Hitchcock, Alfred Joseph

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HITCHCOCK, Alfred Joseph

(b. 13 August 1899 in Leytonstone, England; d. 29 April 1980 in Bel Air, California), filmmaker and master of suspense whose sixty-year odyssey into fright peaked in the 1960s with popular classics Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963).

Hitchcock was the youngest of three children born to William Hitchcock, a greengrocer and fruit wholesaler, and his wife, Emma Jane Whelan, cockney Catholics who lived in a working-class section of London's East End. The unsur-passed master of bringing primal fears to the screen recalled being regularly frightened as a child. He remembered the day his father had him give a note to a local policeman, who took him down a long corridor and locked him in a jail cell for several minutes. When he was released the constable abjured, "That's what we do with naughty boys." As an adult, Hitchcock would tell interviewers, the experience deepened his sense of alienation and gave him a lifelong fear of police and authority figures.

When he was eleven Hitchcock was enrolled in Saint Ignatius College, a Jesuit day school for boys. He later painfully recalled priests beating students into obedience with a black leather strap, an experience that intensified his sense of imminent peril. He began night classes in navigation at the University of London when he was fourteen, and after his father's death in December 1914, he found office work at the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company. Eventually he became an illustrator in their advertising department.

In the summer of 1920 Hitchcock was hired as a part-time title illustrator by Famous Players-Lasky, a film company, and by November was designing their title cards full-time. During a three-year apprenticeship Hitchcock saved the studio money by designing sets, supervising props, preparing costumes and casts, and even writing scripts. Hitch-cock's debut as assistant director came in 1923 with Woman to Woman. Encouraged by its success, the studio used him as assistant director on its next two features—The White Shadow and The Prude's Fall.

Hitchcock's editor in his early work was Alma Reville, a Nottingham native who shared his passion for film. They married on 2 December 1926, just weeks before the release of The Pleasure Garden, Hitchcock's first film as director. Their collaboration continued in more than fifty films with Hitchcock trusting his wife's judgment on scripts, continuity, and casting. The Lodger, released in 1927, made Hitchcock Britain's hottest young director. Hitchcock's existential hero, wrongly accused of a monstrous crime, is terrorized by forces seeking his destruction.

At Gainsborough and British International, Hitchcock directed nine silent and six sound films by the end of 1932, including The Lodger as well as Blackmail (1929), Britain's first talking picture. Their success confirmed Hitchcock's growing reputation as Britain's leading director. Beginning in 1934 at Gaumont-British Films, Hitchcock directed a series of suspense classics that brought him to Hollywood's attention. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), and The Lady Vanishes (1938) were generally considered the masterpieces of this period.

The Hitchcocks and their ten-year-old daughter, Patricia, arrived in America in March 1939, with the director now under contract to David O. Selznick, America's foremost film producer. Their first collaboration, Rebecca, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, was voted best picture of 1940, and Hitchcock received the first of five Academy Award nominations for best director. The much-in-demand director continued his winning streak with Foreign Correspondent (1940); Suspicion (1941), his first teaming with Cary Grant; Saboteur (1942); and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Hitchcock's personal favorite of the period. However, Rope (1948), his first teaming with James Stewart, was a flop, and Under Capricorn (1949), his third and final film with Ingrid Bergman, did even worse. The drought finally ended with Strangers on a Train (1951), the study of a psychopath that would anticipate Hitchcock's success with Psycho. The middle and late 1950s were a period of unparalleled success for Hitchcock. Dial "M" for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), and To Catch a Thief (1955), three successive films with Grace Kelly, were artistic and box-office bonanzas. Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959), his fourth and final films with James Stewart and Cary Grant, respectively, showed Hitchcock at the peak of his powers.

At the start of the 1960s Hitchcock was as rich and famous as any of the stars he had directed. Audiences waited to catch his cameo appearances in his films. That unique profile was weekly on display when Hitchcock signed with the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in 1955 to occasionally direct and serve as weekly host of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Hitchcock's amusing on-camera introductions became immediate fan favorites. The successful series of offbeat melodramas moved to the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in 1960, and after 250 episodes expanded to The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1962, running three more seasons. Hitchcock also lent his name as "editor" to popular suspense anthologies, published through Random House. Stories for Late at Night (1961); Ghostly Gallery (1962); Stories My Mother Never Told Me (1963); Stories Not for the Nervous (1965); Sinister Spies (1966); Spellbinders in Suspense (1967); Stories That Scared Even Me (1967); and A Month of Mystery (1969) were among the titles selling to a wide readership.

Paramount had hoped that Hitchcock would start the 1960s with a wide-screen successor to North by Northwest. They were not, however, interested in Hitchcock's first attempt at a "shocker," so Hitchcock, financing the film himself with a little less than $1 million, used his television team to shoot a small picture on Universal's back. He aimed at making "a horror film which comes to you when you are at home alone in the dark" for the younger audience that he had won over with his television series. Psycho (1960) was Hitchcock's conscious effort at achieving "pure cinema." He hoped it would "evoke fear by the way in which the film was assembled." He planned on "transferring the menace of the screen to the mind of the audience, increasing it to the point where it becomes unendurable."

