- Robert E. Kapsis
Hitchcock, Alfred (13 August 1899–29 April 1980), motion picture director, was born Alfred Joseph Hitchcock in Leytonstone, England, the son of William Hitchcock, a greengrocer, and Emma Jane Whelan. His lower middle-class, Cockney Catholic parents enforced a strict upbringing. His main interests as a youth included maps and timetables; at one point he memorized the schedules of most of England’s train lines. Hitchcock attended a Jesuit day school for boys but spent most of his adolescence working to help support his family, particularly after his father died in 1914. He eventually found steady employment at the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company, allowing him to take night courses in economics, drawing, art history, and painting.
With England at war, Hitchcock increasingly found escape in the arts. He was fascinated by the mystery fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and spent much time at the local cinema; American films, such as those made by D. W. Griffith and Buster Keaton, particularly appealed to him. Learning that an American film company, Famous Players–Lasky, was opening a studio in London, Hitchcock generated a portfolio of artwork and in 1920 was hired as an illustrator to design the title cards, drawings, and lettering styles for the Famous Players–Lasky films produced in England. He became a man of all trades around the studio, and when a newly formed British company, Gainsborough Pictures, headed by Michael Balcon, took over the facility in 1924, Hitchcock had already become an assistant director. During an assignment in Germany, he saw the filmmaker F. W. Murnau at work—an experience that made a lasting impression on him. He later said, “My models were forever after the German filmmakers… . They were trying very hard to express ideas in purely visual terms” (Spoto, p. 75).
In 1925 Balcon gave Hitchcock his first feature film to direct, The Pleasure Garden. He also directed a second film, The Mountain Eagle, that year and The Lodger the following year. By the end of 1926, Hitchcock found himself “the most sought-after” British director, despite the fact that none of the films had actually been released. However, the studio held a special screening of The Lodger for the press and film exhibitors. It was a huge success. Ecstatic trade reviews proclaimed The Lodger as possibly “the finest British production ever made” (Bioscope, 16 Sept. 1926) and “one of the first real landmarks in the coming advance of British pictures” (Kinematograph, 23 Sept. 1926). These reviews prompted the distributor to schedule release dates for all three of Hitchcock’s completed films. In December of this busy year, Hitchcock and screen editor Alma Reville were married. They had one child.
The first Hitchcock film to be shown publicly was The Pleasure Garden, which opened in London on 24 January 1927. However, The Lodger, premiering three weeks later, attracted crowds. The Lodger was the first film in which Hitchcock made an uncredited cameo appearance, something that became a trademark of his films.
Hitchcock’s reputation as a thriller director evolved more slowly than his reputation as England’s finest director. During his first decade of filmmaking, he worked in whatever genres were popular at the time, including middle-brow theatrical adaptations (Easy Virtue , Juno and the Paycock , The Skin Game ), romances (Rich and Strange ), and even a musical (Waltzes from Vienna ). Although the thrillers The Lodger and Blackmail (1929) were among his most critically acclaimed early films, The Ring (1927), a boxing melodrama based on an original story by Hitchcock, and Juno and the Paycock, a surprisingly faithful and uncinematic adaptation of the Sean O’Casey play, were also well received.
In 1934 Hitchcock filmed The Man Who Knew Too Much, a spy thriller that marked a turning point in his career. It was the first of six consecutive thrillers made between 1934 and 1938, including The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), and The Lady Vanishes (1938). However, it is not clear that Hitchcock’s “classic thriller sextet” reflected the director’s growing realization that the thriller genre best suited his temperament. It was probably box office success and organizational factors that led him to concentrate on the thriller format during this period of his career.
By the late 1930s the New York critics had joined the Hitchcock bandwagon. Applauding his “mastery of the melodramatic film,” they concluded that his reputation as “one of the greatest directors in motion pictures” was richly deserved (The Lady Vanishes Scrapbook, Hitchcock Collection). Impressed with his consummate craftsmanship in the comedy-thriller The Lady Vanishes, the New York film critics voted Hitchcock the best director of 1938. Press clippings and reports about the director eventually reached Hollywood (many sent by Hitchcock’s own camp), and a number of Hollywood film studios, including that of producer David Selznick, became interested in “Alfred the Great.” Hitchcock was a consummate self-promoter.
