“A lot of movies are about life, mine are like a slice of cake”. Alfred Hitchcock
Known throughout his working life as the ‘Master of Suspense’, Alfred Joseph Hitchcock is still regarded as one of the world’s most inspired filmmakers. Nearly eighty years after directing his first movie his name is still synonymous with the psychologically complex thriller – a genre he virtually created – and his army of admirers are endlessly intrigued by his unfathomable personality and morbid sense of humour.
Born in Leytonstone, London, on 13th August 1899, Alfred was the third son of William and Emma Whelan Hitchcock – strict Catholic parents. His father was a greengrocer who once took Alfred to the local police station and had him locked-up for several minutes, for committing some minor misdemeanour. In 1910 he was packed off to a hard religious establishment, the Saint Ignatius College, where the discipline bordered on military. However, during this difficult period he started visiting Scotland Yard’s Criminal Museum, where he was amazed to discover the innumerable methods of committing crimes, especially murder. He also began collecting newspaper cuttings on the same subject, eventually developing a fascinating criminological library.
He left school at 16 to study engineering, art history and drawing at the University of London but was forced to quit for financial reasons when his father died in 1914. The following year he took his first job outside the family business as an estimator for the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company. He also began to study art in the evenings and was eventually promoted to the company’s advertising department.
Alfred had been reading technical film magazines for some time, so when he heard that the Famous Players-Lasky-Studios (later known as Paramount Pictures) were opening a studio in London, he immediately submitted a portfolio of his work and secured himself a position as a title designer for their silent films. His enthusiasm for his work led to him being made an art director, scriptwriter and finally, assistant director, giving him valuable experience towards his future career. His first creation, Number 13, in 1922, was a two-reeler that was never completed. However, it was during the making of this unfinished piece that he met Alma Reville, his future wife and lifelong critical advisor. After a longish engagement they married at Brompton Oratory in 1926.
The very first film to display the words ‘Directed by Alfred Hitchcock’ was a 1925 British/German co-production called The Pleasure Garden. But it wasn’t until The Lodger, his breakthrough film in 1926 (about a man suspected of being Jack the Ripper), that he became identified with the thriller genre. This innovative work, concerning an innocent person who is falsely accused of a crime and becomes embroiled in a web of intrigue, was a typical example of what would become known as a ‘classic Hitchcock’ scenario. This was also the picture in which he made his first cameo appearance – another Hitchcock trademark.
He went on to direct six more feature length silent films: Downhill (1927), Easy Virtue (1927), The Ring (1927), The Farmer’s Wife (1928), Champagne (1928), and The Manxman(1929). Then in 1929 he released Blackmail, the first British ‘talkie’, which was highly acclaimed for its imaginative use of sound.
During the 1930s he achieved international fame with a string of enormously popular suspense dramas, such as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). However, in 1939, after becoming dissatisfied with depressingly low budgets and the technical shortcomings of English studio facilities, he was enticed to Hollywood by the U.S. producer David O. Selznick. Here he made the film Rebecca (1940), adapted from a story by the English novelist Daphne du Maurier (1907-89), which went on to win an Academy Award for best picture. Following this success he continued in the same vein, creating Suspicion (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Notorious (1946).
Alfred’s most creative period lasted throughout the 1950s and early 60s, with the huge success of films like Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963). These nightmarish pictures had cinema audiences on the edge of their seats and were highly influenced by the experiments of Soviet director, Sergey Eisenstein, who developed montage editing – whereby a series of shots designed to arouse fear and powerful emotions are imperceptibly flashed before the viewer. He also made full use of unusual camera angles and disconcerting sound effects. In addition to these remarkable movies he hosted two mystery TV series, namely Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-1965).
In 1967 he accepted the prestigious Irving Thalberg Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He produced his final film, Family Plot in 1976 and recieved the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award in 1979. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1980 – although, by then he was a naturalised citizen of the United States. Just a short time later he died of liver failure and heart problems on 28th April 1980.