If you have ever watched the original Psycho, or The Birds, or Rebecca (preferably alone on a stormy night, with all your doors bolted) you know what it is to experience Alfred Hitchcock at his best.
The Master of Suspense, the Sorcerer of Shock, and the King of Comeuppance — Hitchcock is by far one of the best film directors of the 20th century.
Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on this day, August 13, 1899 in Leytonstone England. His father was a greengrocer, his mother a homemaker. He was the youngest of three children, an average student and a bit of loner.
But yawn. That story is far too mundane. Something must have happened in his formative years to help create his twisted persona, to turn him into the Tyrant of Terror, who would later alarm the world with his disturbing psychological horror.
It turns out a few things did happen.
When he was five years old, Hitchcock’s father wanted to punish him for ‘behaving badly’. Little Alfred was sent to the local police station with a note asking the officer to ‘lock him up in jail for five minutes’. This incident left a lifelong scar on Hitchcock, possibly influencing his frequent themes of harsh punishments, wrongful accusations and sly retributions for evil doers. He had a permanent fear of the police.
He also had a permanent fear of Jesuits.
Hitch was raised Roman Catholic and attended Jesuit Grammar School at Saint Ignatius College. Years later, when asked in an interview how he – a polite gentleman – managed to create such malevolent stories, Hitchcock replied: “I spent three years studying with the Jesuits. They used to terrify me to death and now I’m getting my own back by terrifying other people.”
His 1953 film I Confess starred Montgomery Clift as a Catholic priest who is wrongly accused of murder, but also hears the confession of the true murderer — and is sworn to secrecy by his priestly vows.
Hitchcock’s first job was as a draftsman for an electric cable company called Henley’s. Even then, as a teenager, he was already writing scary tales. Some of these were published in the company’s newsletter, The Henley Telegraph.
Hitchcock’s first piece, “Gas” tells the story of a young woman who imagines that she is being assaulted one night in London—but the twist at the end reveals it was all just a hallucination in the dentist’s chair induced by the anesthetic.
Interestingly, one of the episodes featured on Alfred Hitchcock Presents seems reminiscent of this tale. In the newer version, the woman’s hallucination involves a futuristic society in which all men have been eradicated through a medicine originally intended to kill rats. There are no more men in the world! Babies are born through test tubes and they are always females! The woman wakes up from her dream to find that in reality, a famous scientist is currently experimenting with a medicine which will rid the world of rats! The woman takes a shotgun, attempts to kill the scientist and… Well, you will just have to watch the episode to find out what happens.
His other early stories also indicate Hitchcockian creepiness and weird sexual overtones. One short story “And There Was No Rainbow” (which some folk thought should have been banned) tells of a young man who goes out looking for a brothel, but instead stumbles into the house of his best friend’s girl. Hitch also wrote a piece called “Fedora” which gave a ‘strikingly accurate description’ of his future wife Alma Reville, although he had not yet met her!
At the tender age of twenty, Hitchcock got a job at Paramount Studios as a title card designer for silent films. Within five years he was directing those films. His first commercial success was a thriller called The Lodger about London’s notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper.
Around this time Alma Reville became Hitch’s assistant director. The two were married on December 2, 1926. Alma became Hitchcock’s closest collaborator. He rarely discussed her contributions to his films, although some were credited on screen. Alma was clearly ‘the woman behind the great man’ but she avoided public attention.
Hitchcock had the unique experience of working in the film industry as it evolved through all its massive changes of the 20th century. In 1929, his production company began experimentation with sound, producing the first ‘Talkies’. Hitchcock’s contributions included Blackmail, The Man Who Knew Too Much and his highly acclaimed The 39 Steps, which made him a star in the United States.
The 39 Steps established two unique Hitchcockian traditions: the ‘Hitchcock Blonde’ and ‘The MacGuffin’.
The Hitchcock Blonde was the beautiful, ice-cool, perfect leading lady who often became a victim of twisted circumstances.
