Sir Alfred Hitchcock was a British film director, screenwriter and producer, naturalized American in 1955, born August 13, 1899 in Leytonstone (London) and died April 29, 1980 in Bel Air (Los Angeles).
The Daily Telegraph wrote: “Hitchcock did more than any other director to shape modern cinema, which would be quite different without him. He had a flair for storytelling, cruelly withholding (from his characters and the viewer) crucial information and provoking the audience”s emotions like no other.
During his sixty-year career, he directed fifty-three feature films, some of which are among the most important in the history of cinema, both in terms of their public success and their critical reception and posterity. They include The 39 Steps, Suspicion, The Chained, Rear Window, Cold Sweat, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds.
After successes in silent and sound films, Hitchcock left his native country and moved to Hollywood, just before the outbreak of World War II. On April 20, 1955, he acquired American citizenship but retained his British citizenship, which allowed him, at the end of his life, to be knighted and named Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE). Gifted with a keen sense of self-promotion, particularly through his cameos, Hitchcock, interpreter of his own character, remains one of the most recognizable and best known personalities of the twentieth century worldwide.
Known as the “Master of Suspense,” he is considered one of the most stylistically influential directors. A pioneer of many techniques in the thriller film genre, Hitchcock established the notions of suspense and MacGuffin in the world of cinema. His thrillers, characterized by a skillful combination of tension and humor, explored variations on the figure of the persecuted innocent through recurring themes of fear, guilt and loss of identity.
Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born in 1899 in Leytonstone, a suburb north-east of London. He was the son of William Hitchcock (1862-1914) and Emma Jane Hitchcock, née Whelan (1863-1942). His father was a wholesaler in poultry, as well as in fruits and vegetables. Alfred, who was named after one of his uncles – his father”s brother – was the youngest of three children: his eldest, William and Eileen, were born in 1890 and 1892 respectively. His family was largely Catholic, his mother and paternal grandmother being of Irish descent. In London, Hitchcock attended St. Ignatius College in Stamford Hill, a school run by Jesuits. Later, Christianity will sometimes be mentioned in his films, probably because of this education which he will keep a very bad memory, especially because of his fear of corporal punishment.
Hitchcock often described his childhood as very lonely and sheltered, a situation made worse by his obesity. He himself admits that he had no friends at that time and spent his time playing alone. This sense of isolation was heightened when, one Christmas Eve, he caught his mother taking toys out of his Christmas stocking and slipping them into his brother and sister”s. Hitchcock”s mother often makes it a habit, especially when he has misbehaved, to force him to address her by standing, sometimes for hours, at the foot of her bed. These experiences would later be used to describe the character of Norman Bates in the film Psycho. Hitchcock will also always show a certain distrust of the police. This can be explained by a quick trip to the police station. When he was only four or five years old, his father sent him to a police station with a note to give to the police. After reading the bill, the police would have locked him in a cell, only to release him after only a few minutes, telling him, “This is what happens to bad boys. Later, the director would tell this anecdote several times to explain his fear of authority. Whether or not this story is authentic, echoes of this idea of being treated harshly or wrongly accused will be found frequently in his films.
In 1914, the year his father died – Hitchcock was fourteen years old at the time – he left St. Ignatius College and went to study at the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation in Poplar, London. After graduation, he got a job in the advertising department of W.T. Henley Telegraphic. He occasionally wrote short stories for a magazine published by his colleagues.
From graphic design to realization
His work in advertising developed his talents as a graphic designer. During this period, Alfred Hitchcock began to take an interest in the cinema, and in 1920, thanks to an actor who occasionally also worked at Henley, he was soon hired as a writer and designer of intertitles at Islington Studios, which had just been founded in London by Famous Players-Lasky, an American firm whose ambition was to mount international productions with English and American stars and directors from Hollywood; this firm would later become Paramount. Hitchcock soon became head of the company”s titling department, and for two years he wrote and designed titles for films by directors such as Hugh Ford, Donald Crisp and George Fitzmaurice. In the early 1920s, he saw an opportunity to try his hand at directing when the director of Always Tell Your Wife (1923), Hugh Croise, fell ill during filming, and he was able to convince Seymour Hicks, both the star and producer of the film, to help him finish it. In 1920, he worked full time at Islington Studios, first with their American owner, Famous Players-Lasky, and then with their British successor, Gainsborough Pictures, again as an intertitle designer. It would take him five years to move from that job to director. Alfred Hitchcock was also an art collector, who owned in particular works of Paul Klee, Edward Hopper, Georges Braque whose Birds fascinated him to the point of ordering a mosaic for the wall of his villa in Scott Valley in California
Alfred Hitchcock, then, joined forces with actress Clare Greet and tried to produce and direct a first film, Number Thirteen (1922), which dealt with the London underclass. The production was cancelled due to financial difficulties. The few scenes that could be shot are now apparently lost. And, if we are to believe Hitchcock”s own words, “it was really not good”.
At the end of 1922, Famous Players-Lasky decided to stop production in Islington. A small crew, including Hitchcock, was retained by the studio; and when Michael Balcon founded with Victor Saville and John Freedman a new independent company, Gainsborough Pictures, and came to shoot his first film in Islington, Hitchcock was hired as assistant director.
In 1923, he met his future wife Alma Reville, during the shooting of Graham Cutts” film, Woman to Woman (The Wounded Dancer), to whose script he collaborated. He married her in 1926 at the London Oratory. During his formative years, he improved in all areas: sets, costumes, scripts … His perfectionism will earn him many cult scenes. The last collaboration between Cutts and Hitchcock led the latter to Germany in 1924, where he worked for the UFA as a set designer and then scriptwriter. The film The Thug (in German Die Prinzessin und der Geiger, in English The Blackguard, 1925), directed by Cutts and co-written by Hitchcock, was produced at the Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam, near Berlin. Alfred Hitchcock had the opportunity to attend the shooting of The Last of the Men (he was deeply influenced by this experience and was greatly inspired by expressionist directors, mainly Murnau, whose techniques would later inspire him for the design of the sets of his own films, and Fritz Lang (see, below, Alfred Hitchcock”s influences). Unlike other directors whose literary component is very assertive, Hitchcock will always remain a lover of technique and the perfectionism of very complex scenes.
In 1925, Michael Balcon gave Hitchcock another chance to direct The Pleasure Garden, which was shot at the UFA studios in Germany. The film, a morality tale set against the backdrop of the theater, opens with a voyeuristic scene, emblematic of one of the aspects of the director”s future career: a sideways tracking shot showing the delighted reactions of a male audience attending a cabaret scene. Unfortunately, The Garden of Pleasure was a commercial failure. Hitchcock then directed a drama, The Mountain Eagle (released in the U.S. as Fear o” God), of which no copy today appears to have survived. Once both films were completed, they were viewed by distributors who shelved them.
On December 2, 1926, Hitchcock, whose career seemed to be over, married his assistant, editor and scriptwriter Alma Reville, at the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (more commonly known as Brompton Oratory). Their first and only child, a daughter, Patricia, was born a year and a half later, on July 7, 1928. Alma, with whom Hitchcock would stay for the rest of his life, was to be her husband”s closest collaborator. She participated in the writing of some of his scripts and – although her name often does not appear in the credits – collaborated with him on most of his films.
A few months after his marriage, luck finally smiled on the director, with his first thriller, The Golden Hair, better known under its original title, The Lodger (A Story of the London Fog), the adaptation of a best-seller by Marie Belloc Lowndes with, in the lead role, Ivor Novello, one of the most famous actors in Britain at that time.
This thriller, loosely based on the Jack the Ripper story, was deemed unsellable by distributor C.M. Woolf, who felt that the camera angles were unusual and that the strange German-inspired lighting would confuse English audiences. Balcon decided to hire the critic Ivor Montagu to advise Hitchcock. The film, which was released on February 14, 1927, proved to be a major commercial and critical success in the United Kingdom: audiences flocked to theaters and the Daily Express even called Hitchcock a “young man of genius. As with many of his early works, this film was influenced by the techniques of expressionist cinema that Hitchcock had personally witnessed in Germany. Some commentators consider The Lodger to be the first truly “Hitchcockian” film, particularly since one of its themes is that of the “false culprit. The film is also known for being the first in which the director makes a brief appearance – a cameo -; this idea, which originally was due to the fact that an extra was missing and Hitchcock decided at the last minute to fill in, would later become one of his trademarks and one of his best promotional tools. As Roy Ward Baker will say: directors were only considered at that time as very well paid technicians, and Hitchcock, from the beginning of his career in Great Britain, would transform this image.
After the success of The Lodger, the director can choose his next film. He directed Downhill, sometimes called in French La Pente (1927), co-written and performed by Ivor Novello, author of the original play. “It was the most elegant shooting of my career,” Hitchcock would later say of it. The film, however, is not a great success. He then shot The Past Does Not Die (Easy Virtue, 1928), based on a play by Noël Coward, a film that suffers from the lack of dialogue.
Alfred Hitchcock, unhappy with the scripts he was offered, left Gainsborough Pictures to sign a contract with British International Pictures (BIP). The first film made for the company, The Ring (1927), a story of a love triangle against a background of boxing, meets the public”s favor. This was followed by a romantic comedy, Which of the Three? (during its shooting, Hitchcock had to replace the director of photography, Jack Cox, who fell ill. The following year, Hitchcock, who was then living with his wife – and soon little Patricia – at 153 Cromwell Road, a house in the western suburbs of London, made his last silent films: Champagne (1928) and The Manxman (1929).
The first pre-war talking pictures
Hitchcock knows that his last films do not live up to the hopes left by The Golden Hair The Lodger. Despite a great technical mastery, the ideas lacked sparkle. In 1929, the director shot his tenth feature film, Blackmail, which he adapted from a play by Charles Bennett, who would later become, from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) to Correspondent 17 (1940), one of Hitchcock”s regular screenwriters, and whose influence on the direction of Hitchcock”s work would prove decisive.
While the film was not yet finished, the BIP, excited by the idea of using the technical revolution that the arrival of talking pictures represented, decided to make Blackmail one of the first sound films ever produced in Great Britain. Hitchcock used sound as a special feature of the film, including a scene in which the word “knife” is used prominently in a conversation in which the heroine, who has just committed murder, is present. Culminating with a scene set on the dome of the British Museum, Blackmail was also the first film in which Hitchcock used a famous landmark as the setting for a suspenseful scene. Upon its release, the film was a phenomenal success, both with audiences and critics. The press was enchanted by the opposition between duty and love and, more precisely, “love versus duty”. At this time, Hitchcock founded a small company called Baker Hitchcock-Baker Ltd. to promote himself.
At this time, Hitchcock also directed sequences of Elstree Calling (1930), a filmed musical revue produced by BIP, as well as a short film starring two Film Weekly scholarship winners, An Elastic Affair (1930). Hitchcock is also said to have participated, modestly, in another BIP musical revue, Harmony Heaven (1929), although his name does not appear in the credits of this film.
Hitchcock then directed Juno and the Peacock (this is probably a reflection of the desire, after the arrival of talkies, to exploit this novelty above all. From 1930 to 1934, he shot Murder – of which he also directed a version with German actors, distributed under the title Mary -, The Skin Game, East of Shanghai, Number Seventeen, as well as a musical film, The Danube Song.
In 1933, Hitchcock was hired again by Balcon at the Gaumont British Picture Corporation. His first film for the company, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), was a success. Hitchcock himself shot a remake in the United States. At the request of Sidney Bernstein (en), an exhibitor who had become president of the London film society (en), he hired for this first version actors and technicians persecuted as “Jews” by the Nazi regime and who had fled Hitler”s Germany. The friendship that the two men formed around anti-fascist activism was to be unfailing.
As for the second film, The 39 Steps (1935), which would later serve as the model for Young and Innocent, Correspondent 17, Fifth Column and North by Northwest, it is regularly cited as one of the best films of the director”s early career. Both films have in common that Charles Bennett was the main screenwriter.
The story is about a man wrongly accused and forced to prove his innocence. A Canadian man (Robert Donat) agrees to take in a young woman who is in fact a secret agent fighting against a mysterious criminal organization called “The 39 Steps”. The unknown woman is killed and the young man, fearing to be accused of murder, leaves for Scotland to follow the tracks of this organization. According to Bernard Eisenschitz, who quotes Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer, Hitchcock was inspired by Spione (1928), by Fritz Lang.
The 39 Steps is the first film in which Hitchcock uses a “MacGuffin,” a term referring to a plot element around which the entire story seems to revolve, but which in fact has no bearing on the meaning of the story or how it ends (see The MacGuffin, below). In The 39 Steps, the “MacGuffin” is in this case a series of shots that appear to have been stolen.
The director”s next film, Secret Agent (Sabotage, 1936), was a very free adaptation by Charles Bennett and Alma Reville, Hitchcock”s wife, of a novel by Joseph Conrad.
It is about an obscure terrorist organization in London, and in particular about one of its members, the brutal-looking Mr. Verloc (Oskar Homolka), who owns a movie theater and lives a seemingly peaceful life with his attractive wife (Sylvia Sidney) and her younger brother. A story is often quoted about this film. During the shooting of a dramatic scene in which she was to intervene, Sylvia Sidney, seeing the director prefer to spend his time framing elements of the set rather than her, would have been moved to tears. After seeing the result on the screen, however, the actress, excited, would have immediately alerted the Hollywood producer David O. Selznick to take a closer look at the amazing director. It is possible that this story is only part of the legend surrounding the director, but it is no less significant. Secret Agent was a commercial failure. Hitchcock explained it by the fact that in this film, very dark, a particularly scary scene ends with the shocking death of a child.
In 1937, Alfred Hitchcock, accompanied by his wife Alma and his assistant Joan Harrison, made his first trip to Hollywood in the United States.
