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Oxford Dictionary of National Biography - Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock, Alfred Joseph (1899–1980), film director, was born on 13 August 1899 in Leytonstone, Essex, the youngest of the three children of William Hitchcock (1862–1914), a greengrocer and poulterer, and his wife, Emma Jane Whelan (1863–1942). In childhood he was an isolated, tubby little boy, with few schoolfriends. The Hitchcock household appears to have been characterized by an atmosphere of discipline, something that perhaps later helped inspire the portrayal of authoritarian fathers (as in Strangers on a Train, 1951) and claustrophobic, sometimes emotionally disturbed mothers (as in "Marnie", 1964). A painful memory, which he often cited as having shaped his attitude towards authority, fear and guilt, was being sent by his father at the age of five with a note addressed to the superintendent of the local police station, where he was locked in a cell for ten minutes and then released with the words, "That is what we do to naughty boys."

Hitchcock was educated at various schools in London, including St Ignatius College, Stamford Hill, a Jesuit school which, along with his own family's religious background, may have been to some extent responsible for the 'Catholic' themes of his films. Obliged to leave school at the age of fourteen, after his father's death, he found work as a draughtsman and advertising designer with the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company. However, he was able to extend his artistic talents by attending night school courses in art and art history. The stories of Edgar Allan Poe intrigued him from an early age, and he was keen on American films, and in particular those of D. W. Griffith and Buster Keaton. Hearing that a film studio was to be opened in London by the Famous Players-Lasky Company, Hitchcock approached it with a portfolio of his artistic work. In 1920 he was appointed to design and illustrate silent movie titles; and he soon made himself indispensable at the Islington studios, where he came under the influence of the director George Fitzmaurice, whose meticulous preparation, eye for detail, and storyboard planning clearly left their mark. In 1924 the studio was taken over by a British company, Gaumont Pictures; but Hitchcock's talent was soon recognized by the head of Gainsborough at Islington, Michael Balcon, who subsequently offered him the chance to direct his first feature film, "The Pleasure Garden" (1925).

By this time two important events had taken place in Hitchcock's life: he had met the film editor Alma Reville (1900–1982), and visited Germany. He married Alma on 2 December 1926 at the Brompton Oratory in Knightsbridge. They lived at 153 Cromwell Road, where their daughter Patricia was born on 7 July 1928, and later acquired a house in the country, in Surrey. An editor who had also been working at Islington, Alma was to remain an important collaborator and adviser throughout Hitchcock's career, often mentioned in the credits of films made well into his career (for example, "The Paradine Case", 1947). Patricia trained as an actress and appeared in three of Hitchcock's films ("Stage Fright", 1950; "Strangers on a Train", 1951; "Psycho", 1960).

Early films

Not long after meeting Alma, Hitchcock spent time in Germany in the mid-1920s as an assistant director. In 1924 he assisted Graham Cutts on "The Blackguard", an Anglo-German production filmed at UFA Studios, and then worked in 1925 at Emelka Studios in Munich, where he made "The Pleasure Garden" and the now lost "The Mountain Eagle" (1926). The dominant characteristics of German expressionist cinema — above all, chiaroscuro lighting, visual distortions, and theatricality — left their mark on Hitchcock's early work, perhaps most notably in "The Lodger" (1926). But even later films such as "Suspicion" (1940), "Psycho", and "Marnie" mix mainstream studio house styles of deep shadows and sumptuous sets with traces of an aesthetic mode with which Hitchcock became familiar by watching F. W. Murnau and others at work on the sound stages next door to where "The Blackguard" was being filmed. Expressionism, though, was not alone responsible for shaping Hitchcock's art. Hollywood pace (for example, in "The Lady Vanishes", 1938), Soviet montage ("The Thirty-Nine Steps", 1935), and the dream landscapes of surrealism ("Number 17", 1932) reveal early on the extent of Hitchcock's indebtedness to other film styles.

After returning to Britain to resume his career, Hitchcock directed "The Lodger", based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes. But as Ivor Novello, a romantic star of the stage at that time, was cast in the lead role, the script had to remove the ambiguity surrounding the main character's innocence. Drawing on Hitchcock's lifelong fascination with classic English murders, the film was about a man suspected of being Jack the Ripper. At a cost of £12,000, a considerable sum for the time, the film seemed doomed at first, since the financial executive at the studio, C. M. Woolf, disliked its 'Germanic' and 'unAmerican' style. But after Ivor Montagu, an editor, had worked on the titles and various scenes, a slightly modified version of the film was finally shown to the press, to great acclaim. On the back of this success "The Pleasure Garden" and "The Mountain Eagle" (which had been shelved) were also released. Hitchcock made two further films at Gainsborough, both adaptations: "Downhill" (1927), based on a play by David Le Strange (a pseudonym for Ivor Novello), and "Easy Virtue" (1927), by Noël Coward, neither of which reached the heights of "The Lodger".

