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Alfred Hitchcock
1899 - 1980

Alfred Hitchcock, was a film director famous for skillfully wrought suspense thrillers. He was essentially concerned with depicting the tenuous relations between people and objects and rendering the terror inherent in commonplace realities.

Born into a working class family in London, Alfred Hitchcock attended St. Ignatius' College to prepare for the ministry. However, rebelling against his Catholic upbringing, he fled to the Bohemian seacoast in 1921. He soon involved himself in motion picture production, receiving valuable training with the British division of Famous Players Lasky. In 1923 he began writing scenarios for the Gainsborough Film Studios.

Hitchcock's first film, The Lodger (1925), an exciting treatment of the Jack the Ripper story, was followed by Blackmail (1930), the first British talking picture. Some think that Hitchcock's next films, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), were responsible for the renaissance in British movie making during the early 1930s.

Fame Spread in Hollywood

In 1939 Hitchcock left England with his wife and daughter to settle in Hollywood. For the most part, his American films of the 1940s were expensively produced and stylishly entertaining. These included Rebecca (1940), based on a best-selling suspense novel; Suspicion (1941), about a woman who believes her husband is a murderer; Shadow of a Doubt (1943), the tale of a small-town psychopath diabolically masquerading as a Good Samaritan; Lifeboat (1944), a heavy-handed study of survival on the open seas; and Spellbound (1945), a murder mystery about psychoanalysts. Less ambitious but more accomplished was Notorious (1946), praised for its rendering of place and atmosphere. Hitchcock's first decade in Hollywood ended with two interesting failures: The Paradine Case (1947) and Rope (1948).

Hitchcock Became Master of Suspense

Beginning with the bizarre Strangers on a Train (1951), Hitchcock directed a series of films that placed him among the great artists of modern cinema. His productions of the 1950s were stylistically freer than his earlier films and thematically more complex. His most significant films during that time were I Confess (1953), Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1956), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), and North by Northwest (1959).

Psycho (1960) was Hitchcock's most terrifying and controversial film, and made an entire generation of moviegoers nervous about taking a shower. The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964), and Family Plot (1976) were Hitchcock's final and less brilliant films. Hitchcock also expanded his directing career into American television, with a series that featured mini-thrillers (1955-1965). Because of failing health, he retired from directing after Family Plot. He was knighted in 1979 and died soon afterward in Los Angeles on April 29, 1980.

Hitchcock Renaissance in the 1990s

Hitchcock's films enjoyed newfound popularity in the 1990s. After a restored print of Vertigo was released in 1996 and became surprisingly successful, plans were made to re-release other films, such as Strangers on a Train. According to Entertainment Weekly, as of 1997 plans were underway to remake as many as half a dozen Hitchcock films with new casts, an idea that met with mixed responses from Hitchcock fans.


Alfred Hitchcock has been the most well-known director to the general public since the 1940s -- and he remains so in the 21st century, more than 25 years after his death. His name evokes instant expectations on the part of audiences around the world: of a memorable night of movie-watching highlighted by at least two or three great chills (and a few more good ones), some striking black comedy, and an eccentric characterization or two in virtually every one of the director's movies across a half-century -- and usually laced with a comical cameo appearance by the director himself.

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born into a devoutly Catholic family in London, and his religious upbringing -- with its attendant issues of guilt -- would have a powerful influence on the psychological underpinnings of his later work. He was trained at a technical school, and initially gravitated to movies through art courses and advertising. He studied the work of other filmmakers, most notably the German expressionists, especially Fritz Lang. On visiting Germany's UFA studios in the early '20s, Hitchcock was reportedly overwhelmed by the sheer size and scope of the sets used by Lang for his 1924 Siegfried. Following two films on which he served as screenwriter, Hitchcock made his directorial debut with The Pleasure Garden in 1925. Hitchcock had his first major success the following year with The Lodger, a thriller loosely based on the real-life story of Jack the Ripper, adapted from a novel authored by Mrs. Marie Belloc-Lowndes. While he worked in a multitude of genres over the next six years (including one musical, Waltzes From Vienna, which he regarded as the nadir of his career), he found his greatest acceptance with his thrillers, which included Blackmail (1929) -- the first talking picture made in England -- and Murder (1930). These seem primitive by modern standards, but have many of the essential elements of Hitchcock's subsequent successes, even if they are presented in technically rudimentary terms. Additionally, in their own time they were considered quite innovative, especially Blackmail, which exists in two different versions, sound and silent. Each has its own virtues, but the talkie version makes use of sound in a uniquely suspenseful and sophisticated fashion for its time; the movie also introduced one of Hitchcock's trademark attributes, a finale in a larger-than-life setting, in this case the dome over the reading room of the British Museum. That setting was the result of a suggestion from a younger colleague of Hitchcock's, future film director Michael Powell, who offered the pursuit to the reading room dome as an alternative to a more standard chase through the streets. Hitchcock's later films would include climaxes at the Statue of Liberty (Saboteur), a murder at the United Nations, and a chase to the death on Mount Rushmore (North by Northwest).