With Secret Agent ends the second phase of fruitful collaboration with Michael Balcon, when the owners of Gaumont British decide to close down. Hitchcock returned to Gainsborough Pictures to make his next two films, but without his former producer. Young and Innocent (1937) was a variation on the theme of the unjustly prosecuted innocent, but with a more comedic tone.
The director had another major success in 1938 with A Woman Disappears, a witty and fast-paced film about the disappearance of Miss Froy, a friendly old English woman (May Whitty), who was traveling on a train in a fictional country called Vandrika, a thinly veiled reference to Nazi Germany. Although the film travels extensively, it is shot exclusively in a small London studio, and Hitchcock uses models and background projections of the characters to create the illusion of disorientation.
It was at this time that Hitchcock began to be known for making an unflattering comment about actors, likening them to “cattle”. The phrase would follow Hitchcock for years (see “Hitchcock and Actors” below).
Towards the end of the 1930s, the director began to enjoy a certain reputation with American audiences; he was then, in Britain, at the top of his art. David O. Selznick asked him to come and work in Hollywood. Hitchcock accepted and, from then on, it was in the United States that he shot almost all his films. On July 14, 1938, he signed a contract of $ 40,000 per film. In 1939, he shot – temporarily – a last film in Great Britain, The Jamaica Tavern, a historical melodrama. On March 6, 1939, he and his family arrived in New York and moved to Los Angeles.
The American 1940s
Suspense and dark humor, which had become Hitchcock”s trademark in film, would continue to appear in his American productions. Hitchcock was quickly impressed by the superior resources available to American studios, compared to the financial restrictions he had often faced in England.
In September 1940, the Hitchcocks purchased Cornwall, a 200-acre (0.81 km2) ranch located near the small town of Scotts Valley in the Santa Cruz Mountains of northern California. The ranch remained their primary residence until their deaths, although they retained their home in Bel Air.
Hitchcock directed only four films for Selznick (The Chained in 1946 and The Paradine Trial in 1947) before deciding that it was better to be his own producer in 1947. However, producing a film is expensive and the first independent works of Alfred Hitchcock (The Rope and The Lovers of Capricorn) are not very successful at the box office. On January 3, 1949, the director signed a contract with Warner Bros. by which he committed to shoot four films in six years.
The working conditions with Selznick will not be optimal. Regularly, the producer found himself in financial difficulties and, often, Hitchcock will be unhappy with the control exercised by Selznick on his films. Selznick “rented” Hitchcock to the biggest studios (RKO, Universal, 20th Century Fox) more often than he produced the director”s films himself. In addition, Selznick, like Samuel Goldwyn, his fellow independent producer, only made a few films a year, so he did not always have projects to offer Hitchcock. Goldwyn had also negotiated with the director for a possible contract, but Selznick outbid him and won. Later, during an interview, Hitchcock would sum up their collaboration thus:
At first, the producer wanted Hitchcock to make a film about the sinking of the Titanic. Nevertheless, Hitchcock managed to impose his choice. He opted for Rebecca (1940), the adaptation of a best-seller by his compatriot Daphne du Maurier (author of The Jamaica Inn, from which his previous film was based, and the short story The Birds, which the director would later bring to the screen). The story takes place in England. The main roles will be played by Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, British actors, and the writing of the script is entrusted to Joan Harrison, also British. Because of Hitchcock”s affection for his native country, many of his American films were set in the United Kingdom, or filmed there, until Frenzy, his penultimate feature.
After numerous rewrites of the script, the film began shooting on September 8, 1939, five days after the United Kingdom declared war on Germany and the day before the premiere of Gone with the Wind. Hitchcock liked to work alone, without interference. With Selznick, he had to justify his choices and take the producer”s ideas and remarks into consideration. During production, tensions arose between Hitchcock and Selznick regarding the fidelity that a director is bound to with respect to an adapted literary work, the choice and direction of actors, and the importance of editing. On the first point, for example, Selznick, who had been working for three years on Gone with the Wind – the film that would make his name – was a lover of literature and wanted entire scenes and dialogue from Rebecca to be faithfully rendered on screen. His approach is in total opposition to that of Hitchcock. He also complains about Hitchcock”s “bloody jigsaw puzzle”, which shows that, in the end, it is not he, the producer, who will have the final say in creating a film in his own way, but that he is forced to follow Hitchcock”s vision of what the finished product should look like.
Rebecca, a gothic tale, explores the fears of a naive young bride who moves into a large English country house; she must first adapt to the extreme formalism and coldness she encounters there, and then deal with the hold of her husband”s previous wife, who died long before. In this film, the director uses devices that will be characteristic of his most accomplished later works: a slow pace, a story told from the point of view of a single character, the introduction midway through of an element that completely changes the meaning of the story, and the use of spectacular visual devices reserved for key moments in the plot.
Despite its length – the film lasts more than 2 hours – it is a triumph, and it receives two Oscars out of thirteen nominations: the one for best film, awarded to Selznick, and the one for best photography, awarded to the chief operator George Barnes. Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director, but it was John Ford who finally won the award. Hitchcock felt bitter that the award for best film ended up in Selznick”s hands rather than his own, and this is probably what would later spur him on in his desire for independence.
Hitchcock, like many Englishmen living in the United States, was very worried about his family and friends who had stayed behind at the beginning of the Second World War. He paid tribute to them in the film Foreign Correspondent (1940), produced by Walter Wanger and based on Personal History, a book by Vincent Sheean. The story is that of a journalist, played by Joel McCrea, sent to Europe to judge the possibility of a new World War. The film, which mixes real scenes shot in Europe and others shot in Hollywood, ends with a plea for the United States to enter the war; however, to satisfy the censorship code then in force in the United States, the film avoids direct references to Germany and the Germans. Correspondent 17 was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture, in competition with Rebecca, which was therefore preferred.
At the same time, Hitchcock supervised the editing of the American versions of two British war documentaries: Men of the Lightship (1941) and Target for Tonight (1941).
Despite a very moderate taste for social events, Hitchcock and his wife befriended Clark Gable and his wife Carole Lombard, for whom he agreed to direct a romantic comedy with Robert Montgomery: Matrimonial Joys (1941) The story is about a quarrelsome couple, played by Lombard and Montgomery, who discover that they are not legally married. After a separation, they end up winning back each other over through arguments. Red Book Magazine called the film “the most hilarious and explosive comedy of 1942.
Like Matrimonial Joys, Suspicion (1941) was produced by RKO. Both Hitchcock”s films were released the same year as Orson Welles” Citizen Kane, produced by the same company, with music by Bernard Herrmann, a composer who would later play an important role for Hitchcock.
Hitchcock will consider Suspicion, adapted from the novel Complicity (Before the Fact) by Francis Iles and whose story takes place mostly in England, as his second English film made in Hollywood after Rebecca. The scenes that were supposed to be set on the English coast were actually shot on the northern coast of Santa Cruz, California. The script is co-written by the New Yorker Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison and Alma Reville. In the cast, we find Joan Fontaine, who this time has for partner Cary Grant (also British origin). This is the actor”s first appearance in a Hitchcock film, and one of the few films in his personal career where we see him play a character quite sinister.
Grant plays a man who, masking his idleness with his charm, manages to seduce a wealthy young woman of a rather reserved nature (Fontaine). He marries her. The young woman soon realizes that her husband is completely irresponsible and, through a series of events, she finds herself plunged into a terrible anxiety. She eventually suspects that the man she loves is a murderer and that he is looking for a way to get rid of her. According to the director, fear and anxiety are among the most common fantasies of human beings. The heroine goes so far as to imagine her husband throwing her friend and business partner off a cliff and, later, suspecting that a glass of milk is poisoned, in a typically Hitchcockian scene, where we see the character played by Grant slowly climbing the stairs to his wife”s room in the dark, carrying a glass of staggering whiteness on a tray. Later, Hitchcock explained that for this sequence, he had a light source placed directly in the glass.
In the first cut, the film respected the ending of the book, and Grant”s character turned out to be a real murderer, but RKO considered that this was likely to harm the actor”s image. Although, as he later admitted to François Truffaut, a murder would have suited him better, Hitchcock eventually agreed to give the story a happier, if ambiguous, ending.
For her role in this film, Joan Fontaine won, at the age of twenty-four, the Oscar for Best Actress, as well as the New York Critics” Award for her “remarkable performance.
At the end of 1941, after having shot four films in two years, Hitchcock embarked on a production that was both more personal and more daring, Fifth Column (Saboteur), which recalled The 39 Steps and already announced North By Northwest. On August 20, 1941, the date of the end of filming of Suspicion, Hitchcock began work, until October of the same year, with the screenwriter Peter Viertel; Dorothy Parker also participated in the writing. This film marked Hitchcock”s first collaboration with Universal Pictures.
The plot begins with an aeronautics worker wrongly accused of having committed an act of sabotage in his factory: a fire that led to the death of his best friend. To prove his innocence, he begins a relentless chase across the country in search of the real saboteur. During his escape, he meets a young woman who, at first suspicious, will eventually come to his aid.
For the main roles, Hitchcock wanted to have Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, but after the studio refused, Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane were finally hired. The director later deplored the fact that he had not been able to work, at least for the male role, with a more famous actor, with whom the public would have better identified.
The director was often criticized for losing interest in his films before shooting began, but in reality Hitchcock was always striving for perfection and was always ready to change any element of his script as the work progressed. For Fifth Column, he experimented with new techniques with set designer Robert Boyle. He also shot two different versions of many scenes, so that he could choose when editing. Hitchcock was able to take a critical look at his own work. At the end of the film, the hero chases an assassin who ends up hanging from the top of the torch of the Statue of Liberty. According to Hitchcock, this was a mistake, and it would have been better if it had been the hero who found himself in this unfortunate position: the audience”s identification with the character would then have been stronger. Released in April 1942, the film was nevertheless a great success.
As soon as the filming of Fifth Column was completed, Margaret McDonell, head of Selznick”s literary department, contacted Hitchcock to submit new projects. The director chose Uncle Charlie, a story written by Gordon McDonell, husband of Margaret McDonell. To write the screenplay for what would become Shadow of a Doubt (1943), his second Universal film, he first called on Thornton Wilder, who took on the task in May and June 1942. Before he finished, however, the screenwriter decided unexpectedly to join the army secret service. The novelist Sally Benson and Alma Reville were given the task of completing the dialogues, and filming began on August 10 of the same year. Again, many shots of Shadow of a Doubt will be filmed on location, this time in the city of Santa Rosa, in northern California.
In Shadow of a Doubt – the one that Hitchcock would often say was his favorite of all his films – Joseph Cotten plays Charlie Oakley, a man with an extremely troubled and manipulative past. Feeling hounded by the law, he decides to take refuge with his sister who, along with her older daughter Charlotte Newton (Teresa Wright), nicknamed “Charlie” after her uncle, a dynamic and dreamy young girl who feels cramped in her small town and sees in her namesake a kind of redeemer, welcomes him with open arms. However, Oakley is being closely watched by two mysterious men, which sows doubt in CharlieCharlotte”s mind, and leads her to suspect her imagined savior of being what he really is: a venal and cynical old lady killer…
About Charlie Oakley, Hitchcock will say to François Truffaut:
Critics have said of the film that Hitchcock”s use of double-entendred characters, dialogue, and close-ups offered a wealth of possible psychoanalytic interpretations to a generation of film theorists, including Slavoj Žižek (editor of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan but Never Dared to Ask Hitchcock, published in 1988). The director introduces his own fascination with crime and criminals in a scene where two characters have a discussion about the different ways to perceive a murder, causing the young Charlie to become emotional. The director, during the shooting, learns of the death of his mother, who has stayed in London. Certain episodes from Hitchcock”s childhood in Leytonstone seem to be evoked in the film: like Hitchcock, Charlie has a mother named Emma; Oakley had a bicycle accident as a child; a little girl named Ann reads Ivanhoe, a book that Hitchcock knew by heart as a child; and the character Joseph – Hitchcock”s middle name – refuses to drive a car. However, according to the director”s own daughter, Patricia, these are mere coincidences.
For 20th Century Fox, Hitchcock then made his first overtly political film, Lifeboat (1944), an adaptation of one of John Steinbeck”s scripts, chronicling the experiences of survivors of the sinking of an American ship by a German submarine who attempt, without a compass, to reach Bermuda in a lifeboat. One of the passengers, one of the only ones able to bring the boat to safety, however, turns out to be a German.
The film studies what men are made of when they have nothing left. It may be a propaganda film, a new contribution to the war effort. The action scenes are shot on board the canoe and the narrowness of the location creates a slight concern about the traditional cameo of the director. The problem will be solved by Hitchcock”s appearance in a newspaper photo that the character played by William Bendix reads in the boat, a “before and after” advertisement for a slimming product: Reduco-Obesity Slayer. Lifeboat received a very favorable critical reception at first, but the critics abruptly changed their minds, plagued by doubts, because the treatment of these nine individuals, and more than any other the Nazi, takes some intolerable liberties in the context of the time. The film was nevertheless nominated three times for an Oscar in the categories of best director, best original screenplay (Steinbeck) and best photography (Glen MacWilliams), and the actress Tallulah Bankhead received the NYFCC award for best actress.
While working for Fox, Hitchcock seriously considered shooting an adaptation of A. J. Cronin”s novel, The Keys of the Kingdom, about a Catholic priest in China, but the project fell through, and it was John M. Stahl who, in 1944, ended up making the film, produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and starring Gregory Peck.
At the end of 1943, Hitchcock, at the height of his fame, abandoned the production of his last project, The Chained Ones, and undertook the perilous journey by boat to England. His friend Sidney Bernstein asked him to join him in the film unit of the Psychological Warfare Division of the High Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces. Hitchcock made two short films, each about half an hour long, commissioned by the British Ministry of Information, Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache. These films, the only ones that Alfred Hitchcock shot in French, were to the glory of the Free French Forces but “had typically Hitchcockian touches”. The second film, considered too sensitive, was banned in France. In the 1990s, the two films were broadcast on the American channel Turner Classic Movies and were later released on video.
