Few film directors throughout history have actually become household names. Even fewer continue to maintain this popularity years after their death. However, Alfred Hitchcock is a rare example of a director whose talents have transcended time. Hitchcock is arguably one of the greatest film directors of all time. He was a man who took up the space in a room, both in physical appearance and in personality. Not only are his films entertaining, but his life was interesting as well.
Personally, I feel that Hitchcock is one of the most entertaining film directors of all time. I have a personal interest in studying him because although he was known for suspense and horror, he was also extremely funny. I also have enjoyed seeing his influence in both film and television throughout the years. For instance, Hitchcock’s infamous shower scene from Psycho has been manipulated and redone in countless ways. I appreciate when people or other forms of media reference Hitchcock and his work. In my opinion, he was one of the most influential directors to ever hold a camera.
On August 13, 1899 in Leytonstone, England, one of the greatest film directors of all time came into the world. He was named Alfred Joseph Hitchcock (Berg). He was also known as “Fred” and as “Cocky,” both of which were nicknames he disliked (Kehoe). His father was a poultry dealer, greengrocer, and fruit importer, and his mother’s name was Emma Whelan (Flint). He had a brother, William, and a sister, Nellie, but he was never close with either of them. He also never had any close friends (Kehoe). His father died when Hitchcock was 14 years old (Peele 203). They were a devout Catholic family (Berg). This religious upbringing influenced his work as a director, where his work was specifically influenced by guilt due to his Catholic background. In addition to being raised Catholic, much of his childhood shaped his personality. For instance, Hitchcock developed a terrible fear of police officers. This resulted from an incident that occurred when he was about five years old. He was sent to the local police station with a note by his father. The police chief read the note and then locked young Hitchcock in a cell for a few minutes. Once he was released, the officer said, “That’s what we do to naughty boys” (Flint). This created a life-long fear of the police in Hitchcock. In reference to this incident, Hitchcock said that he could not forget ” the sound and solidity of that closing cell door” (Flint). In addition to a fear of police, Hitchcock also displayed a fear of punishment. He attributed this fear to beatings of the hands he experienced as punishment at St. Ignatius College.
While in college, Hitchcock explored his many talents. He studied at the St. Ignatius College in London, which was run by Jesuits. He then moved on to the School of Engineering and Navigation where he studied mechanics, electricity, acoustics, and navigation. Hitchcock also studied art at the University of London (Berg). Hitchcock was interested in such things as attending theatre and cinema, sketching, and writing (Peele 203). He was also an avid reader. He studied the work of many other filmmakers. Especially influential to Hitchcock were the German expressionists, including Fritz Lang (Eder).
After school, Hitchcock began searching for his true calling. He worked as a technical calculator for a cable company for a short period of time. After that, he tried his hand at drafting and became an advertising layout draftsman for a department store in London. His first encounter with working in film occurred in 1920 when he got a job writing and illustrating title cards for silent films (Flint). He joined the Famous Players-Lasky, a London studio associated with Paramount Pictures. There, he worked under directors George Fitzmaurice, an American, and Graham Cutts (Mogg). His career quickly moved forward as he became a script writer, art director, and assistant director. By 1925, Hitchcock had made his debut in directing films with The Pleasure Garden (Flint).
The following year, 1926, Hitchcock married Alma Reville. She was only one day younger than him, having been born on August 14, 1899 (Kehoe). The two were devoted to one another throughout their marriage (Mogg). Alma was also his assistant who “collaborated on many of his movies as a writer, adviser, and general assistant” (Flint). She was an experienced film editor and scripter. According to Ken Mogg, Alma “could be his severest critic.” She was not afraid to stand up to her husband, and was described as “peppery” and unafraid of “‘bossing’ her husband” (Mogg). Although they were devoted to each other, their marriage lacked passion. Hitchcock led a mainly celibate lifestyle and filled this void with things such as work, travel, gourmet food, collecting artwork, and attending events such as wrestling matches. The couple did conceive one child, though: a daughter named Patricia. Patricia acted in several of her father’s movies and television shows (Flint). Hitchcock and his wife also had a summer home in a small village south of London called Shamley Green, which they purchased in 1928 (Grams). The family moved to Hollywood in 1939 (Flint). In 1955, he became an American citizen (Kehoe).