From Gainsborough, Hitchcock moved to British International Pictures. Here he made "The Ring" (1927), scripted for the first time by Hitchcock himself, "The Farmer's Wife" (1928), a comedy, "Champagne" (1928), a melodramatic comedy, and "The Manxman" (1929), his last silent film. Apart from the odd flourish, none of these is particularly striking, but they prepared the way for his next brilliant success, "Blackmail" (1929), his first sound film, and one that helped substantially to establish his reputation as a British director with a common touch who was also aware of international trends. The plot of "Blackmail" involved a police officer in love with an accidental murderess. The script was quarried from a play by Charles Bennett, who was to become a regular collaborator of Hitchcock's over the next few years. Among the most remarkable features of the film is the use of sound montage. Dialogue here is used creatively, sometimes to emphasize the state of mind of a character rather than serve merely as a simple tool of communication. The scene at breakfast, where the cinema audience and the girl who has just killed a man hear only the word 'knife' in the monologue delivered by a woman at the breakfast table, is a masterly example of this technique. "Blackmail" was also the film in which Hitchcock first made what was to become his trademark appearance, an early indication of a lifelong passion for self-publicity that also resulted at this time in the setting up of Hitchcock Baker Productions to promote his work. But as with "The Lodger", so too with "Blackmail": the film was followed by disappointing work, not always of Hitchcock's own choosing: "Juno and the Paycock" (1930), based on the play by Sean O'Casey; "Murder!" (1930), a reworking of "Enter Sir John", a play by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson; and "The Skin Game" (1931) by John Galsworthy. As ever, the films are redeemed by characteristic touches, and their theatricality served at the very least to develop Hitchcock's enduring interest in the theme of artifice.

With the completion of "The Skin Game" Hitchcock and family went in 1931 on a world cruise. This gave him the idea for a film about a couple who spend an unexpected legacy on a sea voyage. The result was "Rich and Strange", an underrated bitter-sweet comedy with a trademark interest in faded desire. But shooting the film, eventually reworking a story by Dale Collins, had to be postponed. When Hitchcock returned to British International Pictures he was under instruction to make "Number 17" (1932), a rather stiff, melodramatic play by Jefferson Farjeon. These were Hitchcock's last two films at the studio. Before he teamed up again with Michael Balcon at Gaumont-British he made one film for Tom Arnold: "Waltzes from Vienna" (1933), a musical play that had earlier had great success on the stage. Jessie Matthews, a famous musical star, who was given the lead, enjoyed a poor relationship with Hitchcock, who, she claimed, perhaps not unreasonably, seemed uncomfortable directing a musical.

This deviation from his usual interests was soon forgotten as Hitchcock went on at Gaumont-British to make some of the most interesting sound films of his British period: "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934), "The Thirty-Nine Steps" (1935), "Secret Agent" (1936), "Sabotage" (1936), "Young and Innocent" (1937), and "The Lady Vanishes" (1938). With one or two minor blemishes, such as the rather mannered theatricality of John Gielgud in "Secret Agent", these are the masterly achievements of a director in full command of his creative talent, working more or less according to his own tastes and instincts, making films that began increasingly to attract the attention of Hollywood.

In 1937 Hitchcock duly set sail for America, where he met for the first time David O. Selznick, an important figure in his early Hollywood career. A deal with Selznick was still a couple of years away, and in the interim Hitchcock made two films: the first, the brilliant "The Lady Vanishes", on which he worked for the first time with Launder and Gilliat, and the second, "Jamaica Inn" (1939), one of his least convincing, in no small measure the result of Charles Laughton's overblown acting. In March 1939 the Hitchcocks returned to America, this time permanently, considering Britain too burdened by class-consciousness, a country where film was dismissed as a form of entertainment fit only for the uncultured. Perceived attitudes like these contributed to Hitchcock's eventual decision to become an American citizen (20 April 1955).


The success of "The Thirty-Nine Steps", "Young and Innocent", and "The Lady Vanishes", and the extremely enthusiastic notices his films had been receiving in the American press, alerted Hollywood to Hitchcock. New York film critics had even voted him the best director of 1938. He agreed to work for David Selznick, hoping that at a smaller studio he would be a favoured director, allowed to get on with his own projects uninterruptedly. The original intention was to make a film based on the Titanic, but this project was soon dropped, and Hitchcock started work instead on "Rebecca" (1940), a critical success and his only film to be awarded an Oscar for best picture. He remained contracted to Selznick for several tension-filled years, during which he was loaned out to various studios from time to time.

Like "Jamaica Inn" (and "The Birds"), "Rebecca" was based on a Daphne du Maurier novel. Its atmosphere of suspense and entrapment allowed Hitchcock to explore the familiar psychological territory of the pale and vulnerable, 'gothic' heroine searching for authenticity in a labyrinth of social pressure and expectation. Although he himself had reservations about the film, largely because he felt it remained too faithful to the original source, it clearly belongs both formally and thematically to his mainstream obsessions. But once Hitchcock started work on "Rebecca" he began to resent the interference of Selznick, who felt that the script Hitchcock had mined from Daphne du Maurier's novel was too free. Other sources of tension between the two men included Hitchcock's method of cutting in the camera, a technique that meant Selznick could not tamper with the film in the later editing stage. These disagreements encouraged Selznick to loan Hitchcock out to other studios. At first he worked with Walter Wanger on a film that was to become "Foreign Correspondent" (1940). The relationship with Wanger was altogether more agreeable to Hitchcock, especially as he was left to his own devices. Gary Cooper was his first choice for the lead role but, after he declined, Joel McCrea was cast in the role of the American correspondent who becomes embroiled in European espionage at the outbreak of the war. Denounced as a deserter by many, including Michael Balcon, Hitchcock saw this film as a contribution to the war effort of his native country, and he mixed fiction with up-to-date information about actual events taking place at that time in Norway, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. Other patriotic gestures of this type included making in 1944 for the British Library of Information two short films about the war: Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache. Still contracted to Selznick, Hitchcock was next loaned out to RKO for two films, "Mr and Mrs Smith" (1941) and "Suspicion" (1941); the latter marked the first of four appearances in a Hitchcock film by Cary Grant, who, along with James Stewart (who also appeared four times), played some of the most complex and significant of the male characters in Hitchcock's repertory of screen heroes.