For six weeks in June and July 1945, Hitchcock worked as a volunteer “treatment advisor” (in fact as an editor) on a documentary produced by the British Army and devoted to what the imagination could not yet conceive of as the Shoah. Directed by Sidney Bernstein, the film is a montage of footage recorded at the time of the liberation of eleven Nazi concentration camps by the military operators, the Englishmen Mike Lewis and William Lawrie, the naturalized German-American Arthur Mainzer, the Russian Alexander Vorontsoff. German Concentration Camps Factual Survey (en) shows unbearable images. The director will admit at the end of his life that they will never leave him. With his editor, he eliminated the most blatant aspects of propaganda, mainly the Soviet images, favored long sequences that denied any manipulation in the editing process, and put forward the evidence that inscribed the crime in everyday reality, always with a concern for veracity and the prevention of denial.
At the beginning of August, the budget was cut for political reasons, the dissolution of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, to spare the morale of the Germans in the perspective of reconstruction, and for fear of the reversal of British public opinion in favor of the refugees pouring into Mandatory Palestine. Filed under the number F3080 at the Imperial War Museum in London, the documentary remained unpublished until its screening at the Berlin Film Festival in 1984. It was then completed for the American PBS series Frontline and broadcast the following year under the title Memory of the Camps.
Second American period
Hitchcock then returned to the United States to shoot Spellbound, the director”s second film after Rebecca, with Selznick as producer, and which explored the then fashionable theme of psychoanalysis. The main roles are played by Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman.
Peck plays a character who initially introduces himself as Dr. Anthony Edwardes, the new director of a mental institution. He is soon suspected of not being who he says he is. Suffering from amnesia, and soon accused of the murder of the real Edwardes, he is helped in his quest for identity by the young Dr. Peterson (Bergman) who, in the end, will also help him clear his name. One of the most famous sequences in the film, which is also extremely talkative, is the surrealist dream created by Salvador Dalí, a sort of rebus that will allow the psychoanalyst to elucidate the mysterious past of her protégé. Deemed too disturbing for the public, the dream scene as it appears in the film today is significantly shorter than the few minutes originally planned. Part of the soundtrack composed for the film by Miklós Rózsa – which includes the use of a theremin – was later adapted by the composer as a piano concerto The House of Dr. Edwardes and was a great commercial success.
In the book-interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock states that Selznick, to compensate for the overrun of the western Duel in the Sun (1946), produced by him and directed by King Vidor, then sells in “lot” to the RKO company: Hitchcock, director, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, the two stars, and a script by Ben Hecht, for a sum of $ 500 000. This transaction was the basis for Notorious (1946). Bergman was to play the role of a young woman, the daughter of a Nazi spy who had become an alcoholic and who, at the beginning of the film, was seduced by an American government agent (Grant). His mission is to use her to spy on Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), one of her former lovers, a friend of her father”s, who has taken refuge in Latin America, more precisely in Brazil, and is conducting suspicious activities.
While working on the script with Ben Hecht, the director wondered what “MacGuffin” the heroes of the film might be looking for and chose uranium, smuggled in wine bottles by spies and intended for the manufacture of an atomic bomb. He consults experts who, in order to keep him from the truth, try to make him believe that this bomb is composed of heavy water and not uranium; on this subject, the director would have consulted Robert Millikan, of the Caltech Institute. Judging the “MacGuffin” to be totally ridiculous, the studio was rather reluctant. Selznick himself, until the news of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, considered the subject to be “science fiction”. The director eventually learned the secret of the bomb”s manufacture and later learned that the FBI had him followed for three months to find out where he got the information. The Chained will be a huge success at the box office and remains one of the most acclaimed films of the director, including considered by Truffaut as the best black and white film of Hitchcock.
The Paradine Trial (1947), a courtroom drama, was Hitchcock”s last film produced by Selznick.
Disgusted by the fortune that the producer was amassing on his back – he was getting as much for each contract as he was – Hitchcock showed little interest in the project. In the film, Alida Valli plays a young woman accused of having poisoned her husband, a rich and blind old man. Her lawyer (Gregory Peck) eventually succumbs to her icy charm. The film was a disaster, both with the public and the critics, the latter judging it tedious, suffering from excessive length and a lack of ideas. Hitchcock refused to continue his collaboration with Selznick, who had nevertheless taught him a major lesson: in Hollywood, it is the producer who decides the final cut. From then on, the director made an attempt to produce himself.
In 1948, Hitchcock, in tandem with his compatriot and friend Sidney Bernstein (en), created Transatlantic Pictures, a production company with which he would make two films. For the first, the director chose to adapt the play Rope”s End by Patrick Hamilton – which became on the screen The Rope (1948), inspired by the murder committed in 1924 by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb – renamed in the film Brandon Shaw and Philip Morgan.
The film begins – after an exposition shot showing a street in low angle and on which the credits roll – with the murder of a young man by two of his friends. They then prepare a dinner party to which the victim”s parents, his girlfriend and a former flirt of his are invited that evening at the scene of the crime. Among the guests is also one of their teachers, Rupert Cadell, who, observing the strange behavior of the young people during the evening, will begin to suspect the unthinkable. The two murderers are played by John Dall and Farley Granger, and for the role of the professor, Warner Bros., which distributes the film, chose James Stewart. This is the first of four films that the actor will shoot with the director.
The Rope is Hitchcock”s first film shot in color and is also an exercise in style. As he had done a few years earlier with Lifeboat, the director challenged himself to create a methodically ordered suspense in a confined space. He also experiments with exceptionally long shots: the film has a total of eleven, one per reel, some of which last up to ten minutes. Somehow, Hitchcock”s cameraman manages to move the heavy, cumbersome Technicolor camera fluidly through the set and keep up with the continuous action of the long sequence shots.
Completed on February 21, the film was released in the United States in September 1948 under the title Alfred Hitchcock”s Rope. It was the first time his name appeared in a title, and Hitchcock was very proud of it. The critics, however, are mixed, and the public success tempered by the action of the virtue leagues. The film had no problems with censorship, although it was banned in several parts of the United States, or screened with cuts (usually the murder scene). The National Board of Review will advise against it for those under twenty-one. In Europe, it was first banned in France and Italy. In the end, The Rope was not a resounding success, but the producers largely recouped their costs.
Transatlantic Pictures” first success was offset by the failure of Under Capricorn, a historical drama set in 19th century Australia. Ingrid Bergman plays the role of a young woman who, thanks to love, manages to escape alcohol and madness.
As in The Rope, Hitchcock, in The Lovers of Capricorn, resorts to sequence shots, but in a way less supported. The film was also shot in Technicolor; however, the director preferred to return to black and white for his next three films. This is the film that the director said he regretted the most having shot. It marked Hitchcock”s last collaboration with the actress Ingrid Bergman, and the failure of the film – the greatest failure of the director”s entire career – signaled the end of the short-lived Transatlantic company. Hitchcock will continue, however, until the end, to produce his own films.
On January 3, 1949, the director signed a contract with Warner Bros. in which he agreed to make four films in six years for a total salary of $990,000.
In the early 1950s, Lew Wasserman, then head of MCA, whose clientele included James Stewart and Janet Leigh, among other actors who appeared in Hitchcock”s films, had a major influence on the image and promotion of the director”s films.
The films directed and produced by Hitchcock from 1954 and The Crime Was Almost Perfect are generally considered his greatest masterpieces (this golden period will extend until the beginning of the next decade, until The Birds in 1963).
Pressured by his creditors and Wasserman, Hitchcock agreed in 1955 to lend his name and image to a television series initially titled Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962) for a salary of $129,000 per 30-minute episode.
In 1950, Hitchcock returned to Britain to direct The Great Alibi (Stage Fright). For the first time, Hitchcock paired Jane Wyman, one of Warner Bros. biggest stars, with the sensual German actress Marlene Dietrich. The cast also includes a number of leading British actors, including Michael Wilding, Richard Todd and Alastair Sim. This is the director”s first film produced by Warner Bros. who had previously distributed The Rope, as Transatlantic was facing financial difficulties.
The story is reminiscent of previous films by the director, such as The 39 Steps (1935), Young and Innocent (1937) and Fifth Column (1942): Jonathan Cooper (Todd), a man in love with an actress and singer (his friend Eve (Wyman) tries to help him. However, the filmmaker here indulges in a new experiment: the film begins with a flashback that will ultimately prove to be misleading. The film was not a success, which Hitchcock explained by the fact that, because of this unorthodox narrative process, the public would feel cheated.
In early 1950, Hitchcock enthusiastically discovered Patricia Highsmith”s first novel, Strangers on a Train, and acquired the rights to it on April 20 for $75,000. The director works on the synopsis with Whitfield Cook in June. For the writing of the dialogues, Hitchcock first approached Dashiell Hammett, but it was Raymond Chandler, suggested by Warner, who took on the work; however, he did not go through with it, because of disagreements between the writer and the director. Hitchcock will explain later:
In Strangers on a Train, Hitchcock combines many elements from his earlier films. Two men meet by chance on a train and discuss the idea of each ridding the other of the person who is causing him trouble. While for the first, a tennis champion (in the book, the character is an architect), this is just a joke, the second takes the story quite seriously. With Farley Granger reprising some elements of his role in The Rope, the director, in The Unknown, continues to explore the narrative possibilities of the themes of blackmail and murder. Robert Walker, who up to that point had played only “well-connected” young men, plays the “bad guy” here. His performance as a disturbing madman, too closely tied to his mother, foreshadows that of Perkins in Psycho; unfortunately, Walker will die a few months after the film”s release. Hitchcock also entrusted one of the secondary roles to Patricia, “Pat”, his own daughter, then twenty-two years old and who had already played a small role in The Great Alibi: in The Unknown, she plays Barbara, “Babs”, a young girl who is the victim, not directly but in desire, of the homicidal dementia of Bruno, the character played by Walker.
Released in March 1951, Strangers on the North Express, despite some complaints from people outraged by its sexual connotations and explicit murder, was a huge success. Hitchcock, after the failure of the Transatlantic adventure, regained the confidence of the public and the studios.
As early as the 1930s, the idea of adapting a play called Our Two Consciences, a Catholic drama written in 1902 by Paul Anthelme (more than a decade later, he finally had the opportunity to carry out this project. The story is about a priest whose conscience forces him to take on the guilt of a crime perpetrated by another, a rather delicate theme. Little by little, the project of what will become The Law of Silence (I Confess) takes shape.
Given the Catholic context of the story, a shooting in the United States is excluded. The action was then transposed to Quebec where, after having written a first draft, the director and his wife went on a location scouting trip. The director hesitated as to the choice of the final screenwriter, until Alma suggested that he hire William Archibald, who had proven himself on Broadway; George Tabori also participated in the writing. Montgomery Clift and Anne Baxter will play the two main roles.
The Law of Silence was released in mid-February 1953. The film is received timidly, both by critics and by the public. Later, Hitchcock explained to François Truffaut:
Hitchcock, who, no doubt for the sake of convenience, will always judge his films by their reception by the public, will go so far as to declare that The Law was a “mistake”.
This was followed by three very popular films, each starring Grace Kelly, who was to become the archetypal “Hitchcock blonde.
In 1953, Hitchcock had been attached to Warner Bros. for four years and had one more film to make. For a while, he worked on an adaptation of a David Duncan novel, The Bramble Bush, but eventually gave up. The director then discovered that the studio had bought the rights to a successful Broadway play, Dial M for Murder, written by Frederick Knott.
The Crime Was Almost Perfect marks Hitchcock”s return to Technicolor, but it also experiments with a process in vogue at the time, 3-D cinema, in stereoscopic relief and projection in polarized light, requiring the use of glasses for the audience. However, the film was not originally shown in this format; it was projected in 3-D in the early 1980s. Hitchcock thought of casting Cary Grant and Olivia de Havilland as the husband and wife for a while, but the studios refused. The director therefore called upon a young actress who had only made three films up to that point: Grace Kelly. She would become, in addition to a great friend, his favorite actress. In The Crime, the role of the “bad guy”, very different from Bruno in Strangers on a Train, is played by Ray Milland. He is a venal and calculating dandy, an ex-professional tennis player (an activity practiced by the hero-victim of The Stranger), who hatches a Machiavellian plan to get rid of his unfaithful wife (Kelly) and inherit his fortune. It is her however who, to defend herself, kills the man hired to carry out the sad task. The husband then manipulates the evidence so that his wife is accused of having murdered the henchman. The lover, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), and police inspector Hubbard (John Williams) must act quickly to save the young woman from the death penalty.
Hitchcock cleverly takes advantage of the play”s no less clever springs, and upon its release, The Crime Was Almost Perfect was hailed as a “great” Hitchcock.
At the time of the shooting of The Crime was Almost Perfect, Lew Wasserman, Hitchcock”s agent, signed a nine-film contract with Paramount, the first of which was to be an adaptation of a short story by Cornell Woolrich – William Irish”s pseudonym – entitled It Had to be a Murder, which was to become Rear Window (1954). To write the script, Hitchcock called upon John Michael Hayes, a former journalist, who would also collaborate on the writing of his next three films.
Window on the Court stars James Stewart and, again, Kelly; supporting roles include Thelma Ritter and Raymond Burr. The story takes place in New York. A photographer (Stewart, a character based on Robert Capa), who is left in a cast and in a wheelchair after an accident, becomes obsessed with observing the inhabitants of a building separated from his own by a courtyard. Gradually, he begins to suspect one of these neighbors (Burr) of having killed his wife and, from then on, tries to get both his model girlfriend (Kelly) and a police officer friend (Wendell Corey) to share his fears. Eventually, he does, and the film is shot almost entirely in a small space, the photographer”s tiny apartment, which nevertheless overlooks an impressive backdrop of the courtyard and building across the street. Hitchcock uses close-ups of Stewart”s face to show the character”s reactions to everything he sees, from his amused voyeurism at seemingly innocuous scenes to his helpless terror when he sees his fiancée, who has broken into the suspicious apartment, threatened by the sudden and unexpected arrival of the supposed killer.
