When a person’s name becomes synonymous with a craft, a style, or a term, it is obvious of the impact that person has on culture. That truth is apparent in the name Alfred Hitchcock. “The Master of Suspense” and “Innovator of Intrigue” influenced filmmakers past and present with his approach to cinema. His command of understanding the art of anxiety-laced stories led to the recreation of a genre that caused surprise and suspense to have different meanings. His influence on this genre lives throughout film today, and anytime another filmmaker creates something similar (in story or visual approach), they are referred to as using the “Hitchcockian Method.”
Born on a Friday the 13th in London in 1899, Alfred Hitchcock was raised by strict parents, and lived a childhood as an outsider, and loner. He later would say that because of his childhood obesity, and sheltered family life, making friends was difficult. These characteristics of the outcasts, and misunderstood individuals would go on to find their way onto the screen in Hitchcock’s world. When Hitchcock was young and got into trouble, his punishments made lasting impacts on his psyche. On one occasion, after breaking a family rule, his father sent him to the local police department with a note for a police officer asking the law to lock up young Hitchcock in jail for 10-minutes to give him a taste of where his life was headed. Another time, he was forced to stand at the foot of his mother’s bed for hours without moving or speaking as a punishment. These, experiences and themes of crime, punishment, wrong-doing, mistreatment, innocence, and guilt would also become consistent themes throughout Hitchcock’s cannon of films.
Hitchcock attended the University of London with a focus on art and writing, which paved the way for his work with a communications company in 1915 serving as advertising designer and staff writer. This was also a period when he became amazed with the world of cinema, going to films in in spare time. It was a fascination which eventually led to his lifelong career. He broke into the film industry by creating title cards in the silent film industry in 1920. He was a quick study and moved through the ranks serving as scriptwriter, art director, editor, and eventually assistant director. In 1925 he gained his first shot as director, and in 1927, his breakthrough film, “The Lodger” showed the world that innocence, intrigue, and chaotic mysteries were going to be trademarks of the Hitchcock style.
During this time he met film editor and script supervisor, Alma Reville, they were married and remained so until Alfred’s death. She was a rarity, and in many ways, his anchor. She was a successful and brilliant woman who had achieved leadership status at a time when few women were in the movie business.
In 1929, “Blackmail” followed the story of a woman who becomes entangled in a storyline of murder and seduction. This was Hitchcock’s first connection between violence and sex (and it wouldn’t be his last). This film was also to be known as one of the first successful “talkies” (films with dialogue and sound), and it captured the technical creative visual and atmospheric audio sound, which would echo throughout Hitchcock’s film career.
Hitchcock would go on to direct several films in England before coming to Hollywood, his British flicks included; “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934), “39 Steps” (1935), “Sabotage” (1936), and “The Lady Vanishes” (1938). Each film would enhance the growing legend of the genius, and his control of this art form. By the time he arrived in Hollywood in 1938 he was already heralded as one of the most creative filmmakers in the business.
He was meticulous, planned and mapped out every shot, created detailed sketches, devised shots that could only be edited his way, approved all script changes, camera angles and final cuts. He was not one to allow improvisation (unless he scripted it). Hitchcock’s dialogue was known to be not only “witty and apt, but refined and often stunning” (Schneider, 2007, p.114). When a Hitchcock film was released, it was completely approved by him. If it had his name attached to it, it would also have his seal of approval. Because of his exacting and demanding nature, he would many times butt heads with actors, crew, studio executives and anyone else who would get in his way. But in spite of that reputation, big name actors (many Academy Award winners), cast and crew would beg to be a part of his productions. They knew that surviving the hardships of “Hitch”, would well be worth it in the end. And they were right. Working on a Hitchcock film almost always guaranteed employment down the road, and many would come back to work with Hitchcock time and time again. Names like Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Vera Miles and Grace Kelly would all find themselves a home on several Hitchcock projects. The only actor to star in all of Hitchcock’s films was himself, he had a cameo in each film, and that trademark inspired other filmmakers to do the same throughout cinema history.