Hitchcock first came to international attention in the mid-'30s with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), a thriller starring Leslie Banks as the desperate father, Nova Pilbeam as the kidnapped daughter, and Lang alumnus Peter Lorre -- in his first England-language movie -- as the ringleader of the assassins. The movie was notable not only for its pacing and suspense but also its violence, especially in the final section, which was inspired by an actual incident, the Sidney Street siege, in which the London police encountered heavily armed anarchists. The movie that established the director as a major force in filmmaking, however, was The 39 Steps (1935), loosely based on John Buchan's novel of the same name. With its careful balance of suspense, humor, and romance, the movie was received better in America than any British thriller since the advent of sound, and it made a star not only of Hitchcock within the ranks of his profession, but also of its two leads, Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. At the time of the movie's release, the usual movement of filmmakers internationally was for American directors to head to England, where they were sought-after commodities; in Hitchcock's case, the reverse was true, as he began finding himself courted by Hollywood.

Hitchcock also endured a pair of box-office and critical disappointments during the mid-'30s. Secret Agent and Sabotage were relative failures, mostly due to casting problems. John Gielgud made a very unconvincing lead in the former, playing a reticent spy, and John Loder, subbing for an unavailable Robert Donat, gave a leaden performance in the latter and helped to defeat a pair of good performances by Sylvia Sidney and Oscar Homolka. Additionally, Hitchcock miscalculated the level of violence that the filmgoing public of 1936 would tolerate comfortably in Sabotage, in a scene involving a bomb on a London bus -- he later reportedly observed, rather sardonically, that he could have killed either the boy (Desmond Tester) or the dog, but not both the boy and the dog. His next film, Young and Innocent -- reportedly his favorite of all of his British thrillers -- was better received and showed off his technical expertise where it counted, in the climactic revelation of the killer's identity, in a bravura complex crane shot. But it was with The Lady Vanishes (1938) that everything came together in Hitchcock's work, the suspense, the humor, the romance, and the technical side of filmmaking all combining into a near-perfect whole, with superb pacing as well. Ironically, this was also the only project he ever inherited from another director, the film having already started life as a canceled production entitled "Lost Lady," which was to have been made in 1936 by Roy William Neill from a script by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. It became his greatest British success, as well as being his most humorous thriller, and made film stars of Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood. Two of the supporting players, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, also became a regular double act in movies for years to come, and their characters, Charters and Caldicott, were later spun off into their own series by writer Keith Waterhouse on the PBS television series Mystery! Launder and Gilliat also became a major writer/director/producer duo in their own right in its wake, enjoying a quarter century of success in everything from thrillers to comedies.

