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

(c) The Times (30/Apr/1980)


SIR ALFRED HITCHCOCK, Master of screen suspense

Sir Alfred Hitchcock, who died yesterday in Los Angeles at the age of 80, was perhaps the greatest single contribution of Britain to world cinema. He had the longest active career of any first-rate film-maker, over 80 films in 50 years, and several of these are to be found in even the severest critics' lists of all-time masterpieces. And this despite Hitchcock's persistence in working entirely within the framework of unashamedly popular, commercial cinema and his devotion to the conventions of a not very seriously regarded genre, the thriller.

Hitchcock's preoccupation with a thriller form began early in his career. He was born in London on August 12, 1899 into a Roman Catholic family, and had a Jesuit education. He began work in his teens as a commercial artist in the advertising department of a telegraph company, and it was a natural extension of this to design the titles for the silent films then being made locally at the long-defunct Islington Studios.

Being a young man of ideas, he rapidly found himself not only designing the titles, but writing them as well.

He was even sufficiently fascinated by film-making to set in train an independent production, modest enough in its scope; in 1921: Number Thirteen, which he began to direct himself and produced in co-operation with Ernest Thesiger and Clare Greet, who were to start in it. The project foundered for lack of finance, but the next year Hitchcock was called in to finish another film, Always Tell Your Wife, when the director fell ill, and from then on he worked full-time in the cinema, first as designer, assistant, director, script collaborator and jack-of-all-trades on five films directed by Graham Cutts, then in 1925 as full director on The Pleasure Garden, a Michael Balcon production made, like his second film, The Mountain Eagle, in Germany.

It would be fanciful to see any clear signs of Hitchcock’s individuality in either of these films, but with his third, The Lodger, he became unmistakably the Hitchcock the world came to know.

The story was a psychological mystery based on the arrival of a strange young man in an ordinary London household at the time of the Jack-the-Ripper killings, and Hitchcock made brilliant use of the London fogs and the claustrophobic atmosphere of the beleaguered family.

From then on everything Hitchcock did was awaited with eager interest; he had become a name to conjure with, and the nearest thing Britain then had to a director of international importance. The rest of his silent films were varied in their subject-matter, including adaptations of Noel Coward's play Easy Virtue; Eden Phillpots' The Farmer's Wife and Hall Caine's The Manxman, as well as, most interestingly, an original prizefighting story, The Ring, in scripting which Hitchcock collaborated for the first time with his wife, Alma Reville. He did not have the chance to explore further the territory of the thriller until what was to turn into his first sound film Blackmail, which was begun silent and then transformed hurriedly into a talkie to meet the sudden demand for them in Britain.

Blackmail, though in certain respects it now looks naive and uncomfortable, established Hitchcock at the time as one of the first complete masters of the sound medium. He was compelled from the outset to experiment in various ways; since he had already shot most of the film with a leading lady who could hardly speak English playing an ordinary girl from the London suburbs, he had to devise a way of dubbing her with another actress's voice, and was also led to a non-realistic use of sound (in a medium then largely vowed to heavy literalness) in order to cover up the sudden, largely improvised reworking of something conceived in silent terms. Blackmail confirmed Hitchcock's reputation in Britain and abroad. Hitchcock himself established the habit of making a token appearance in each of his films, the moment being led up to and often disguised with considerable ingenuity so that it added to the sport of the film to try to spot him.

The succession of Hitchcock's famous films of the 1930s, six of them all made during the four years 1934-38, remains a monument to his technical genius and to his perfection of an irresistibly enjoyable but ultimately limited genre. The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Secret Agent, Sabotage, Young and Innocent, The Lady Vanishes -- they summon up a combined picture of an England gone for ever, and quite possibly invented by Hitchcock to begin with. A land of spies behind the scenes in local fleapit cinemas, sinister goings-on in the mission-halls of strange sects, bodies slumped over the keyboards of organs, nuns in high heels and silk stockings.