In the film Hitchcock encourages his audience to follow the trail of a woman, played by Janet Leigh, who has stolen $40,000 from her employer. Halfway through the film she stops off at a harmless looking hotel, where she meets a shy, boyish-looking proprietor, played by Anthony Perkins. Hitchcock has taken "scenes of complete order" that he will soon "throw into complete disorder." He is out to undermine the viewer's sense of security by showing how fragile and illusory order and safety are in the face of madness. The realization comes in one of cinema's most shattering moments. A forty-five-second shower scene that took a week to shoot and seventy-eight separate shots to edit starts with the camera uncomfortably close to the unsuspecting heroine. Bernard Herrmann's piercing score signals the arrival of a shadowy intruder silhouetted just outside the shower curtain. Each slice of the knife is an exercise in pure terror against the victim and an audience unable to come to her rescue even as she reaches out for help. Her hopeless fight for life seems interminable. Hitchcock finally pulls back to reveal blood swirling down a drain, and dissolves to the uncomprehending eye of his victim.

Some critics chaffed at the film's relentless savagery and absence of a moral center, but audiences, particularly members of the drive-in generation, waited in long lines to see it. "A lot of people think I'm a monster," Hitchcock told interviewers. "What they don't know is that I'm more scared of the movies I make than they are." Hitchcock's psychopath is "an attractive and charming man. That's how he gets near his victims." What is particularly unsettling for the viewer is how "evil and good are getting closer and closer together" where "you can barely tell one from the other." That is what finally fills the audience with "un-bearable apprehensions."

The Birds (1963), Hitchcock's ultimate apocalyptic film, was first conceived by screenwriter Evan Hunter as a screwball comedy, loosely based on several bird attacks reported on the West Coast. What appealed to Hitchcock was the idea of nature in revolt. "Everyone takes nature for granted," he later explained, "and one day the birds turned on them." Hitchcock saw the film as a commentary on mankind's "disruption of the natural order" through his flirtation with the atomic bomb.

The film's 1,500 shots and twenty-week shooting schedule showed Hitchcock's supreme confidence in "managing an audience's anxiety" by giving and withholding information. The "McGuffin" was his playful word for the object that appears to be of most importance in a film that is least important of all. The audience follows the teasing relationship of a San Francisco socialite and a man who lives in Bodega Bay, sixty miles up the coast. The woman is played by Tippi Hedren, a model Hitchcock discovered in a television commercial. Her cocky self-assurance is shattered by a sudden, unexpected bird attack. Later, as she waits in a playground, only the audience is aware of the gathering menace behind her. Finally, five days of filming produced an unforgettable bird attack in an attic that thrilled moviegoers. Hedren, however, was reduced to trembling exhaustion by the experience.

Pre-production planning on The Birds involved the creation of 300 trick shots, some of them including bird animations. Afterward, Hitchcock admitted his visual sense had been put to its severest test. He knew "every shot by heart" before the first day of shooting. He likened the art of "pure cinema" to a score that is directed by "a musical conductor." That is what made the elaborately staged film such a satisfying experience for Hitchcock as well as its huge fan following. "I'm not interested in content anymore than an artist worries if the apples he's painting are sweet or sour," he later said. "The cinema appeals to the widest possible audience" because of its ability to dramatize what audiences most felt and feared. It made the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock a dangerous place. "My idea of happiness," he often said, "is a clear horizon."

When The Birds premiered in March of 1963 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, it was accompanied by a retrospective of Hitchcock's work. Later that year the Cannes Film Festival continued the celebration. Five films followed in the final fourteen years of Hitchcock's creative output. Over time, Marnie (1964), Topaz (1969), and Frenzy (1972) grew in critical stature as the man who made them was honored for his career in film. An Oscar for lifetime achievement came in the spring of 1968 followed by the D.W. Griffith Award from the Directors Guild of America. Cinema schools began teaching his technique in storytelling, and in March of 1979, a year before his death, Hitchcock made one of his last public appearances to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute.

Hitchcock became an American citizen on 20 April 1955, yet on 3 January 1980 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. Hitchcock, wracked by arthritis, then stricken with heart disease and kidney failure, briefly retired to the Bel Air bungalow he had shared with Alma since arriving in Hollywood more than forty years before. Recognition of his lasting contribution to the vocabulary of the cinema has only expanded in the generation since his passing.

Hitchcock donated his private papers, including scripts, production notes, and publicity files, to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, California. Among the most notable writings on him is Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock (1967), the result of fifty hours' worth of interviews involving the two directors. More recent works include Robert E. Kapsis, Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation (1992); Jane E. Sloan, Alfred Hitchcock: A Guide to Reference and Resources (1993); Sidney Gottlieb, ed., Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews (1995); and Dan Auiler, Hitchcock's Notebooks: An Authorized and Illustrated Look Inside the Creative Mind of Alfred Hitchcock (1999). Hitchcock has been the subject of many biographies. The most widely quoted include John Russell Taylor, Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock (1978), and Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (1983). Obituaries and appreciations of his work are in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both 30 Apr. 1980) and Time (12 May 1980).

Bruce J. Evensen