Hitchcock next made two films at Universal Studios: the first, "Saboteur" (1942), continued the war theme but the second marked Hitchcock's return to familiar territory in one of his undoubted masterpieces, "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943). A film that characteristically celebrates America, "Shadow of a Doubt" sees Hitchcock in the darkest of moods. Based on an original story by Gordon McDonnell, it is a melodrama, scripted by Sally Benson, Alma Reville, and Thornton Wilder. The continuing influence of Alma is apparent here, while Thornton Wilder's awareness of the nuances of small-town America, most famously associated with his play "Our Town", adds the necessary authenticity to a narrative about the camouflage of murderous desires by provincial manners.

In 1942, too, Hitchcock's mother and brother died. Increasingly worried about his own health, especially his weight, he nevertheless continued to work vigorously and entered one of the most productive periods of his career, making films that even when slight were never less than fascinating in their formal experimentation. The challenge of "Lifeboat" (1943), for instance, was to grip the audience's attention in a film where the action was entirely restricted to one setting, the inside of a lifeboat of an American merchant ship that has been torpedoed by a German U-boat. This film, again on a Second World War theme, aroused controversy for its refusal to treat the Nazi character as a cardboard cut-out stereotype of villainy. The film that followed, "Spellbound" (1945), made once more at Selznick's studios, was his greatest commercial hit after Rebecca. Reprising Hitchcock's interest in psychoanalysis and surrealism, and chiming in with America's obsession in the 1940s with psychoanalysis, Spellbound highlights the aggressive drives of individuals disorientated by changing notions of gender, further confusing men already uncomfortable with the demands of socialized forms of masculinity and troubled by newer attitudes to femininity, as women began in the post-war period increasingly to challenge male ascendancy. The film was again characterized by heavy interference from Selznick, who had himself been in analysis. Selznick placed his own therapist on the film, and used her as a consultant throughout shooting, a decision that infuriated Hitchcock, especially as she often questioned his judgement about character motivation. Although it was Hitchcock's idea to rework Francis Beedings's novel "The House of Dr Edwards", as well as to use Salvador Dalí for the dream sequence, "Spellbound" was very much a Selznick production. For Hitchcock, though, the film is additionally significant in its use for the first time of Ingrid Bergman, who was to appear in two other Hitchcock films, "Notorious" (1946) and "Under Capricorn" (1949); the latter was a somewhat disappointing effort, but the former was one of his most compelling films where, working at last as his own producer, he was able to experiment brilliantly in a film characterized by inventive use of montage, crane shots, long shots, and much else besides.

In their exploration of the relations between weak men and strong women these films seem in some ways confessional, the stylized screen versions of their author's own domestic dramas. "The Paradine Case" (1947) continues this theme in its story about a lawyer (Gregory Peck) who is infatuated with a femme fatale (Alida Valli). This was Hitchcock's last film for Selznick and attracted the attention of the Hays office, which was unhappy with some aspects of the script, such as the inclusion of a lavatory in the woman's prison cell. The censors also insisted on the removal of such supposedly blasphemous expressions as 'Good God!'

Independent film-making

After "The Paradine Case", Hitchcock teamed up with Sidney Bernstein to launch an independent company, Transatlantic Pictures. This led to "Rope" (1948) and "Under Capricorn" (1949), neither of which, though interestingly experimental in form, was well received either critically or commercially. Hitchcock followed this excursion into independent film-making with a return to studio work: at Warner Brothers (1949–53 and 1957); Paramount (1954–8 and 1960); MGM (1959); and Universal (1963–9). Although contracted to these studios, he worked steadily towards gaining control over his productions, skilfully manoeuvring himself within the changing studio system to gain true independence, and thereby becoming the first of a new breed of film-maker–investors. His independence was truly established after the enormous commercial and critical success of "Psycho" (1960), made on a budget of $800,000, but which grossed $42 million within only six months of its release.

Hitchcock's first independent American film, "Rope", was also his first film in Technicolor and offered him the opportunity to experiment with long takes, which sometimes lasted as much as ten minutes. This was followed by "Under Capricorn", "Stage Fright" (1950), and "Strangers on a Train" (1951), a psychological thriller. For the last of these Raymond Chandler was hired to turn Patricia Highsmith's novel into a screenplay, but this proved to be another fraught relationship between two strong-willed men. Chandler was eventually replaced by Czenzi Ormonde, Barbara Keon, and, significantly again, Alma Reville. "Strangers on a Train" is one of Hitchcock's greatest achievements, and focuses on questions of guilt and shared responsibility. The divisions and conflicts of human desire are here split and projected onto two characters. But what initially seems like a simple contrast between a clean-cut all-American hero (Guy Haines, played by the boyishly handsome Farley Granger) and a decadent, Oedipal villain (Bruno Anthony, played with captivating devilry by Robert Walker) becomes a complex pattern of shared instincts and responsibilities. As Hitchcock himself put it to Truffaut: 'Though Bruno has killed Guy's wife, for Guy it's just as if he had committed the murder himself' (Truffaut, 166). This tangle of interrelated desires does not spare the viewer, who, through a whole series of formal and thematic strategies, above all in the use of the subjective shot, becomes identified with a character's point of view, forced into complicity with the behaviour of guilty as well as of innocent men and women.

