Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) b. London, England.
Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born in London on August 13, 1899, to William Hitchcock, a poultry dealer and fruit-importer, and Emma Whelan Hitchcock. As a young boy he was possessed by wanderlust, and by the time he was eight he had ridden every bus line in London and explored all its docks and shipping terminals. His parents were devout Catholics and made sure their son had a proper Jesuit upbringing. Once, as a child, when he had done something of which his father disapproved, he was given a note to take to the police chief. The officer read it and put Alfred in a jail cell for ten minutes. “That’s what we do to boys who are naughty,” he reprimanded. Ever since then Hitchcock has had a phobia for police and police stations, and this fear has manifested itself in many of his films. He attended St. Ignatius College, a Jesuit preparatory school in London, where he started on a course that would prepare him to become an electrical engineer. He eventually was forced to give up his courses at the University of London to help support his family by working as a technical clerk in a cable-manufacturing concern. Not to be deterred, he rose from the lowly job to the advertising department.
Upon learning one day that the Famous Players-Lasky Company was planning to open London studios, Hitchcock went to work on a pet idea, he felt that film title cards were atrocious and decided to design some to present to the new producers. After battling past the army of secretaries and assistants he somehow managed to wrangle his way to the top man who saw and liked the batch of title cards for The Great Day (1921). By 1923, he was a scenario writer for Gainsborough Pictures in Islington, England, and that same year he saw his first credit as art director for Woman to Woman (1923). This came after he had tried his hand at directing a comedy about London low-life called Number Thirteen (1922). The star of the picture, Clare Greet, put up some of the money for the. project, but apparently it was not enough to sustain it and the film was never completed. He later became co-director on the film Always Tell Your Wife after the first director became ill and could not complete shooting. He then acted as designer, script collaborator, and assistant director on The White Shadow (1923) for Gainsborough and continued there with The Passionate Adventure (1924) in the same three jobs. The Prude’s Fall (1924) and The Blackguard (1925) both followed. Then Hitchcock got his first break. He was asked to direct The Pleasure Garden (1925), which would be his first complete film as director. It was to be made in Munich, and Hitchcock brought the cast and crew to Germany on a $50,000 budget. The picture was a slight melodrama, but it obtained good reviews and brought attention to Hitchcock as a capable director. Following The Pleasure Garden, Hitchcock returned to the German studio Emelka for his second film, The Mountain Eagle (1926), which was also shot on location in the Austrian Tyrol.
In 1926 he made his first suspense yarn, The Lodger (1926), a story about a man mistaken for Jack the Ripper. The film was praised by critics and audiences alike. Hitchcock married Alma Reville on December 2, 1926, at Brompton Oratory. He knew Alma from Famous Players-Lasky, where she had been a writer. After completing The Lodger, Hitchcock was offered American directorial stints, but he chose to stay at Islington. Somehow his next film didn’t measure up to his previous success. It was appropriately, and ironically, called Downhill (1927). A modest soap opera, it was out of Hitchcock’s league and did not do well. He went to work on another film, Easy Virtue (1927), based on a play by Noel Coward. The playwright, who is known for his verbal wit, was obviously better on the stage, and the silent film proved boring without sound. It was 1927, and upon completion of Easy Virtue he quit Gainsborough and went to the Elstree studio of British International Pictures (BIP). The story of his first film for British International Pictures, his own, was about the boxing world. The Ring (1927), released in 1927, was a creative effort which brought both him and his studio praise.
The The Farmer’s Wife (1928), which concerned a man’s selection of a wife from the community, this was followed by a film that was not as bubbly as it sounded. Champagne (1928) originally had a Hitchcock story but was rejected by studio executives. British International Pictures then assigned Hitchcock a Hall Caine novel, The Manxman (1929), which was definitely not material that interested him. Accordingly, it was less than successful, but the studio had savvy enough to hold it from release until after his next film had received a gratifying box-office. Blackmail (1929) was to be his last silent film; it was 1929 and the talkies had arrived. For Alma and Alfred Hitchcock, 1929 also meant the arrival of their first and only child, Patricia Hitchcock had almost completed shooting Blackmail when the studio told him that they wanted to remake it as a sound picture. He has always enjoyed, even invited, challenge to his work, and sound gave him the opportunity to invent new methods to overcome its problems. Even though Blackmail was his first dealing with sound, his innovations proved successful. He had exploited a new invention of a mechanical art which had proven deadly to others. Not yet known as the master of suspense, Hitchcock next directed a sequence in a musical revue called Elstree Calling (1929), Hitchcock directed only a small sequence in which Gordon Harker did a couple of sketches.