Known by his friends and colleagues as Hitch, this famous director had a very memorable appearance. He could be described as “portly” and “cherubic” (Flint). Flint also states that Hitchcock “had a pudgy, basset-hound face with heavy jowls and pouting lips.” He had a great love for gourmet food and was also a wine connoisseur, but had to diet in order to maintain 220 pounds on his 5-foot-8-inch frame. At one time, Hitchcock’s weight was up to 290 pounds, but he avoided exercise at all costs (Flint). A typical dinner for Hitchcock consisted of “roast chicken, a small boiled ham, potatoes, two vegetables, bread, a bottle of wine, salad, dessert, and brandy” (Kehoe). The most expensive room in the Hitchcock home was, of course, the kitchen, and his wife cooked for him every night. He did help her clean up afterwards, though (Davidson 64).
Hitchcock was also a very funny man. He once sent a suit made by one of London’s best tailors to Peter Lorre, but the suit was sized for a child. Another time, he hosted an elaborate, formal dinner in which the waiters were told to be extremely rude to the guests (Kehoe). He had a strong interest in practical jokes. One of his favorite practical jokes, according to Peter B. Flint, was to tell a story in a loud voice on an elevator. He would perfectly time the story so that he would exit the elevator just before the punch line, bowing politely to the unsatisfied passengers.
Near the end of his life, Hitchcock’s wife became sick. His loneliness caused his obesity to worsen, and his drinking habits increased. He was once even hospitalized for alcoholism. He never established intimate relationships with anyone but his wife, and had rejected coworkers over the years. Therefore, Hitchcock felt extremely alone and isolated shortly before his death (Peele 207).
After a life full of entertaining others, Hitchcock died on April 28, 1980.This was due to liver failure and heart problems (Berg).Before his death, though, he was granted knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, even though he was a United States Citizen. His wife, daughter, and three grandchildren were with him at his death at his home in Los Angeles, California. He was 80 years old (Flint). During the last year of Hitchcock’s life, he did not allow his failing health to prevent him from doing what he loved, and was even working on a movie at the time of his death. The year before Hitchcock’s death, he received the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award (Beaver 264). When asked what he wanted inscribed on his tombstone, Hitchcock replied, “It should say, ‘This is what we do to bad little boys,'” in reference to his run-in with the police during childhood (Kehoe).
Although Hitchcock has been involved with many aspects of the entertainment industry, he is best known for his work as a film director. He first began directing films in 1922 when he was assistant director for an unfinished film. Throughout Hitchcock’s film career, he experimented with both technological and thematic elements which made his films unique. He was extremely creative in his treatment of suspense. Peter Flint said, “His best movies were meticulously orchestrated nightmares of peril and pursuit relieved by unexpected comic ironies, absurdities, and anomalies.” In my opinion, this balance of suspense and humor helped to differentiate Hitchcock from other film makers of the time.
His first completed film on which he worked as a director was The Pleasure Garden in 1925. This occurred after he had worked for two years in Germany under Emil Jannings and was then hired by Gainsborough Pictures (Davidson 64). This first film was a directorial experience unlike any other. When the project first began, Hitchcock went to Genoa with a cameraman, two actors, Alma, and a thousand dollars. This money was then stolen by a pickpocket in Genoa, and was only able to continue directing his first film by borrowing money from the actors (Davidson 64).
In 1926, Hitchcock directed The Lodger, which began his typical plot style in which an innocent person is wrongly accused of a crime. This story was based on the story of Jack the Ripper. In this film, Hitchcock began experimenting with techniques never attempted previously by other film-makers. For example, the beginning of the movie is a close-up of a screaming woman. He also constructed a glass floor through which he could shoot Jack the Ripper pacing across the room (Davidson 64). Since techniques such as these had never been done before, Gainsborough executives hated the movie to the point that they refused to release it. Fortunately, the company ran into financial problems and was forced to show it to the press and a group of theater owners, who praised the film overwhelmingly (Davidson 64).
Next, Hitchcock directed Blackmail in 1929. This film was Hitchcock’s first sound film, and demonstrated his use of “subjective sound” (Berg). Not only was this film Hitchcock’s first sound film, but it was also the first sound film for Britain (Beaver, 264). In this film, Hitchcock did not simply use the voices of the characters, but he distorted each word except for “knife” in order to accentuate the main character’s anxiety (Berg). This shows how Hitchcock was not satisfied with simply doing what other directors were doing. Instead, he had to push his limits, particularly technologically. Also in this film, Hitchcock “first made explicit the link between sex and violence,” which was a continuous theme throughout his career (Berg).
