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New York Times (30/Apr/1980) - Obituary: Alfred Hitchcock

(c) New York Times (30/Apr/1980)

Alfred Hitchcock, Master of Suspense and Celebrated Film Director, Dies at 80

Alfred Hitchcock, whose mastery of suspense and of directing technique made him one of the most popular and celebrated of film makers, died yesterday at the age of 80 at his home in Los Angeles. Mr. Hitchcock, ailing with arthritis and kidney failures, had been in declining health for a year.

In a characteristically incisive remark, Mr. Hitchcock once summed up his approach to moviemaking: "Some films are slices of life, mine are slices of cake." The director of scores of psychological thrillers for more than half a century was the master manipulator of menace and the macabre, and the leading specialist in suspense and shock.

His best movies were meticulously orchestrated nightmares of peril and pursuit relieved by unexpected comic ironies, absurdities and anomalies. Films made by the portly, cherubic director invariably progressed from deceptively commonplace trifles of life to shattering revelations, and with elegant style and structure, he pervaded mundane events and scenes with a haunting mood of mounting anxiety.

In delicately balancing the commonplace and the bizarre, he was the most noted juggler of emotions in the longest major directorial career in film history. His distinctive style was vigorously visual, always stressing imagery over dialogue and often using silence to increase apprehension. Among his most stunning montages were a harrowing attack by a bullet-firing crop-dusting plane on Cary Grant at a deserted crossroad amid barren cornfields in "North by Northwest," a brutal shower-slaying in "Psycho" and an avian assault on a sleepy village in "The Birds."

Hitch, as he was called by his friends and colleagues, doubtlessly frightened more audiences than any other director in movie history, and he was one of the few film makers who was a household name for many decades. A trademark was the fleeting, nonspeaking appearances he made in his films.

As the leading British director of the 30's, he set the standard for international intrigue and espionage with such classic thrillers as "The 39 Steps" and "The Lady Vanishes."

Increasingly Pessimistic

After moving to Hollywood in 1939, he made such taut melodramas as "Rebecca," "Foreign Correspondent," "Suspicion," "Shadow of a Doubt," "Lifeboat," "Spellbound," "Notorious," "Strangers on a Train," "Rear Window" and "Vertigo." His later shockers mirrored his increasingly pessimistic view of most people and mounting evil in the world.

Reflecting his motif of a world in disorder, Mr. Hitchcock placed endangered protagonists in settings epitomizing order -- citadels of civilization, the Statue of Liberty, United Nations headquarters, Mount Rushmore and Britain's Parliament.

Reviewers acclaimed his virtuosity in creating a rhythm of anticipation with understated, sinister overtones, innovative pictorial nuance and montage, brilliant use of parallel editing of simultaneous action, menacingly oblique camera angles and revealing cross- cutting of objective shots with subjective views of a scene from an actor's perspective.

Detractors accused Mr. Hitchcock of relying on slick tricks, illogical story lines and wild coincidences, but he usually did not allow viewers time to ponder implausibilities because of the whiplike speed of his films.

Spinning his sophisticated yarns to create maximum tension, Mr. Hitchcock was not concerned with plausibility, which he regarded as no more important than the "MacGuffin," the term he used for the device about which his suspense revolved, whether it be the secret or documents or whatever the villains were seeking or trying to protect.

Sought Exotic Settings

A favorite Hitchcock theme centered on "the wrong man" who was unjustly accused of a crime and hunted by both the villains and the police because of mistaken identity or incriminating information he inadvertently acquired. The storyteller sought consistently to freshen the concept with novel variations and plot twists and to avoid clichés in a careerlong effort to refine his style and enrich his films.

His films were spiced with unusual peripheral characters and often shot on location in exotic settings. His heroines were usually "cool" classic beauties who "don't drip sex," he said. "You discover sex in them."

At its best, the Hitchcock touch revealed a cornucopia of conjurer's tricks, dextrously juxtaposing tension and relaxation, relieving horror with humor. "After a certain amount of suspense," he told an interviewer, "the audience must find relief in laughter."

He deplored James Bond-type gimmicks and played on childhood anxieties -- fear of heights, enclosed places and open spaces -- and his plots dealt with suspicion, guilt, complicity, delusion, vulnerability, irrationality, violence and sexual obsession. He manipulated moviegoers so adroitly that at times they felt implicated in the most despicable acts, including those of a homicidal maniac.

In Mr. Hitchcock's world, people may or may not be what they appear to be, but the audience sees and knows more than the protagonists. He invariably alerted viewers to imminent dangers such as a ticking time bomb, withholding the knowledge from imperiled characters, and identified the villains early on, eschewing the "whodunit" as "a sort of intellectual puzzle" that is "void of emotion."

Technical Challenges

The director was intrigued by technical challenges, in making things work. He had a profound knowledge of all aspects of moviemaking, and wrote the production section for the Encyclopedia Britannica. He made expert use of objects, placing, for example, a light in a glass of possibly poisoned milk in "Suspicion" to rivet attention on it.

Before filming, he drew precise sketches of every scene, meticulously listing each camera angle. Working with his screenwriter for months, he freely adapted material, writing up to 100-page shot schedules without dialogue. He almost never looked through the camera's viewfinder and scrupulously avoided improvising on the set.

His films had such consistent mass appeal that reviewers were sometimes condescending to them. But in the 50's, a group of young French film makers and critics associated with the "Cahiers du Cinema" newly extolled his achievements.

François Truffaut, a leading director of France's New Wave, praised him as "the most complete film maker" of all American directors and "an all-round specialist, who excels at every image, each shot and every scene."

