The Story Behind Alfred Hitchcock

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.

Next: Early Years [page-break]

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.

Next: Versus David O Selznick [page-break]

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.

Next: Master Of Suspense [page-break]

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.

Next: Innovation [page-break]

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.

Next: Psycho [page-break]

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.”

Next: The End [page-break]

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.

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Freelance writer

Kevin Harley is a freelance journalist with bylines at Total Film, Radio Times, The List, and others, specializing in film and music coverage. He can most commonly be found writing movie reviews and previews at GamesRadar+.