The difficulties with Chandler on this film were to some extent mirrored a year later by tensions on "I Confess" (1952), involving Montgomery Clift, whose 'method' style of acting was not to Hitchcock's taste. More problems arose with the casting of the lead female; however, once the decision had been made to jettison Anita Bjork for fear of antagonizing the American public on account of her illegitimate child, Hitchcock turned to Anne Baxter, one of several glacial blondes by whom he became obsessed, both on and off screen. She was, however, soon superseded in his affections by Grace Kelly, who began the first of her three collaborations with Hitchcock on "Dial M for Murder" (1953). Her other films were "Rear Window" (1954) and "To Catch a Thief" (1955), all made in quick succession.

"Rear Window" was also the first of six films made by Hitchcock in the mid- to late 1950s at Paramount Studios, a period during which he was in full creative flow: "Rear Window", "To Catch a Thief", "The Trouble with Harry" (1955), "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956), "Vertigo" (1958), "North by Northwest" (1959), and "Psycho" (1960) were all made at Paramount. All demonstrate Hitchcock's imaginative use of cinematic resources: "Rear Window", for instance, required the building of thirty-one apartments to face the one from which James Stewart's L. B. Jefferies could voyeuristically spy on his neighbours; in addition to its brilliant interplay between the Cary Grant and Grace Kelly characters, "To Catch a Thief" was remarkable for its glossy colour photography, a feature which earned Robert Burks an Academy award for cinematography. This film was followed by "The Trouble with Harry" (1955) and "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956); the former, among other things, marked the first of Bernard Herrmann's neo-romantic musical scores crossed with Bartók and Wagner, while the latter offered Hitchcock the opportunity for reworking a film he had made twenty-one years previously in Britain.

At this time, too, Hitchcock was encouraged by his agent, Lou Wasserman, to consider launching a television series. Accordingly, in 1955, Hitchcock agreed to become involved with CBS in a weekly half-hour series, entitled "Alfred Hitchcock Presents..." (it later became "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour"), on a salary of $129,000 per episode. The Hitchcock team included Joan Harrison and Norman Lloyd as co-producers. Although Hitchcock himself had only a marginal role, he did introduce all the programmes, with a signature tune taken from Gounod's 'Funeral March of a Marionette'. All in all he directed twenty programmes, and the series lasted — although it moved studios on a couple of occasions — until 1964. With his portly shape and chubby face Hitchcock became 'the only director in the history of the cinema to be instantly recognizable to the general public' (DNB). An actress who appeared in the first television show, Vera Miles, was next in line for the special Hitchcock blonde-fantasy treatment. She was promoted to the lead female role in "The Wrong Man" (1957), but clearly had no romantic interest in Hitchcock and soon married Gordon Scott, a 1950s Tarzan. Grace Kelly's supposed replacement became a temporary outcast as Hitchcock embarked on his next project and left for Britain to prepare for the remake of "The Man Who Knew Too Much".

In 1957 Hitchcock had an operation on his hernia, gallstones, and gall-bladder, but lost none of his creative energy. While hoping to film "The Wreck of the Mary Deare", a project which was never realized, he began work on another film based on a French novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, translated as "From Among the Dead". When the script by Alec Coppel was considered unsatisfactory, Sam Taylor took over. On the advice of Lou Wasserman the lead female role was to be offered to Kim Novak, a part originally intended for Vera Miles. "Vertigo", the title given to one of Hitchcock's greatest, most elegiac, films, was eventually completed in 1958, the year in which he won the Golden Globe award for best television series.

Hitchcock began to prepare "North by Northwest" (1959), working on the script with Ernest Lehman, to whom he had been introduced by Bernard Herrmann. A comedy thriller, this remains one of Hitchcock's most stylish films, full of witty dialogue and narrative pace; in its settings (the UN building, Plaza Hotel, and Grand Central Station in New York, and Mount Rushmore) it celebrates some of the visual splendours of urban and rural America. Elegant lightness of touch was followed by one of Hitchcock's darker moods, in "Psycho" (1960), based on the novel by Robert Bloch, some of whose short stories had already been used by Hitchcock in his television series. The screenplay was written by Joe Stefano, and made as cheaply as possible at Hitchcock's television studio, where he used the series's technical crew. At this time Hitchcock moved his operations from Paramount to Universal Studios, as MCA, his agents, had taken over Universal. He traded the rights for "Psycho" and the television series for stock in MCA and became one of the company's major shareholders.

Psycho remains one of Hitchcock's most disturbing and perhaps most widely discussed films. At first a critical failure, it was an immediate commercial success. The publicity surrounding the film — Hitchcock insisted that no one be allowed into the cinema after the film had started — perhaps in no small measure added to its mystery.