The next few years of Hitchcock’s career produced nothing exceptional. During this time, he mainly adapted plays and novels for film. In 1930, he even attempted to do a musical spoof of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” entitled Elstree Calling (Katz, 630). As a musical, this was obviously a drastic departure from Hitchcock’s typical suspense thrillers. Another musical attempt made by Hitchcock was Waltzes From Vienna in 1933. The only movie during this slow period of Hitchcock’s that is worth noting was Murder in 1930, which contained a “daring homosexual motif” for that time (Katz, 630).
However, the year 1934 provided a turn-around for Hitchcock. His film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, was both a critical and commercial success, and established a pattern in Hitchcock films of investigations of family relationships mixed in with suspenseful stories (Berg). This film also “signaled the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s international reputation as the master of the thriller genre” and established him as Britain’s foremost director (Katz 630). This film is also worth noting because, in this film, Hitchcock began using several of his “hallmarks such as the sudden-shock effect and the lurking of sinister jeopardy beneath a surface of commonplace serenity” (Katz, 630). Hitchcock remade this film in 1956 as well, but the 1956 version was more elaborate and in color (Katz, 630).
After The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock continued to succeed in filmmaking in the 1930’s. In 1935, he made a film which saw even greater critical and commercial success. This film was called The 39 Steps. In this film, there was a combination of romantic and comic relief. However, this relief seemed to increase the tension rather than minimize it. The film also contained many scenarios which were not exactly plausible. However, Hitchcock said in an interview with Francois Truffaut that he was more concerned with the emotion and mood of the film than the plausibility of it (Katz 630). Frank Beaver called this one of Hitchcock’s “finest achievements ever” (264). Occasionally, Hitchcock did have a few films that did not stack up to his other achievements. One such film was Rich and Strange, made in 1932. Most of Hitchcock’s films made in the 1930’s were well-received, though, and this includes Young and Innocent, Secret Agent, and Sabotage, even though these films are not the films Hitchcock is best known for (Beaver 264). In Secret Agent and Sabotage, Hitchcock admits to making mistakes, but he learned from them. He said that, “suspense is developed by providing the audience with information denied endangered characters” (Berg). He also said, though, that the innocent should not be harmed in order for a film to have the greatest effect on an audience. Harm done to the innocent is perhaps the biggest mistake Hitchcock admits to making in both Secret Agent and Sabotage (Berg).
Toward the end of the 1930’s, Hitchcock rounded out his British career as a director. He directed The Lady Vanishes in 1938. Although he filmed this movie while still in Britain, it was popular in the United States. It was so popular, in fact, that the New York Critic’s Award went to Hitchcock for Best Director (Beaver 264). His final film while in Britain was Jamaica Inn in 1939.
Hitchcock then moved to Hollywood and began work on longer, more expensive films. According to Frank Beaver, this gave Hitchcock “greater screen time for probing the psychology of his characters” (264). At this time, he began working with David O. Selznick, a producer in Hollywood. Hitchcock’s first American work was Rebecca in 1940. Rebecca was atypical for Hitchcock in that it was an adaptation from a Daphne du Maurier novel. However, Hitchcock managed to turn this story into a psychological drama full of suspense (Katz 631). The film was also atypical for Hitchcock because he relied on camera movement, whereas his previous films relied more on cutting techniques (Katz 631). This film won the award presented by the Motion Picture Academy for Best Picture. Hitchcock was nominated for an Oscar as Best Director, but he did not win the award (Katz 631). He was nominated for Best Director on four other separate occasions, but he did not win a single time (Peele 204). The same year, Hitchcock directed Foreign Correspondent, a chase melodrama. This film was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, but lost to Rebecca (Beaver 264). Hitchcock then became a top “money” director in Hollywood (Eder). Selznick then began lending Hitchcock to other producers for large fees, which Hitchcock actually did not mind. He did not appreciate being used as a “cash cow,” but he did enjoy the chances to get away from Selznick, who was a very hands-on producer (Eder). Having both Selznick and Hitchcock fighting for control left Hitchcock appreciative of any kind of escape he could manage (Eder). The following year, Carole Lombard asked Hitchcock to direct her in a screwball comedy called Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which was an unusual style for Hitchcock (Katz 631).
