He is the king of thrillers, the “master of suspense”, and the camera genius whose work perfectly represents what cinema is all about…. He is Alfred Hitchcock! The legendary English filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock was one of a kind; his films greatly influenced the history of cinema like no other.
Alfred Hitchcock created a cinema of stun and fear, a cinema that is always beautiful and elegant to watch. His unique approach to making films and his brilliant touch were second to none. Whenever the name Alfred Hitchcock is mentioned, we are often told that this incredibly talented and visionary man is one of the most significant directors who ever lived. But why and how did he become so in the first place?
While tracing Alfred Hitchcock’s entire legacy is an almost impossible task, we can nevertheless try to summarise the most important stops, the red threads that have made him among the household names in the history of cinema.
Who is Alfred Hitchcock?
Alfred Hitchcock was born on August 1899 in London and is the youngest of three brothers. He grew up with a strict religious upbringing and attended the Catholic College of Saint Ignatius. His studies continued with enrolment in the School of Engineering and Navigation, which he had to abandon when his father died in 1914.
His first job was in 1915 at the Henley Telegraph & Cable Company, an electrical wiring factory. In 1917, he was reformed for military service but enlisted as a volunteer civil engineer. During those years, he continued cultivating a passion for film and theatre.
From those years when he was a nobody, Alfred Hitchcock showed great interest in the world of crime and murders. In 1919, the Famous Players-Lasky (future Paramount) opened a branch in London, and Hitchcock got the job as a title-card designer, then soon moved on to co-writing, art directing and production managing.
Hitchcock’s early directing attempts came in 1922 when he co-directed the film Always Tell Your Wife. Following that, he worked on the film Number 13, which unfortunately remained unfinished due to the closure of the studio’s London office. In 1923, Alfred Hitchcock was hired by the company later known as Gainsborough Pictures; during the next three years, he worked in the shadows on numerous films, taking care of an extraordinary number of tasks, from screenplays, drawings, titles and set design to editing and assistant directing.
In 1925, Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant career finally began when the company entrusted him with directing the film The Pleasure Garden. In 1927 came the first thriller to establish Hitchcock’s reputation, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. The film was a turning point for Hitchcock in many ways; it turned into a signature move of making a cameo in his movies, and it was his first film to be influenced by German Expressionism.
In 1929, Hitchcock directed Blackmail, the first British film with sound. In the second half of the 1930s, his fame as the ‘master of suspense’ also reached the United States, where he enjoyed massive success with The Man Who Knew Too Much(1934).
In 1939, Hitchcock moved to Hollywood and the following year, his first film made in the USA, Rebecca, won the Oscar for Best Picture, and Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director. In the course of his career, five more nominations would follow. The 1940s witnessed more and more success for Hitchcock with many hits like Notorious, which was a huge success. In 1948 he made his first film in Technicolour, Knot in the Throat (1948). However, this was an unlucky period for him; Transatlantic, which was producing his films, went bankrupt.
In 1951 he resumed his activity with the thriller Strangers on a Train and, in 1955, started directing the very famous TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which was followed by some of his greatest successes; Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963). In 1967, François Truffaut’s book Interview Hitchcock/Truffaut, originally called Le Cinéma selon Alfred Hitchcock (Cinema according to Hitchcock), was finally published. The book was based on 50 hours of interviews done over four years. The book offered a new perspective on the work of the great Hitchcock and how his art is well thought out and different from that of the filmmakers of the time.
The year 1967 was a big year for Hitchcock; he was finally awarded an Oscar—shockingly not for Best Director—for lifetime achievement. It was also in 1967 that he made his last film, Family Plot, which won over the critics. In the following years, his health struggles didn’t stop him from his passion, and in fact, he did work on a new project, The Short Night, but sadly that never saw the light of day.
In 1980 he received the title of Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (KBE), one of the highest honours of the British crown. Four months later, Sir Alfred Hitchcock died of kidney failure leaving behind a tremendous legacy!
Methodology of Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock differs from most directors of the time and today’s directors in his enormous technical expertise in all areas of filmmaking; photography, editing, screenplay, etc. This preparation led him to study and plan his films well before shooting. He exquisitely honed his skills, forming a unique cinematic technical style with many distinguished elements. While we can’t list them all, here are some of the most well-known signature aspects of Alfred Hitchcock’s style.
Hitchcock popularised the ‘dolly zoom’ in his films, like in the thriller Vertigo. A dolly zoom is a technique where the camera moves further away or closer from the subject while the zoom is simultaneously adjusted to allow the subject to be of the same size in the frame. The subject thus appears stationary while the size of the background changes.
Hitchcock was a big fan of including the audience in his works; this was clear in his tendency to use the subjective camera. He always liked to make the audience feel like they were the film’s protagonist using the POV shot (point of view shot that shows what the protagonist is looking at in the first person).
He also liked to provide the audience with complete information, like if there is a danger nearby that would harm the character, even if the character in the film doesn’t know it yet. Alfred always steered clear of the complicated stories and kept the stories simple while remaining unique and avoiding cliché characters.
There is a cause why he is the “master of suspense”. He always painstakingly created anticipation with overtones of fear, suspicion, and tension. The viewer is glued to the screen with the feeling that something horrifying is about to happen.
Hitchcock habitually appeared in all his films in at least one scene. In the first films, this was only for a practical need, i.e. when an extra was missing; later, it became a habit, and finally, a real game for the viewers who, for each new film, competed to find the director among the extras.
In many of his films, there is a young girl with delicate features who seems like a good girl with a reassuring appearance. But it is she who surprises the viewers by revealing herself as an ambiguous and evil person. In addition to these girls, Hitchcock often inserted the figure of a mother, seen in contrast to her children, with disturbing attitudes.