First personified in The 39 Steps by actress Madeleine Carroll, his other blondes included Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Kim Novak and Janet Leigh. Hitch believed that these flawless, classy women left much to the sexual imagination – they were ladylike in public but potential whores in the bedroom. He described this archetype as follows:
“I think the most interesting women, sexually, are the English women. I feel that the English women, the Swedes, the northern Germans and Scandinavians are a great deal more exciting than the Latin, the Italian and the French women. Sex should not be advertised. An English girl, looking like a schoolteacher, is apt to get into a cab with you and, to your surprise, she’ll probably pull a man’s pants open. … Without the element of surprise, the scenes become meaningless. There’s no possibility to discover sex.”
The MacGuffin is a plot device — an object thrown in for the purpose of intriguing the audience, but which will have little consequence in the overall story. In a lecture at Columbia University, Hitchcock explained The MacGuffin as follows:
“It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?” And the other answers, “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin”. The first one asks, “What’s a MacGuffin?” “Well,” the other man says, “it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,” and the other one answers, “Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!” So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.”
The MacGuffin took on a life of its own in filmmaking. It is the Holy Grail of Arthurian legends. Some modern examples include: the Maltese Falcon in the film of the same name; the meaning of “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane; the Rabbit’s Foot in Mission Impossible III, and the Heart of the Ocean necklace in Titanic.
Hitchcock’s recognition and fame continued to grow. In 1939 he received The New York Film Critics Circle Award for his film The Lady Vanishes. Picturegoer Magazine called him ‘Alfred the Great’. The New York Times called him ‘the greatest director of screen melodramas in the world’, placing him alongside other English treasures such as the Magna Carta and the Tower of London.
In 1940 Hitch directed Rebecca based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier. (If you have not read this masterpiece, you must do so immediately!) The film won an Academy Award for best picture, with a best director nomination.
Hitch and horror novelist Daphne Du Maurier formed a natural collaboration. His film The Birds — a story of rebellious birds that slowly and creepily take over a California town — was also based on a story written by Du Maurier.
A few years ago my local movie theater ran a big screen production of The Birds. Tippi Hedren, an iconic Hitchcock Blonde who stars in the film, came in as a guest speaker.
I swear to god she looked EXACTLY the same as she did in the film! Some forty years had passed and the woman had not aged, not one day! You will find pictures of Tippi Hedren on the internet where she looks older, but these (I swear!) are not real. I believe she might actually have some weird Dorian Gray arrangement going on… Perhaps the internet pictures are aging as she herself stays young. (Anything would be possible in Hitch’s world.)
Hitchcock’s career peaked in the 1950’s and 60’s when he directed gems such as Rear Window, Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, and of course Psycho. This movie was the creepiest creep-fest of all, about a young woman (Janet Leigh) who goes to stay at a hotel run by a taxidermy obsessed man (Tony Perkins) who has a strange relationship with his dead mother…
Hitch’s television series ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ had a ten year run from 1955 to 1965. The fascinating thing about these segments is that, by today’s standards, they are very plain. No bells or whistles, no special effects – just simple black and white cinematography, flat lighting, and mostly unknown actors – yet the brilliant storytelling speaks for itself.
Equally entertaining was Hitch’s deadpan delivery of introductions which always began with “Good Evening” and went on to speak of outrageous things.
Hitchcock moved to California and became an American citizen in 1955, although still retaining his English citizenship. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1980, a few months before his death. Film critic Roger Ebert considered it something of a snub that the Queen took so long to give Hitch his knighthood, writing: “Other British directors like Sir Carol Reed and Sir Charlie Chaplin were knighted years ago, while Hitchcock… one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, was passed over.” Maybe the Queen was a bit spooked by him, or reluctant to invite him to the palace?
On April 29th, 1980, Sir Alfred Hitchcock died of renal failure in his home in Bel Air California. Despite his professed fears of the Jesuits, two priests came in his closing hours, giving a final mass at Hitchcock’s home and hearing his last confession.
Gone but not forgotten, we will never ditch the Hitch! He shall always be alive in legacy, legend and the ominous voice that warns to lock the doors and be afraid. Be very afraid.
Happy Birthday Alfred!
This short tribute is a great celebration of the man and his art. Hope you like it!