Hitchcock's involvement with MCA, a move which made him a phenomenally rich man and earned him the independence he craved, did not, however, lead to prolific creativity in the last phase of his career. He directed six more feature films but of these only two are now regarded as undisputed masterpieces: "The Birds" (1963) and "Marnie" (1964). In 1961 Hitchcock had read about a bird invasion of California. This event reminded him of a story by Daphne du Maurier, and he eventually signed up Evan Hunter to write the screenplay after Joe Stefano had turned down the offer. For the lead female role Hitchcock cast Tippi Hedren, a model whom he had first seen on television advertising soft drinks, appointed Robert Burks as director of cinematography, and as art director chose Robert Boyle, who claimed that he had been inspired for his sets by Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream". Once again Hitchcock's knack for publicity did not desert him. He announced everywhere in the film's promotional material, in a deliberate solecism, that 'The Birds is coming' (a ploy later borrowed for the publicity of the Mary Millington British soft-porn classic "The Playbirds", 1978).

In a gesture now regarded by biographers as a further sign of his desire to control the latest female object of his desire, Hitchcock turned Tippi into 'Tippi'; it was as though the single inverted commas rechristened her as a Galatea clone, a creature given life only by her Pygmalion of a film-making master. The mixture of love and hate felt by Hitchcock towards Tippi Hedren, which was to reach its most awkward levels in "Marnie", was in evidence in his treatment of her during the shooting of some of the scenes, especially those involving the attack by the birds at the end of the film. In this sequence the lower lid of one of her eyes was gashed by a bird, the final straw that almost led to her nervous breakdown. She was not at first considered for the role of the frigid thief in "Marnie", but was assigned the part after Claire Griswold turned it down.

After Marnie Hitchcock received many awards, such as the Milestone award from the Screen Producers' Guild (1965) and the New York cultural medal of honor (1966), and in Britain he lectured at the Cambridge University film society (1966), as well as attending an evening in his honour organized by the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians. The last films, "Torn Curtain" (1966), "Topaz" (1969), "Frenzy" (1972), and "Family Plot" (1976), all of them distinguished by wonderful moments, were generally substandard by comparison with some of his earlier work. "Torn Curtain", written by Brian Moore and loosely based on the Burgess–Maclean spy scandal, included one or two inspired moments, especially the scene where the hero (Paul Newman) struggles to kill the East German agent detailed to follow him. This film marked the end of the collaboration between Bernard Herrmann and Hitchcock, who was angered by the former's refusal to produce a pop-tune score, a fashionable money-spinning tendency in contemporary films such as "From Russia with Love" (1963). "Topaz" was equally uneven, a film once again with odd moments of brilliance, such as when the Cuban revolutionary leader kills his treacherous lover, allowing her purple cloak to fall from her body in a way that suggests a spreading pool of blood.

Of the last films only "Frenzy", shot at Pinewood, reaches perhaps more consistently some of the heights of Hitchcock's earlier achievements. Vladimir Nabokov was first approached to write the screenplay, but after he declined the offer, Anthony Shaffer, whose play "Sleuth" had just been a hit in London, took on the challenge. Shaffer's dialogue was constantly sabotaged by Hitchcock's linguistic archaisms. On this film outdated memories of a bygone Britain were oddly matched by Hitchcock's desire to take advantage of some of the more daring liberties the cinema was enjoying through relaxation of the codes of film censorship. Accordingly, the film includes for the first time in a Hitchcock film two scenes showing naked women, the first in a particularly brutal moment when the Barbara Leigh-Hunt character is being raped and strangled to death by a serial killer, the second when the Anna Massey character has spent the night with her lover in a London hotel. While the film was commercially successful (it cost $2 million and grossed $16 million), it was a critical failure; regarded as in many ways anachronistic, its grisly theme was not treated with Hitchcock's customary wit or humanity. The last film, "Family Plot", which reverted to an American narrative setting, recovered some of the wit, but seemed strangely lightweight, even though it was marked, as ever in Hitchcock, by elegant features.

Anglo-American themes

Hitchcock was enchanted by America: the small town ambience of "Shadow of a Doubt", political grandeur in "Strangers on a Train", historic national landmarks in "Saboteur" and "North by Northwest", Hollywood history and the screwball tradition in "Mr and Mrs Smith", for instance, all reflect this fascination; of the latter he remarked: 'I want to direct a typical American comedy, about typical Americans' (Spoto, Life, 237). Even American slang captivated him, as when the East German agent keeping an eye on the Paul Newman character in "Torn Curtain" wonders whether the expression 'strictly for the birds' is still in common usage. Yet for all their dependence on some of the most iconic of American stars — James Stewart, Grace Kelly, and so on — many of Hitchcock's films also rely on British actors and actresses. Cary Grant, that most recognizable of Hitchcock heroes, was British (as were, for instance, James Mason, Ray Milland, Ann Todd, Richard Todd, and a host of minor regulars, such as Leo G. Carroll). Despite a reluctance ever to return to live in Britain (prompted by impatience with British bureaucracy, lax timekeeping, and perhaps even guilt over seeming betrayal of his native country in its hour of need), Hitchcock's love of America never shook off his earlier allegiance to a culture and artistic heritage that remained a source of fascination throughout his life. Britishness was often used by him, as if in self-imposed exile seeing more clearly the essence of his own disowned roots of national identity, as a kind of measure of American achievement.