Upon its release, the film was a great success and received four Academy Award nominations, including Best Director; however, it did not receive any.
Hitchcock had not yet released his film Fenêtre sur cour and was already busy with another project. Paramount offered him to direct the adaptation of To Catch a Thief, a novel by David Dodge. The director was very satisfied with Hayes as a screenwriter and hired him again. Hayes, however, did not know the South of France at all, a situation that the director immediately remedied:
At the end of April 1954, the script was ready, and the shooting began at the beginning of May.
Hitchcock”s third and last film with Grace Kelly, To Catch a Thief (1955), is a police comedy set on the French Riviera and gives the actress Cary Grant as a partner. John Williams is again part of the cast, along with the French Brigitte Auber and Charles Vanel (who does not speak a word of English). Grant plays John Robie, known as “the Cat”, a famous “retired” burglar who becomes the prime suspect in a series of robberies committed on the Riviera. An American heiress (Kelly) unravels the mystery of his true identity, tries to seduce him with her own jewels, and even offers to help him in his criminal plans…
The premiere took place in New York on August 15, 1955. According to the director, La Main au collet is a “light film”. At least, that is what the critics said, but they also emphasized the strengths and charms of this work. The audience, on the other hand, is very satisfied. “Despite the obvious age difference between Grant and Kelly and a rather thin plot, the witty script (riddled with double entendres) and the good-natured performance of the actors, in the end, guarantees the film a commercial success.” This was the last collaboration between Hitchcock and Grace Kelly, because of her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956, a status that forced her to end her acting career.
The year 1955 also marks the debut of Hitchcock on American television, with a series of stories more or less macabre produced for CBS and which will bear his name: Alfred Hitchcock presents. Hitchcock himself will direct, between the year of creation until 1962, a total of twenty episodes of the series. From 1962 to 1965, the series will be called Suspicion.
The director did not abandon his career in the cinema. In 1950, he had read Jack Trevor Story”s novel, The Trouble with Harry. Before leaving to shoot The Trouble with Harry, he asked Hayes to work on the adaptation. The rights were bought for $11,000, despite the fact that four years earlier, the Paramount reading committee had given an unfavorable opinion of the novel, judging its humor to be too fragile, a bit bizarre, and its characters to be a bit like aliens.
But Who Killed Harry? follows the path of a dead body, upon which a little boy first falls. He runs to look for his mother. At the same time, an old hunter discovers the body and thinks he has killed him. In turn, other characters, confronted with the dead body, imagine they have something to do with its condition; for various reasons, the corpse is buried and dug up several times. Hitchcock was busy with the filming of The Hound and could not take care of the cast. It was Herbert Coleman, his associate producer, who took charge of the casting. Shirley MacLaine, for whom this was the first appearance on the big screen, and John Forsythe were chosen for the two main roles. The filming was done partly on location in Vermont and partly in the studio in Hollywood. Harry also marks the first collaboration of composer Bernard Herrmann on a Hitchcock film.
Hitchcock will confide to François Truffaut :
When the film is released, the director is already busy shooting his next film, which gets all his attention. Paramount did not know what to do with Harry, even giving up on promoting him. From then on, in the United States, the film did not interest the public very much. In Europe, on the other hand, it is very well received, especially in Great Britain, and in France, where it receives very positive reviews and will even remain six months in theaters.
The macabre humor of But Who Killed Harry is found on television in the introductions and conclusions, given by the master himself, of each episode of his series, Alfred Hitchcock presents.
At the end of 1954, Hitchcock had just completed his fourth film in seventeen months; however, taking a break was out of the question for him. He then thought about one of his successes of the British period, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), of which, in 1941, when he was under contract with Selznick, he had already considered making a new version. Finally, for the first and last time in his career, he decided to make a remake of his own film.
To write the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock once again turned to Hayes. The director, who asked the screenwriter not to watch the original, simply told him the story: a spy is murdered and confides in a medical doctor, whom he met the day before, that an attack is being prepared; the doctor and his wife then find themselves embroiled in an international conspiracy and are obliged to keep quiet to save their son who is being held hostage. Hitchcock offered the lead role to James Stewart, for whom it was the third collaboration with the director, after The Rope and Rear Window; as for the role of the wife, a former singer in the film, it was given to Doris Day, whom the director had spotted a few years earlier in Storm Warning. The film was shot in London and Marrakech. For the music, Herrmann was once again called upon to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra during the grueling final scene at the Royal Albert Hall.
The last shots were shot at Paramount Studios in July 1955. The film will prove to be the most profitable of the year 1956. The song Whatever Will Be, Will Be, written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, won the Oscar for Best Original Song and became a big hit for Doris Day. About the second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock would later say:
The Wrong Man (1957) is the last film Hitchcock directed for Warner Bros.
Shot in black and white, The False Guilty is not a thriller but a drama, based on a true story, a miscarriage of justice reported by Life Magazine in 1953. The subject is treated in a realistic, almost documentary way. Henry Fonda plays a musician at the Stork Club in New York who is mistaken for the perpetrator of several hold-ups in the same insurance company. He is arrested for this crime of which he is innocent. His wife (Vera Miles, whose first appearance in a film by the director), urges him to prove his innocence before the trial takes place, but she cannot resist the stress of the situation and, in a way that seems irremediable, falls into depression. The director gives The False Guilty a special place, substituting his usual cameo with an introduction by himself in voice-over at the beginning of the film:
As in The Law of Silence, another “serious” film by the director, Catholicism is evoked: some shots linger on the rosary of the false culprit, and it is after a prayer of the latter in front of the image of Christ, that the true culprit is revealed. The film received a mixed reception from the public. Later, Hitchcock told Truffaut that he had been pushed to make this film by the fear he had always felt towards the police, and of which we find traces in many scenes, including the one where the character played by Fonda explains to his son the ordeal he underwent and which echoes, by reversing the roles, a traumatic episode that the director would have experienced during his childhood.
A few years earlier, Hitchcock had been interested in the novel Celle qui n”était plus by Frenchmen Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, but the book had escaped him and, finally, it was Henri-Georges Clouzot who had brought it to the screen, under the title Les Diaboliques, a film released in 1955. After The False Guilty, Hitchcock thought of shooting the adaptation of From the Dead, another work of the tandem.
For the writing of what would become Cold Sweats (Vertigo, 1958), he had recourse to no less than three authors before being satisfied with the script. The last one, Samuel Taylor, would later confess that he had worked without reading the first screenplay or even the original novel, but only following the director”s indications, in order to concentrate on the main character. The director hired James Stewart as the male lead. Hitchcock initially wanted to cast Vera Miles, whose performance in his previous film had been excellent, as the haunting young woman, but she was pregnant and was forced to refuse. The studio then found a replacement for her in the person of Kim Novak, who found here one of her best roles.
Although it centers on a murder, Cold Sweat is not strictly speaking a crime film, but, in the director”s own words, “a love story with a strange atmosphere.” Stewart is “Scottie,” a former police investigator suffering from acrophobia who becomes progressively obsessed with a mysterious young woman (Novak), whom he is led to follow. Scottie”s insurmountable vertigo and obsession lead to tragedy. Later, he meets another young woman who bears a striking resemblance to the missing woman. The film ends without a happy ending. It premiered in Spain at the San Sebastian Film Festival, where Hitchcock won the silver concha. Although nowadays it is often considered a classic, Cold Sweat was met with negative reviews and a lukewarm reception from the public at the time of its release; it marks the last collaboration between James Stewart and the director. The film, however, is now considered by many as one of the best films of the director, and is notably in the top of the Sight and Sound ranking of the best films of the decade; it will also constitute, with Psycho, one of the points of reference favored by Brian De Palma for his cinematographic rereading of Hitchcock”s work in the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1958, Hitchcock learned that his wife, Alma, had breast cancer. The following year, he appeared in Tactic, a television program devoted to the prevention of this type of cancer. Alma was cured thanks to an experimental treatment.
Hitchcock, then, filmed in many parts of the United States, followed by three other successful films, all recognized as among his best features: North by Northwest (1959) and The Birds (1963). The first one takes up the theme of the “Everyman” caught in a trap, unjustly prosecuted, and forced to exonerate himself as best he can.
In North By Northwest, Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, a Madison Avenue advertising executive who has only ever had a run-in with his eccentric mother, and who, through a combination of circumstances, suddenly finds himself targeted by a mysterious organization. He meets an attractive blonde, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who seduces him before leading him into a trap… The original screenplay was written by Ernest Lehman. For the final scene, Hitchcock had the idea to use Mount Rushmore as a setting, a protected site however. On September 17, 1958, he finally obtained permission from the U.S. Department of the Interior to use models of the famous sculptures representing the faces of four presidents. The film”s credits (a field in which Hitchcock had made his debut), like those of Cold Sweat, are due to the graphic designer Saul Bass, and Herrmann, who since Harry has become Hitchcock”s regular composer, signs here what will become one of his most famous scores.
The decade began with two films generally considered to be peaks of the director”s art, Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963). The films that followed were less personal, and perhaps also less ambitious. The age begins to be felt, the cinema is in crisis because of the arrival of television in households, and Hitchcock has lost two of his closest collaborators: Bernard Herrmann, the composer, and Robert Burks, the director of photography. The films made after No Springtime for Marnie (1964) will not have the same dimension as those of the “golden age” of the director.
While reading the “Books” section of the New York Times, Hitchcock came across an excellent review of Psycho, a book by Robert Bloch, based on the story of Ed Gein, a serial killer. He buys the novel, and announces to his secretary: “I have our next subject”. What motivates the filmmaker most of all is the challenge of making a film as effective as possible with limited means. Since many bad and inexpensive black and white films turned out to be box office hits, he wonders what would happen to a film made under the same conditions, but with care. Produced on a very limited budget indeed – $800,000 – Psycho was shot with Alfred Hitchcock”s television crew present on an abandoned lot at Universal Studios.
To write Psycho, which would become one of the peaks of the director”s filmography, considered by some to be his masterpiece, Hitchcock turned to Joseph Stefano, a novice screenwriter. It begins with the theft of a certain amount of money by an insurance company employee, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) who, caught up in a difficult love affair, acts on a whim. She flees in her car, which she trades, after being stopped by a policeman, for a used car. Surprised by a storm, she decides to spend the night in a motel, which the customers seem to have deserted, and of which she meets the owner, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a young man sympathetic but with the slightly strange reactions. He lives with his overly possessive mother in an old house nearby. His conversation with Norman convinces Marion to return the stolen money. While she is taking a shower, however, brutally, violently, the young woman is murdered in a scene that has remained famous. Once the disappearance of the money and the young woman is established, a private detective (Martin Balsam), then Marion”s lover and sister (Vera Miles), go looking for her… Patricia Hitchcock, daughter of the director, also plays a small role. For the film, Herrmann once again wrote a very inspired score, following the images (especially the stabbings) and anticipating the emotions of the spectator. For the promotion of the film, Hitchcock insisted that, contrary to what was previously a habit, the box office would not let any more spectators in once the film had begun, which at the same time had the effect of titillating the curiosity of the public.
Upon its release in the United States, the film was not well received by critics, who said that it did not live up to the standards of The Hitchcock Thriller, Cold Sweats, North by Northwest, and other Hitchcock films. The probable reason for these reactions is that the journalists did not enjoy seeing the film in theaters. However, the film was well received by the public and grossed $40,000,000. Some spectators, used to seeing a rather amusing Alfred Hitchcock on television, were shocked by the unexpected violence of the film. Hitchcock, who had to explain himself, said in an interview that Psycho was “just a joke”. At the same time, he rejoiced in this success. In Europe, the film was acclaimed by critics and audiences alike. The unprecedented violence of the shower scene, the brutal disappearance of the heroine after only a few scenes, the innocent lives cut short by a deranged murderer, all characteristics of Psycho, would later be copied in many horror films. (See, below, Influence on genre cinema)
After completing Psycho, Hitchcock left for Universal, for whom he shot all his other films.
Hitchcock then had the greatest difficulty in finding a new subject. He began to work with Joseph Stefano on the script for No Springtime for Marnie, a film that was to mark the return to the screen of the director”s favorite actress, Grace Kelly: although she had become Princess of Monaco, she was ready to accept at first, but in the end she declined the offer. Disappointed but not discouraged, the director, for his 49th feature film, turned to the adaptation of The Birds, a short story by Daphne du Maurier published in 1952 in the women”s magazine Good Housekeeping. He first thought of making an Alfred Hitchcock episode out of it, but after hearing that a woman in California had actually been attacked by birds, he decided, despite the difficulties involved and probably partly because of them, to make it the subject of his next feature film.
About The Birds, the director will say:
Stefano, who was then producing the series Beyond the Real, was not available, and Hitchcock, from then on, went in search of another screenwriter. After considering several candidates, including Ray Bradbury, the director turned to Evan Hunter (who would become famous under the pseudonym Ed McBain), who immediately accepted. The success of Psycho despite the absence of big stars decides Hitchcock to also do without for The Birds. To play the lead role, after several attempts with several actresses, he finally chose an unknown, Tippi Hedren, who will join Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly in the closed circle of “Hitchcock blondes”. Her partners will be Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette and Jessica Tandy. The film begins in a store where birds are sold by the chance meeting and a game of seduction between the daughter of a newspaper owner, Melanie Daniels (Hedren), and a lawyer, Mitch Brenner (Taylor). The latter wants to give his young sister a pair of lovebirds. After the episode, and although the meeting had gone rather badly, Melanie impulsively decides to see the man again, who in fact lives with her mother and sister in an isolated house on a small island in Bodega Bay, a place quite far from her home. Soon, the place becomes the target of attacks by birds of all kinds, attacks whose cause is not explained in the film, “no doubt to emphasize the mystery of unknown forces”.
