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The Globe and Mail (30/Apr/1980) - Sir Alfred Hitchcock: No-one scared them like Hitch



Sir Alfred Hitchcock: No-one scared them like Hitch

Sir Alfred Hitchcock, whose mastery of suspense and directorial technique made him one of the world's most popular and celebrated filmmakers, died yesterday at the age of 80 at his home in Los Angeles. Hitchcock, ailing with arthritis and kidney failure, had been in declining health for the past year, and his condition deteriorated over the weekend.

Despite his ill health, 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 the time of his death were his wife, his daughter and his three grandchildren. In his last years he had a heart pacemaker and his bouts of arthritis confined him to a wheelchair.

Hitchcock, born in Leytonstone, Essex, in England, became one of the towering figures of the film world by scaring audiences as they never had been frightened before. A Hitchcock film meant suspense, mystery and spine-chilling scenes.

The director, who counted such films as Psycho and The Thirty-Nine Steps among the 60 he made in the longest major directorial career in film history, once explained his work this way: "The only way to get rid of my fears is to make films about them." 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. On releasing him, the officer said, "That's what we do to naughty boys." Hitchcock later said he could never forget "the sound and the solidity of that closing cell door and the bolt." He thus developed a lifelong fear of the police and punishment - major influences on his movies. He never drove a car, saying that if one doesn't, "you can't get a ticket."

The master of films received his knighthood in a ceremony on a Hollywood film set last January. Told by the British Consul-General that he was "Sir Alfred from now on," he said with a typical touch of Hitchcock humor, "I'm sorry I didn't have my army with me today."

Tributes and accolades, including the French Legion of Honor, were poured on him in his later years. The stars of his films included Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant and James Stewart, and they gathered here with other celebrities last year, when he was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Film Institute, to hail him as a genius. "He is a farmer who raises gooseflesh," Miss Bergman said.

Nowhere was that gooseflesh raised higher than in the shower-murder sequence in Psycho - a scene that has become a classic of world cinema even though it lasts only 45 seconds.

Hitchcock reached his peak as a director in the 1950s, adding to a long line of films that included The Lady Vanishes, Foreign Correspondent, North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window.

Later films such as The Birds and Topaz received less acclaim and this was put down to his advancing years. But in 1972 he left the United States and returned to England to produce Frenzy, a psychological thriller about a murderer loose in London and was hailed as a genius once more.

He complained recently that murder scenes no longer had any fun in them. "I never really went in for violence in films," he said. "I dealt in suspense and shock. I have always felt violence should be treated more delicately. Murder could be so much more enjoyable, even for the victim, if it were performed in pleasant surroundings and the people involved were ladies and gentleman," he added.

But Hitch, as Hollywood called him, did not always follow his own rules. The shower-murder scene in Psycho, which took weeks to film and was a composite of 78 shots, was anything but a delicate bumping-off, and many of his killers were less than ladies and gentlemen.

Hitchcock, who also produced many of his later films, won the 1967 Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Rebecca, his first U.S. movie, won an Oscar as the best film of 1940. He was nominated for directorial Oscars five times - for Rebecca, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window and Psycho - but never won one of the golden statuettes. He was born on Aug. 13, 1899, to William, a poultry dealer, greengrocer and fruit importer, and the former Emma Whelan. He was educated at a Roman Catholic college and later at London University. The Jesuits at the college he remembered vividly: "They scared the living daylights out of me although I expect I was a little monster. Still, they did develop one's reasoning powers. "The Jesuits - there I hit something deep. Fear. It strengthened in me. Moral fear: fear of evil, fear of being linked with anything bad. I always stayed away from it." After a short stint in advertising, he joined Paramount Pictures in London in 1920 as a title writer for silent films. If, for instance, the heroine was worried in a silent film about the life her husband was leading, Hitchcock in the caption drew a little picture of a candle burning at both ends.

In 1923 he joined Gainsborough Pictures as a scenarist, art director and production manager. Success came to him as a director with his third film, The Lodger (1926), about a landlady who feared her tenant was the mass murderer Jack the Ripper. In 1929 he gave British cinema international recognition with Blackmail, a full-length talkie that proved to be a major success.

Throughout the thirties there followed a bevy of fine thrillers such as The Thiry-Nine Steps, The Lady Vanishes and the original of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Hitchcock was finally lured to the United States in 1939 by David Selznick to make Rebecca with Laurence Olivier.

During the Second World War he made propaganda films for the British Ministry of Information but never returned to live in England. He became a U.S. citizen in 1955.

A fleeting shot of himself became Hitchcock's trademark in his films. One that produced most difficulty was Lifeboat, the tale of nine people stranded alone in a boat after their ship was torpedoed. He got around the plot by having actor William Bendix read a weight-reducing advertisement in an old newspaper illustrated by a photograph of a fat man - Hitchcock. Resembling a pixieish gargoyle, the rotund director had a pudgy, basset-hound face with heavy jowls and pouting lips. He shaped a public image as a genially ghoulish cynic noted for barbed pronouncements about life in two popular weekly television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which he supervised and was host of in the late fifties and early sixties. Behind his somewhat fictional self-projected image was a highly skilled and dedicated artist. Regarded as one of the shrewdest businessmen in Hollywood, he became a multi-millionaire. He also gained more complete control over every aspect of his productions - screenplay, casting, photography, editing, sound track and even publicity - than any Hollywood director.

Planning was paramount in his films. He travelled the world looking for ideal sets, ceaselessly scribbling sketches on a little pad. Each film was run like a military campaign. He once complained about filmmaking: "I can't bear to put it into action. It's a bore, the creative part is on paper, in your own mind." Emotional actresses he detested. One of his stars once complained that he was not photographing her best side. "You're sitting on it," he retorted. His favorite type was the ice-cool blonde as typified by Miss Bergman, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie-Saint and Tippi Hedren. "The hot core in the cool body of the North European woman, that is what I relish," is how he summed up his ideal heroine.

His wife, the former Alma Reville, was once his assistant director and also a scriptwriter. They married in 1926 and had one daughter, Patricia, who acted in a number of his movies and television thrillers.

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.

A mellow and exuberant mountain of a man, he delighted in the pleasures of good food and wine and once described how he would like to direct his own death scene - first he would eat an excellent meal and then be killed by "a smashing blonde."