Alfred Hitchcock


Born on August 13, 1899 to owners of a wholesale produce and fish market, Alfred Joseph Hitchcock grew up in Leytonstone, England. Though he had two siblings, Nellie and William, he was solitary and supposedly did not have many close friends. He was greatly influenced by Catholicism, and his Jesuit education instilled in him a feeling of guilt that is evident in many of his movies. He studied engineering at the University of London yet never followed in that career path.

His foray into the world of movie-making came in 1920 when he worked on title cards for silent films in London. He quickly rose to associate producer and finally director. His first successful film, The Lodger, catapulted him into the big-budget world of Hollywood. There he directed a film titled Rebecca, based on the novel by Daphne De Maurier, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture. However, he never won an Academy Award for Best Director, which plagued him throughout his career.

He married Alma Reville and had one daughter, Pat. Greatly overweight at 365 pounds for a large portion of his life, he drank regularly, which became a problem later in his career. He was known to be a practical joker, and loved to pull hoaxes on his fellow directors and actors. His strange fixations with blondes, women's shoes, and strangulation show up in many of his movies. His movies are filled with the stars of the times, most notably Grace Kelly, Jimmy Stuart, and Cary Grant.

After over thirty years of movie making, he closed down his office in the late 1970s and became increasingly paranoid and hypochondriacal. He died on April 20, 1980, leaving behind an inheritance exceeding $20 million and a legacy of 53 movies which defined a generation of movie-making.

Notable Movies

The Lodger (1926), Blackmail (1929), Thirty-nine Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934; remade in 1955), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz (1969), Frenzy (1972), Family Plot (1976), Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo Trailer:

Cinematic Style

Alfred Hitchcock was always concerned primarily with the visual element of film. Since he began his career with silent films, he viewed sounds and dialogue as less crucial to the film than the image. Although much of Hitchcock's movies sport memorable dialogue and sound, the most memorable elements are often times the images--the shower and the blood in Psycho and the gasoline-sparked fire in The Birds, for example.

One element Hitchcock made extensive use of is the MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is essentially meaningless, although it must seem extremely important to the characters on screen. It may be something as simple as a piece of jewelry, as in Number Seventeen, or it may be something as complex as a message encoded in a piece of music, as in The Lady Vanishes. A MacGuffin is used to get the plot going. With film, this is essential, because unlike Dickens's readers, viewers of film expect more movement than exposition. Although Hitchcock didn't invent the MacGuffin, he used it so widely that when filmmakers use it today, it is often perceived as a nod to Hitchcock.

Another hallmark of a Hitchcock film is the clever use of "the look." Sometimes the viewer is called upon to be the sole person looking on into a person's private life, or sometimes, as when Norman Bates watches his motel guest undress in "Psycho," a character on screen looks poignantly at someone or something. The glances and stares people exchange in Hitchcock films are full of meaning.

Many of the women with which Hitchcock chose to people his films are blonde and beautiful. The director seems to have been fascinated by female "vulnerability" and employed the archetypal "damsel in distress" quite often. But he also had some strong female characters.

Hitchcock is perhaps the master of suspense. By use of sounds and lighting, he created suspense that could not have been possible in any other form of media than the screen.

Reflection: Psycho

It is rare to find a film in which the apparent protagonist dies around the middle of the film. By killing off the blonde who is the center of attention for the first part of the movie, Hitchcock draws the viewer's attention to the true protagonist: Norman Bates. The shower-murder scene is so powerful because the woman is in her most vulnerable position and the apparent perpetrator of the murder is the last person who would be expected to commit such a crime--an old lady.

Hitchcock is careful never to show us the old lady, however. We hear her voice and her interactions with Norman, but aside from that we, the audience, are quite ignorant of her. When at the end the director borrows from Freud and presents us with an extreme case of the Oedipal complex, the horror that has been mounting throughout the movies comes to a pinnacle. Norman Bates is his mother. There is no more Norman. He is locked up and harmless now, but he is also the most creepy in that last shot of him.

Reflection: Rear Window

Alfred Hitchcock was the master of suspense, mixing subtlety and terror perfectly in many of his movies. One of the most critically acclaimed of his films, Rear Window, is a murder thriller told from the perspective of a man restricted to his room for the entirety of the film. The protagonist, L.B. Jeffries, has broken a leg and must stay in his apartment. He is reduced to watching the lives of his neighbors from his window with his socialite girlfriend, Stella, and they become increasingly interested in each of the neighbor's comings and goings. One couple catches their attention as they see them fight and then realize that the wife has gone missing. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that the husband, Thorwald, has murdered his wife, and after a series of suspenseful encounters with Thorwald, the last of in which Jeffries is almost killed, the murderous husband is arrested and life returns to normal.

One obvious motif throughout the movie is windows. Jeffries looks through his window into the other windows of his neighbors lives, separate yet a part of their life in some way. The fact that he can only see bits and pieces of their lives - all that the windows allow - yet know them so intimately speaks to human nature and the open nature of our lives, no matter how secretive we try to be. Also, a feeling of helplessness pervades the film, especially in Jeffries' and Stella's case. Jeffries is in a wheelchair for the entirety of the film, and though he sees everything going on, he can do nothing to stop it. When his physical therapist breaks into Thorwald's apartment to get evidence, Stella and Jeffries can do nothing when they see Thorwald coming in to catch her in the act. Also, when Thorwald comes to attack Jeffries, he is in his wheelchair and has nothing but a camera flash to defend himself with. Though they are seemingly omniscient when it comes to their neighbors, playing god in a way, Stella and Jeffries are in fact powerless for a great part of the film to affect those they are watching.

In Rear Window, Hitchcock effectively produces a suspenseful thriller without any blood, car chases, or over the top violence. In fact, you don't see the murder at all, and the real suspense lies not in the fact that a murder took place, but in the mind of the protagonist, trying to figure out if what he suspects is true, and if so, what he can do about it.