The director has a much more comfortable budget here than for his previous film, $2,500,000, money that will be spent mainly on special effects, which are the subject of particular care. The sequences where we see birds attacking will indeed require hundreds of takes, mixing real scenes and animation scenes. Shooting began on March 5, 1962; everything was meticulously planned because Hitchcock did not like exteriors, as they involved difficulties in controlling light and ambient noise. For the soundtrack, the music was replaced by effects composed of, among other things, the recording of bird calls and wing beats, whose distribution in the different scenes was supervised by Herrmann. With a large budget and a film that he considered, by his own admission, “the most important”, Hitchcock could not disappoint.
The Birds was presented for the first time at the opening of the 1963 Cannes Film Festival, outside the official selection. The audience left the screening in shock: “It is not the release of a few pigeons, nor the charm of its interpreter Tippi Hedren that will be able to mitigate the impression of horror felt at the presentation of her film The Birds. In the U.S., the film took in a total of $11,403,559, which was not as good as expected, but it was enough to reassure the director. The Birds was the 16th most viewed film of 1963. Today, the film is considered a classic of horror cinema.
Psycho and The Birds are particularly notable for their unusual soundtracks, both orchestrated by Bernard Herrmann. The shrill strings played in the first murder scene in Psycho were an innovation at the time. As for the film The Birds, it leaves out conventional musical instruments and instead uses an electronically produced soundtrack, enhanced only by the schoolchildren”s song, unaccompanied, just before the attack on the real school in Bodega Bay. It should also be noted that Santa Cruz was later cited as the place where the bird phenomenon first occurred. These films are considered the last great films of Hitchcock. Some critics, such as Robin Wood and Donald Spoto, believe that No Springtime for Marnie, released in 1964, is one of the major works of the director, and others, such as Claude Chabrol, consider that Frenzy is unfairly underestimated.
As his health declined, Hitchcock had to reduce his output during the last two decades of his career. He shot two spy thrillers against the backdrop of the Cold War. The first, The Torn Curtain (1966), stars Paul Newman and Julie Andrews.
The Torn Curtain takes place mainly in the GDR, with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews in the lead roles. It marks the rather sad end of the twelve-year collaboration between Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrmann. Unhappy with the score provided by Herrmann, Hitchcock eventually replaced him with John Addison. The film was released in the United States on July 27, 1966.
On November 5, Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, published by Robert Laffont, will be available in Paris. In this book, the result of a series of interviews with François Truffaut, critic and director himself, Hitchcock talks about his way of working.
Hitchcock”s next film, The Vise (Topaz), is an adaptation of a novel by Leon Uris (author of Exodus).
The story begins in Denmark, and continues in the United States, Cuba and France. Frederick Stafford was hired to play the lead role; the rest of the cast, which was rather motley, included John Forsythe, and the Frenchmen Dany Robin, Claude Jade, Michel Subor, Philippe Noiret and Michel Piccoli. At the end of the shooting, as usual, screenings are made, which prove to be disastrous: the film is most often considered too long, boring and its end, a duel between Devereaux (Stafford) and Granville (Piccoli), ridiculous. As a result, some scenes were cut, others shortened, others even sped up, and two optional endings were proposed: one showed Devereaux boarding a plane and seeing Granville boarding another plane bound for the Soviet Union, and the other, which fell rather flat, showed, or rather suggested (the actors were no longer available to shoot other scenes), Granville”s suicide: a man was seen stealthily entering a house, and then a shot was heard. This last ending was kept for the 1969 theatrical release. The National Board of Review will nevertheless award Hitchcock the prize for best director for this film.
Like The Torn Curtain, The Vise received a mixed reception from the critics.
After the failure of The Torn Curtain and The Vise, Hitchcock returned to success in 1972, with Frenzy, shot in Great Britain. Then Family Plot, in 1976, received critical acclaim.
In 1971, Hitchcock was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor. The following year, he returned to London to shoot Frenzy, which would be his last great triumph. After the two spy films with more than moderate success, the plot of the film marks the return to the thriller with a murder as a starting point, a genre in which Hitchcock had given much before. The script was entrusted to Anthony Shaffer, who had just had some success in the theater. The shooting was somewhat disrupted when Hitchcock”s wife and first collaborator, Alma, suffered a stroke, but she recovered fairly quickly.
The basic story recycles one of his silent hits, The Lodger. Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), a moody, quick-tempered bar tender, becomes the prime suspect in the “Tie Murders” case, the real perpetrator of which is his friend, Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), a fruit vendor.
This time, Hitchcock makes the “innocent” and the “evil” twins rather than opposing them, as was the case in Strangers on a Train. Only one of them, however, has broken the barrier and become a murderer. For the first time, Hitchcock incorporates nudity and crudity of language, once taboo subjects, into one of his films. He also shows a rare sympathy for the Chief Inspector and an amusing aspect of his private life. Frenzy was a huge success, with box office receipts exceeding those of Psycho.
Some biographers have pointed out that Hitchcock always pushed the limits of censorship, often managing to cheat the man who was, for a long time, in charge of enforcing the Hays Code in Hollywood: Joseph Breen. Indeed, on many occasions, Hitchcock managed to slip into his films subtle allusions to what the censors, until the mid-1960s, condemned. According to Patrick McGilligan, Breen and others were not usually fooled by these overtones and, in fact, were as amused by them as they were alarmed by the “inevitable inferences” that could only be drawn from certain scenes. It was not until The Torn Curtain that Hitchcock was finally able to openly include plot elements previously forbidden in American films, and this remained the case for the rest of his career.
In 1974, the same year he suffered a heart attack after which he was forced to wear a pacemaker, a tribute was paid to the director”s career on April 29 by the Film Society at Lincoln Center in New York.
Family Plot (1976) will be the last film of Hitchcock, then almost octogenarian.
The film follows the adventures of “Mrs.” Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris), a fake psychic, and her cab driver lover (Bruce Dern), who still intends to make some money from her so-called powers. William Devane, Karen Black and Cathleen Nesbitt are also in the cast. This is the only Hitchcock film for which John Williams wrote the music. The film, with a flawless screenplay by Lehman, is consistently funny, and feels like the work of a talented young upstart.
In a way that is probably not insignificant, Family Plot ends with a wink addressed, via the character of Blanche, to the spectators of the film and, one imagines, to the spectators of all the films of the “Master”.
By the early 1970s, Hitchcock was thinking of making a film, The Short Night, based on the story of the spy George Blake who, in 1966, had escaped from a London prison before fleeing to the Soviet Union.
He acquired the rights to two books about the story. Hitchcock”s relationship with James Costigan, the first screenwriter hired for the project, was rather stormy; the director fired him and called upon his former collaborator, Ernest Lehman, author of the screenplays for North By Northwest and Family Plot. Lehman wrote several versions of the story, but none of them satisfied Hitchcock, and the two friends fell out. Hitchcock then turned to Norman Lloyd, another former collaborator and friend, but it did not work out any better. After working alone on the adaptation for some time, Hitchcock agreed to collaborate with a fourth screenwriter, David Freeman, who took on the task at the end of 1978.
Between December 1978 and May 1979, Hitchcock and Feeman met regularly in the director”s office at Universal Studios. The director”s declining health made Feeman”s job difficult. Hitchcock suffered from arthritis. It caused him intense pain in his knees, no doubt to ease his suffering. The director”s moral difficulties are compounded by the concern for his wife Alma”s health. Just as the script was nearing completion, Hitchcock learned that the American Film Institute (AFI) wanted to give him a lifetime achievement award. Hitchcock, far from being flattered, perceived this as an omen of his death and panicked. He went to the ceremony anyway.
On January 3, 1980, he received a visit from the British consul, who came to announce his nomination to the rank of Knight of the British Empire. After his ennoblement, Hitchcock, very unwell, made the decision to definitively give up filming The Short Night; he notified Universal directly, and Hitchcock”s offices closed. The script of The Short Night will finally be published in a book dedicated to the last days of the director. Hitchcock stayed at home for a while, then returned to the studio from time to time.
At the age of 80, Alfred Hitchcock died on April 29, 1980, of kidney failure, in his home in Bel Air, Los Angeles, California. He died in his sleep, surrounded by his family. He leaves his wife, Alma Reville, their only daughter, Patricia, and three granddaughters, Mary Alma, Teresa and Kathleen. The body was cremated. A ceremony, without a casket, was held at the Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Beverly Hills.
Alfred Hitchcock”s ashes will be scattered in the Pacific Ocean.
In his early years, Alfred Hitchcock, apart from cinema, was very much influenced by the theater. His very first films were in fact mostly adaptations of plays. He often entrusted the writing of his scripts to successful playwrights. Like many Englishmen, he was also very fond of detective and mystery literature (Poe was one of his favorite authors) and a fan of miscellaneous events (the story of Dr. Crippen, in particular, was to fascinate him). As a teenager, he often attended trials at the Old Bailey and could, or so he later claimed, recite large excerpts from famous case reports.
According to some critics, Cecil B. DeMille can be seen as another major influence of Hitchcock. By the time Hitchcock began his film career, DeMille was one of the most important directors in world cinema. DeMille was the inventor of what have been called “remarriage comedies,” in which married couples separate and then reunite. Hitchcock”s comedy Matrimonial Joys (1941) is based on this scheme, which can also be found in some other films of the “master of suspense”, where couples clash before reuniting (North by Northwest, 1959…). Beyond that, we can find a concrete example of DeMille”s influence on Hitchcock – or a kind of homage? – in the second part of the silent version of The Ten Commandments (1923), more precisely in the scene showing the murder of the leprous “vamp” escaped from the island of Molokai, when she is behind a curtain, which she clutches when the “Cain” of the story shoots at her. The scene ends with a shot of the curtain gradually coming down as the woman collapses, a shot that is found in the famous shower scene in Psycho (1960) (see also, below, Logo).
When asked about his work, Hitchcock explained: “The writer and I plan the whole script down to the last detail, and when we”re done, all that”s left to do is shoot the film. In fact, it”s only when you go into the studio, that you get into the compromise zone. Really, it”s the novelist who has the best cast, since he doesn”t have to deal with the actors and everything else.” In a 1969 interview, Hitchcock clarifies, “As soon as the script is ready, I”d just as soon not make the movie at all…. I have a very visual mind. In my head, I visualize a film until the final cut. I write it all down in great detail in the script, and then when I shoot, I don”t look at the script at all. I know it by heart, just as it is not necessary for a conductor to look at the score… When you have finished the script, the film is perfect. But, during the making, it loses maybe forty percent of your original conception.”
Often, for Hitchcock”s films, the writing of the screenplay is done from scene ideas. For example, the umbrella scene or the windmill scene in Correspondent 17 (1940), which Hitchcock imagined before he even thought about the story or the characters, or the spraying plane scene in North by Northwest (1959), which came from the idea, or the challenge, of a suspenseful scene taking place, not as usual, in a closed and stifling place, but on the contrary, in a completely airy, empty space, in the open country. The stories of the films where we see the characters evolving in famous sites (the Statue of Liberty in Fifth Column (1942), the headquarters of the United Nations or Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest…), are thus in a way and in part a pretext for using these sites as a setting. David Freeman, the last screenwriter to have collaborated with Hitchcock, was initially rather disconcerted by the method used by the director: “First we decide what the characters are going to do, then we give them character traits that make their behavior plausible. Hitchcock was criticized for years for his emphasis on form over substance. His way of working confirmed this criticism. The trick was that his analysis of the characters was so meticulous and penetrating that it was enough to bring them to life in his films.
The director, to explain what a “MacGuffin” is, will often tell the same funny little story:
The “MacGuffin” is a key element of the plot, material or not, generally mysterious, which serves in reality only as a pretext for the development of the scenario, and which has, beyond that, no real importance. The term was first used by Angus MacPhail, screenwriter and friend of Hitchcock. Hitchcock and his screenwriters would use the process in many films. The “MacGuffin” is sometimes, perhaps demonstratively, quite bizarre. In an interview with Truffaut about North By Northwest, Hitchcock said: “The best McGuffin we used, and by best, I mean the most empty, the most insignificant, the most absurd is the one that appears in North By Northwest… The McGuffin is reduced to its simplest expression: Nothing at all.”
In The 39 Steps (1935), the “MacGuffin” is a series of plans that spies have stolen and that are actually a few sentences retained by Mr. Memory; in A Woman Disappears (in Correspondent 17 (1940), a treaty clause that a Dutch politician is apparently the only one to know; in The Chained Ones (1946), a chemical compound hidden in wine bottles. One of the “MacGuffins” in North By Northwest (1959) takes the form of microfilms hidden in a statuette containing “government secrets. This is the only explanation that will be given to us… Hitchcock saw this as his best “MacGuffin”, “the most non-existent, the most derisory”. The importance of the “MacGuffin” gradually decreases during the film until sometimes it has none, the spectator letting himself be carried away by the characters and the way they react to the events generated by the process.
According to some, the first “MacGuffin” in Hitchcock”s cinema can already be found in The Lodger (1927), with the character of the “Avenger”, the killer, who is never actually seen on the screen. Another “MacGuffin” character is, of course, the mysterious Kaplan in North By Northwest, who simply does not exist. In this film, one can even consider the scene of the discussion between the American agents as a projection of a meeting between the director and the writers debating on what turn to take the story. The character played by Leo G. Carroll, who appears to give instructions, then represents in a way the scriptwriter, in whom a new idea of adventure has arisen, which he comes, “heavenly envoy”, in the work itself, to propose to the hero.
Hitchcock was always amused when writers or producers argued about the exact nature of the “MacGuffin”, as was the case with “Notorious”; he said, “People who argue about the ”MacGuffin” do so because they are incapable of analyzing the characters.