In 1939 Hitchcock signed a long-term contract with Selznick International, thus alienating his most ardent critical supporters, the British press, who for years maligned Hitchcock’s American work as inferior to his output in Britain. He was, however, welcomed warmly in the United States; Rebecca, his first film for Selznick, was both a popular and critical success, winning the Oscar for the best film of 1940. During the 1940s Hitchcock continued to have commercial and critical success with thrillers (including Foreign Correspondent , Suspicion , Saboteur , Shadow of a Doubt , and Notorious ). On occasion, however, he worked in other genres, making a screwball comedy (Mr. and Mrs. Smith ), a costume drama (Under Capricorn ), and a war film (Lifeboat ). It was during this period that Hitchcock began fruitful professional relationships with Cary Grant and James Stewart, both of whom starred in many of his films, as well as with Ingrid Bergman, his favorite female star during the 1940s.
After the spectacular success of the spy thriller Notorious in 1946, Hitchcock hit a bit of a lull. The last of his Selznick films, The Paradine Case (1947), disappointed both critics and fans. Hitchcock and a business associate and friend, Sidney Bernstein, then set up an independent production company, Transatlantic Pictures, that produced only two films, Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn, both directed by Hitchcock. Neither film did particularly well at the box office or with the critics. The director enjoyed somewhat more success during his four-year stint at Warner Bros. (1949–1953), especially with the psychological thriller Strangers on a Train (1951).
In 1952 Hitchcock entered the most productive period of his career. Between 1952 and 1960 he completed three feature films for Warners, six for Paramount, and one for MGM. His first major box office hit of this period was Rear Window (1954), starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly, who had replaced Ingrid Bergman as Hitchcock’s principal leading actress. The movie, his first for Paramount, was also popular with critics, who praised its clever blending of suspense, comedy, and romance—qualities that had made Hitchcock’s early works so successful. Rear Window helped to strengthen Hitchcock’s reputation as a master entertainer, a view that his subsequent 1950s films—To Catch a Thief (1955), the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and North by Northwest (1959)—reinforced.
In 1955 the director launched “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” the television show he hosted for ten years. Hitchcock’s actual involvement in the show was peripheral; he directed only 20 of the 372 episodes. He offered only occasional suggestions to Joan Harrison and Norman Lloyd, who were the real creative powers behind the show. Nevertheless, the program made him a household name all over the world.
Hitchcock energetically promoted himself during the 1950s. Press releases, staged interviews, and newspaper and magazine articles reportedly written by him instructed audiences on what to expect in a typical Hitchcock feature film. “After a certain amount of suspense,” said Hitchcock, “the audience must find relief in laughter.” Suspense and laughter he saw as part of a “basic pattern—mounting suspense and then final catharsis in laughter” (Kapsis, p. 36).
While Hitchcock cultivated the view of himself as a master entertainer, he hoped the critical press would perceive the serious intent behind his films. After Psycho in 1960, he began to speak out about criticism of his work. His usual showmanship and cunning marketing strategy made Psycho an enormous hit but led to occasional hostile reactions from critics (many found the now legendary shower murder sequence disgusting). Hitchcock felt the critics missed the point, which was his use of film art to precipitate an identical emotional response from audiences the world over—“something of a mass emotion,” as he liked to put it. He defended himself against claims that his films were too formulaic. “They may be all corpse-thriller and suspense pictures,” Hitchcock would remark, “but there’s a vast difference between—we’ll say, Rebecca and Psycho and The Trouble with Harry … and North by Northwest or The Birds. Look at the difference in all these pictures. Not one of them resembles another in any form except suspense” (Kapsis, p. 74).
While all of Hitchcock’s later works (especially Marnie ) were driven by his ambition to be taken seriously as an artist, The Birds, coming three years after Psycho, represented his most ambitious attempt to reshape his reputation. In 1963 he achieved a major promotional coup when the Museum of Modern Art sponsored a press screening of The Birds and hosted a large-scale retrospective of his work as well.
Hitchcock became increasingly preoccupied with undermining audience expectations of what to anticipate in his films. Whether shooting in a grim, documentary style (The Wrong Man), killing the lead character off in the middle of the film (Psycho), or ending a film without a clear-cut resolution (The Birds), Hitchcock made daring, revolutionary choices for nearly a decade—and within the Hollywood studio system.
The first to notice were influential French critics, including François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, who launched a campaign to advance the view that Hitchcock was a cinematic genius who had a distinctive moral vision of the human condition. Contrary to many American critics, they believed his Hollywood films surpassed those he made in England; they saw his career as a proof of their conviction that cinematic art could flourish within the Hollywood studio system. When this film aesthetic became established in American film circles during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hitchcock’s standing with the critics improved dramatically.