Of this world Hitchcock was the undisputed master. But by the end of the 1930s he was evidently beginning to chafe at the limitations of the kind of film he was making. Inevitably overtures came to him from Hollywood, and after completing work on a Daphne Du Maurier adaptation, Jamaica Inn (itself an unusual excursion for him into costume drama) he went to America under contract to David O Selznick, with his first assignment the much-heralded film version of Daphne Du Maurier's bestseller, Rebecca. Though it has become fashionable to regard Hitchcock's arrival in Hollywood as the consecration of his talents, it must be said that for the first few years of his sojourn there he did not seem to be entirely at his ease

Rebecca, and other of his early American films, suffered from studio intervention. In 1943, however, he made a return to form in the first of his films to show a direct reaction to the American scene, Shadow of a Doubt, made largely on location in California.

He made a quick visit to Britain to direct a couple of short propaganda films for the Ministry of Information, and then became involved in a series of big productions, like Spellbound and Notorious, in which potentially interesting subjects tended to get overlaid, if not, overwhelmed, with Hollywood gloss.

The spectacular rebirth of Hitchcock's talents came with Strangers on a Train, made in America in 1951.

This film, an adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel of which Raymond Chandler collaborated, is a masterly piece of plot manipulation which has a density and moral ambiguity about it which were to become the hallmark of Hitchcock's mature work -- the thriller philosophised and psychologised without being therefore any the less a thriller. It was the model for a succession of brilliant films directed by Hitchcock throughout the 1950s.

In 1957 an eccentric but influential book by the French film-makers Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer revolutionized critical attitudes to Hitchcock by proposing a new view of him as a Roman Catholic moralist with a consistent subject matter and a consistently developing viewpoint throughout his entire oeuvre.

In 1954 came Rear Window, which explores with great virtuosity the possibility that a seemingly dispassionate observer can become a moral accomplice in what he observes: The Trouble with Harry, a charmingly wide-eyed comedy about an inconvenient body which remains the most "English" of Hitchcock's American films: Vertigo, a dreamlike drama of obsession and shifting identity: North by Northwest, a picaresque adventure featuring some of Hitchcock's most spectacular set-pieces; and Psycho, which showed Hitchcock entering his seventh decade with a film of such cool and shattering modernity that it left members of the various "new waves" around the world, often 30 or 40 years his junior, looking ultra-conservative by comparison.

In his sixties, of an age when most film-makers are thinking about, or forced into retirement, Hitchcock continued with almost undiminished vigour to make films. Two of them, Torn Curtain and Topaz, tended to confirm that he was correct in his oft-expressed mistrust of the spy drama, at least as a subject for himself. But on the other hand The Birds, a terrifying piece of science fiction, and especially Marnie and Frenzy, two studies of crime and sexual obsession, clearly demonstrated that his powers were still at their height and that, in his own field, he had no rivals.

It has often been suggested that Hitchcock's subject matter had something of the morbid about it. But this is by no means the impression his films give. There is, it is true, an element of cheery ruthlessness about many of the films, a black humour which is as far removed from the sick as Harry Graham's Rushless Rhymes for Heartless Homes. But the strength of Hitchcock's work throughout his career resides in its constant sense of health and normality as the context within which his most monstrous and extraordinary characters move and have their being: it is precisely because they are presented as bizarre and extraordinary yet still within the bounds of the possible that they affect us so powerfully.

Hitchcock was also one of the cinema's great psychologists, not so much in his handling of character within his films, but in his handling of his audiences responses: he seemed, in effect, to direct his audiences far more than he directed his films. He was the great master of shock effects, of lulling audiences into a sense of security before hitting them hardest, or building artfully to a calculated letdown. He also had the most detailed practical knowledge of exactly how the star system worked and the ambiguity of our responses to the character within the drama.

He thus became the ultimate Hollywood director while remaining throughout his life defiantly British, a Billy Bunter who had somehow turned out to be a great artist. If the thriller is a minor genre, he contrived by sheer intensity of vision, allied with unchallenged technical skills, to wake within that genre at least a dozen films which seem as likely to survive, still able to delight and amaze future generations as any in the history of the cinema.

Hitchcock was created KBE in the New Years Honours this year.

He married in 1926, Alma Reville. They had one daughter.