Last but not least, there is the McGuffin, a technique, object or device introduced into the film’s plot. While this object or device is of little relevance to the story, it is necessary to explain some of the protagonists’ motivations or serve as a plot trigger.
Hitchcock himself defined the McGuffin with a nice little story. Two travellers are on a train in England. The story goes, “One says to the other: “One man says, “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?” And the other one answers, “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin.” The first asks, “What’s a MacGuffin?” “Well,” the other one says, “it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,” and the other answers, “Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!” So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.”— Alfred Hitchcock.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Most Memorable Films
While almost all of Hitchcock’s films could qualify as memorable, we will be focusing on a few of the many that truly left a mark on the history of cinema.
Rear Window (1954)
Forced into a wheelchair by accident, an action photojournalist spends his time spying with a telephoto lens on his neighbours only to discover something sinister.
Rear Window is one of the best examples of Alfred Hitchcock’s ability to use suspense; his highly personal use of time, that game of contracting and dilating seconds and minutes to make the viewer feel speed or slowness.
It was probably with Rear Window that the director most effectively brought the subtlest psychological nuances of his characters to the screen. With this film, Hitchcock manifested one of his most remarkable qualities; knowing how to entertain his audience without renouncing the analysis of profound themes.
Based on the Cornell Woolrich short story of the same name, this film starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly is considered one of the masterpieces of film history.
At the podium of this list is one of the most significant productions in the entire history of cinema, AKA Vertigo. At the end of the 1950s, American cinema still had rules that very few dared to break. Hitchcock was among them, bringing a far-from-conventional story to the screen with this film.
John Ferguson (James Stewart), known as ‘Scottie’, is a former policeman who suffers from Vertigo following a traumatic accident at work. One day, he gets hired by an old friend to follow the latter’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). Sceptical, Scottie accepts the assignment and begins to follow Madeleine. Soon, the man is enchanted by the woman, and he goes head over heels for her. Unfortunately, things become much more complex than they appear, trapping Scottie in a vortex of obsession and suffering.
Vertigo presented a love story that was very atypical by Hollywood standards. Hitchcock not only brought a twisted and stirring thriller to the screen but also perfectly delineated all the suffering inflicted on oneself and others. In Vertigo, there is no room for the heroes, which was something so beloved of classical cinema.
It was destabilising for audiences to see James Stewart, the famous ‘good face’ of Hollywood, in the role of a man wavering between being a victim and an executioner, a man subjugated by his obsession. An obsession represented by Hitchcock through colours, images and symbols; think of the recurring image of the spiral or the presence of green, the colour that symbolises death.
Vertigo is probably the most intimate film Alfred Hitchcock ever made and one of his most famous psychoanalytical thrillers. This was a new and modern genre that remained linked to the director’s name in the decades to come.
The film was revolutionary technically with the use of sudden zooms on the faces of the protagonists, subjective shots, distorted or swirling images, and the combination of a backwards tracking shot with a zoom. The technique went down in history to be called the ‘Vertigo Effect’ after the film’s title. Vertigo was widely re-evaluated years later, so much so that, in 2012, a British Film Institute poll named it the best film of all time.
Some film sequences are impossible to forget; scenes so innovative that they are constantly the subject of mention or imitation, even many years later. Who does not know the celebrated shower scene in Psycho? The very brief—only forty-five seconds— sequence in which the protagonist is brutally murdered shocked audiences of the time, unaccustomed to such an explicit depiction of violence.
But Psycho did not enter film history only because of this very famous scene. Psycho broke so many film rules that it became an instant classic, generating three sequels over the years and a fantastic 1998 remake by director Gus van Sant.
Based on 1959’s Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name, which in return was based on the true events of serial killer Ed Gein, the film stars the young real estate agent Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who steals forty thousand dollars that she was supposed to deposit in a bank on behalf of a client. She is caught in a thunderstorm on her car journey and decides to spend the night at a Motel.
Marion meets Norman Bates (an unforgettable Anthony Perkins), the kind owner of the motel. Norman lives in the house next to the motel with his ailing mother, completely isolated from the world. At night, Marion takes a bath before going to sleep. Unexpectedly, the young woman is stabbed in the shower by some psycho!
Hitchcock’s choice to kill the protagonist early in the film was a first for cinema. Coupled with the fact that Marion was played by a Hollywood star, the audience was utterly taken aback by this drastic deviation from the narrative norms of the time.
After Marion’s exit from the scene, the director chose to focus the film on the enigmatic Norman Bates, considered one of the best villains ever. Partially inspired by a real-life serial killer named Ed Gein, Norman was the embodiment of a complex evil, which saw its origin in the deepest roots of the psyche.
Through an almost maniacal directorial style, the subject of countless homages and imitations, with Psycho Alfred Hitchcock, definitively overturned the rules of thrillers. Psycho is probably the director’s most famous film and one of the greatest films ever.
The Birds (1963)
Based on a story of the same name by Daphne Du Maurier, The Birds is a thriller starring Tippi Hedren. It is a terrifying story in which flocks of birds start killing people for no apparent reason, and, precisely in its inexplicable nature, this behaviour is all the more frightening.
In a way, this film is the origin of all films about natural catastrophes, such as Armageddon (1998) or The Day After Tomorrow (2004). The Birds set the rules and remains a film of significant impact; despite the arrival of computer graphics and all the modern special effects, the sense of anguish and terror in front of the images created by Hitchcock has not been affected.
Alfred Hitchcock is undoubtedly one of the most famous directors in history. He managed to fit well into the Hollywood system, created an innumerable series of films (almost fifty films in a forty-year career), and was the master of critical new innovations in both film style and technique. Alfred Hitchcock magnificently changed the cinema forever!