Jean Douchet sees suspense as “the main definition of Hitchcock”s work,” and defines it as “the dilation of a present caught between the two opposing possibilities of an imminent future. According to Douchet, “anxiety arises from the fact that actors and spectators are divided, torn between the hope of salvation and the fear of the irremediable between life and death. It is thus a function of the duration of the conflict, of its dilation. It sharpens our perception of time”.
Suspense must be distinguished from surprise or shock. In Hitchcock”s films, suspense is achieved by a gap between what the viewer knows and what the character sees. The spectator”s anxious expectation can then be reinforced by accentuated music, lighting effects, shadows… In horror films, the surprise effect (shock) consists in the appearance of a thing or a character, often terrifying, when neither the “hero” nor the spectator is expecting it. But in Hitchcock films, the anxiety of the viewer increases as the danger, of which the “hero” is unaware, becomes clearer; the audience wonders what will happen when the threat is finally perceived by the person they identify with. Most of Hitchcock”s thrillers rely on this effect.
Thus, in Rear Window (Jeffries is asleep at the time. Similarly, when Detective Arbogast climbs the stairs of Norman Bates”s house in Psycho (1960), the spectator sees the door ajar and he alone foresees the murder. Cold Sweat (1958) is also particularly significant since the spectator learns through a flashback, at the beginning of the second part of the film, the true identity of Judy and the whole plot against Scottie. The spectator wonders about the turn of events.
In a 1967 interview, when asked why he never made comedies, Hitchcock replied, “But all the movies I make are comedies.”
Hitchcock”s thrillers, in fact, are mostly peppered with humorous touches. The director, who himself always disconcerted critics with his incorrigible joking side, considered that tension could not be maintained throughout a film and that moments of respite had to be provided in the narrative. If one finds several scenes of fairly good-natured comedy, such as the beginning of 39 Steps (1935) or the comical fortune-telling scenes of Family Plot (1976), Hitchcock”s humor frequently deals with sexuality and death (black humor). In the first category, we find, for example, in The 39 Steps, the scene where representatives in women”s underwear provoke the somewhat desperate gaze of a priest, or the one where the hero”s hand is handcuffed to the hand of a young woman and accompanies her while she removes her stockings, or again, at the beginning of Cold Sweat (1958), the scene where there is a question of a revolutionary bra conceived by an aeronautics engineer. In the second category, we find, among others, the very down-to-earth remarks of Stella, the nurse in Rear Window (1954), about what the killer could have done with the body of his victim, or the policeman”s wife in Frenzy (1972) wondering about Babs” corpse while snacking. But who killed Harry? (1955) is, on the other hand, a comedy entirely devoted to macabre humor.
Storyboards and filming
Most commentators have firmly believed over the years that Hitchcock”s films were largely “storyboarded” down to the last detail. It has been said that he never even bothered to look through the camera lens, since he didn”t see the point, even though promotional photos show him doing so. It also served as an excuse for him to never have to change his films from the way he originally saw them. If a studio asked him to do it, he could claim that the film was already shot one way and that there were no other takes to consider.
However, this view of Hitchcock as a director who relied more on pre-production than on directing was challenged in the book Hitchcock at Work, written by Bill Krohn, an American correspondent for Les Cahiers du cinéma. Krohn, after examining several script revisions, notes exchanged between Hitchcock and other production personnel, and studying storyboards and other production materials, observed that Hitchcock”s work often deviated from the script as written or from the original conception of the film. He pointed out that the myth of storyboards about Hitchcock, often regurgitated by generations of commentators on his films, was largely perpetuated by Hitchcock himself or by the studio publicity department. A prime example would be the famous cornfield spraying scene in North By Northwestern, which originally was not storyboarded. It was only after the scene was shot that the publicity department would have asked Hitchcock to make storyboards to promote the film, and Hitchcock, in turn, would have hired a cartoonist to reproduce the scenes in detail.
Even when storyboards were made, the scene shot was significantly different. Krohn”s extensive analysis of the shooting of Hitchcock classics such as Notorious reveals that the director was flexible enough to change the design of a film during its making. Another example given by Krohn concerns the American remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which began shooting without a final script and went over schedule, which, as Krohn notes, was not unusual and happened with many other Hitchcock films, including Strangers on a Train and The Stranglehold. Although the director did spend a great deal of time preparing all of his films, he was fully aware that in reality the process of making them often deviated from the best laid plans, and he was flexible to adapt to changes and production needs, since his films did not escape the usual vagaries frequently encountered in most shoots, nor the routines that were often resorted to at the time.
Krohn”s work also sheds light on Hitchcock”s habit of generally shooting scenes in chronological order, a habit that Krohn notes was often the source of many of his films going over budget and over time and, more importantly, differed from the usual Hollywood way of doing things in the days of the studio system. Equally important is Hitchcock”s tendency to shoot alternate takes of certain scenes. It was not necessarily to give the editor the opportunity to shape the film in the way he (or she) wanted (often under the producer”s guidance) that the films were shot from different angles, but rather it reflected Hitchcock”s tendency to leave choices to himself in the editing room, where he usually, after viewing the dailies, advised his editors. According to Krohn, this information, as well as many others revealed by his research work through Hitchcock”s personal archives and script revisions, contradicts the image of a filmmaker who was always in control of his films and whose conception of his works did not change at the time of making, which, Krohn notes, has remained the old central myth about Hitchcock.
The filming locations
Hitchcock, as a great perfectionist, was careful to choose the places where he shot his films and his scenes.
In Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock chose the small, idyllic and charming town of Santa Rosa to reinforce the innocence of his characters and the criminality of Uncle Charlie.In 1958, he chose San Francisco to shoot his next feature film, Cold Sweat. This hilly city perfectly reflected Scottie”s emotions.In North By Northwest, he took an empty field to shoot the mythical scene of the plane. This empty space allowed Hitchcock to show how unexpected and absurd the situation is.
Hitchcock and the actors
On the subject of Hitchcock”s relationship with his actors, the director is often quoted as saying: “Actors are cattle”. According to Hitchcock himself, he said this in the late 1920s, in relation to theatrical actors who, at the time, snubbed the cinema. However, according to Michael Redgrave, it would be during the shooting of A Woman Disappears that the director would have made this remark. The sentence gave rise in 1941 to an incident, during the production of Matrimonial Joys: Carole Lombard, to surprise the director, then brought on the place where scenes were going to be shot heifers with, written on them, the names of Lombard, Robert Montgomery and Gene Raymond, the stars of the film … At the premiere of his last film, Family Plot, Hitchcock made a small correction: “It”s a shameless lie. I never said such a thing. It is very rude. No doubt I said that actors should be ”treated like” cattle.”
In fact, Hitchcock”s supposed dislike of actors has been largely exaggerated. Simply put, Hitchcock, who believed that actors should stick to concentrating on their roles and let the directors and writers handle the story and treatment of the characters, did not tolerate the approach of “The Method.” Thus, he stated in an interview that “the actor in The Method is OK in the theater because he has a free space to move around. But when it comes to showing a shot of the face and a shot of what he sees, there has to be some discipline.” For Hitchcock, the actors, along with the props, were just elements of the film, or at least they had to consider the camera as a full acting partner.
During the shooting of Lifeboat, Walter Slezak, who plays the Nazi captain, said that Hitchcock perceived the mechanics of acting better than anyone else he knew. It is also undeniable that in almost all of Hitchcock”s films, at least in the American period, the actors, far from being mere puppets, give the full measure of their talent, which indicates a real know-how on the part of the director, also, as regards the direction of actors, and can only testify to the sympathy that he felt for them. As an example, we can recall that before her performance in Rebecca and in Suspicion, which will earn her an Oscar, Joan Fontaine, sister of Olivia de Havilland, was denied any talent. Moreover, some actors are nowadays known only for their performance in a Hitchcock film, not simply because of the director”s reputation, but because of the composition that they were allowed to deliver, and which is an essential ingredient of the film”s success (Kelly in his three films with the director, Leigh and Perkins in Psycho, Hedren in The Birds, and many others, even in small roles…) Hitchcock, simply, stimulated the talents.
Challenges and technical innovations
Hitchcock seemed to revel in the technical challenges of filmmaking.
In Lifeboat (1944), he places the entire action of the film on board a small boat, but manages to avoid monotonous repetition in his shooting style, and also to find a solution for his trademark cameo, which the narrowness of the set made difficult: he appears in a fictitious magazine read by one of the characters, in a photo on an advertisement for a slimming product… Similarly, the action of Window on the Courtyard (1954) takes place in a single apartment and shows from the outside only what can be seen from the window.
In The House of Dr. Edwardes (1945), two shots showing a subjective view required the construction of a giant wooden hand, supposedly belonging to the character whose point of view the camera is taking, and the construction of proportionately large props that the hand holds: a milk glass actually the size of a bucket, and a gigantic wooden gun. To add to the novelty and to achieve a striking effect, the shot marking the climax of the scene was colored red on the black and white film of some copies of the film.
The Rope (1948) was another technical challenge. The film gives the impression of having been shot in a single take. In reality, it is composed of ten takes, each lasting between four and a half and ten minutes, ten minutes being the maximum length of reel that could be contained in a camera of the time. Some transitions between the passage from one reel to another are camouflaged by a dark object that fills the entire field for a while. These points were used by Hitchcock to conceal the cuts, and the next take would begin with the camera placed in exactly the same position.
Cold Sweat (1958) uses a camera technique developed by Irmin Roberts, a technique imitated and reused many times later by other directors, which gives the impression of a lengthening image. The effect is obtained by moving the camera in the opposite direction to the zoom. This effect has been called the “compensated tracking shot”, “dolly zoom” or the “Vertigo effect”.
“Hitchcock is one of the greatest inventors of form in the history of cinema. Perhaps only Murnau and Eisenstein can compare with him in this respect. From this form, according to its very rigor, a whole moral universe was elaborated. The form, here, does not embellish the content, it creates it. All of Hitchcock is in this formula.
– Conclusion of the book Hitchcock by Éric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, 1957.
Themes and characters
Hitchcock was particularly interested in the theme of the wrongly accused, unjustly prosecuted, and forced to exonerate himself. Among Hitchcock”s “classics”, one of the first to deal with this subject is The 39 Steps (1935), whose screenplay was co-written by Charles Bennett, and of which the director would make several variants during his career, up to North by Northwest in 1959, and even Frenzy in 1972. The theme, however, is already present, to some extent, in four earlier silent films made between 1925 and 1928: The Mountain Eagle (lost film), The Golden Hair, Downhill and The Past Doesn”t Die. Almost all of them are dramas, only the second one can be considered a thriller. Obviously, the theme refers to Christianity, more clearly evoked in The Law of Silence (1952) and The False Guilty (1956). More prosaically, however, Hitchcock explained that “the theme of the unjustly accused man gives the audience a greater sense of danger, because they can more easily imagine themselves in the man”s situation than in that of a guilty man escaping.
“The better the villain, the better the picture”, said Alfred Hitchcock (The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture).
Hitchcock had a difficult relationship with women in his childhood and adolescence. He was a lonely child. Later, he would say that he only vaguely understood the mechanical aspects of sex at the age of twenty. In his films, the female figures are often the darkest. On the one hand, young women with brown hair often represent evil. In addition, the figure of the mother, often present, is generally described in a rather unflattering light. This is visible in The Birds, where the mother is afraid of being abandoned by her son; the climax of this relationship is, of course, in Psycho.
Hitchcock”s heroines are most often blondes of icy beauty who, at first, have the profile of ideal women, but who, as soon as they are aroused by passion or danger, respond in a more sensual, animal, even criminal way. The “Hitchcockian blonde”, compared to the ingenuous characters of “Hollywood blondes”, is subversive. An anecdote, in this regard, is significant: in the mid-1950s, when Marilyn Monroe asked the studios to work with the director, Hitchcock would have refused, saying that he did not appreciate women who had “sex displayed on their faces” …
It is worth noting that in The Lodger (1927), which Hitchcock considered his first “real” film, the victims of the “Avenger” are all young blond women (which justifies the title given to the film). Daisy (June Tripp), the heroine of the film, the daughter of the couple who harbors the young man suspect and with whom he, despite a certain ambiguity regarding his sexual orientation, ends up falling in love, although she too is blonde, does not however have quite what will later become the characteristics of the blonde according to Hitchcock.
The prototype was, in fact, Anny Ondra, who acted under Hitchcock”s direction in The Manxman and Blackmail, two silent films from 1929, the second of which would become the director”s first talking picture. Because of a thick accent – she was German, of Polish origin – Ondra had to be dubbed for the sound version. An essay by the actress for this version was preserved, in which Hitchcock is seen and heard asking her somewhat saucy questions, and she answers them with a look of both shock and amusement. In Blackmail, she plays the fiancée of a policeman, who kills a painter after he tries to abuse her. The Hitchcockian blonde, it seems, is first of all for the director, as shown by the way she appears in some of his later films, the object of a fascination akin to fetishism: in Cold Sweats as in North by Northwest, some shots show her, with an insistence that one cannot but notice, as a subject of a pictorial work, which could prosaically be called “Mysterious blonde in profile looking to the right” or, better, “Mysterious blonde, left profile.” ..
In The 39 Steps (1935), we discover another blonde, played by Madeleine Carroll, to whom the hero, an innocent pursued and desperate, introduces himself with a fiery kiss, but she, however, does not hesitate to denounce him. Later in the film, she will find herself literally handcuffed to the hero, who will eventually convince her. Carroll will play the following year in another Hitchcock film, Four of Spies.
In Rear Window (1954), Lisa (Grace Kelly) risks her life by breaking into the apartment of Lars Thorwald, the alleged killer, while in The Hound (1955), Francie (again Grace Kelly) offers to help a burglar who is “retired” but whom she believes is still active. In Cold Sweat (1958), Judy (Kim Novak), disguised as a blonde, is an accomplice to a murder. In North By Northwest (1959), the blonde Eve Kendall (played by Eva Marie Saint) leads the hero Roger Thornhill, with whom she is in love, into the clutches of those who are trying to kill him. In The Birds (1963), Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is at one point accused of being the cause, by her mere presence, of the inexplicable catastrophe.