Hitchcock then returned to the format of the more serious stage-play adaptation. Juno and the Paycock (1930) was a film based on the Sean O’Casey play. This was nothing more than a photographed stage play. it was followed by Murder (1930) which, because of its technical innovations in sound, was a melodrama that went above its class. In 1931 he directed only one film, The Skin Game (1931), based on the John Galsworthy play about the English class system. Rich and Strange (1932), his first 1932 production, was part comedy, part drama, which Hitchcock enjoyed doing but which apparently audiences didn’t appreciate. Number Seventeen (1932), his final film for British International Pictures, was based on a stage play and was a comedy-thriller, a genre in which he felt at home. It seems Hitchcock had performed every function on a movie production except to act as producer. He got that chance with Lord Camber’s Ladies (1932), which he produced but did not direct. It was quickly made and starred the marvellous Gertrude Lawrence. The idea of getting caught up in independent productions made him decide to return to Michael Balcon, head of Gaumont-British, where his first film was a Viennese pastry called Waltzes from Vienna (1933), a film he considers to be his worst. His six finest British thrillers were the result of this union. The first, released in 1934, was the highly praised The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), followed in 1935 by The 39 Steps (1935) which outdid it. The Secret Agent (1936) was based remotely on a novel by Somerset Maugham. Sabotage (1936), also produced in 1936, was based, ironically, on The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad but had absolutely no connection to the previous film. Young and Innocent (1937), a delightful production, starred the now-grown Nova Pilbeam, child actress of The Man Who Knew Too Much. It was followed by the remarkable The Lady Vanishes (1938). This completed his contract with Gaumont-British conveniently so.
After many entreaties from the United States, he finally accepted David O. Selznick’s offer to make five films for $800,000. It meant selling his beloved Shamley Green, but the pastures did indeed look greener in America. When he began his television series in the 1950s, he named the production company after Shamley. Selznick did not need Hitchcock until late in 1939, so the director decided to make one more picture in England to keep busy. He returned to Elstree, where he was coaxed into working on Jamaica Inn (1939). His first film for Selznick was supposed to be Titanic. This was scrapped, and instead he directed a British Gothic based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name, Rebecca, starring Joan Fontaine. Although he didn’t win an award for his expert direction, he did help the film win the Best Picture of the Year Award for 1940.
The war had begun in Europe, and Hitchcock yearned to return to Britain. But he was urged to remain in America and use his talents for the Allied cause in his films. The result was a flag-waving but sensational film called Foreign Correspondent (1940). Made for Walter Wanger and United Artists, it was his first film on loan from Selznick. It was also the first of an unrelated trilogy of war propaganda films he would direct. Hitchcock relished the Hollywood high-life and became good friends with many of the leading stars and craftsmen. One enduring relationship was with the beguiling Carole Lombard, who insisted that Hitch direct her in a film. The result was the fast-paced 1941 screwball comedy called Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941). Later followed another RKO production, a British locale thriller called Suspicion (1941). Once again he used Joan Fontaine, who picked up an Oscar for her performance. In 1942, Hitchcock made his second war-effort film, a cross-country chase thriller, Saboteur (1942).
His 1943 film, Shadow of a Doubt (1943) remains one of Hitchcock’s favourites. He says it’s one of the only films where the characters are allowed to develop and because of this is more successful and plausible than his other thrillers. That same year he went to work with Tallulah Bankhead on his last war-oriented drama, Lifeboat (1944). Always the craftsman and technician, Hitchcock was excited by the challenge of shooting a film within the confines of a single set. Throughout his career he would continually strive to create situations in which he would manipulate his medium in a new way to maintain interest and plausibility. A patriot, Alfred Hitchcock was released from his Selznick contract so that he could return to England to direct two documentary shorts (Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache, both 1944)for the Ministry of Information. The cast for these film consisted of French actors who worked as the Moliere Players. Made in French, the films were shown throughout France after the Liberation, but no prints were released in English-speaking countries.
