Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, or ‘The Master of Suspense’, was born in August 13, 1899, in Leytonstone, London, England. He was a British filmmaker and producer who, in his 50 year career, greatly contributed to filmmaking’s growth as an art. His brilliance was sometimes too bright: He was hated as well as loved, oversimplified as well as overanalyzed. Hitchcock was eccentric, challenging, creative, and impassioned. Hitchcock started working as a title card designer for the London branch of what would become Paramount Pictures.
In 1920 he got a full time position at Islington Studios, designing the titles for silent movies. From there it took him 5 years to rise from title designer to film director, and by the end of 1930s he had become one of the most famous filmmakers in England. In 1923 Hitchcock took his first shot at directing with the film ‘The Number 13’. However the production was stopped and he was unable to complete it. His first completed film as a director was ‘The Pleasure Garden’ (1925) which was a commercial flop. In 1926 Alfred Hitchcock made his breakthrough with his first thriller, ‘The Lodger’.
This film was a perfect example of the classic Hitchcock plot: an innocent protagonist is falsely accused of a crime and becomes involved in a web of intrigue. Hitchcock went on to make many films in the UK including ‘Blackmail’ (which was promoted as Britain’s first full-length talkie), ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’, ‘The 39 Steps’ and ‘The Lady Vanishes’. ‘The 39 Steps’ was one of the first to introduce the concept of the “MacGuffin”, a plot device around which a whole story seems to revolve, but ultimately has nothing to do with the true meaning or ending of the story (In this case, a stolen set of design plans).
In 1939 he moved to the United States, starting his career in Hollywood. His first American film was ‘Rebecca’ (1940) starring Laurence Oliver, Joan Fontaine, and Judith Anderson in an adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier’s best-selling novel. The film explored the fears of a young bride who enters a great English country home and must struggle with the problems of a distant husband, a predatory housekeeper, and the legacy of her husband’s late wife, Rebecca.
As the decade unfolded he directed such masterpieces of suspense as ‘Foreign Correspondent’ (1940), ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ (1943),’ Spellbound’ (1945), ‘Notorious’ (1946), and ‘The Paradine Case’ (1947). The 1950s were Hitchcock’s most inspired period in which he produced a cycle of memorable films. These included minor works such as ‘I Confess’ (1953), the sophisticated thrillers: ‘Dial M for Murder’ (1954) and ‘To Catch a Thief’ (1955), a remake of his own ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ (1956) and the black comedy ‘The Trouble with Harry’ (1956).
However his three masterpieces of the period were investigations into the very nature of watching cinema. He brought the concept of voyeurism into his films, making the viewers voyeurs and then having them pay for their pleasure. ‘Rear Window’ (1954) was a story of a photographer who witnesses a murder. Hitchcock provoked the relationship between the watcher and the watched, involving the viewer of the film. ‘Vertigo’ (1958) took the lost-feminine-identity theme of ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ and ‘Notorious’ and identified its cause as male fetishism. … it[Vertigo] pursues its theme of false identity with such plodding persistence that, by the time the climactic cat is let out of the bag, the audience has long since had kittens… ” (Arthur Knight in Saturday Review, June 7, 1958) In 1960, Hitchcock made ‘Psycho’ which is considered by some to be his most famous film. It is famed for its famous shower scene which was startling for its apparent nudity, graphic violence and its violation of the narrative convention that makes a character invulnerable.
Psycho was based on Robert Bloch’s novel about Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), owner of Norman Bates motel, who kept the preserved corpse of his mother in his cellar. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) having stolen $40,000 from her employer and after driving for almost a day and a half, decided to stay for the night at the motel. Dressed as an old lady, his mother, Norman killed Marion, when she takes a shower, halfway through the film. Hitchcock used his own experiences for his character’s portrayal.
His mother would often make him address her while standing at the foot of her bed which he used to portray Norman Bates in ‘Psycho’. Also on numerous occasions his father would send him to the local police station with a note asking the officer to lock him up for ten minutes as punishment for behaving badly. This idea of being treated harshly or wrongfully accused was also frequently reflected in his films. Later films offered fascinating amplifications of his main themes. ‘The Birds’ (1963) presented evil as an environmental fact of life. Marnie’ (1964) was a psychoanalytical thriller which showed a violent, sexually marred childhood turning a woman into a thief. ‘Tom Curtain’ (1966) was a story against a cold war backdrop, which presented a fight-to-the-death scene between the main character and a Communist agent in the kitchen of a farm house. In it Hitchcock showed how momentous the act of killing really is. He said: “Some of our most exquisite murders have been domestic, performed with tenderness in simple, homey places like the kitchen table” ‘Family Plot’ (1976) was Hitchcock’s last film.
It related the escapades of “Madam” Blanche Tyler played by Barbara Harris, a deceitful spiritualist, and her taxi driver lover Bruce Dern making a living from her phony powers. Near the end of his life, Hitchcock worked on the script for a projected spy thriller, ‘The Short Night’, but despite some preliminary work, the story was never filmed. This was mostly due to Hitchcock’s own failing health and his concerns for his wife’s health. The script was eventually published in a book on Hitchcock’s last years. Hitchcock died in April 29, 1980 from kidney failure in his Bel Air, Los Angeles, California home.
Often regarded as the greatest British filmmaker of all time, in 2007 Hitchcock was ranked #1 by film critics in The Telegraph’s list of 21 greatest British directors, which writes: “Unquestionably the greatest filmmaker to emerge from these islands, Hitchcock did more than any director to shape modern cinema, which would be utterly different without him. His flair was for narrative, cruelly withholding crucial information (from his characters and from us) and engaging the emotions of the audience like no one else. “