Also in 1941, Hitchcock directed Suspicion. The star of this film, Joan Fontaine, had also starred in Rebecca. She won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Suspicion (Beaver 264). The storyline of this film is about a woman who thinks her husband is plotting to kill her. The husband was played by Cary Grant, who appeared in many later Hitchcock films as well. However, by choosing Grant to play the husband, the ending of the plot was weakened. Since Grant was such a huge film star, the studio would not allow him to play a murderer, and so the ending had to be changed (Katz 631).
In the early 1940’s, Hitchcock experimented with several different styles of film-making. For example, in Saboteur (1942), Hitchcock filled the film with gimmicks and techniques specifically used for the thriller genre. Ephraim Katz described his work on this film as “a chock-full-of-fun compilation of Hitchcock’s bag of old tricks bordering on self-parody” (631). In 1943, Hitchcock created Shadow of a Doubt. This was considered his first serious attempt at “creating suspenseful drama through subtle characterization, understated plot, and the careful authentic re-creation of the flavor of a small American town” (Katz 631). This film looked at the darkness of the American middle-class as well as family dynamics. Charles Ramirez Berg says that, “In Hitchcock, evil manifests itself not only in acts of physical violence, but also in the form of psychological, institutionalized, and systemic cruelty.” Lifeboat, made in 1944, was an experiment in film in which Hitchcock filmed all of the action in a tiny boat. Another interesting film experiment Hitchcock performed occurred in 1948 with Rope. In this film, Hitchcock tried his hand at continuous shooting. He would film extremely long takes and only break when the camera had to be reloaded (Katz 631). The goal of this film was for the entire movie to seem like a single, unedited shot (Berg). Ken Mogg says that this impression of one shot becomes a metaphor for Brandon and Phillip’s, two of the main character’s, “entrapment and lack of perspective.” The film was also Hitchcock’s first film in color (Beaver 264). One interesting aspect of Rope is that originally, this was a tale about three homosexual characters. Two characters, Brandon and Phillip, were meant to be lovers. They then were to commit a murder based on their misunderstanding of a philosophy learned from an old teacher, Rupert. However, “the casting of James Stewart as Rupert put an end to any development of the screenplay’s gay subtext” (Mogg). The end of the decade included unremarkable films for Hitchcock, including The Paradine Case in 1948 and Stage Fright in 1950 (Berg).
However, the 1950’s were prime years for Hitchcock’s career. Charles Ramirez Berg calls this decade Hitchcock’s “most inspired period.” During this period, Hitchcock produced such films as I Confess in 1953, Dial M for Murder in 1954, To Catch a Thief in 1955, The Trouble with Harry in 1955, and Strangers on a Train in 1956. Although all of these were memorable films, Hitchcock also created three masterpieces during this time. The first of these masterpieces was Rear Window, made in 1954. In this film, the viewers became voyeurs as Hitchcock examined the relationship between watchers and the watched. This film was also released during Hollywood’s switch to widescreen shooting. About Hitchcock and this switch, Bruce Eder said the following:
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.
Once again, Hitchcock showcased his technical talents in breaking down the shots for this film. Also unique to this film was Hitchcock’s use of Raymond Burr. Burr played the killer in Rear Window, and his makeup often made him look like David Selznick, the producer Hitchcock once worked for and resented (Eder).
Two other films during this decade, Vertigo, and North by Northwest, were also wonderful successes for Hitchcock. Vertigo, released in 1958, examined a theme of lost identity of the female character (Berg). He also focused on obsession in this film (Kirshner 511). James Stewart and Kim Novak starred in this film, although Hitchcock said about Novak, “The only reason I used her in Vertigo was that Vera Miles became pregnant” (Davidson). North by Northwest, released in 1959, was also a spectacular film. It had a script by Ernest Lehman, a score by Bernard Herrmann, and starred Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint (Berg). Cary Grant, however, noted that the plot made no sense. It succeeded, though, thanks to Hitchcock’s ability to include details essential to making the film work. Once he was finished with the film, MGM pressured Hitchcock to remove a sequence at the end of the film, but Hitchcock refused, knowing that each scene was necessary for the success of the film (Peele 208). Charles Ramirez Berg feels that this film is classic Hitchcock, containing “ingenious shots, subtle male-female relationships, dramatic score, bright technicolor, inside jokes, witty symbolism, and above all masterfully orchestrated suspense.”