In 1940, Hitchcock made his American film debut with “Rebecca” starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. It became a critical and commercial success and brought Hitchcock an Academy Award for best film. Over the course of the next three and a half decades he would find praise for such films as “Lifeboat” (1944), “Notorious”(1946), “The Rope” (1948), “Rear Window” (1954), “Dial M for Murder” (1954), “To Catch a Thief” (1955), “Vertigo” (1958), “North by Northwest” (1959), “Psycho” (1960), “The Birds” (1963), “Torn Curtain” (1965) and “Family Plot” (1976).
To say he influenced a host of filmmakers is a gross understatement. His expertise of script, sight and sound was astounding, and Hitchcock was determined to break new ground on every aspect of the process. Films like “The Birds” took on theme of nature’s retribution, and “Psycho” was the grandfather of the “slasher films”, and “Vertigo” captured visual landscapes and angles that would serve as a model for the stylistic approach of future filmmaker Tim Burton. His use of the extreme close-up shocked audiences at times, but was also used to take the viewer into the heart of the story … the character. Hitchcock was also one of the first to understand that music was more of a supporting cast member than just serving as atmospheric fodder (look at “Psycho” and “Frenzy” as examples). His shooting/editing technique for the film “The Rope” (1948) took shots that were seamlessly edited to look as if the film was created with entirely one take. It was brilliant and adventurous, and a model that was used in 2014 with the Oscar nominated “Birdman” (this time with the assistance in part of computer generated effects). “Lifeboat” examined what happens when race, religion, sex, class, and nationality get in the way of survival. Topics of voyeurism and stalking were not born with reality TV, or the Internet; Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” took that on as well. In the film “Torn Curtain” (1966) Hitchcock explored how brutal and slow the act of killing could be with a lengthy fight scene in the midst of a farmhouse kitchen.
“Psycho” had such a profound impact on filmmakers that numerous sequels/prequels were spawned from it, including three seasons of A&E TV’s “Bates Hotel” (2013-2015). One director, Gus Van Sant was so inspired by Hitchcock, that he actually recreated “Psycho” shot for shot in 1998.
He loved casting big stars, beautiful blondes, and challenging the concepts of film structure and audience expectation. He was known to kill off a major film star before the final act, have a twist ending in the story, and take audiences into the film world of rarely spoken topics of sex, violence, politics, family dysfunction, the feminine sacrifice of identity, and society’s wrongs. Hitchcock would also toy with audiences by offering decoy storylines all as a disguise for the ultimate examination of intricate and sometimes disturbed characters. He would also let the film audience in on secrets that he would hide from his own characters. But in spite of these dark themes, Hitchcock had a playful side, and one would find a dark humor in many of his works as well.
He was a public relations genius and set marketing standards for films still in use today. Much like Charlie Chaplin before him, Hitchcock became a cultural icon. His on-camera interviews with media, his experimental film trailers, and his weekly TV show (“Alfred Hitchcock Presents” 1962-1965) all added to his legendary status by making him a household name. He even has a simple line drawing logo to represent the Hitchcock brand. That image was as famous then as the McDonald’s arches or the Apple icon is today.
In 1979, Hitchcock was knighted by the Queen of England, and he received the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award. He died the following year at the age of 80. When he died, he had directed over 50 films with a career of six decades.
So whether it was serial killers, foreign spies, murderous uncles, or the innocent under fire, Hitchcock had this to say about films and audiences, “the length of any film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder” (Schneider, 2007, p. 113). True, so true.
By Noel T. Manning II
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Ebert, R. (1999, August 13). Hitchcock is still on top of film world | Roger Ebert’s Journal | Roger Ebert. Retrieved from http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/hitchcock-is-still-on-top-of-film-world
Friese-Greene, A., & Hitchcock, A. (1972, January 7). BBC – Archive – Hollywood Voices – Alfred Hitchcock. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/hollywood/10275.shtml
Katz, E. (1979). The film encyclopedia. New York: Crowell.
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Schneider, S. J. (2007). 501 movie directors: A comprehensive guide to the greatest filmmakers. London: Cassell Illustrated.