Of the things we can say with some certainty about Alfred Hitchcock, he sure made a meal out of fear.
“I’m full of fears,” he said, “and I do my best to avoid difficulties and complications. I like everything around me to be clear as crystal and completely calm.”
One story Hitch often milked referred to a time when he was five years old and in trouble with his father, William Hitchcock, an East London greengrocer.
The nature of the trouble is unknown, but William thought it enough to send his son to the police station.
Alfred was banged up for 10 minutes. “That’s what we do to naughty boys,” the police told him.
The impact of the experience? Some argue that Alfred inherited his father’s cruel streak, realised in pranks on colleagues.
But he also claimed to be “terrified of policemen” (in addition to fears of eggs, women, heights, failure and on-set disruptions, be they from interfering producers or needy actors).
Whether the tale was true or part of Hitch’s self-mythologising is debatable. He was big in body and reputation, but few directors hid in plain sight so well.
Seeming as familiar as his pencil sketch of himself, Hitch appeared in his films. He spawned an adjective (“Hitchcockian”) and gave birth to an academic industry devoted to his films, which are often read as celluloid confessionals.
But he kept his inner life private. Hitch was thought to have had sex with one woman – his wife Alma Reville – and then not for at least 30 years.
“Suspense is like a woman,” he said. “The more left to the imagination, the more excitement.” Little wonder he became the “Master of Suspense”, a self-construct that was both the making of him and a trap.
Hitchcock was born in 1899 in East London. Raised Catholic and sent to St Ignatius College, a strict Jesuit school.
He was a tubby observer rather than a participant, albeit prone to orchestrating a good practical joke – such as, rumour has it, attaching firecrackers to one boy’s underwear.
His perception of himself was as “an uncommonly unattractive young man”, who immersed himself in theatre-going as well as technical journals on film.
After an apprenticeship in the sales department of an electronic engineers (Hitch could pitch), he entered the film industry as a title-card designer in 1920 at an American-owned studio in London.
He didn’t have much of a social life but he was ambitious, multi-tasking as an assistant director, art director and scriptwriter.
Zipping through his apprenticeship in three years, he made his first movie in Munich.
After a couple of “lost” German films, Hitch made what he called the “first true Hitchcock movie”, The Lodger, in 1926.
He was pioneering, in the right place at the right time to import techniques from Soviet cinema and German Expressionism into British films.
He made the first major British talkie, Blackmail, in 1929, a film indicative of the kind of fast-moving chase flicks that defined his ’30s output.
A few romances and adaptations aside, his films were zippy thrillers driven by “McGuffins”, his word for a plot device whose purpose was to keep the story rolling.
In the likes of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935), he focused on Average Joes caught up in unusual intrigue.
The careful deployment of sound and invariably precise direction were nailed well in advance of shooting; the films’ finales were often thrillingly vertiginous.
Hitch wasn’t distracted by romance.
“I’m very shy when it comes to women,” he told his collaborator, Alma, a fellow employee at the studio, who Hitch married when he felt he had earned her trust.
He learned the need to gain audience trust, too, which may have lead to his construction of a public personality.
“The name of the director,” he’d say, “should be associated in the public’s mind with a quality product.”
Versus David O Selznick
That association was sealed when his 1938 film The Lady Vanishes netted him the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director.
Former MGM mogul David O Selznick had vacillated over reeling in Hitch, but the award clinched it.
As for Hitch, he didn’t think much of Britain’s grey skies or grey film industry, though he did return during World War Two to make a couple of films.
“He’s not a bad guy,” Selznick said of Hitch. “Though he’s shorn of affectation and not exactly a guy to go camping with.”
Neither was Selznick, and he and Hitch chafed on many occasions, the Brit helmer taking offence at his boss’ hands-on producing methods.
A renowned tinkerer, Selznick ran script-revision sessions late into the night and recut the film before release.
He also wanted Rebecca to end with the smoke from her burning house, Manderlay, spelling the letter ‘R’ in the sky.
Hitch thought it was cheesy and compromised by inserting a shot of a pillow burning, an embroidered R being licked by flames.
Still, Rebecca won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1941 and Hitchcock then made one of his best films under Selznick: Notorious (1946), a dark psychological love story disguised as a Nazi espionage thriller starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.
Perhaps complications and disputes brought the best out of him.
It certainly seems that way when you compare his other movies of the period to the Selznick pictures: Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949), the two films Hitch made with his own production company, Transatlantic Pictures, fell some way short of Rebecca and Notorious.
Or maybe it was simply coincidence.
After all, the best of Hitch was still to come and this time it was the director himself who set the challenges, pushing himself to greater heights.
Master Of Suspense
Hitch steamed into the ’50s with Strangers On A Train (1951), a wickedly sadistic criss-cross murder thriller, part-written by Raymond Chandler.
The irascible writer once called Hitchcock a “fat bastard”; Hitch couldn’t handle that, apparently trying to remove Chandler’s script credit (he couldn’t) and never working with the crime writer again.