The following decade, the 1960’s, also proved to be critical in Hitchcock’s career. Psycho, the film for which Hitchcock is most remembered, was released in 1960. Most notable about this film is its infamous shower scene. This scene is known for both Hitchcock’s use of editing and shot selection throughout the scene as well as the scene’s apparent nudity, violence, and “violation of the narrative convention that makes a protagonist invulnerable” (Berg). According to Jonathan Kirshner, the shower scene in Psycho lasted 45 seconds, but made use of 70 camera set-ups (512). Hitchcock had little faith in the film until Bernard Herrman delivered the score. Herrman had scored all of Hitchcock’s major films from 1957 onward, and this score included a strings-only soundtrack, a chilling background perfect for this story (Eder). Hitchcock also made use of shots of eyes in this film. He began with a view of the killer’s eye and ended with the eyes of the murder victim, which, according to Berg, “subtly implied the presence of the third eye.” This third eye Berg speaks of is the eye of the viewer (Berg). This film grossed over 15 times its cost of production (Kirshner 512)
In 1963, Hitchcock directed a film, The Birds, which would haunt viewers for years to come. This is due in part to the film’s presentation of “evil as an environmental fact of life” (Berg). Viewers cannot escape evil since it is manifested in an ordinary creatures. Tippi Hedren, one of the stars of the film, may have even thought that evil had manifested itself in Hitchcock himself. For example, in one scene, Hitchcock took an entire week to film a sequence where birds were hurled at Hedren. One finally pecked her near the eye and she collapsed due to both physical and nervous exhaustion (Peele 206).
After The Birds, Hitchcock directed such films as Marnie in 1964, Torn Curtain in 1966, and Topaz in 1969. Marnie explored the idea of how a sexual experience during childhood caused a woman to become a thief. This, according to Berg, once again associated “criminality with violence and sex.” Torn Curtain, on the other hand, was most memorable for its fight scene between a man and a Communist agent during the cold war era. Hitchcock did not allow this scene to show a quick, easy death, and instead focused on the reality and difficulty of taking another human’s life (Berg). Finally, Hitchcock’s last film of the 1960’s was Topaz, which was a disappointment. It was an unfocused story that lacked the wit that was typical of a Hitchcock narrative (Berg).
During Hitchcock’s final years directing film, he created Frenzy and Family Plot. In order to direct Frenzy, he returned to England and directed this story about a man suspected of being a serial killer but was actually innocent. Family Plot, though, was a story about two couples, one of which was a pair of thieves, and the other consisted of a female psychic and her working-class boyfriend. Berg said, “It was a fitting end to a body of work that demonstrated the eternal symmetry of good and evil.” Although this was Hitchcock’s final film, he had been working with Universal Studios on a spy story called The Short Night at the time of his death (Flint).
In addition a being a great film director, Hitchcock also tried his hand at other roles as well. For instance, he wrote the production section for the Encyclopedia Britannica (Flint). He also lent his name to and supervised popular suspense anthologies and magazines (Flint). One of Hitchcock’s most interesting roles, though, besides being a film director, was his role on the television series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.” He was persuaded to host these shows by the head on Universal- International Lew Wasserman. Hitchcock received $129,000 per show, and the original series, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” was first sponsored by CBS and Bristol Meyers. He named his television company “Shamley Productions” after the summer home he and his wife owned (Grams).
In these television programs, Hitchcock played limited roles. He was allowed to introduce the show, introduce commercials, and make closing remarks. Joan Harrison, an executive producer of the programs, said that in these programs, Hitchcock “contributes nothing except script supervision” (Grams).
Although Hitchcock had limited roles in the shows themselves, he attempted to inject as much of his personality into them as possible. His writer, James Allardice, wrote brilliant, creative opening and closing remarks for Hitchcock to say. It was his style to come up with absolutely nothing until the day before the show, and then write something perfect for Hitchcock to say. Hitchcock was very creative, too, though. He could not use all of his ideas throughout his shows, but his ideas show the vast amount of creativity and humor he possessed. For instance, he once suggested a very clever story about a man who works in a baseball factory who puts dynamite in a baseball. The audience then follows the ball’s journey through an inning of a baseball game where the pitcher strikes out three players in a row with the ball to win the game. The ball is then given to the club owner who puts the ball on a shelf in his office. At the end of the story, the cleaning lady would come in and accidentally jiggle the ball so that it rolled off of the shelf. The last shot would be of the cleaning woman catching the ball before it falls to the ground and explodes (Grams). The story sounds crazy, but it shows how Hitchcock valued suspense and used it creatively when telling a story. However, the story never got off of the ground (Grams).