Hitchcock’s reputation was further advanced when, in spring 1968, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented him with the Irving G. Thalberg Award “for the most consistent high level of achievement by an individual producer.” Hitchcock had been nominated four times for a directorial Oscar, but, as he frequently put it, he had “always been the bridesmaid.” The Directors Guild of America also honored Hitchcock that spring with the prestigious D. W. Griffith Award for his directorial achievements. Hitchcock’s reputation received another shot in the arm when the English edition of Truffaut’s influential book on Hitchcock was finally published in late 1967. A few weeks before the summer 1972 release of his next to last film, Frenzy, Hitchcock received an honorary doctorate from Columbia University. According to his biographer Donald Spoto, that event was “only the beginning of the greatest outpouring of adulation America gave Hitchcock in over a decade.” The outpouring continued as critics nearly unanimously praised Frenzy.
By the time of Frenzy’s release, a significant number of influential U.S. critics had come to accept the “new” view of Hitchcock as a great artist. Reflected in their reviews were many of the values that the new generation of critics now looked for: hidden meanings, personal vision, universality, reflexivity, and thematic and stylistic consistency and coherence. While these values could be successfully applied to many of his earlier works, Frenzy was the first recent work (following the disappointing Torn Curtain  and Topaz ) that critics could hold up as a shining example of Hitchcock as the “auteur.”
By the mid-1970s, Hitchcock’s artistic stature and renown had become so established among American critics that even with a film that is viewed as inferior, such as his final film, Family Plot (1976), Hitchcock could accumulate more fame. This was achieved in two ways: through critics who praised the film and through those highly critical of it who used their reviews as an occasion for commenting on Hitchcock’s illustrious career, highlighting his greatness as a cinematic artist. When Hitchcock died at home in Los Angeles, he had accomplished professionally what he had always been attempting to achieve—worldwide respect as both a premier popular entertainer and a true artist of the cinema.
Hitchcock is taught in every university filmmaking program not only as a master of the thriller but also as the master of cinematic form. His reputation has survived because of the great range of his work but also because many of his films have been able to sustain a diversity of interpretations. For example, Marnie, an underappreciated film when released, is regarded among Hitchcock’s most profound works. To some critics, Marnie was an old-fashioned psychological melodrama about a female thief, while others highlighted the film’s purely cinematic qualities. It has also been seen as an exploration of male dominance in a patriarchal social system, or even lesbian desire. Hitchcock’s films have endured due to their variety, ambiguity, and adaptability to changing social, cultural, and aesthetic norms. Yet his films are also unmistakably the work of a single person—Hitchcock.
The Alfred Hitchcock Collection (including scripts, papers, production notes, publicity files, correspondence, and memorabilia spanning Hitchcock’s entire career) is at the Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, Calif. Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (1983), is the most comprehensive Hitchcock biography to date; see also John Russell Taylor, Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock (1978); Tom Ryall, Alfred Hitchcock and the British Cinema (1986); and Leonard Leff, Hitchcock and Selznick (1987). Important critical interpretations can be found in Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films Revisited (1989); Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, Hitchcock (1957); William Rothman, Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze (1982); Maurice Yacowar, Hitchcock’s British Films (1977); Lesley Brill, The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock’s Films (1988); Thomas M. Leitch, Find the Director and Other Hitchcock Games (1991); Robert J. Corber, In the Name of National Security: Hitchcock, Homophobia, and the Political Construction of Gender in Postwar America (1993); and David Sterritt, The Films of Alfred Hitchcock (1993). For a provocative feminist reading of Blackmail, Murder (1930), Rebecca, Notorious, Rear Window, Vertigo (1957), and Frenzy, see Tania Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much (1988). For analysis of Hitchcock’s ever evolving reputation, see Robert E. Kapsis, Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation (1992). Absolutely indispensable is François Truffaut, Hitchcock (1967; rev. ed., 1984), fascinating book-length interview with Hitchcock; see also Sidney Gottlieb, ed., Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews (1995). Also invaluable is Jane E. Sloan, Alfred Hitchcock: A Guide to References and Resources (1993). Obituaries are in the New York Times, 11 May 1980, Time, 12 May 1980, and the New Republic, 27–31 July 1980.
- Poe, Edgar Allan (1809-1849), fiction writer, poet, and critic
- Griffith, D. W. (1875-1948), pioneer film director
- Keaton, Buster (1895-1966), actor and filmmaker
- Selznick, David O. (1902-1965), film producer
- Grant, Cary (1904-1986), actor
- Stewart, James (1908-1997), actor
- Bergman, Ingrid (1915-1982), film and stage actress
- Kelly, Grace (1929-1982), actress