Alfred Hitchcock

Good evening. Tonight’s episode is a somewhat macabre affair which celebrates one hundred years of murder and suspense at the hands of the rather portly son of a Leyton grocer…

Yes, August 13 is the centenary of wobbly maestro Alfred Hitchcock’s birth. ‘Hitch’, as he later became affectionately known, was educated at St Ignatius’ Catholic school before being trained in engineering and navigation. Theatre and cinema were his first loves, however, and after taking an art course at the University of London, the young Alfred eventually obtained a position as a caption writer for silent movies. From there he went on to design scenery, edit and write scripts and eventually, at the suggestion of studio head Michael Balcon, direct. The Pleasure Garden (1925) and The Mountain Eagle (1925) made little impact, and Gainsborough Pictures nearly didn’t release The Lodger (1926), a feature about Jack the Ripper which first exhibited the first signs of the patented Hitchcock touch. When it finally did hit the screens the film was a huge success, and Hitchcock’s future as a film-maker was secured.

With Blackmail (1929), Hitch made the first British sound film. Although originally intended as a silent, Hitch was ordered by the studio to dub dialogue over the action. British actress Joan Barry was brought in to supply the voice for the female lead when Polish star Anny Ondra’s accent proved too strong. The age of ‘talkies’ had arrived and Hitch, although bemoaning the loss of film as a  purely visual medium, soon made his mark with features like Murder (1930). Hitchcock now began to introduce his trademark cameo appearances, along with the device known as the ‘MacGuffin’ – a piece of business introduced in the plot to divert the audience’s attention from what was really going on. The Thirty Nine Steps (1935) (also available on DVD) was the first of his films to use what would become a familiar theme; the innocent man forced to go on the run for a crime he has not committed, pursued by the police and enemy spies alike. The Secret Agent (1936) continued the espionage theme, which also ran through Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937) and The Lady Vanishes (1939).

After making Jamaica Inn (1939) as a favour to Charles Laughton, Hitchcock moved to America to work for David O. Selznick. Attracted by the greater financial resources available for film-making in the States, Hitch was to feel constrained by Selznick’s need for control. Their first film together, Rebecca (1940) (only available as part of the Hitchcock Box Set), was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Director for Hitch. It was, however, producer Selznick who picked up the Oscar for Best Picture. Foreign Correspondent (1940), a return to the spy adventure, was followed by the completely uncharactersitic screwball comedy Mr and Mrs Smith (1941), which contains hardly a trace of the usual Hitchcock style.

Suspicion (1941) was Hitch’s first film with Cary Grant, whom he later described as his favourite leading man. The film features Grant as playboy Johnny Aysgarth, whose wife (Joan Fontaine) suspects him of poisoning her. Hitch always claimed that the studio made him alter his original ending because Cary Grant could not be seen as a killer (sorry, have I spoiled it for you?), but his notes show that the story was never intended to be shot any other way. Next year’s Saboteur (1942) was little more than a re-hash of The Thirty Nine Steps, but Shadow of a Doubt (1942) proved to be vastly superior Hitchcock, with clean-cut Joseph Cotten making a meal of his role as psychotic merry widow-strangling Uncle Charlie against a backdrop of white picket fence middle America.

With the Second World War at its height, Hitch evidently felt the need to do something patriotic. Lifeboat (1944) featured a group of civilians who make it to the titular vessel after their ship is bombed by a German U-Boat, only to pick up the U-Boat commander and elect him helmsman when his ship also sinks. Hitchcock at War (1944) features two Ministry of Information shorts made by Hitch in an attempt to help the war effort. Spellbound (1945) gave Hitch the opportunity to work with Ingrid Bergman, the first in a series of leading ladies he would place upon a pedestal as the perfect woman, culminating in his disastrous relationship with Tippi Hedren. He used Bergman again for Notorious (1946) (only available as part of the Hitchcock Box Set) with Cary Grant, and after making The Paradine Case (1947) decided to end the restrictive relationship with Selznick.

