Hitchcock began as an engineering student interested in design. He grew intrigued by photography and got his start in film in London in 1920 designing the titles for silent films. In 1925, he became a director, almost by accident.
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.
That is classic Hitchcock; again and again, his films 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.
"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.
David 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.
He also enjoys making voyeurs of his "respectable" audience, further blurring the moral distinction between the innocent and the guilty. After Jimmy Stewart's character has been staring across the courtyard at him for most of the film, Raymond Burr's burly villain confronts Stewart by saying "What do you want of me?" Burr might as well have been addressing the audience.
Hitchcock was a lonely, imaginative, obese child, a Catholic boy who used 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's films are full of difficult or troubling mother figures. He was in his mid-20's, and a professional film director, before he'd ever drunk alcohol or been on a date. In "North by Northwest" the Cary Grant character is an innocent man ridiculed by his mother for insisting that shadowy, murderous men are after him. 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.
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.
And, most notoriously, in "Psycho," Janet Leigh steals $40,000 and gets murdered by a young man named Norman Bates 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 also elevated 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 was proud of 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.
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... 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." In both films, he uses a total mastery of the film medium to make almost confessional films 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.
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 was often critical of his actors and actresses as well, dismissing, for example, the fine performance by Kim Novak in "Vertigo." 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."
Hitchcocks two favorite actors were Cary Grant, and James Stewart, each of whom acted in four of his films. Cary Grant represented Hitchcock as he would have liked to be: slim, handsome and debonair. Stewart represented for Hitchcock the everyman he hoped to reach in the audience. He also openly adored Grace Kelly, and she never looked more ravishing than she did in "Rear Window."
Some see misogyny in Hitchcock's films; but if it's there, it is strongly undercut by a sense of humor, and an admiring sense of the strength and grace of women.
With 8-10 great films, and many others of enduring value, Alfred Hitchcock is one of the giants of cinema history. He never won an Academy Award for Best Picture. "Notorious" in 1946 was not even one of the five films nominated. Neither was "Vertigo" in 1958 or "Psycho" in 1960.
- The Birds (1963)
- Dial M for Murder(1954)
- Family Plot (1976)
- Frenzy (1972)
- Foreign Correspondent (1940)]
- Lifeboat (1943)]
- The Lodger (1926)
- Marnie (1964)
- North by Northwest (1959)
- Notorious (1946)
- Psycho (1960)
- Rear Window (1954)
- Rebecca (1940)
- Rope (1948)
- Strangers on a Train (1951)
- Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
- Torn Curtain (1966)
- The 39 Steps (1935)
- Vertigo (1958)