In common with some of Hollywood's other European émigrés, Hitchcock remains to some extent a victim of memory, his films often embroidered by a pattern of contrasts between America and Britain. Besides the use of British actors, the British settings of "The Paradine Case", "Stage Fright", "Dial M for Murder", and "The Man Who Knew Too Much" testify to this continuing engagement with the lingering memories and distant perspectives of his native culture. The lure of Britain is clear in all of these. Even in "Marnie", a film whose original British setting in Winston Graham's novel is replaced by Baltimore and other American locations, Hitchcock uses Sean Connery and Alan Napier (Mr Rutland Sr), both British actors, in ways that underline the equivocal force of Britishness, especially in relation to the constraining influence over the American way of life of the somewhat stiff and archaic values of the upper classes. As Mark Rutland, Sean Connery — fresh from his success as James Bond in Dr No (1962) — is used, like Cary Grant before him, ambivalently: the perverse, self-appointed saviour of his frigid object of desire, played by Tippi Hedren. The perversity of the role is to some extent developed from the Bond-like qualities of Connery's action-man physique and manner. But it also emerges from the un-Americanness, or Britishness, of Connery himself, a British (Scottish) actor, whose idiosyncratic British-Scottish-English accent plays, together with Alan Napier's, against the American sounds of Marnie. Her flight from Mark Rutland is thus not simply a psychological escape from her own inner demons but also, culturally, for Hitchcock as well as for "Marnie", release from the oppression of a supremacist masculinity identified with the prejudices of his British upbringing.

Hitchcock's penultimate film, Frenzy, exemplifies these preoccupations most brutally. Here an early contrast is made between an idealized vision of England — conveyed through a politician's quotation of Wordsworth's The Prelude — and the reality of a crime-ridden city terrorized by the 'necktie' murderer, one of whose victims is washed up by the Thames at the very moment he pompously invokes England's glorious heritage. The film recalls Kipling's phrase about the 'foreignness of England', and offers no eulogy of London landmarks, but prefers instead, in its concentration above all on Covent Garden (then in its last throes as the capital's foremost fruit and vegetable market), to view it as a site of rottenness, decay, and brutality. Another food-obsessed film (a natural consequence, perhaps, of its obese director's famously inexhaustible appetite for food and drink), it endows the setting with almost scriptural significance as a place of God-given harmony converted into an Edenic 'garden' made in the image of fallen mortals inspired not by love but by base and fatal desires. London becomes the target for a self-exiled Londoner's critique of English culture as a whole. In the circumstances, it seems appropriate that the script (even though written by another Englishman, Anthony Shaffer) uses a British-English archaism, that had long since become standard American usage, further to underline the tensions between the two cultures: 'necktie', no longer used in British English, becomes a minor linguistic example of the triumph of America over England. What is obviously at one level deference to American audiences, more familiar with 'necktie' than 'tie' for this article of clothing, becomes at another a mark of reverse colonization. It is the equivalent of the scene in Foreign Correspondent, where the intervention of the American Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) in the European war in 1940 leads to his solution of various mysteries as soon as his European bowler is blown off his head in the Dutch countryside, an act of nature that enables him to think clearly as an American unhampered by the Old World formality and rigidity symbolized by the hat.

Sin and guilt

The 'Edenic' allusions of Frenzy belong to a sustained network of references to biblical motifs and concepts. Generally speaking, the church itself (Catholic or protestant), both as an institution and as a projection of patriarchal tendencies in Western notions of family life, is such an essential component of an alienating culture that no reflection on the life of the mind, of social institutions, of history itself, can adequately be made without acknowledgement of its centrality. In Hitchcock's fallen paradise the religious affiliations of characters are often discreetly acknowledged, as when Manny in "The Wrong Man" is seen carrying a rosary with him throughout his ordeal as the innocent victim of mistaken identity. Sometimes the reference is playful, as when Julie Andrews overhears a remark about the mess the religious section is in when she makes contact with a pro-Western spy in a Scandinavian bookshop in "Torn Curtain" (1966). Elsewhere, though, the cruelty and capriciousness of human behaviour is allowed a more developed religious mise-en-scène, as in "Vertigo", where scenes in a church bell-tower or at a cemetery provide fitting backgrounds for a film about mortality and a man's frustrated redemption through love.

But, as many commentators have remarked, guilt is the 'Catholic' theme to which Hitchcock returns with greatest regularity. The blurred boundaries between guilt and innocence provide some of the most striking moments in films such as "The Wrong Man", "I Confess", and "Strangers on a Train". The themes of all of these films are, additionally, threaded around the motif of the double, sinner/saint narratives exemplifying an aleatory law regulating human destiny. An acknowledgement of guilt is an important element in the struggle against immorality, but it is additionally, for the Catholic Hitchcock, confirmation of the sinful nature of human beings whose redemption depends on renunciation of desire. Moving beyond a strictly Catholic notion of post-lapsarian sinfulness, these films also rely on a Poe-like pattern of doubles, a motif underlining the conviction that no human being is spared the torments of dark desires. Hitchcock's admiration of Poe goes beyond a fascination with horror (traces of which may be found, for instance, in "Psycho"), to those stories such as William Wilson that hinge on the doubles motif, narratives that in their exploration of questions of identity through patterns of symmetry and reversal also recall G. K. Chesterton's fascination with equivocal personality in such stories as "The Man Who Was Thursday". There is never really a 'wrong man' or 'wrong woman' in Hitchcock's films, even though his characters are often legally innocent or 'wrongfully' suspected of villainy. The most seemingly innocent of individuals — as, say, John Robie (Cary Grant), who, in "To Catch a Thief", turns out not to be a cat burglar — is cursed by a shared human destiny of complicity or guilt, unable to shake off the original sin of earlier misdemeanours. The reverse is also true, for example in "Suspicion", where Johnny Aysgarth (Cary Grant) has all the appearance of a murderer only to be found no more guilty of criminality than his virtuous wife, Lina (Joan Fontaine).

