Alfred Hitchcock is among the few directors to combine a strong reputation for high-art film-making with great audience popularity. Throughout his career he gave his audiences more pleasure than could be asked for. The consistency of quality plot-lines and technical ingenuity earned him the recognition of being one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. His films earned him the reputation of being the “master of suspense”, and after viewing two of his more popular films, Psycho and The Birds, it is evident why. There is a distinction between surprise, which lasts only a few seconds, and suspense which captivates one’s attention the entire length of a film. This is something that Hitchcock realized early on, and applied into his movies. He is one of the few directors whose name on a marquee is as important, if not more so, than any actor who appears in the film itself. Both his style of directing, and that of the movies that he has directed are very unique, making him stand out in the
film industry. He pioneered the art of cinematography and special effects, which along with his cameos, are what he is most often associated with.Hitchcock led a long and prosperous life in the movie industry, starting as a
teenager and making movies up until his death in 1980, while working on the 54th of his career (Sterrit 3).
Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on August 13, 1889 in London, England. As a child his parents were very strict with him and they imposed severe and unusual punishments upon him, as what they considered to be discipline. One of these incidents scarred him for life. As punishment for arriving home late one night, young Alfred’s father had a policeman friend lock the boy up in a cell for five minutes, “in order to teach him where naughty little boys who come home after 9 o’clock would eventually end up.” (Phillips 27). Throughout his career he used the innocent man being arrested and imprisoned in his films, and claimed that forever after he had a fear of the police (Spoto 16). Fear was also a big part of his childhood, which later was evident in many of his movies. “Fear? It has influenced my life and my career.” (18) explains Hitchcock, he also had a fear of being alone and of darkness which once again appeared in many of his movies. “…fear you see is an emotion that people like to feel when they know they are safe.” (39).
Hitchcock led a life of fantasy, and spent much of his time alone, entertaining himself because he did not have many friends growing up. He lived life as if he was on the outside looking in. Much like a person watching
television or a director directing a picture. Reading was also a part of Hitchcock’s life from a young age. The novels Bleak House and Robinson Crusoe were two that stuck with him over the years. He also really enjoyed Edgar Allan Poe, stating that “Very likely it’s because I was so taken by the Poe stories that I later made suspense films.” (39). In 1915 he started work for the Henley Telegraphy Company. He soon began to study art at the University of London, which led to being promoted to Henley’s advertising department to design cable ads. But Hitchcock’s true love was the movies. He hunted all over the famous Wardour Street trying to obtain a position in film-making. In 1920 a co-worker at Henley’s helped him put together a portfolio and he was hired instantly by The Famous Players-Lasky as a title designer for silent films.
For two years Hitchcock wrote and designed for popular British movie directors. The hard working Hitchcock was recognized by his employers as well as leading actors of the day. In 1922 the director of Always Tell Your Wife, a film in progress, got very sick and had to leave the movie. The lead actor Seymore Hicks had to take over the duties of direction, but was stumped on ideas. The young Hitchcock assisted him with the rest of production, and a legacy had been born (Rohmer 4). Hitchcock’s solo directorial debut, The Pleasure Garden was released in January of 1927, but it was not until three weeks later that the illustrious career of Alfred J. Hitchcock really took off. In February of 1927 The Lodger was released and it attracted mass audiences because of the rave reviews it received early on.
It marked the first time in British film history that a director got more praise than did any of his stars (Kapsis 20). Besides being Hitchcock’s first acclaimed motion picture, The Lodger is also note worthy because it was the movie in which one of the greatest movie traditions of all time would begin; the famous Hitchcock cameo appearance, a unique trademark of his films for the next fifty years. In April of 1926, Michael Balcon told Hitchcock he wanted to make a movie of the 1913 mystery novel The Lodger, and felt that Hitchcock’s sense of character and narrative would be perfect (Spoto 84). So early in his career, Hitchcock already had a reputation for the true art of film-making.
Hitchcock always prided himself as being the total film-maker, planning and having total control over every aspect of his films, from casting to publicity. Hitchcock loved to be publicized, and some critics feel that the original intent of his unusual camera shots were no more than a publicity stunt at first. Regardless, Hitchcock brought cinematography to new levels, pioneering the point-of-view shot, which among other things was recognized for its ability to bring about viewer-character identification (Sterrit 11). Hitchcock’s cameos, which he admitted to have borrowed from Charles Chaplin in A Woman of Paris (Kapsis 21), was just another example of Hitchcock’s personalization and perhaps little “gimmicks” of his films. He did not just become characters like did colleagues Orson Welles or Woody Allen, but his presence and style was always recognized. During the first decade of his career Hitchcock toyed with a variety of formats including theatrical adaptation, romance, musical, and of course, thrillers. It was not until 1934 when Hitchcock filmed The Man Who Knew Too Much that Hitchcock started making thrillers on a regular basis. That film marked the first is a secession of six thrillers which would become known as the classic “thriller sextet”.
Following the 1938 release of The Lady Vanishes, Hitchcock was voted to be the best director of that year by New York film critics (23). Throughout the 1940’s his reputation continued to flounder with the hit movies Spellbound (1944 [in which artist Salvador Dali painted some scenery]), and Notorious (1946). The 1950’s was the beginning of Hitchcock’s most productive and popular era. Movies like Dial “M” for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and North By Northwest (1959) were on the big screen and the Hitchcock name was everywhere.
In 1955 the television program “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” was also released. The style and reputation that came with the Hitchcock name was visible in every movie, in every scene. North By Northwest to this point had gone where no other film had gone before. The airplane chase in the cornfield became one of the most famous sequences in movie history, and really identified Hitchcock as a cinematographer and a director. Well, it is only fitting that the most famous murder-thriller movie of all time be the next released. Psycho (1960) became Hitchcock’s biggest commercial hit ever. Produced at just over $800,000, it grossed over $20 million (Bowers 1391). Psycho is the story of murder and deception, but at the same time (although slightly ambiguous) it is the story of split personality and not letting go.