In No Springtime for Marnie (1964), the title character (again Hedren) is a kleptomaniac and frigid. At the beginning of the film, in a scene that strikingly shows three female characters from three different generations all with blond hair – Marnie”s mother, Marnie herself, and a little neighbor – we hear, curiously, Marnie”s mother criticizing her daughter for bleaching her hair: “Too-blond hair always look like a woman”s tryin” to attract the man. Men and a good name don”t go together. Men and a good name don”t go together.”…)
But the best example is in Psycho where the hapless character played by Janet Leigh steals $40,000 before falling victim to a psychopath living in isolation from society.
Hitchcock”s last blonde heroine will be, years after Dany Robin and her “daughter” Claude Jade in The Vise in 1969, Barbara Harris, as a fake psychic who turns into an amateur sleuth in Hitchcock”s last film, 1976”s Family Plot. One could also include in this gallery of portraits, in the same film, the diamond smuggler played by Karen Black, who wears a long blonde wig in many scenes and whose criminal activity makes her progressively more and more uncomfortable.
Some critics and Hitchcock scholars, including Donald Spoto and Roger Ebert, agree that Cold Sweat is the director”s most personal film, and also his most revealing, as it deals with the obsessions of a man who “sculpts” a woman into the one he wants. Cold Sweat explores in a less roundabout way and more broadly than any of his other films the director”s interest in the relationship between sexuality and death.
Some of Hitchcock”s films show us characters who have a problematic relationship with their mother.
In The Chained Ones (1946), Sebastian (Claude Rains), the “bad guy”, is obviously dominated by his mother (Leopoldine Konstantin), who is suspicious – and rightly so – of her future daughter-in-law (Ingrid Bergman). The mother is quite surprising here: she is portrayed as an authoritarian leader, with a virile appearance and a cigarette in her mouth. When he feels that things are going badly for him and that the situation is becoming inextricable, her son, who seems to be in his forties and has become a sheepish little boy again, completely relies on her; and she proves herself, at the last moment, capable of quickly renouncing everything so that he can live. Bruno, the “villain” of Strangers on a Train (1951) hates his father to the point of wanting to kill him, but has a very close relationship with his mother (Marion Lorne), who soon appears to be half-crazy, that is, presumably half-involved in her son”s love and madness. In North By Northwest (1959), Roger Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) is an “innocent man caught in a trap” whose mother (Jessie Royce Landis) laughs at him when he tells her that mysterious people are out to kill him. In The Birds (1963), the character played by Rod Taylor has his world attacked by hateful birds, just as he is presented with the opportunity to free himself from the clutches of a possessive mother (Jessica Tandy). As for the killer in Frenzy (1972), he feels nothing but hatred for women, all of them “whores”, except for his mother, whom he seems to idolize, and the women he finds to his liking, whom he can only kill…
But the best example is of course Norman Bates and his more than problematic relationship with his mother, in Psycho (1960), a mother he keeps and embodies, who is and who is not anymore.
Patterns and objects
In a few images, generally showing simple objects, Hitchcock manages to situate a character, and to explain his personality implicitly. In The Crime Was Almost Perfect (1954), the feelings of the character played by Kelly are notably indicated, at the very beginning of the film, by the color of her dress, white while she kisses her husband, then bright red when she does the same with her lover.
This is even more evident in the director”s next film, at the beginning of Rear Window (1954). After showing us Jeffries (Stewart) with his leg in a cast and condemned to a wheelchair (a dedication on his cast designating him, incidentally, as “sympathetic”), the camera then moves on to objects evoking not only what has happened to him, but also his past and what is then the focus of his preoccupations: a broken camera, photos hanging on the wall, showing first d”accidents, then scenes of some conflict, finally the negative of a photo of a woman, the positive of which is then seen on the cover visible above a pile of magazines. The significance of these images will become clearer in the course of the film. The major dilemma that the character then faces (before he witnesses a suspicious scene) is whether or not to commit himself further to his relationship with the woman (a model) he is infatuated with, but who nevertheless, according to him, risks holding him back in his lust for adventure.
In Psycho (1960), the character played by Janet Leigh appears, before the robbery that will have tragic consequences for her, in white underwear, and then, when she plans her misdeed, we see her wearing black underwear. She flees in a black car, which she exchanges, when remorse of conscience begins to gnaw at her, for a light-colored car (the film, for the record, is in black and white).
In many scenes of his films, the director uses light sources (candles, lamps, chandeliers…) in a very particular way.
Perhaps the most striking example is found in The Paradine Trial (1947) with the sequence of the actual meeting between the lawyer (Gregory Peck) and the one who eventually turns out to be his rival (Louis Jourdan). The sequence itself is part of a kind of “chapter” or “pivot scene” – a scene composed almost mathematically and with great symbolic complexity: a train journey to and from this meeting, the real trigger – the beginning and end of which are signaled by two shots each showing a tree, one almost identical to the other, except that the image is reversed. During the dialogue between the two men, they appear on the screen “in the company” of a massive lamp that, through the camera movements, seems to move in an astonishing way above them, between them, below them or beside them, and seems to play a role, like a third actor. Later in the same film, after the trial scene, which is followed by a still shot showing a statue symbolizing justice, there is a conversation during a meal between the judge (Charles Laughton) and his wife, which is staged using candles.
At the beginning of Fifth Column (1942), the mother (Dorothy Peterson), whose only son has just died in an assassination attempt, and whom the hero (Robert Cummings) – the threatened “innocent” – comes to console, appears seated at a table between four extinguished candles, two on one side and two on the other, while behind her a lamp casts its light diffusely upward. The house of the blind man (Vaughan Glaser), where the “innocent” later arrives on his journey, is filled with a large number of mostly extinguished fixtures, lamps, and candles with unbroken wicks that have never been used. The mother and the blind man have in common that they defend the “innocent” in an “instinctive” way, which is not the case, notably, of the heroine (Priscilla Lane) who, although she is the daughter of the blind man, doubts the integrity of the “innocent” on several occasions.
In Window on the Courtyard (1954), the character played by Grace Kelly appears at a given moment between two candles, first extinguished, then lit. In the same film, we see her successively lighting three lamps while saying aloud, as if pronouncing a magic formula, the three words constituting her own name. At the beginning of North By Northwest (1959), during Thornhill”s (Cary Grant) first confrontation with the enemies he didn”t know he had, we see the character of Vandamm (he speaks, and his silhouette, made ghostly by the process, takes on a particularly menacing aspect.
Family Plot (1976), Hitchcock”s last film, ends with a scene in which the “junk” psychic (Barbara Harris) inexplicably discovers a gem hidden among the crystal beads decorating a chandelier (which refers to the psychic”s crystal ball, a central element of the film”s credits).
In The Lodger, the tenant”s arrival at the home occurs after a power outage. When the mother opens the door to discover who is standing behind it, the glow of a candle lit at that moment reveals him to be the probable wanted murderer.
These elements are obviously symbolic and refer, consciously or unconsciously on the part of the director, to essential themes of Christianity. This religion is addressed more directly in The Law of Silence (1953), even if it can be considered a simple pretext, or in The False Guilty (1956), even if the goal seems to be only the most faithful retranscription of a “true story”… In The False Guilty, it is after the “innocent” has prayed before the image of Christ that the real culprit appears. In the same way that in The 39 Steps (1935), the “innocent” is saved thanks to a prayer book belonging to a bigoted and venal peasant, which is found by chance in his pocket
In Psycho, two close-ups of eyes seem to respond to each other: that of Norman Bates, who spies on Marion through a small hole in a wall and hidden behind a painting, and that, wide open but extinguished, of the dead Marion, victim of the voyeur. Eyes appear as motifs in the dream (put into image with the help of the painter Salvador Dalí) of the mysterious amnesiac in The House of Doctor Edwardes.
In many of Hitchcock”s films, there are “staircase” scenes. In The Almost Perfect Crime, the key is hidden under the carpet covering a staircase. In Cold Sweat, the stairs themselves are a key element, since it is the main character”s inability to climb them to the end – and the fact that he finally does – that is the source of the drama. In Psycho, Detective Arbogast is killed on the steps leading to the place where he thinks he might find the solution to the mystery. In Family Plot, the final scene is also set on a staircase, where the hero takes refuge when the evil couple appears, and it is just above this staircase that the chandelier where the precious stone is hidden is located.
Transportation plays a special role in many of Hitchcock”s films. The image of a train rushing through a tunnel at the end of North By Northwestern has often been seen as a symbol of the sexual act (and this was the director”s stated intention). The train, with this same connotation, is the place where certain encounters take place: Suspicion and Strangers on the North-Express begin with a seduction scene on a train. The car seems to play a similar role: notably in Le Grand Alibi, Les Enchaînés… The long tailing sequence in Cold Sweats, which is the origin of the hero”s obsession with the mysterious young blonde woman, and the long scene in which we see the character of Marion on board his two successive cars, as a prelude to his brutal death in Psycho, can thus take on a particular meaning.
Hitchcock was self-conscious about his weight, a legacy from his father who also enjoyed good food. Various actors and crew members say that Hitchcock would invite them to dinner to get to know each other better, but that they would talk more about food and wine than about the film.
In his films, food plays an important role. The famous kissing scene in The Chained Ones (1946) is interspersed with talk of chicken. In Rear Window (1954), Lisa is seen as a perfect woman and Jeffries seems to admit it when she brings him his meal, which has come directly from a great restaurant: “Perfect, as usual. The invitation to dinner is often an expression of one character”s desire to take their relationship with the other to the next level: John “the Cat” and Frances have a picnic, Scottie invites Judy to dinner, and Mitch invites Melanie to dinner in The Hound (1955), Cold Sweat (1958), and The Birds (1963), respectively, and a romantic relationship can begin. Food accentuates Norman Bates” desire for Marion Crane in Psycho (1960), as he brings her sandwiches to discuss with her. But examples of scenes where food is involved abound in Hitchcock”s films…
In his essay on the director, Jean Douchet analyzes drinking, eating and smoking in Hitchcock”s films, and develops a theory on “absorption” that he addresses by saying: “It is not gratuitous that the work of the filmmaker, whose digestive preoccupations are evident in the good-natured roundness of his own person, is the one in which eating, drinking and smoking hold a capital place that no other cinematographic work, not even that of Renoir, another famous gourmet, can compete with it. It is therefore not surprising that in Hitchcock”s films, it is always during a meal that the hero overhears the dark secret.
It is interesting to note, in this regard, that one of the director”s most beloved “jokes” links food and death, as shown by the meal served around the trunk containing a corpse in The Rope (1948), or the meal whose main course is the murder weapon in Lamb to the Slaughter (1958) – an episode of the Alfred Hitchcock series adapted by Roald Dahl from one of his short stories -, or certain humorous passages in Rear Window (1954), Who Killed Harry? (1955) or Frenzy (1972)…
A complicit spectator
Hitchcock makes his films for the viewer and he likes to play with the viewer”s inevitably voyeuristic, and potentially “evil”, side.
In The Stranger on the North-Express (1951), the parallel montage between, on the one hand, the laborious journey of the “bad guy” who goes to the scene of his crime to leave a lighter that could compromise the “hero” and, on the other hand, the tennis match that the “hero” must win as quickly as possible to have a chance of preventing the “bad guy”, his real adversary, from carrying out his plan, creates a troubled tension in the viewer, When the “bad guy” struggles to reach the lighter that he has clumsily dropped into a window well, the viewer is left wishing that he would manage to get it back. The idea of the tennis match is interesting in this respect, as is the image of Bruno (the “bad guy”), who is the only one in the audience who does not turn his head to follow the trajectory of the ball: the “bad guy” is sure of his side, or rather, he does not have a side; we can observe that he does not look in the direction of either of the two players, but rather straight ahead: the camera, and therefore the spectator…
In many of his other films, Hitchcock at times leads the viewer to support, almost unconsciously, the side of the “bad guy”. In The Crime Was Almost Perfect (1954), we are a little disappointed, in the midst of the tension, to see the Machiavellian husband”s plans to get rid of his wife (the delightful Grace Kelly) not go according to plan: to see that the murder may not take place because the husband”s watch has stopped and, secondly, that the phone booth from which he intends to make the fatal phone call is occupied. In Psycho (1960), we hope that Norman Bates will not forget the diary that might make him a suspect, and later, when he wants to make the car containing the body of the one who was initially presented as the heroine disappear into a swamp, and the vehicle hesitates for a moment to sink, we feel with him a certain relief when we suddenly see the coffin car finish sinking. In the same way, in Frenzy (1972), we find ourselves wishing that the maniac would manage to recover the tie pin, which could betray him, stuck in the hand, stiffened by death, of Babs, his victim…
A commentary on this phenomenon can be found in a certain way in Window on the Court (1954), where the window of the voyeur “hero”, assimilated to a cinema screen, places the spectator in the same position as him. The viewer is reflected back with his own troubled desires through those of Jeffries and Lisa and, as Lisa says, “We are disappointed because a man didn”t murder his wife”; at the same time, she condemns the behavior, as if it were an inevitable part of human nature, only with a “principled” shame. The viewer wants a victim and a murderer because he wants action. Hitchcock makes the viewer, in spite of himself, an accomplice of the killer.
A cameo is the furtive (often silent) appearance of a famous personality in a film. Hitchcock first appeared in The Lodger (1926) because he found it fun to balance a foreground himself (he is seen sitting with his back to a small desk in front of a picture window in a newsroom). Later on, his cameos became a game for the viewer, and this can be seen in all his later films. Soon, however, he realizes that this stealth appearance can cause some discomfort in the perception of the course of the action: so he ends up appearing only at the very beginning of the film, so that the viewers do not wait for him and can be fully concentrated on the story. However, in Les Enchainés, he appears twice: the first at the very beginning of the film at about 2 min 30 (the passer-by in front of the house), the second in the middle of the film at about 64 min 30 (a guest drinking a glass of champagne).