Human dynamics

Although many Hitchcock films often concentrate on the loneliness and vulnerability of the individual, the vast majority additionally explore the dynamics of human relationships. "Vertigo", "North by Northwest", and "To Catch a Thief" are films that condemn their heroes to moments of isolation, insisting on their confrontation with an ultimately inescapable inner solitude. In "Vertigo" Scottie is a 'wanderer', roaming the streets of San Francisco in search not only of the illusory Madeleine, but also of his own authenticity. The scene in "North by Northwest" where Roger Thornhill is left to fend for himself against an implacable enemy in the shape of the crop-duster offers the viewer a poignant metaphysical image of human isolation. Even in a lighter narrative such as "To Catch a Thief", the hero's pursuit of the real cat burglar's identity carries the weightier significance of the unavoidable solitariness of the human condition. But loneliness is also a feature of human relationships. Hitchcock combines affirmation with scepticism: acknowledgement of the emotional fulfilments of romantic love is balanced by cynicism towards marriage. The disillusionment of such early films as Rich and Strange, which concentrates on the break-up and eventual fragile reconstitution of a marriage during a sea voyage, is preserved throughout Hitchcock's Hollywood period. The shared attraction to romantic love is paralleled by feelings of dread prompted by fears of the entrapments of marriage. L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart) is clearly drawn to Lisa (Grace Kelly) in "Rear Window", but he is also petrified by the thought of marriage to her, or to any woman. Lisa may be a radiant Fifth Avenue goddess, but to L. B. Jefferies she is also a suffocating source of darkness, her feared powers given visual expression when her shadow spreads over Jefferies' immobilized body, itself a sign of the male's psychological paralysis, during her first appearance in the film. The pattern is reversed in a film like "Marnie", where Hitchcock concentrates instead on the marital anxieties of the female who strives — here ultimately in failure — to maintain her independence in a world that demands her submission.

Films such as "Suspicion" or "Topaz", focusing on relationships within marriage, sooner or later expose the compromises and frustrations and, sometimes, the destructive urges to which the institution gives rise. In both these films, as elsewhere, the optimism that initially drew the partners together has quickly given way to feelings of mutual suspicion and unease. In "Suspicion" Lina lives in fear of her very life; in "Topaz" the married couple, Nicole and André, have long-standing extramarital relationships to add spice to lives growing stale through familiarity or indifference. The discontents of the married couple are also reflected onto their offspring. In "Strangers on a Train" Bruno is the perverse child of monstrous parents; "Psycho", "Marnie", and "Frenzy" are all films that deal with individuals whose lives have been twisted by disturbed parents. The autobiographical resonances of the generational motif in Hitchcock's films acquire further significance in "Shadow of a Doubt", where the somewhat stifling mother (Patricia Collinge) has the same name as Hitchcock's own mother, Emma. Norman Bates and Bob Rusk have become killers, Marnie a thief and frigid man-hater. The claustrophobia of family life and the overpowering presence of controlling parents are nowhere more brilliantly expressed than in "Marnie", where, additionally, the negative influence of a stern form of Christianity has helped deform the mind of an impressionable child.

Hitchcock's male characters are often damaged, rootless, ill at ease with the demands of a changing world: Scottie suffers from vertigo, L. B. Jefferies is immobilized by a broken leg, John Ballantyne suffers from amnesia — all conditions that beyond their literal meanings figuratively attest to male psychological damage or confusion. To stress even further the identification between his screen heroes and their tormented creator, Hitchcock often turns his male characters into voyeurs. The memoir of the scriptwriter Evan Hunter, concerning his differences with Hitchcock over the characterization of Marnie's husband, Mark Rutland, reveals in Hitchcock's insistence on the scene of marital rape during the first night of the honeymoon cruise more than artistic conviction. Hitchcock was here being true to the original, where in Winston Graham's novel Marnie is indeed raped early on in her marriage by her husband, but his complex attitudes towards women cannot be overlooked as reasons behind Hunter's dismissal from the film and the appointment of a writer, Jay Presson Allen, who agreed to preserve the controversial scene.