Hitchcock was already being courted by American producer David O. Selznick, and The Lady Vanishes only upped the ante. He completed one last British film, Jamaica Inn, based on Daphne du Maurier's novel of ship wreckers in 18th century England, before heading to America to join Selznick's organization. From the outset, the relationship between director and producer was a strained and stormy one, as Hitchcock discovered that Selznick was very much a hands-on producer, exerting almost as much control on his set as Hitchcock, and that he often had his own agenda. The director had a strong enough personality to get what he wanted, but he didn't enjoy the duel for control, and he soon found an escape, but one loaded with its own problems. The multi-Oscar-winning Rebecca (1940) made a huge profit for Selznick and turned Hitchcock into one of Hollywood's top "money" directors, whose name on a marquee could attract audiences. It was then that Selznick began lending Hitchcock out to other producers for huge fees, many times the large salary that Hitchcock was earning; the director resented being used as a cash cow by his employer, but every time he was used on loan-out, it gave him a chance to get away from Selznick and work free from his interference. Those movies became some of his best work of this period in his career: the topical anti-Nazi thrillers Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Saboteur (1942) played to the politics of the era very successfully, despite the presence of a leading man in the latter -- Robert Cummings -- whom the director didn't want (it was also during the shooting of the latter movie that Hitchcock first met actor Norman Lloyd, who played the title role, who was to become an important collaborator on future projects); Lifeboat (1944), where Hitchcock faced the challenge (anticipating the thriller Phone Booth) of making a film drama on a single, confined set, the camera's movements confined to a few feet in any direction and its point-of-view limited to the confines of the boat; but the best of all of them was Shadow of a Doubt (1943), an unsettling take on homefront America in which a serial killer, played by genial leading man Joseph Cotten, comes home to his small town and targets a new victim in the person of his niece (played by Teresa Wright, who was then the virtual personification of young American womanhood).

Hitchcock also occasionally ran into problems with the Motion Picture Production Code, which restricted the content of what could be shown on the screen, and forced him to compromise on the script of Suspicion (1941). But he also tried various experiments during these years, with movies such as Spellbound (which came about initially through Selznick's personal fascination with Freudian analysis), in which he used surreal designs created by Salvador Dali to represent the manifestations of the unbalanced mind of the hero. Hitchcock capped his early Hollywood output with Notorious (1946), which he made for RKO (although Selznick ended up owning it), which mixed suspense and romance in near-perfect proportions, and proved an excellent dramatic vehicle for Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains. The end of Hitchcock's relationship with Selznick came with the production of The Paradine Case, which ultimately existed in three different running times, no version of which was successful.

In the years immediately after, Hitchcock went through a fallow period commercially, as he ventured into independent production and new approaches to shooting. This began with Rope (1948), a bold experiment -- following on from the challenge of Lifeboat -- in doing a thriller in the form of one continuous take, with no edits, retakes of shots, or inserted shots; this was also his first film in color. There were other experiments and digressions, mostly associated with his brief postwar return to British production, including the underrated period drama Under Capricorn (1949) and Stage Fright (1950), before he once again hit his commercial stride back in Hollywood with Strangers on a Train (1951), which was remade by Danny DeVito in 1987 as Throw Mama From the Train, and Dial M for Murder (1954), which was made in 3-D and remains one of the very few fully successful 3-D movies.

Hitchcock's biggest success of this period, however, was Rear Window (1954), based on a story by Cornell Woolrich and starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. This was Hitchcock's directorial tour de force, showing him expanding the boundaries of storytelling while still (in the manner of Lifeboat and Rope) confining himself to a single set and mostly a single point-of-view, breaking down the screen and the focus of the viewer and the film into small fragments. Even more striking was the fact that Hitchcock released Rear Window during 1954, the second year of Hollywood's switch to widescreen, anamorphic (i.e., Cinemascope) shooting -- every other director was scrambling to compose shots for an ultra-wide screen and finding ways to fill that screen, while he was busy breaking his screen into little pieces containing multiple, overlapping, and parallel story information, in picture and sound alike, and getting audiences to look and listen for every small detail. For many, the movie was his technical peak as a filmmaker -- and even here, he managed to slip in several in-jokes, including the particular makeup of the killer played by Raymond Burr, which made him a virtual dead ringer for Selznick.

