Alfred Hitchcock was born in London in 1899. Following an early interest in photography, he started a career in filmmaking on his native soil before working in the United States from 1939 onwards.
With more than fifty feature films to his credit, in a career spanning six decades, from silent film to talkies to the color era, Hitchcock’s films draw heavily on both fear and fantasy, and are known for their very dry sense of humour. When asked about his most famous chiller, he once commented “to me Psycho was a big comedy. Had to be.”
The First Auteur
Hitchcock was one of the first directors to be called an auteur. In filmmaking terms, an auteur is a filmmaker who has creative control over all aspects of the movie-making process, including the writing and the camerawork.
Through his fame and public persona, Hitchcock transformed the role of the director, which had previously been eclipsed by that of the producer. He even went so far as to insist on putting himself in most of his films, even if it’s just four seconds of him walking a dog in the background or running to catch a bus!
The first thing that strikes you when you watch his best films is that they have not dated. In each creative period of his career, you can pick out films that have now become classics that stand the test of time. From the silent era, The Lodger (1927) is a gripping tale of a man suspected of being a killer. Then his classic British thriller The 39 Steps (1935) is a wonderful mix of intrigue and light comedy romance.
Highlights of his vintage Hollywood period include the atmospheric direction of Daphne Du Maurier’s haunting novel Rebecca (1940), starring Laurence Olivier and Suspicion (1941), featuring long time collaborator Cary Grant
His most famous – and arguably greatest – work emerged in the fifties, including Strangers On a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North By Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960). All are groundbreaking thrillers that are about as close to cinematic perfection as you can get! If you haven’t seen them, you must watch them immediately, even if you aren’t a fan of older films.
Even in today’s world, where films move at 100 miles per hour and are full of computer generated explosions in space, any of the above films are fast moving, utterly satisfying and hugely entertaining. With have cracking dialogue, great performances and more twists than a bowl of fusilli pasta, they will surprise, tickle, shock and even horrify you, and that’s all you could possibly want from films really!
There are many common themes running through his work. The films tend to be about innocent people caught up in circumstances beyond their control or understanding.
There is also a study of the compatibility of men and women; In his work Hitchcock also often expresses a cynical view of traditional romantic relationships and many of his work stars beautiful blondes, reflecting his real-life obsession with fair-haired ice queens. Indeed, obsession and sexual jealousy feature heavily in many of his darker films.
Overall, Hitchcock preferred the use of suspense over surprise in his films. In surprise, the director assaults you with frightening things; in suspense, the director tells or shows things to you that the characters in the film do not know, and then artfully builds tension around what will happen when the characters finally learn the truth. He famously once said “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
Although Hitchcock was an enormous star during his lifetime, he was not usually ranked highly by film critics at the time. Rebecca was the only one of his films to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, although four others were nominated.
Hitchcock was given an OBE in 1980, just four months before his death on April 29, although the knighthood was honorary, as he had long since become a U.S. citizen. When he ultimately died from heart failure his death was greatly mourned but there was no public funeral or memorial service.
Nevertheless, his legacy can be seen to this day in every aspect of cinema – from camera techniques to plot structure – and one that almost every modern director, from Steven Spielberg to Mike Leigh, will claim as a direct influence on their own careers. Simply put, Hitchcock’s gift to moviegoers was being able to merge art with entertainment in a way very few has ever matched in motion picture history.