It was 1945 and he decided the next three pictures would be for Selznick so that he could complete his contract. Spellbound (1945), starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, was the first; Notorious (1946), in 1946, with Bergman and Grant, was second; and 1947′s The Paradine Case (1947), with Peck, was the third. Originally he was supposed to do five films in his seven-year contract, but this was reduced to four. The Paradine Case was the poorest of the package and Selznick lost money on it. Spellbound and Notorious well made up for the loss, however bringing millions of dollars into the Selznick coffers. But now Hitchcock was free-free to do what he pleased. His choice was a partnership with producer Sidney Bernstein in a company they call Transatlantic Pictures. The idea was to produce films in Hollywood and London. As it worked out the company made only two films, one in Hollywood and the other in England. The first was made at Warner Bros. in Burbank. it was Hitchock’s first colour film, Rope (1948), the story about two youths who kill another, just for the thrill of it. Since the ten-minute takes were not completely successful, Hitchcock tried slightly shorter ones – seven minutes in his next effort, a costume drama filmed in TechniColour called Under Capricorn (1949), it too was a slow, plodding film, due not so much to the long takes as to a verbose scenario. It was filmed in England, where Hitchcock remained to make Stage Fright (1950), with Marlene Dietrich and Jane Wyman, which was a dull affair with little suspense. It seemed that England no longer held the magic it once did for Hitchcock, for Stage Fright was his fourth straight loser. He was to regain his mastery of suspense with his next superb 1951 production, Strangers on a Train (1951), like Stage Fright it was made under contract to Warners, but unlike the latter, it was critically and financially his most successful film in five years. Like Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train employed real locations.
Hitchcock’s strict Jesuit upbringing is reflected somewhat in his next Warners film, I Confess (1953). Montgomery Clift appears in this film as a priest who cannot exonerate himself of a murder charge because the actual murderer has revealed himself to Clift in the sanctity of the confessional. The problems of Church and State play a major part in this detailed film. and on the whole, proved more frustrating than suspenseful to the audience. Frederick Knott’s well-oiled stage play, Dial M for Murder (1954), was next on the Hitchcock agenda at Warners and was filmed in the technical marvel of the day, 3-D. Hitchcock had lots of experience with filming stage plays, and his philosophy was, “why open up any drama originally intended for a confined space?” The result is a talky film, but suspenseful nonetheless. After Dial M for Murder, Hitchcock returned to Paramount, this time he was producer and could be the obligatory “tampering executive!’ For the first Paramount film he created what some critics consider to he his best work, Rear Window (1954). Once again he met the challenge of a confined set, a one-room flat overlooking the rear court of an apartment complex. Besides James Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Thelma Ritter, the real star in this thriller is the camera, which becomes the eyes of the audience. Hitchcock was always the voyeur in his films, and for Rear Window he created a voyeur’s paradise, complete with binoculars and telephoto lens. But if any film shows us how Hitchcock manipulates his characters and his audiences for the particular effect he wants, this one does. Grace Kelly returned to Hitchcock the following year, 1955, in the enchanting To Catch a Thief (1955), a light-hearted chase across the azure coast of the Riviera, as good a place as any for location photography. Hitch’s 1955 film, The Trouble with Harry (1955), a black comedy about a dead man whom everybody seemed to feel responsible for slaying. Filmed in Vermont, The Trouble with Harry was one of Hitchcock’s pet projects but unfortunately didn’t prove successful with audiences. Perhaps its humour was a bit too personal or contrived for moviegoers.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), was a remake of his 1934 classic but was far from a deja vu experience. The plot remained substantially the same but was lengthened from a little over one hour to two hours. In addition, the widescreen VistaVision and TechniColour added a new brilliant gloss and spectacle to the production filmed in England and on location in the Mideast. Doris Day, whom Hitchcock had seen and liked, was cast in the role of a retired singer turned worried mother. The plot was hinged in part on her singing of the song “Que Sera Sera,” an Academy Award winner, which was dramatically used at the climax of the film. Back at Warner Bros. in 1957, now as an independent producer, Hitchcock dabbled with a new idea, a suspense story based on fact. The Wrong Man (1956), a black-and-white semi-documentary, starred Henry Fonda and Vera Miles, an actress who appeared often on Hitch’s TV show. The title of the film echoed one of the director’s favourite themes, the wrong man accused of a crime he didn’t commit. But as much as the theme of compassion was built up, the real-life quality of the story actually hurt the box office. After The Wrong Man, Hitchcock returned to Paramount to make one of his more complex and absorbing mysteries, Vertigo (1958). James Stewart was cast in his third Hitchcock film opposite Kim Novak, who was given the opportunity to prove her acting ability. The 1958 production received mixed reactions but did well at the box office and exemplified Hitchcock’s meticulous planning before actual shooting.