It was during the second half of the 1950s that Hitchcock's output reached its zenith, with an output of suspense films that was extraordinary in its quality, even when the material wasn't always commercially successful. Starting with Rear Window, he created a series of movies that challenged viewers, sometimes quietly and sometimes boldly, but always in unexpected ways. This all led to a new venture for the director, in the form of a weekly suspense anthology series called Alfred Hitchcock Presents -- and suddenly he wasn't just one of the top filmmakers in Hollywood, but also a media star. The series ran for eight seasons, and although he only directed a handful of the episodes -- Norman Lloyd was one of those who played a key role in the actual production of the show -- his weekly appearances as the wry-witted, dark-humored host made him a fixture in American households and the minds of millions of people. Hitchcock was so well known that he was even burlesqued on two different cartoon shows of the period -- in The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, the heroes' nemesis Boris Badenov at one point impersonates a well-known English film director named "Alfred Hitchhike"; and in one of the Hanna-Barbera cartoons starring the duckling Yakky Doodle, the host is a sardonic and corpulent duck, resembling Hitchcock's physique and manner, whose presence is announced with a quotation from Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette," the Alfred Hitchcock Presents theme music.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents, in turn, overlapped with Hitchcock's last great sustained period of success, including his more opulent remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), starring James Stewart and Doris Day. Hitchcock preferred the 1956 version, but most scholars and serious fans favor the 1934 original, which the director regarded as the work of a "talented amateur." This period also included the darkly romantic, chilling Vertigo (1958), with Stewart and Kim Novak, which was not especially successful at the time but has since come to be regarded as one of the jewels of the director's output. It was followed by the wildly paced, suspenseful (and often comical) North by Northwest (1959), with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint; the latter film, his only movie for MGM, was one of the director's most romantic movies and also exerted a massive influence on popular culture, as well as the source of inspiration for Stanley Donen's equally clever and romantic Charade (1963), also starring Grant.

There were a few more personal indulgences for the director during this period as well, including the fact-based black-and-white drama The Wrong Man (1956) and the gentle, whimsical The Trouble With Harry (1955), but these paled next to what, at first, seemed a relatively modest black-and-white movie with which he finished out the decade: Psycho (1960). Hitchcock originally had little confidence in the movie, and at one point had even considered folding it into the television series, but then Bernard Herrmann -- who had scored all of his major films from The Trouble With Harry onward -- delivered his score, a harrowing strings-only soundtrack that chilled listeners to the bone with its fierce glissandi passages. Originally released by Paramount with a full publicity press (including the well-advertised policy that no one would be admitted to theaters after the start of the movie), it drew lines around the block, and re-defined horror for decades (as well as permanently redefining the seemingly innocent notion of taking a shower). There were still triumphs to follow for Hitchcock, including The Birds (1963), which was not only a hit in theaters but set a new ratings record for its first network showing in the mid-'60s.

This period, however, also marked a downturn in his box office, with two failures in a row. Marnie (1964) managed to disappoint audiences and producers despite the presence of Sean Connery, then at the height of his James Bond fame, as one of the leads; and Torn Curtain (1966) failed despite the presence of Paul Newman and Julie Andrews (then in her post-Sound of Music box-office peak) as the leads. The director was also hurt by the studio's insistence that he cease using composer Bernard Herrmann (who had scored every Hitchcock movie since 1957) in favor of a more "commercial" composer, John Addison. Herrmann's music had become a key element of the success of Hitchcock's films since the mid-'50s, although it should be conceded that his proposed music for Torn Curtain -- the movie on which the split took place between the two -- was not one of his best scores. Of Hitchcock's final three movies, only Frenzy (1972), which marked his return to British thrillers after 30 years, was successful, although his last film, Family Plot (1976), has achieved some respect from cult audiences.

Hitchcock was granted a knighthood late in life, and was planning a new movie at the time of his death in 1980. Several years after he passed away, Hitchcock's box-office appeal was once again demonstrated with the re-release of Rope, Rear Window, The Trouble With Harry, the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo, all of which had been withheld from distribution for several years, in new theatrical runs that earned millions of dollars each. In the case of Vertigo, which had not been successful on its initial release in 1958, this was a particularly important reissue -- from a cult film, it went on to become one of the director's most admired and popular movies. In the decades since, Hitchcock has proved to be every bit as popular in the home-video marketplace, his movies generating tens of millions more in sales and rentals; Rear Window also became the subject of a legal action over its story copyright during the late '80s that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the 21st century, there are dozens of "special edition" DVD releases devoted to Hitchcock movies from the late '20s through the 1970s, even as his movies continue to attract audiences to repertory theatre screenings.






Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock KBE was a British movie director who began his career as an engineering student interested in design. Hitchcock's films frequently portray innocent people caught up in circumstances beyond their control or even understanding; a common theme of his movies is that these characters are guilty, but only of minor, unrelated failings. The films draw heavily on both fear and fantasy, and are known for their droll humor.

Born in London, Hitchcock grew intrigued by photography and got his start in film in London in 1920 designing the titles for silent movies. In 1925, he became a director, almost by accident.

Pre-war British Career

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

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

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


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

Themes and Devices

Hitchcock preferred the use of suspense over surprise in his films. In surprise, the director assaults the viewer with frightening things. In suspense, the director tells or shows things to the audience which the characters in the film do not know, and then artfully builds tension around what will happen when the characters finally learn the truth.

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

Further blurring the moral distinction between the innocent and the guilty, occasionally making this indictment clear, Hitchcock also makes voyeurs of his "respectable" audience. In Rear Window, after L. B. Jeffries (played by James Stewart) has been staring across the courtyard at him for most of the film, Lars Thorwald (played by Raymond Burr) confronts Jeffries by saying "What do you want of me?" Burr might as well have been addressing the audience; and in fact, shortly before that Thorwald turns to face the camera directly for the first time--at this point, audiences invariably gasp.

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

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

His Character and its Effects on his Films

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

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

Hitchcock was in his mid-20's, and a professional film director, before he'd ever drunk alcohol or been on a date. His films sometimes feature male characters struggling in their relationships with their mothers. In North by Northwest Roger O. Thornhill, Cary Grant's character, is an innocent man ridiculed by his mother for insisting that shadowy, murderous men are after him (in this case, they are). In The Birds the Rod Taylor character, an innocent man, finds his world under attack by vicious birds, and struggles to free himself of a grasping mother. The killer in Frenzy is also living in the same house with his mother. Norman Bates' troubles with his mother in Psycho are infamous.

Hitchcock heroines tend to be lovely, cool blondes who seem at first to be proper but, when aroused by passion or danger, respond in a more sensual, animal, perhaps criminal way. As noted, the famous victim in The Lodger is a blonde. In The 39 Steps, Hitchcock's glamorous blonde star, Madeleine Carroll, is put in handcuffs. In Marnie, glamorous blonde Tippie Hedren is a kleptomaniac. In To Catch a Thief, glamorous blonde Grace Kelly is a cat burglar. After becoming interested in Thorwald's life in Rear Window, Lisa breaks into Thorwald's apartment. And, most notoriously, in Psycho, Janet Leigh's character steals $40,000 and gets murdered by a young man named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who thought he was his own mother. Or, as Norman put it himself, "My mother is -- what's the phrase? -- she isn't really herself today."

Hitchcock saw that a reliance on actors and actresses was a holdover from the theater tradition. He was a pioneer in using camera movement, camera set ups and montage to explore the outer reaches of cinematic art.

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

Once, toward the end of a small private dinner party with meager portions, Hitchcock heard his hostess say, "I do hope you'll dine again with us soon."

Hitchcock replied, "By all means. Let's start now."

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

Vertigo explores more frankly and at greater length his interest in the relation between sex and death. Kim Novak's character is most attractive as a blonde, and though Jimmy Stewart's character knows she is an accessory to murder, he falls in love with her and she with him. Stewart's character feels an angry need to control his lover, to dress her, to fetishize her clothes, her shoes, her hair.

His Workstyle

Hitchcock had trouble giving proper credit to the screenwriters who did so much to make his visions come to life on the screen. Gifted writers worked with him, including Raymond Chandler, but rarely felt they had been treated as equals.

Hitchcock once commented, "The writer and I plan out the entire script down to the smallest detail, and when we're finished all that's left to do is to shoot the film. Actually, it's only when one enters the studio that one enters the area of compromise. Really, the novelist has the best casting since he doesn't have to cope with the actors and all the rest." Hitchcock was often critical of his actors and actresses as well, dismissing, for example, Kim Novak's performance in Vertigo, and once famously remarking that actors were to be treated like cattle.

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

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











This web page was last updated on: 21 December, 2008