But the film’s star, Farley Granger, provided a nicer insight into Hitch’s avoidance of on-set aggravation.
“He’d have a little snooze every now and then in his chair, and I’d say, ‘What’s the matter Hitch, are you bored?’ And he’d say, ‘Oh no, but you know I’ve done all this.’”
Hitch’s pre-planning was thorough. He didn’t need deviations on the day. Actors were there to do a job and he’d let them get on with it, joking they should be “treated like cattle”.
At any rate, Hitch was on a roll until 1963, setting up deals with various studios that gave him more control as well as bigger budgets, bigger stars, bigger hits.
He also began to be referred to as the “Master of Suspense”, thanks to Warners’ publicity, a radio show and the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series.
It felt binding, though. “If I should make a film of another sort,” Hitch said, “people would come out asking, ‘Where was the suspense?’”
It was there in four of his finest films, which defined his decade: Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North By Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960).
In each, Hitch was an innovator.
For Rear Window, he turned a soundstage-based tale into one of his richest. With its metaphors for film viewing and voyeurism, Window was a gift for theorists as well as a tight thriller-cum-love-story.
In Vertigo, he pulled off a breathtaking mid-film twist, turned the everyman-ish James Stewart into a tragically neurotic figure and designed a vertigo-inducing shot (track-away, zoom in) that would become part of film grammar (think Roy Scheider on the beach in Jaws).
In North By Northwest, he engineered a dialogue-free, music-free cropduster attack that still looks bravura.
And Psycho gave us that shower scene, Janet Leigh sliced to ribbons by a flurry of razor-sharp edits and Bernard Herrmann’s shrieky strings.
Vertigo and Psycho deserve closer attention, the former being Hitch’s masterpiece and the latter his most notorious picture.
In Vertigo Stewart plays an acrophobic detective who falls in love with Madeleine (Kim Novak), a woman he’s investigating, only to have her die on him.
When he meets a woman who looks like her, he makes her over in Madeleine’s image... Hitch was similarly hands-on with his actresses, admitting as much regarding Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest: “I supervised the choice of her wardrobe in every detail – just as Stewart did with Novak in Vertigo.”
Novak didn’t want to wear a grey suit, but Hitch made it clear she would wear what she was told.
As Novak drifts through the film looking half-ghostly, half-human, it’s clear Hitch was right.
Psycho was similarly daring.
Hinged on another legendary mid-film twist, it taunted the censors with ahead-of-its-time material, from its post-coital opening to the flushing of a toilet.
Hitch extended his capacity for control beyond the set, too.
The trailer featured the director guiding audiences around the motel and Hitch even issued guidelines to cinemas (entitled The Care And Handling Of Psycho), archly instructing each cinema manager “at the risk of his life not to admit to the theatre any person after the picture starts.”
During this period, Hitch also became deified by French critics and filmmakers as an auteur, the young enthusiasts arguing that Hitch remade popular cinema in his own image.
After interviewing the director first-hand, one of François Truffaut’s many insights was this:
“The man who excels at filming fear is himself a very fearful person and I suspect this trait of his personality has a direct bearing on his success...
“How better to defend oneself than to become the director no actor will question, to become one’s own producer and to know more about technique than the technicians?”
For an encore, Hitch branched out with his most expensive film, a ferociously Freudian adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds (1963).
It may have been a turning point, though, especially given Hitchcock’s crises with his star, Tippi Hedren.
Hitch gave the former model a Vertigo-style makeover and crystallised her as an icon.
But he also had live birds thrown at her, a five-day ordeal that ended when Hedren’s eyelid was cut by an understandably frantic feathered friend.
She took a week off with exhaustion.
Then Hedren did the unthinkable: while making Hitch’s next film, Marnie (1964), she actually asked for time off, threatening his schedule.
Hitch said no. She then insulted him. “She referred to my weight,” Hitch said. He is then thought to have made a pass at his star.
Perhaps this sad faux pas was his response to years of repression over his self-perceived ugliness.
“I think,” Hedren remarked, “he would have liked to have looked like Cary Grant.” (In fairness to Hitch, so do a lot of men.)
If Hitch was trying to revive his love life, he was too late. Career-wise, his glory days were over, too.
Cinema was moving on just as the ageing director was slowing down. In Torn Curtain (1966), his disinterest in directing actors was made plain in dreary, under-handled turns from Julie Andrews and Paul Newman.
When Hitch’s Topaz was released in 1969, the same year as Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy, it looked staid next to the New Hollywood pack.
And his final film, Family Plot (1976), was lacklustre and archaic, Hitch’s casting of New Hollywooders Bruce Dern and Karen Black only accentuating its antiquity.
As Hitch’s health declined, so did Alma’s. He closed his Universal offices in 1978 and was hardly seen in public again.
When Ingrid Bergman visited him, he seemed terrified he was going to die.
She assured him he wasn’t alone: “Hitch, we’re all going to die.”
Finally, Hitch slipped away quietly in his sleep on 29 April 1980. No complications? No fear.
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