North by Northwest (1959) was filled with Hitchcock’s subtle, but always black humour; still, it could not compare with the sadistic trickery he employed on the audience in what most people agree is his tour de force in horror, Psycho (1960). Hitchcock used all his knowledge and experience to manipulate audience emotion. Psycho was a return to black-and-white and was filmed quickly by the same crew that shot his TV series. While many films are gimmicky, Psycho is simple and unassuming. Its advertising, however, employed a brilliant ruse. Because the heroine was killed a third of the way into the film people who arrived late wondered where Janet Leigh was. Thus Hitchcock appeared in the advertising and demanded that audiences show up on time before the film began as no one would be admitted thereafter. Psycho proved to be his most successful film with both critics and the box office and in its first run grossed $16 million on an $800,000 budget. Psycho was the last he would make for Paramount. He then signed a long-term contract for five films with Universal, one of the only studios left in Hollywood with a busy back lot. It wasn’t until 1963 that The Birds was released. Two years of diligent planning were spent on the horror film. Probably the most unintentional horror of the film, though, is the acting of the lead actress, a Hitchcock discovery, Tippi Hedren, a former model who couldn’t understand that she was no longer a mannequin. The Birds (1963), based on a Daphne du Maurier story, surpassed the technical artistry that seemed to peak with North by Northwest and Psycho. The film is full of ambiguities, but that was as Hitchcock designed it.
The following year, 1964, saw the release of Marnie (1964), again with Miss Hedren. This was a pure and simple soapy melodrama, so there wasn’t all that much to ruin. In the tradition of Spellbound, it was a Freudian, analytical study of a kleptomaniac and a man in love with her because of her illness. The production was disappointing, if only because it appeared to be slapped together hastily without the loving care Hitchcock had devoted to his last few efforts. Another two-year wait for the next Universal fiasco, in the shape of Torn Curtain (1966), did not add much to the master’s reputation. With the exception of a detailed murder sequence, the fiftieth Hitchcock film lacked the spark and urbane wit that added so much class and suspense to earlier spy and chase films. When three years had gone by with no Hitchcock release, people began to think that Hitchcock had retired. He, too, was getting restive without a project that could be filmed. For convenience only, he purchased the rights to Leon Uris’s best-seller, ‘Topaz’. Apparently Hitch hadn’t learned his lesson very well with Torn Curtain. Topaz (1969) was just another, ever-more-complicated Cold War spy story. Once again, with the exception of a few sequences and details, the film was a failure. Returning to England, where he hadn’t produced a film in almost twenty years, Hitchcock concocted what critics called “a gem of a picture.” The project was one that had been in mind for many years but was an on-again-off-again affair. Frenzy (1972) was the title, and it was clear that the master of suspense was once again in full control. He was now seventy-three but his age did not manifest itself in this briskly paced suspense story about a man accused of a crime his best friend committed. Frenzy was released by a very pleased Universal and made $6.5 million in net rentals on its first run in the United States and Canada alone.
An Englishman with an admittedly English humour, of his fifty-three feature films, twenty-eight were British (counting four that were American-produced, but made in England). While each is unique, they share a common bond of vitality. Hitchcock was a director who did not like to actually make or shoot films. He liked to create them on paper, figuring out every shot, every technical problem, and every movement of camera and actor. Once it was down on paper he felt his work was done and the actual shooting was only going through the motions, a mere formality.
Hitchcock said he never read the critics. He made films to satisfy himself and his audiences. Even off the job, he was always trying to keep the people around him amused or in a dither. One of his favorite practical jokes, and he was known to have pulled many in his day, was describing a particularly bloody killing while he was riding a crowded elevator. Perhaps he was more amused than anyone. Nevertheless, his films have grossed well over $200 million, and he had been the impresario of some 350 popular TV shows. Part of his mystique, his public sobriety, had to do with his shyness and unerring modesty. In fact, he rarely sat in a theater with an audience watching one of his films. The first time he had done this in a long while was at Lincoln Center at his Gala Tribute in 1974. He had the opportunity to hear them scream and squeal and watch them squirm in their seats.
You would think that he would have missed this after so many glorious thrillers, but no, Hitchcock said slyly, “I can hear them screaming when I’m making the picture.” His theory of mystery and suspense as been applied to almost every one of his pictures. In an interview in Life magazine he was able to explain it simply: “Let us suppose that three men are sitting in a room in which a ticking bomb has been planted. It is going to go off in ten minutes. The audience does not know it is there either, so they go on talking inanely about the weather or yesterday’s baseball game. After ten minutes of desultory conversation the bomb goes off. What’s the result? The unsuspecting audience gets a surprise …. That’s all. But suppose the story were told differently. This time, while the men still do not know the bomb is there, the audience does know. The men still talk inanities, but now the most banal thing they say is charged with excitement. When one finally says, ‘Let’s leave,’ the entire audience is praying for them to do so. But another man says, ‘No. Wait a minute. I want to finish my coffee.’ The audience groans inwardly and yearns for them to leave. That is suspense.”
Hitchcock frightened millions of people around the world. Did he himself scare easily? Very easily,” he admitted. “Here’s a list in order of adrenalin production: 1. Little children; 2. Policemen; 3. High places; 4. That my next picture won’t be as good as the last one.” He liked to keep everyone in the audience interested. He did all right.