Since Hitchcock introduced commercials for the show, he came up with a few ideas for them as well. For example, Hitchcock said the following:
Once I said, ‘The views expressed in the following commercial are strictly those of the sponsor.’ They didn’t like that. I could see their point of view, too. Afterward, I changed it slightly. I said, ‘The views expressed here are entirely those of the sponsor,’ and did a look- you know- to show that perhaps I really didn’t mean it (Grams).
Hitchcock had a terrific sense of humor, and especially appreciated counterpoint humor. He also wanted to actually act in some of the commercials. His idea was to do commercials where he is advertising a car and the door handle falls off, or advertising toothpaste when, after he rinses the toothpaste from his mouth, he spits out all of his teeth. Of course, advertisers were not interested in Hitchcock’s way of advertising, but these ideas show his outrageous sense of humor (Grams).
Unfortunately, Hitchcock’s television series did not last forever. “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” was the half-hour version of the series, which lasted for seven seasons. After these seven seasons, the producers moved to an hour-long series called “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.” This series lasted only three seasons. Concerning the switch to the hour-long program, Henry Slesar said, “More was told about the same thing. I think the show suffered because of it” (Grams). Hitchcock continued doing what he did best, though, which was directing movies.
In addition to his television series, Hitchcock had a stint in radio. He created a radio version of The Lodger in 1940. This show starred Herbert Marshall as both the lodger and the narrator. The radio version ended with the lodger’s disappearance and pointed toward his guilt. At the end of the show, the cast complained to Hitchcock that the ending was uncertain. They said, “‘You have to tell the audience Mr. Sleuth was guilty,’ they insist. ‘Ah,’ replies Hitchcock, “but was he?” (Mogg). Even though Hitchcock had a great visual style in movie-making, he was successful in keeping suspense high even on the radio.
Throughout Hitchcock’s career, he remained extremely meticulous. He was not one to deviate away from storyboard sketches. He also angered many actors throughout his career, and treated them as just another element to his story, just another part of the mise-en-scene. He once even referred to actors as “cattle” (Flint). Before he even began filming, Hitchcock was known to draw out very precise sketches of each scene. This included listing each camera angle (Flint). By the time he started filming a movie, Hitchcock said that he knew every shot and angle by heart (Kirshner 512). He believed that in a good film, “every shot counts” (Kirshner 512). He set up each and every shot so perfectly that he almost never even needed to look through the camera’s viewfinder (Flint). He also worked very closely with writers and other collaborators to achieve his vision from a script (Peele 208).
One element to Hitchcock’s films for which he is remembered is his concept of theme. He had several key themes that he reused throughout his career. Spoto said that Hitchcock’s pathological urges, based on the themes of his films, included:
Misogyny, sadistic tendencies, and fantasies of rape; bathroom and various other fetishes about sex and the body; overwhelming guilt, anxiety, and a mother fixation; and phobias toward women, people in general, and the world at large (Peele 202).
Another theme Hitchcock often used was the idea of the wrong man, accused of a crime he did not commit. His plots often also deal with ideas such suspicion, guilt, delusion, vulnerability, irrationality, violence, and sexual fixations (Flint). In dealing with these ideas, he also mixed in intense childhood fears. These included fear of heights, enclosed places, and even open spaces (Flint). Although these themes and ideas are scattered throughout much of Hitchcock’s work, his best films were those that stuck to one central, main idea. A limited concept is what truly allowed Hitchcock’s films to capture the attention of audiences. As evidence for this concept, Hitchcock often expressed that his dissatisfaction with Saboteur resulted from a clutter of too many ideas. It lacked the “thematic unity” of his other work (Kirshner 511). About any project, Kirshner says, “A project with one specific question, placed in a limited context, is well on its way to success” (511).