Women, by contrast, for all their trials as the objects of male victimization, or outright mental or physical torture (for example, Lina in "Suspicion", Marion Crane in "Psycho", or Melanie Daniels in "The Birds"), often take the initiative, displaying greater self-confidence and determination. Dr Petersen helps solve the mystery of John Ballantyne's illness in "Spellbound"; Teresa Wright's young Charlie frees herself from the pernicious influence of her misogynistic, widow-preying uncle, and helps bring about his fatal end; and Ingrid Bergman's Alicia Huberman in "Notorious" and Doris Day's Jo McKenna in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" are female characters through whose actions evil is defeated. Even Julie Andrews's Sarah Sherman in "Torn Curtain" refuses to obey Paul Newman's Michael Armstrong when he tells her to stay out of his important mission to infiltrate East Berlin, and insists on accompanying him on his dangerous journey. Many of these characters are played by blonde actresses, famously seen by Hitchcock himself as icy sirens whose impassive exteriors conceal wild and furious passions. Of these, Tippi Hedren ("The Birds", "Marnie") is Hitchcock's most Poe-like beauty: her 'lofty and pale forehead' recalls Ligeia's strange and dream-like appearance, accentuated perhaps by her stiff, untrained method of acting. The former model was forced to endure Hitchcock's offscreen attentions, an obsession that according to her turned to victimization when her refusals of his sexual overtures led for many years after "Marnie", through his intervention, to an embargo on her acting career.


Hitchcock's themes—perversion, identity, love, violence, sadism, masochism, isolation, mortality—are relayed through popular narratives: comedy thrillers, melodramas of espionage or family life, horror stories, even the odd screwball comedy ("Mr and Mrs Smith") and musical ("Waltzes from Vienna"). The films often rely for narrative mechanisms on what Hitchcock called the 'MacGuffin', which he defined through a story about two travellers to Scotland. One asks the other about the contents of his suitcase; the other replies that it contains a contraption for trapping lions. The first traveller answers the second's objection that there are no lions in Scotland by remarking that there are no MacGuffins either. The wit of the exchange exemplifies Hitchcock's impatience with literalist readings of his films. His art, like the painter's, asks the viewer not to agonize over degrees of realism but to approach it with a mixture of emotional involvement and cool detachment, a response that demands as much attention to the artifice of the film (something highlighted by, among other things, his preference for so many theatrical settings) as to its commentary on the human condition. The film's truths emerge from its formal construction and inventiveness, especially its visual qualities, in which Hitchcock delighted even to the very end of his career, where the MacGuffin in "Family Plot" (1976) uses the pursuit of diamonds as a mechanism for unlocking questions related to human desire. Family Plot also displays Hitchcock's enduring interest in film form, and sees him experimenting with narrative structure. These experiments often rely in his great sound films on lessons learned in his silent film days. Some of the opening shots—for instance, of "Psycho", "Marnie", and "Rear Window" — work all the more powerfully for being silent, allowing the viewer to concentrate on visual patterns, the effects of the camera, of lighting and framing. In "Frenzy" one of the film's most disturbing moments arises when the camera withdraws from the room where the 'necktie' murderer will kill his latest victim, leaving the viewer's mind to imagine without sound effects the ordeal soon to be undergone by the unfortunate woman. Through their delicate balance of narrative, camera-work, editing, dialogue (or silence), music, mise-en-scène, and actors' performance Hitchcock's films simultaneously delight and instruct, at their best pleasing the senses as well as involving the spectator in the moral and existential dilemmas faced by his characters and the audiences they represent.

Showman, self-publicist, control-freak perfectionist, a mass of contradictions, an English American, Alfred Hitchcock is also probably the most important director in the history of the British cinema. His work has appealed to mass audiences and film historians alike. In numerous interviews with the press Hitchcock schooled his audience on what to expect in his films: 'After a certain amount of suspense', said Hitchcock, the audience must find relief in the catharsis of laughter. However, towards the end of his career he increasingly craved the attention and approval of serious critics, concerned that his work should be accorded the status of art. Young, but highly influential French film critics writing in Cahiers du Cinéma, and elsewhere, especially François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, proclaimed that 'Hitchcock was a cinematic genius who had a distinctive moral vision of the human condition' (Kapsis, ANB, 864). To his delight, in 1963 the Museum of Modern Art, New York, screened "The Birds" and launched a retrospective of his films in his honour. His work was further recognized in 1968 when he was honoured both by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and by the Directors' Guild of America. In 1972 an honorary doctorate was conferred on him by Columbia University. That award, his biographer Donald Spoto has written, was 'only the beginning of the greatest outpouring of adulation America gave Hitchcock in over a decade'. Since the late 1960s his films have become to film studies what Shakespeare is to English literature courses, an almost obligatory focus of discussion not just on thrillers or spy narratives but on film language and the history of film in general.

Beyond the academy, Hitchcock's films inspired other film-makers, both directly and indirectly, both playfully and respectfully: hugely influential through their books in making him even more central to serious discussion of film, Claude Chabrol (in "Le boucher") and François Truffaut (in "La mariée était en noir") were enormously indebted in their own films to Hitchcock; Mel Brooks's "High Anxiety" (1977) gestures comically to films such as Spellbound and Vertigo; Brian de Palma in "Carrie" (1976) and "Dressed to Kill" (1980) glosses Hitchcock's themes of violence and perverse desires; Gus van Sant remade "Psycho" (1998), in colour and with different actors but in other ways almost identically, shot by shot. But beyond these direct influences, Hitchcock's work has become a source of reference for countless film-makers everywhere. His films continue to be at the centre of critical and theoretical debate in influential books and articles on film written all over the world, and the regular showing of his films on television has ensured their popularity with successive generations of film enthusiasts everywhere.

Hitchcock was made an honorary KBE in the new year's honours list for 1980. He died at home in Los Angeles on 29 April 1980. His ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.