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Alfred Hitchcock

British Film Director Known for Suspense

By Shelly Schwartz, Contributing History Writer

Picture of British film director Alfred Hitchcock.

Studio headshot portrait of British film director Alfred Hitchcock. (Circa 1963)

(Photo by Gene Lester/Getty Images)

Who Was Alfred Hitchcock?

Known as the “Master of Suspense,” Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most famous film directors of the 20th century. He directed more than 50 feature-length films from the 1920s into the 1970s. Hitchcock’s image, seen during Hitchcock’s frequent cameos in his own films and before each episode of the hit TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, has become synonymous with suspense.

Dates: August 13, 1899 – April 29, 1980

Also Known As: Alfred Joseph Hitchcock , Hitch, Master of Suspense, Sir Alfred Hitchcock

Growing Up With a Fear of Authority

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on August 13, 1899, in Leytonstone in the East End of London. His parents were Emma Jane Hitchcock (neé Whelan), who was known to be stubborn, and William Hitchcock, a grocer, who was known to be stern. Alfred had two older siblings: a brother, William (born 1890) and a sister, Eileen (born 1892).

When Hitchcock was just five years old, his strict, Catholic father gave him quite a fright. Attempting to teach Hitchcock a valuable lesson, Hitchcock’s father sent him to the local police station with a note. Once the police officer on duty read the note, the officer locked young Hitchcock in a cell for several minutes. The effect was devastating. Although his father was trying to teach him a lesson about what happened to people who did bad things, the experience left Hitchcock shaken to the core. As a result, Hitchcock was forever fearful of the police.

A bit of a loner, Hitchcock liked to draw and invent games on maps in his spare time. He attended St. Ignatius College boarding school where he stayed out of trouble, fearful of the strict Jesuits and their public canings of boys who misbehaved. Hitchcock learned draftsmanship at the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation in Poplar from 1913 to 1915.

Hitchcock’s First Job

After graduating, Hitchcock got his first job in 1915 as an estimator for W.T. Henley Telegraph Company, a manufacturer of electric cable. Bored by his job, he regularly attended the cinema by himself in the evenings, read the cinema trade papers, and took drawing classes at London University.

Hitchcock gained confidence and began to show a dry, witty side at work. He drew caricatures of his colleagues and wrote short stories with twist endings, to which he signed the name “Hitch.” Henley’s Social Club magazine, The Henley, began publishing Hitchcock’s drawings and stories. As a result, Hitchcock was promoted to Henley’s advertising department, where he was much happier as a creative advertising illustrator.

Hitchcock Gets Into Filmmaking

In 1919, Hitchcock saw an ad in one of the cinema trade papers that a Hollywood company named Famous Players-Lasky (which later became Paramount) was building a studio in Islington, a neighborhood in Greater London.

At the time, American filmmakers were considered superior to their British counterparts and thus Hitchcock was extremely excited about them opening up a studio locally. Hoping to impress those in charge of the new studio, Hitchcock discovered the subject of what was to be their first motion picture, bought the book it was based on, and read it. Hitchcock then drew up mock title cards (graphic cards inserted into silent movies to show dialogue or explain action). He took his title cards to the studio, only to find that they had decided to film a different movie. Undaunted, Hitchcock quickly read the new book, drew up new title cards, and again took them to the studio. Impressed by his graphics as well as his determination, Islington Studio hired him to moonlight as their title-card designer. Within a few months, the studio offered 20-year-old Hitchcock a full-time job. Hitchcock accepted the position and left his steady job at Henley to enter the unsteady world of filmmaking.

With calm confidence and a desire to make movies, Hitchcock began to help out as a screenwriter, assistant director, and set designer. Here, Hitchcock met Alma Reville, who was in charge of film editing and continuity. When the director fell ill while filming the comedy, Always Tell Your Wife (1923), Hitchcock stepped in and finished the film. He was then offered the opportunity to direct Number Thirteen (never completed). Due to a lack of funds, the motion picture abruptly stopped filming after a few scenes were shot and the entire studio shut down.

When Balcon-Saville-Freedman took over the studio, Hitchcock was one of just a few people asked to stay on. Hitchcock became the assistant director and screenwriter for Woman to Woman (1923). Hitchcock hired Alma Reville back for continuity and editing. The picture was a box-office success; however, the studio’s next picture, The White Shadow (1924), failed at the box-office and again the studio shut down.

This time, Gainsborough Pictures took over the studio and Hitchcock was again asked to stay.

Hitchcock Becomes a Director

In 1924, Hitchcock was the assistant director for The Blackguard (1925), a film shot in Berlin. This was a co-production deal between Gainsborough Pictures and UFA Studios in Berlin. Not only did Hitchcock take advantage of the Germans’ extraordinary sets, he also observed the German filmmakers using sophisticated camera pans, tilts, zooms, and tricks for forced perspective in set design.

Known as German Expressionism, the Germans used dark, moody thought-provoking topics such as madness and betrayal rather than adventure, comedy, and romance. The German filmmakers were equally happy to learn an American technique from Hitchcock whereby scenery was painted onto the camera lens as a foreground.

In 1925, Hitchcock got his directorial debut for The Pleasure Garden (1926), which was filmed in both Germany and Italy. Again Hitchcock chose Alma to work with him; this time as his assistant director for the silent film. During filming, a budding romance between Hitchcock and Alma began. The film itself is remembered for the myriad of troubles the crew ran into during filming, including having customs confiscate all of their unexposed film as they crossed the international border.