Hitchcock was also well-known for his technical ability in film-making. I have already mentioned several of his experiments with new techniques which varied from film to film. However, although Hitchcock appreciated the art of film-making, he did not use art for art’s sake. He believed that the technique had to accompany the story; it had to “enrich the action” (Kirshner 512). In addition to using technique to move the story along, each shot had to do so as well. Hitchcock said that the length of the shot is not what is important, but that making sure that each and every shot in the film is necessary is what constitutes a good sequence. The film should be, in Hitchcock’s opinion, no longer than the amount of time it takes for each necessary part to come together (Kirshner 512). Space should be used wisely, as well. Space, in Hitchcock’s mind, should not be wasted. In The Birds, Melanie is cringing on the sofa, but Hitchcock “kept the camera back to show the nothingness from which she is shrinking” (Peele 213). All of the space in this shot had a specific purpose and provided meaning for the film.
One of the most important aspects of Hitchcock’s films was the element of suspense. Hitchcock made the distinction, though, between suspense and surprise. He says, “Surprises last only a few seconds, but suspense can be sustained indefinitely” (Kirshner 512). He was not a fan of films in which the whole point to the movie was to find out who the killer was. Rope, for instance, gives away every detail to the audience from the beginning, and this increases the amount of suspense throughout the film. Hitchcock’s favorite way of expressing this idea was to use the example of men playing cards. In the first scenario, the men are playing cards when a bomb explodes in a room. In the second scenario, a bomb is shown under the card table with five minutes until detonation. The first scenario surprises the audience for a few seconds, but the second keeps the audience engaged and hanging in suspense until the bomb finally detonates (Kirshner 512). Suspense could also be achieved through the use of silence (Flint). One concept which Hitchcock came up with was that of the “MacGuffin.” The MacGuffin was what Hitchcock called the object which the suspense in the story revolved around. This could be a secret, a document, or anything else a villain was trying to protect (Flint).
Another extremely important element to Hitchcock’s success was his treatment of sexual desires, encounters, and fetishes. For instance, Hitchcock depicted rape on screen in different ways from more contemporary directors. He instead focused on the “difficulty, consequences, and reactions of the victim,” which would reduce the likelihood that the behavior would be imitated (Peele 212-13). Some of the most overt references to sexual obsessions which appear in Hitchcock’s films are toilets and of women’s shoes. There are also several lingering shots of women’s hair. One of Hitchcock’s favorite obsessions to use in film was his obsession with blondes. He said that, “The perfect ‘woman of mystery’ is one who is blonde, subtle, and Nordic” (Kehoe).
Hitchcock also often ran into problems with the Motion Picture Production Code. This code limited the types of things Hitchcock could do on-screen. He even had to comprise his script for Suspicion. However, this allowed Hitchcock to experiment with ways around the production code. For instance, he experimented with surrealism in Spellbound in order to show the hero’s unbalanced mind (Eder).
Even though Hitchcock was a brilliant director, his people skills failed miserably. He was often even described as being cruel. For instance, he once left his daughter screaming on top of a ferris wheel during the filming of Strangers on a Train. He also once forced alcohol down the throat of Montgomery Clift, an alcoholic, until he passed out (Peele 206). For reasons such as this, Hitchcock gained several critics. One incident in which Hitchcock could be perceived as “cruel” happened regarding a fan. The fan had written to Hitchcock telling him that after seeing Janet Leigh murdered in a bathtub in Psycho, his wife was afraid to bathe. He asked Hitchcock for advice. In response to this, Hitchcock asked the man if he had considered sending his wife to the dry cleaner (Davidson 62). This makes for a funny story and is not as cruel a behavior as some of his others, but it is still probably not the response the fan was hoping for. He also fired two female assistants who had served him for decades near the end of his life, while making final business arrangements. He did not even give them any kind of severance pay, a pension, or possibilities for future employment (Peele 207). He also held a resentment for actors. Hitchcock said about Walt Disney, “I used to envy him when he made only cartoons. If he didn’t like an actor, he could tear him up” (Davidson 62). He likened the maturity of actors to that of a child (Davidson 62). In particular, Hitchcock disliked the large salaries which some of his stars commanded (Kehoe).
Although Hitchcock disliked actors, he did enjoy making appearances in his films. These cameo appearances became his trademark, and he can be seen in all but the first two of his 53 films (Kehoe). It is, in part, due to these appearances that Hitchcock’s image was so well-known. He had such a memorable appearance that, during the filming of The Birds, he had to be smuggled into a moving van in order to escape his fans in San Francisco. He and his cameramen worked form behind one-way glass in the van. The stars of the film, which included Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, and Tippi Hedren, were able to work and remain unrecognized (Davidson 62).