Lauding Mr. Hitchcock as a leading "artist of anxiety" with a "purely visual" style, Mr. Truffaut commented that "Hitchcock is almost unique in being able to film directly, that is, without resorting to explanatory dialogue, such intimate emotions as suspicion, jealousy, desire and envy."

Detractors acknowledged his technical expertise in entertaining, but faulted his films for lacking substance and significance, for moral opportunism and for being cynical, superficial and glib in their views of human nature. Admirers vehemently disagreed, terming him a compulsive storyteller who showed human nature as it is and not as it should be, and describing the psychological probing of much of his later work as profound in its foresight of an irrational and disordered world.

Resembling a pixieish gargoyle, the rotund director had a pudgy, basset-hound face with heavy jowls and pouting lips. He was a witty raconteur who gave sly, sardonic and eminently quotable interviews peppered with put-ons and whimsical ideas for new movies. He became somewhat of a national institution in shaping a public image as a genially ghoulish cynic noted for barbed pronouncements about life and commercials in two popular weekly television series, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and the "Alfred Hitchcock Hour," which he supervised and was host of in the late 50's and early 60's.

Behind his somewhat fictional, self-projected image was a highly skilled and dedicated artist who withstood exhaustive study by debunkers. Regarded as one of the shrewdest businessmen in Hollywood, he became a multimillionaire. He also gained more complete control over every aspect of his productions, screenplay, casting, photography, editing, soundtrack and publicity, than any Hollywood director.

Mr. Hitchcock, who also produced many of his later films, was showered with laurels. He won the 1967 Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and "Rebecca," his first American movie, won an Oscar as the best film of 1940. He was nominated for directorial Oscars five times, for "Rebecca," "Lifeboat" in 1944, "Spellbound" in 1945, "Rear Window" in 1954 and "Psycho" in 1960.

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born in London on Aug. 13, 1899, to a poultry dealer, greengrocer and fruit importer and the former Emma Whelan. He graduated from St. Ignatius College, a Jesuit school in London, where he studied engineering, and took art courses at the University of London.

In childhood incidents, he developed a lifelong fear of the police and punishment, major influences on his movies. At about the age of 5, he was sent by his father with a note to a local police chief, who locked him in a cell for five minutes. In releasing him, the officer said, "That's what we do to naughty boys." Mr. Hitchcock later said he could never forget "the sound and the solidity of that closing cell door and the bolt."

Mr. Hitchcock attributed his fear of punishment to ritual beatings of the hands with a hard rubber strop, administered for infractions at St. Ignatius, that he recalled "was like going to the gallows."

Became a Draftsman

He worked briefly as a technical calculator for a cable company, but soon abandoned technology for art, becoming an advertising layout draftsman for a London department store.

In his teens, he was determined to break into film making, and by brashness and ability he won a job in 1920 writing and illustrating title cards for silent pictures. He rose quickly, to script writer, art director and assistant director.

By 1925, Mr. Hitchcock had become a director, making a melodrama called "The Pleasure Garden" on a shoestring budget in Munich, West Germany. He began shaping his genre with "The Lodger," about Jack the Ripper. Early influences, he said, were German Expressionistic and American films.

In 1926, he married Alma Reville, his assistant, who collaborated on many of his movies as a writer, adviser and general assistant. Their daughter, Patricia, acted in a number of his movies and television thrillers.

The pictorial and technical innovations of Mr. Hitchcock's early melodramas garnered him increasing praise. In 1929, he directed "Blackmail," Britain's first widely successful talking feature. In the 30's, he won international acclaim for his pacesetting spy thrillers, including "The Man Who Knew Too Much"; "The 39 Steps"; "Secret Agent"; "Sabotage," called "The Woman Alone" in the United States, and "The Lady Vanishes."

Lured to Hollywood

David O Selznick lured Mr. Hitchcock to Hollywood, with its incomparable technical facilities, and he stayed, becoming an American citizen. His first American production, the adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's Gothic novel "Rebecca," with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, began a long string of successes.

In the film maker's early years in Hollywood, he created a stir when he quipped that "all actors are children" and "should be treated like cattle." He later showed particular disdain for Method school actors. But he never raised his voice on a set and never argued with a performer in front of the crew. A number of stars later described him as a vividly persuasive man who knew exactly what he wanted in a picture -- and got it.

Despite his recent illness, the director was reportedly at work at Universal Studios on a new film, a spy story to be called "The Short Night." With him at his death were his wife, Alma; his daughter, Patricia, and his three grandchildren. In the last year of his life, Mr. Hitchcock, although a United States citizen, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of his native Britain.

In contrast with the disordered Hitchcockian cinema world, the moviemaker's personal life was routinized, stable and serene. Unless he was shooting a film or out promoting one, he rarely ventured away from his home or office, according to Richard Schickel, who interviewed him for a public television series, "The Men Who Made the Movies," in 1975.

The director had a measured, courtly manner and wore dark suits, white shirts and conservative narrow ties. He was a gourmet and wine connoisseur, and, with a 5-foot-8-inch frame, his weight once soared to 290 pounds, though he tried to keep it down by dieting to about 220 pounds. He avoided exercise and fiction, and voraciously read contemporary biographies, travel books and true-crime accounts. He increased his fame and fortune by lending his name to, and supervising for decades, popular suspense anthologies and magazines with tales by many writers.

Mr. Hitchcock was a noted practical joker whose favorite prank was telling a tantalizing story in a loud voice to a companion in an elevator, perfectly timing his exit just before the punch line and then bowing politely to the intrigued but frustrated passengers.