Hitchcock”s cameos reveal a rather paradoxical character. Obsessed by his appearance, he never lost an opportunity to show himself, unlike other directors who were very discreet. This is part of his comical humor, which often punctuates his films. Hitchcock”s appearance in his films can be considered as his signature, and without doubt it is possible to find a meaning in what his character does in this appearance in relation to the work in which it is inserted.
The director”s exacting standards and attention to detail also extended to every poster for his films. Hitchcock preferred to work with the top talents of the day – graphic designers such as Bill Gold and Saul Bass – and had them revise their copy countless times until he felt that the single image on the poster accurately represented his entire film.
Logo and theme
The credits of the Alfred Hitchcock series show a drawing representing, schematically but in a very recognizable way, the chubby profile of Hitchcock and has for theme The Funeral March for a Puppet by Charles Gounod. The caricature is in fact a self-portrait, of which a first version had already been published in a daily newspaper in 1923; it would have been inspired by Cecil B. DeMille who had drawn a medallion with his effigy appearing in the credits of his films from 1919. As for Gounod”s little tune, it is on Bernard Herrmann”s advice that it will be chosen to illustrate the series. This drawing and this music are enough, and will be enough for a long time to come, to evoke the director.
Les Cahiers du cinéma, HitchcockTruffaut
In France in the 1950s, some critics at Cahiers du cinéma were the first to consider Hitchcock”s films as artistic works and to promote them as such. Hitchcock was one of the first filmmakers to whom these critics, the future leaders of the New Wave, applied their “auteur policy,” which emphasized the artistic authority of the director in the process of making a film. A first meeting with Hitchcock took place in 1954, during the filming of La Main au collet. In October, Les Cahiers, at the initiative of Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut, and against the reluctance of the editor André Bazin, published a special issue devoted to the director (No. 39, Vol. VII). Three years later, in 1957, Éric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol published one of the first monographs devoted to Hitchcock.
In 1966, François Truffaut published Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, the result of a series of interviews with the “master of suspense” from August 13 to 18, 1962, in the offices of Universal. Some consider this book to be the best book of interviews, if not the best book ever written on cinema.
Four of his films were nominated for Best Picture, only Rebecca won (knowing that this Oscar only nominates and awards producers):
Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar for any of his films, except for an honorary prize, nominated five times as best director, only to go home empty-handed. In all, sixteen of Hitchcock”s films were nominated for Oscars, of which only six earned their director a personal nomination:
The number of nominations (including winners) for the sixteen films totaled fifty. Miklós Rózsa won the Oscar for Best Music for The House of Dr. Edwardes, and Joan Fontaine won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Suspicion; she was the only one among all the actors to be so awarded for a role in a film directed by Hitchcock.
Honors and tributes
In 1967, Hitchcock received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award.
In Season 4 of Epic Rap Battles of History, Alfred Hitchcock takes on fellow director, writer and producer Steven Spielberg
In 1971, he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor.
Alfred Hitchcock”s profile appears, along with other film “myths”, in the credits of Blake Edwards” When the Pink Panther Tangle (1976), a film in the Pink Panther series.
Alfred Hitchcock is, along with James Whale and, later, George Lucas, among the few directors parodied by Mel Brooks. The Great Chill (High Anxiety, 1977), which refers to several films and several characteristics of the work of the “master of suspense”, is dedicated to the latter.
In 1979, Hitchcock received the American Film Institute (AFI) Lifetime Achievement Award.
Hitchcock was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II at the 1980 New Year”s Honours. Although he adopted American citizenship in 1956, he remained a British subject and could use the title of Sir. Hitchcock died only four months later, on April 29, before he could be officially invested with the title.
At the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California (USC), a chair dedicated to the study of American film has been named after Alma and Alfred Hitchcock: Alma and Alfred Hitchcock Chair for the Study of American Film.
Since 1991, the British Film Festival in Dinard (Ille-et-Vilaine, Brittany) gives a prize bearing the name of the director. A bronze statue of the “master of suspense” can also be seen in this city, evoking the film The Birds; inaugurated on October 8, 2009, it replaces an old statue of Hitchcock made of plaster and resin.
On August 13, 1999, on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the director”s birth, a series of tributes were paid to him in London, Los Angeles and New York.
Hitchcock”s works are also regularly cited in the “best films” rankings compiled by critics and film professionals. Six films are listed in the National Film Registry: Cold Sweats, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, and Psycho. All of these films, with the exception of Shadow of a Doubt and Notorious, were included in the 1998 AFI Top 100, and in the 2007 update of that list.
In 2008, four Hitchcock films are listed among the top ten films of all time in the “Mystery” category of a Top 10 compiled by the same institution. These films are Cold Sweat (#1), Rear Window (#3), North by Northwest (#7) and The Crime was Almost Perfect (#9). In 1999, the British Film Institute (BFI) published a ranking of the 100 best British films (The BFI 100), in which two of the director”s films are included: The 39 Steps (No. 4) and A Woman Disappears (No. 35). In terms of public appreciation, we can note that in May 2010, no less than eleven Hitchcock films are in the IMDb top 250: Rear Window (#20), Psycho (#22), North by Northwest (#32), Cold Sweat (), Rebecca (#97), Strangers on a Train (#123), Notorious (#128), The Crime Was Almost Perfect (#195), Shadow of a Doubt (#208), The Rope (#217), and A Woman Disappears (#248). This is proof, if not of the importance, at least of the relative perennity of the work.
Influence in cinema
Hitchcock”s innovations and vision have influenced a great number of filmmakers (let”s mention, for example, Truffaut and Chabrol, but also Roman Polanski or Steven Spielberg…), producers and actors. This influence has notably contributed to the tendency of directors to control the artistic aspects of their films in spite of the producers.
Among other “tributes” that may have been paid to him, Hitchcock has generated two rather unique cases in the history of cinema: a filmmaker, Brian De Palma, who bases part of his work on that of another, and the remake by a filmmaker, Gus Van Sant, of another filmmaker”s work, so to speak.
Influence on genre cinema
Hitchcock had a huge influence on the development of certain film genres, mainly with two of his films: Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), made when he was in his sixties. The first is, in particular, at the origin of the slasher film, a sub-genre of horror films in which a psychopathic killer eliminates one by one the characters of the story, and the second is at the origin of the disaster film, more particularly of a whole series of films featuring deadly animals.
Psycho serves as an avowed reference to John Carpenter”s Halloween (1978), and has spawned a panoply of films ranging from Tobe Hooper”s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – whose story also seems to be inspired by Ed Gein”s – to Wes Craven”s Scream (1996), and beyond, including Cunningham”s Friday the 13th (1980) and Craven”s Nightmare on the Rails (1984). Films that, for the most part, and like Psycho itself, will have sequels, sometimes quite numerous.
The Birds heralds the disaster film, although the term is more appropriate for films about possible disasters, at least more common than a massive bird attack. One could say that it creates a sub-genre before the genre itself exists, a sub-genre in which one can place a film such as Steven Spielberg”s Jaws (1975), and many others, often of a much more debatable quality. Some of the ingredients of The Birds will be found in most disaster films: the description of a personal story – often personal stories are multiplied in later, “classic” disaster films -, the description of a community and its reactions to the disaster, and the description, in several shocking scenes, of the disaster itself. Jaws is very close to the model offered by The Birds. Both films are adaptations of literary works, but the choice of elements found on screen is almost identical: in Jaws: description of Chief Brody”s family (cf. Melanie, Mitch and his mother), of the community of Amity (cf. Bodega Bay) – with, in both films, a slap in the face: Melanie gives it in Birds and Brody receives it in Jaws -, and scenes of strong emotion distilled progressively in the film.
With Psycho and, ten years earlier, The Great Alibi (1950), Hitchcock is also the precursor of what, in the years 1990-2000, will become almost a genre in its own right: the “final twist” film.
The De Palma exegesis
Among the later directors, the one who most closely studied Hitchcock”s work was, at least at the beginning of his career, Brian De Palma, who was then called “the modern master of suspense”. It was, to begin with, after seeing Cold Sweats that Brian De Palma left aside promising scientific studies to turn to cinema. In his own films, far from being satisfied with imitating Hitchcock, pale or even brilliant, De Palma revisits him, proposes a particular reading of him. His attention is essentially focused on three works: Rear Window, Cold Sweat and Psycho. De Palma”s films differ from Hitchcock”s in that they were made at a time when the severe constraints on the representation or even the evocation of sexuality had been considerably relaxed in American cinema. They are thus frequently peppered with erotic scenes, deliberately aiming to excite the spectator, and tackle head-on themes such as sexual dissatisfaction, exhibitionism, trans-identity, pornography, even impotence and fetishism. Voyeurism, while being exploited, is explored under multiple facets, notably that of its relationship with the media of all kinds. The theme of the double also constitutes in De Palma”s “author”, as in Hitchcock”s, a permanent subject of interrogation.
It is in a rather indirect way that De Palma first refers to Alfred Hitchcock, with Blood Sisters (Sisters, 1973), Obsession (1976) and Carrie at the Devil”s Ball (Carrie, 1976). The first, with music by Bernard Herrmann, contains allusions to Rear Window – and even an almost “literal” quotation from it – and explores, like Psycho, through the case of a young woman who becomes schizophrenic following the death of her Siamese sister, the theme of the double and the splitting of the personality. Obsession (1976, screenplay by Paul Schrader after a story by De Palma), is based on a rereading of Cold Sweats, integrating the theme of incest. The composer of the film”s music is once again Herrmann. As for Carrie, it is an adaptation of a Stephen King novel. Nevertheless, the effects used are obviously modelled on those used by Hitchcock, especially in Psycho, to which it is also paid homage through the name given to Carrie”s school, the Bates High School. Carrie, however, in comparison with Hitchcock”s films, forces the line, with humorous sequences – the punishment exercises on the sports field, the fitting – bordering on the grotesque and, by way of apotheosis, a long sequence of horrific suspense, almost over-dramatized, until the final startle. The symbolism, present in a subtle way in Hitchcock”s film, is just as present in De Palma”s film, but in a more ostensible way, notably with the image of the “crucified” mother recalling that of Saint Sebastian, or the hundreds of candles that can be seen throughout the house when Carrie, after the ball, the humiliation and the vengeance, returns home. Carrie and her mother”s house is probably not unrelated to Norman Bates” (and his mother”s) house. As for the music, Donaggio is directly inspired by Herrmann”s use of it in Psycho.
The script of Pulsions (Dressed to Kill, 1980) is based on a combination of Cold Sweats and Psycho. Like Cold Sweats, the film, after the introduction of the characters, continues with a long seduction sequence, reminiscent of a courtship, which takes place mostly in a museum and during which no words are exchanged. Like Psycho, the film ends with a scientific-like presentation of the murderer”s personality and motivations. It is the conflicts about his sexual identity that cause the murderer in Pulsions to have a split personality. Body Double (1984) is a retelling of Rear Window and Cold Sweat. The female lead is played by Melanie Griffith, daughter of Tippi Hedren. The film is, beyond simple entertainment, a reflection on cinema and its artifices (as the title of the film, in part, indicates: the “double”), as much as on sexual failings (voyeurism, exhibitionism, even fetishism), in the context of the 1980s, with the emergence of video, the relative popularization of gore cinema and the development of the pornographic industry.
In these films, De Palma also uses the split screen, a process that Hitchcock never used, but which corresponds to sequences in The Rope or No Springtime for Marnie, in which the spectator is given the opportunity to witness concomitant scenes, one of which may have an effect on the other. In De Palma”s films, however, the effect does not always have the same function; it is more akin to the windows in Rear Window, or is intended to cause a kind of nauseating dizziness, to “stuff” the viewer with images.
Van Sant”s Psycho
Gus Van Sant”s Psycho (1998) uses the same shots as the original but is shot in color. Van Sant explains: “It”s more of a replica than a remake. As if we were making a copy of the Mona Lisa or the statue of David. The film, however, was a commercial failure.
Influence in literature
Some authors, such as Robert Arthur, Jr. and William Arden, have used Alfred Hitchcock”s character (with his agreement) in their novels for young people: The Three Young Detectives. This saga features young boys who investigate mysterious events and are sponsored by Alfred Hitchcock himself, who appears in most of the novels, in the introduction and conclusion. This series of novels has been translated in France by Claude Voilier, Vladimir Volkoff and L-M Antheyres, and has been published by Hachette, in the collections Bibliothèque verte and Livre de poche.
The total number of feature films directed by Alfred Hitchcock for the cinema is fifty-four, or fifty-three if we exclude Mary, a version of Murder shot with German actors. The first is actually The Garden of Pleasure, not Number Thirteen, which remained unfinished and of which what was shot seems to be lost today. The Mountain Eagle, Hitchcock”s second film, is also considered lost. Blackmail exists in two versions: one silent and one talking. The Crime was Almost Perfect exists in 2D – the only version available on DVD – and was, at the time of its release and on a few rare occasions afterwards, screened in 3D. Alfred Hitchcock has also directed twenty episodes of television series whose duration varies from half an hour to about an hour.
The first three reels of the film The White Shadow, thought to be lost, were found in August 2011 in New Zealand. These images are the oldest known of the “Master of Suspense”. On this early film, he would have been a screenwriter, set designer, editor and assistant to the director.
The table below lists Alfred Hitchcock”s achievements in film and television. For Hitchcock”s early work, the table includes the films in which he collaborated, mainly those directed by Graham Cutts. As for television, and in particular the Alfred Hitchcock presents series, only the episodes directed by Hitchcock himself are included. The works are previously classified chronologically, in the order of their first public presentation (cinema) or their first broadcast (TV), in an attempt to best reflect the creative path of the director.