Suspense (and in some cases fear) is built up throughout the entire movie, making the viewer forget that there are only two actual scenes of violence. Psycho is a film that takes place more in the mind of the viewer than on the screen. The movie is based on a novel with the same name by Robert Bloch, which was a fictionalization of a real event in Wisconsin (Bowers 1393). Marion Crane is the first character that is really introduced. She is upset because her and her boyfriend Sam can not get married due to financial difficulties. Marion’s boss entrusts her to deposit $40,000 of a client’s money. The next time we see Marion she is packing a bag and has the money with her, obviously planning to leave with it. Even though she is a thief, the audience is still sympathetic towards her because of her situation. Marion trades in her car for a new one and leaves Phoenix heading towards California, where her and Sam plan to get married. When Marion pulls over for the night, the first view of the now famous Bates motel and mansion.
A figure of an old woman is visible in the window. As Marion wanders around the motel she meets Norman, the proprietor, and also sees his hobby of stuffing birds. After she is taken to her room, she is sitting on her bed (with the bathroom and shower clearly visible in the background) and she hears an argument between Norman and his mother. Marion then decides to take a bath before bed, and the most famous murder scene in movie history takes place. The infamous shower sequence, totally takes the viewer by surprise. Marion who appears to be the main character is killed off in the first third of the movie. This scene required over 60 still shots, 70 setups, and over a week of attempts; all for a less than a minute on screen. True Hitchcock genius, you never actually see the knife strike Marion, but the loud, high pitched screeching music, and the close-ups of her face and the knife sends chills through the body. An investigator comes out to the motel, and becomes the next victim. Soon the audience learns that there is no Mother Bates, when one of the other investigators discovers her body in the basement, where she is attracted by Norman, the split personality, dressed in his mother’s clothing.
The movie has foreshadowing and imagery through out, such as the credits splitting apart, and all the use of mirrors, implying that perhaps other characters are split also (Spoto 357), and the presence of the shower and all the stuffed birds in the background. As William Blowitz said “The star of this picture is Alfred Hitchcock.” (Kapasis 83). “A blot on an honorable career” is how New York Times (NYT) critic Bosley Crowther announced the release of Psycho in 1960, and by the end of the year he had it on his list of 10 best for the year (Sterrit 100). In his original review Crowther says that Psycho is “…obviously a low budget job.” and “It does seem slowly paced for Mr. Hitchcock and given over to a lot of small detail.” (NYT film review). He also said that the stunts were exaggerated. “The consequence in his denouement falls quite flat for us. But the acting is quite fair.” is how he describes the other aspects of this film; the film which best describes the mastery of Alfred Hitchcock. Philip T. Hartung who reviewed Psycho for Commonweal magazine in September of 1960, had a different opinion of it; “Hitchcock pushes everything as far as he can go: the violence, the sex, the thrills and the gore.” All of the literature used in this report all agree on one fact: Psycho is a movie beyond its years and is one of the best in movie history. Although none of his movies did or would ever compare to the success of Psycho, his next release The Birds (1963), is another classic example of Hitchcock’s true genius. Inspired by a unusual occurrence of “crying” birds, who bit some residents along the San Francisco coast, The Birds is another scary, and truly remarkable movie (Discover 37). Again the use of special effects and unique camera angles are found in this Hitchcock classic.
This movie also comes from a novel by Daphne du Maurier, who’s storytelling abilities make a reader believe, much like Hitchcock himself (DeWitt 249). The Birds begins in San Francisco where Mitch Brenner meets Melanie Daniels. She has a crush on him and decides to visit him weekend house. Melanie arrives in town, where all the birds have already begun to gather. The birds behave strangely, and cause the people to be threatened. The birds attack all over Bodega Bay, seemingly unprovoked. In one scene a flock of birds plunged down upon a gas station where a worker is frightened and drops the gas pump. The gas continues to flow from it, and is set on fire, when a passer-by drops a match on the ground causing a immense damage.
In a later scene the children are trapped in the school, and as the teacher attempts to lead them to their homes, believing the birds have flow away, they turn a corner and are suddenly surrounded. The birds come together and strike, while the children run and scream for their lives. Some of them trip and are either pecked to death or trampled. Throughout the movie the birds wreak havoc all along the coast of San Francisco. All the remaining people escape the town, and the birds move in and seem to claim as their own, as though they were a conquering army. The movie just ends without any real idea of what happens next, something that Hitchcock had never done before. According to Bosley Crowther who reviewed the movie in April, 1963 for NYT “The cast is appropriate and sufficient to this melodramatic intent. Tippi Hedren is pretty, bland and wholesome as the disruptive girl. Rod Taylor is stolid and sturdy as the mother-smothered son.”
He goes on to say that the narrative elements of this film are clear and naturalistic, and he thinks the scenery is very well suited to the movie. “Mr. Hitchcock and his associates have constructed a horror film that should raise the hackles on the most carageous and put goose-pimps on the toughest hide.” ( Crowther qtd NYT). It is rather obvious that Mr. Crowther enjoyed this picture at first viewing more than he did Psycho. Hitchcock always believed that developing an artistic reputation was far more important than fame, and that as much as you put in, that is how much you get out. The remarkable life and career of Alfred Hitchcock demonstrate truth in his words. He put everything he had into all his movies, making sure that every detail, no matter how minute, was perfect. Alfred Joseph Hitchcock died in 1980 while working on what would have been his 54th motion picture. His unique style and breakthrough ideas will stand for all time, and he will always be remembered as one of the greatest directors of all time.