Hitchcock Gets “Hitched” and Directs a Hit

Hitchcock and Alma married on February 12, 1926; she would become his chief collaborator on all his films.

Also in 1926, Hitchcock directed The Lodger, a suspense movie filmed in Britain about a “wrongly accused man.” Hitchcock had chosen the story, used fewer title cards than usual, and tossed in bits of humor. Due to a shortage of extras, he had made a cameo appearance in the film. The distributor didn’t like it and shelved it.

Stunned, Hitchcock felt like a failure. He was so despondent that he even contemplated a career change. Luckily, the film was released a few months later by the distributor, who had been running short on films. The Lodger (1927) became a huge hit with the public.

Britain’s Best Director in the 1930s

The Hitchcocks became very busy with filmmaking. They lived in a country house (named Shamley Green) on the weekends and lived in a London flat during the week. In 1928, Alma delivered a baby girl, Patricia – the couple’s only child. Hitchcock’s next big hit was Blackmail (1929), the first British talkie (film with sound).

During the 1930s, Hitchcock made picture after picture and invented the term “MacGuffin” to illustrate that the object the villains were after needed no explanation; it was just something used to drive the story. Hitchcock felt he didn’t need to bore the audience with details; it didn’t matter where the MacGuffin came from, just who was after it. The term is still used in contemporary filmmaking.

Having made several box-office flops in the early 1930s, Hitchcock then made The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). The film was a British and American success, as were his next five films: The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), and The Lady Vanishes (1938). The latter won the New York Critics’ Award for Best Film of 1938.

Hitchcock caught the attention of David O. Selznick, an American film producer and owner of Selznick Studios in Hollywood. In 1939, Hitchcock, the number one British director at the time, accepted a contract from Selznick and moved his family to Hollywood.

Hollywood Hitchcock

While Alma and Patricia loved the weather in Southern California, Hitchcock was not fond of it. He continued to wear his dark English suits no matter how hot the weather. In the studio, he worked diligently on his first American film, Rebecca (1940), a psychological thriller. After the small budgets he had worked with in England, Hitchcock delighted in the large Hollywood resources he could use to build elaborate sets.

Rebecca won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1940. Hitchcock was up for Best Director, but lost to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath.

Memorable Scenes

Fearing suspense in real life (Hitchcock didn’t even like driving a car), he did enjoy capturing suspense on screen in memorable scenes, which often included monuments and famous landmarks. Hitchcock planned every shot for his motion pictures beforehand to such an extent that filming was said to be the boring part to him.

Hitchcock took his audiences to the domed roof of the British Museum for a chase scene in Blackmail (1929), to the Statue of Liberty for a free fall in Saboteur (1942), to the streets of Monte Carlo for a wild drive in To Catch a Thief (1955), to the Royal Albert Hall for an assassination misfire in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956),underneath the Golden Gate Bridge for a suicide attempt in Vertigo (1958), and to Mt. Rushmore for a chase scene in North by Northwest (1959).

Other Hitchcock memorable scenes include a glowing poisoned glass of milk in Suspicion (1941), a man chased by a crop duster in North by Northwest (1959), a stabbing scene in the shower to shrieking violins in Psycho (1960), and killer birds gathering in a schoolyard in The Birds (1963).

Hitchcock and Cool Blondes

Hitchcock was known for engaging the audience with suspense, accusing the wrong man of something, and portraying a fear of authority. He also threw in comic relief, portrayed villains as charming, used unusual camera angles, and preferred classic blondes for his leading ladies. His leads (both male and female) portrayed poise, intelligence, underlying passion, and glamour.

Hitchcock said audiences found classic blonde females to be innocent looking and an escape for the bored housewife. He didn’t think a woman should wash the dishes and go see a movie about a woman washing the dishes. Hitchcock’s leading ladies also had a cool, icy attitude for added suspense -- never warm and bubbly. Hitchcock’s leading ladies included Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, and Tippi Hedron.

Hitchcock’s TV Show

In 1955, Hitchcock started Shamley Productions, named after his country home back in England, and produced Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which turned into the Alfred Hitchcock Hour. This successful TV show aired from 1955 to 1965. The show was Hitchcock’s way of featuring mystery dramas written by various writers, mostly directed by directors other than himself. Before each episode, Hitchcock presented a monologue to set up the drama, beginning with “Good Evening.” He came back at the end of each episode to tie up any loose ends about the culprit being caught.

Hitchcock’s popular horror movie, Psycho (1960), was filmed inexpensively by his Shamley Productions TV crew.

In 1956, Hitchcock became a U.S. citizen, but remained a British subject.

Awards, Knighthood, and Death of Hitchcock

Despite being nominated five times for Best Director, Hitchcock never won the Oscar. While accepting the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award at the 1967 Oscars, he simply said, “Thank you.”

In 1979, the American Film Institute presented Hitchcock with its Life Achievement Award at a ceremony at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. He joked that he must be about to die soon.

In 1980, Queen Elizabeth II knighted Hitchcock. Three months later Sir Alfred Hitchcock died of kidney failure at the age of 80 in his home in Bel Air. His remains were cremated and scattered over the Pacific Ocean.

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