bedridden state due to a stroke suggested to the contrary. He was too ill to travel, let alone work on location, and Hitchcock's fixation on including a highly graphic rape scene in the script sealed its fate; his friend and regular scriptwriter Ernest Lehman lost interest in the project, realising he could no longer pretend it would ever see the silver screen.
Reluctantly, Hitchcock closed his office and retired. It was then the American Film Institute decided to award Hitchcock the Lifetime Achievement Award . He saw the occasion as a preliminary to his obituary, and delayed involvement in the arrangements. When Alma saw a newspaper article stating she was not expected to be present at the ceremony she defied the critics and attended, sitting at her husband's side alongside the likes of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, who acted as the mistress of ceremonies for the evening.
Though wheelchair-bound and looking very ill, Hitchcock stood to give a witty and charming speech to the assembled crowd, all of whom he had worked with in one form or other. He dedicated his award to 'four people: a film editor, a script writer, the mother of my daughter and a talented cook. And their names are...' he revealed, 'Alma Reville', his wife of over 50 years. He further explained 'without whom I probably would have ended up at this banquet as one of the slower moving waiters'.
In 1980 Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was knighted; on the morning of 29 April the same year, he died peacefully in his sleep.
The 1920s were also a defining decade in Hitchcock's personal life. While working at the Lasky studios he met the red-headed young editor and continuity supervisor Alma Reville. He was shy with her at first, but when he was given the role of assistant director on Woman to Woman Hitchcock asked her to edit the film, and so began a romance that was to become a lifetime affair. Alma eventually became Alfred's wife4,long-time collaborator, and mother of their only child Patricia Hitchcock (who appeared in three of Hitchcock's movies - Stage Fright, Strangers on a Train and Psycho).
She was Alfred Hitchcock's closest collaborator. She contributed to all of her husband's films, often uncredited. She would be shown stories, scripts, storyboards and all elements through the final edit. Other collaborators have stated that the greatest compliment that Hitchcock would give was to say 'Alma loved it'.
The embodiment of Hollywood's old-style charm, Grant's acting was subtle, stylish and easygoing. With Hitchcock, he became known for playing characters with something to hide - appearing in Suspicion, Notorious, To Catch A Thief and North by Northwest. He died in 1986, after 20 years of retirement.
A star in Sweden, Bergman was tempted to Hollywood in 1938. She starred in three of Hitchcock's movies between 1945 and 1949 (Spellbound, Notorious and Under Capricorn), and died on her 67th birthday in 1982.
A star of World War II as well as the movies, Stewart had been decorated with four medals and seven battle stars and appeared in four of Hitchcock's greatest movies: Rope, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo. Due to his enthusiasm for the script of Rear Window, he took a percentage of the gross instead of a fee. He died in 1997.
A former model and stage actress, Kelly starred in three consecutive hits for Hitchcock (Dial M For Murder, Rear Window and To Catch A Thief), who exploited her smouldering charm to best effect. In 1956 she became better known as Princess Grace of Monaco when she married Prince Rainier. She died in a car accident in 1982.
Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock's most prolific composer, producing nine scores, including Psycho and Vertigo. Many people have tried to explain in words the sound created by Hermann for the infamous stabbing scene in Psycho, with varying amounts of success and failure, but to this day it is still a very disturbing sound. Juxtaposed with the grim visuals, it's pretty obvious why this is one of the most famous and parodied scenes in cinema history.
Herrmann was producing scores well before hooking up with the Master of Suspense, including writing scores for some of Orson Welles's radio shows, most notably on the notorious 1938 War of the Worlds, a Halloween prank broadcast that sent people across the USA into a state of panic convinced they were being invaded by Martians. The Hitchcock-Herrmann partnership came to an end when Hitchcock rejected his score for Torn Curtain. Herrmann's version can still be heard on the DVD.
Robert Burks was a cinematographer credited with most of Hitchcock's films in the 50s and 60s, including North By Northwest and The Birds. Burks began his life as a special effects expert for Warner Bros until becoming a Director of Photography there, later moving to Paramount. He won an Oscar for his work on To Catch a Thief, and was nominated for four others, two of which were Hitchcock films; Strangers on a Train and Rear Window.
Edith Head, a Costume Designer attributed to many of Hitchcock's films is the most honoured, prolific costume designer and woman in Academy Award history, with 34 Oscar nominations and eight awards. Edith has over 450 film credits to her name, and the Costume Dept building on the Paramount lot is named after her.
Filmography as Director
- Number Thirteen (1922) (Unfinished)
- Woman to Woman (1923)
- The Pleasure Garden (1925)
- The Mountain Eagle (1926)
- The Lodger (1926)
- Downhill (1927)
- Easy Virtue (1927)
- The Ring (1927)
- The Farmer's Wife (1928)
- Champagne (1928)
- The Manxman (1929)
- Blackmail (1929)
- Juno and the Paycock (1929)
- Murder! (1930)
- The Skin Game (1931)
- Rich and Strange (1932)
- Number Seventeen (1932)
- Waltzes from Vienna (1934)
- The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) (First version)
- The 39 Steps (1935)
- The Secret Agent (1936)
- Sabotage (1936)
- Young and Innocent (1937)
- The Lady Vanishes (1938)
- Jamaica Inn (1939)
- Rebecca (1940)
- Foreign Correspondent (1940)
- Mr and Mrs Smith (1941)
- Suspicion (1941)
- Saboteur (1942)
- Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
- Lifeboat (1943)
- Bon voyage (1944)
- Aventure malgache (1944)
- Spellbound (1945)
- Notorious (1946)
- The Paradine Case (1947)
- Rope (1948)
- Under Capricorn (1949)
- Stage Fright (1950)
- Strangers on a Train (1951)
- I Confess (1952)
- Dial M for Murder (1954)
- Rear Window (1954)
- To Catch a Thief (1955)
- Trouble with Harry (1956)
- The Man who Knew Too Much (1956) (Second version)
- The Wrong Man (1957)
- Vertigo (1958)
- North by Northwest (1959)
- Psycho (1960)
- The Birds (1963)
- Marnie (1964)
- Torn Curtain (1966)
- Topaz (1969)
- Frenzy (1972)
- Family Plot (1976)