Since Hitchcock was so well-known, it is hard to imagine him having insecurities. However, even his childhood fear of policemen followed him into adulthood. Once in America, Hitchcock never drove for fear of getting a ticket. He was also afraid of the mistakes he made. The only movie he allowed himself to watch with an audience present was To Catch a Thief. He refused to see any others with an audience due to this fear. Another fear of his involves the making of three films he desperately wanted to make. These were Malice Aforethought, We, the Accused, and The Trial. He was afraid that if he made these films, they would be flops due to the age of the older characters (Davidson 64).
Hitchcock is perhaps one of the most fascinating directors of all time. He has been trumpeted as one of the “greatest inventors of form in the entire cinema” (Kirshner 511). Truffaut also said of Hitchcock that he is “universally acknowledged to be the world’s foremost technician; even his detractors willingly concede him this title” (qtd. in Kirshner 511). Every aspect of Hitchcock’s films, from his technical experimenting, to his dark themes, to his control of each aspect of a film allowed him to be the celebrated film-maker he is today. He did not rely heavily on dialogue, and instead let the camera tell the story. His humor, as well, has played an extremely important role in his popularity. Flint says that Hitchcock was great at “juxtaposing tension and relaxation, relieving horror with humor.” Not only was he a fantastic director, but he was also fantastic at marketing himself. Without such things as his television show and books and magazines carrying his name, Hitchcock would not have become the common name it is today. His name supersedes all other popular film-makers of the time, including the likes of Chaplin, Hawks, von Sternberg, and Welles. None of these men matched Hitchcock’s success (Peele 215).
Not only was Hitchcock a great director in his time, but he is still regarded as one of the greatest directors of all time. His film-making spanned six different decades, each providing great success. In the 21st century, more than 30 years after Hitchcock’s death, his contributions to film are still being studied. The way Hitchcock used the camera, manipulated an audience, and played on an audience’s emotions were great uses of mass media which can still be looked at today in order to continue to improve the medium. Years after his death, Hitchcock films continue to generate tens of millions of dollars in sales and in rentals (Eder). Known as the “Master of Suspense,” he was wildly popular in his day, and his contributions to film must be seen in order to be fully understood.
Hitchcock, influenced by many elements of his childhood, quickly rose to the top in film-making, and stayed there. What he lacked in people skills, he made up for in communication through the lens of a camera. His films relied on his technical abilities, wit, use of suspense, and humor. He used each of these abilities in order to produce classic film which will continue to be studied for years to come. In addition to film, he also gave America a fabulous television series and an image of himself which is not easily forgotten. His contributions to film are still being put to use and built upon, including technical as well as psychological elements. Although I feel that Hitchcock created brilliant masterpieces in the history of film, the best part of studying him, in my opinion, is being able to probe his mind and understand his odd, but hilarious, sense of humor.
Beaver, Frank. 100 Years of American Film. 262-65. New York: MacMillan, 2000. Print.
Berg, Charles Ramirez. Alfred Hitchcock: A Brief Biography. The Alfred Hitchcock Trust, 1996. Web. 20 Jan. 2011.
Eder, Bruce. “Alfred Hitchcock: Biography.” MSN.
Date of Access: 26 January 2011.
Flint, Peter B., “Alfred Hitchcock: The NY Times Obituary.” Alfred Hitchcock Fans Online.
Date of Access: 27 January 2011.
Grams, Jr, Martin. “‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’: The Quality of Humor.” The MacGuffin.
Date of Access: 24 January 2011.
Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. 630-32. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. Print.
Kehoe, John. “Alfred Hitchcock.” Biography 2.10 (1998): 124. Sociological Collection. EBSCO. Web. 24 Jan. 2011.
Kirshner, Jonathan. “Alfred Hitchcock and the Art of Research.” PS: Political Science and Politics. 29.3 (1996): 511-13. JSTOR. Web. 20 Jan 2011.
Mogg, Ken. “Alfred Hitchcock.”sensesofcinema.com. Senses of Cinema, 22 July 2005. Web. 20 Jan. 2011. http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2005/great-directors/hitchcock/>
Peele, Stanton. “Personality, Pathology, and The Act of Creation: The Case of Alfred Hitchcock.” Biography 9.3 (n.d.): 202-218. Project MUSE. EBSCO. Web. 24 Jan. 2011.