Setting up his own production company with Sidney Bernstein, Hitch made Rope (1948), his first colour film, and the first to team him with James Stewart, who would become another favourite leading man. The film was constructed from eight ten-minute takes, and although technically innovative was not as successful as it might have been. Period drama Under Capricorn (1949), Hitch’s last film with Ingrid Bergman, was a decided flop, and the stagey British thriller Stage Fright (1950) did little to restore his reputation. However, Strangers on a Train (1951) represented a huge comeback. Robert Walker’s Bruno Antony was a true psychopath in the best tradition of Uncle Charlie, and paved the way for another Psycho mummy’s boy less than a decade later…

The Fifties proved to be Hitch’s most successful decade. His Catholic roots came to the fore with I Confess (1953), while Dial M for Murder (1954) was notable both for being another experiment, this time in 3D, and for uniting Hitch with Grace Kelly, the glacial blonde who epitomised his fantasy woman. He used her again the same year for Rear Window (1954), which starred James Stewart as a photographer with a broken leg who believes that a neighbour across the street has murdered his wife. To Catch a Thief (1955) brought Cary Grant out of retirement, but the choice of Monaco for the location shoot led to co-star Grace Kelly meeting future husband Prince Rainier for the first time: Hitch was to lose his favourite leading lady, and would spend much of the remainder of his career trying to recreate her image in a series of unfortunate actresses.

There were still fresh creative relationships to forge, however. Black comedy The Trouble with Harry (1955) saw Hitch using composer Bernard Herrmann for the first time: Herrmann would go on to provide memorable scores for some of Hitchcock’s greatest films thereafter. In addition to the fleeting appearances in each of his films, Hitch was now hosting his own television series in America, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which later became the Alfred Hitchcock Hours, three volumes of which are now available for the first time. He also remade The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), his 1934 British classic, with James Stewart, Doris Day and a vastly increased budget, although the Albert Hall finalé was retained almost shot for shot. The documentary-style The Wrong Man (1956), starring Henry Fonda as a man arrested for a robbery he did not commit, was based on a true story. Notable for its lack of the usual Hitch cameo, it also featured the first of his Grace Kelly substitutes, Vera Miles, as Fonda’s wife.

The decade drew to a close with two of Hitchcock’s greatest classics. Vertigo (1958), a story of one man’s obsession with the glacial blonde he cannot reclaim (sound familiar?), starred Kelly lookalike Kim Novak and James Stewart. This was the last time Hitch would use the drawling Everyman, blaming the film’s comparative lack of success on the fact that his leading man ‘looked too old’! Similarly, crowd-pleasing chase adventure North by Northwest (1959) proved to be Cary Grant’s last movie for the director, who complained that he had simply become too expensive to hire! Perhaps as a reaction to this, Psycho (1960) was made on a deliberately low budget, in black and white, using Hitch’s television crew rather than his usual film unit. This was the master’s first foray into horror, and became a huge hit. Audiences who turned up late were refused entry to the cinema, and Hitch himself swore to secrecy those who got in so as not to spoil the shock ending for others.

Such was the film’s success, however, that Hitch never quite lived up to it. The Birds (1963) was his first attempt: a screwball comedy which turns to sudden horror when the inhabitants of Bodega Bay are inexplicably attacked by local birds. Hitch hired unknown model Tippi Hedren, whose previous acting work was limited to television commercials, and held her to an exclusive contract. This all went horribly wrong on Marnie (1964); by the end of shooting Hedren and Hitch were barely on speaking terms. Just as he had begun to be revered by critics and film-makers alike, Hitchcock suddenly seemed to lose his sureness of touch. His films of the late 1960s, Torn Curtain (1966) (Paul Newman and Julie Andrews? Come on!) and Topaz (1969), began to resemble the director himself; they went pear-shaped. While Frenzy (1972), his first British feature in twenty years, contained brief flashes of Hitch’s former genius, Family Plot (1976) was in reality a sad end to a great career. Hitch’s health was now failing badly, and work on the planned The Short Night was abandoned a year before his death in April 1980.

However, Hitchcock’s work has never been out of fashion, and he is now rightly revered as one of the greatest and most consistently successful film-makers of the twentieth century.

Richard Hewett