It’s easy to get into the films of Alfred Hitchcock. His mastery of film narrative, coupled with his thematic obsessions, make his films both accessible and sophisticated. His career is also one of the longest and densest in film history, meaning that if you’re a fan there’s more to explore than with possibly any other major director in film history. He directed a daunting 56 feature films, many of which are established masterpieces, so without further ado let’s dive into his magnificent career.
Born in Leytonstone, the young Alfred Hitchcock began work as a title writer for the Famous Players film company in 1920 after previously working as a clerk and a draughtsman. Hitchcock would eventually work in a variety of different roles, including that of art director. He even worked for a brief spell in Germany, at the height of German Expressionism, admiring the films of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. In many of his later films, there is a slight hint of Expressionist abstraction, which gives them a unique flavour.
It was in the 1920s that Hitchcock first met the talented film editor Alma Reville, who would become his collaborator and wife. He would also make his directorial debut in 1925 with The Pleasure Garden, although he had directed the unfinished Number Thirteen in 1922. The first images of The Pleasure Garden are of chorus girls dancing, and old men leering. The themes of perverse voyeurism that the director would revisit for the next five decades were already in place.
In 1926, with his third film The Lodger, Hitchcock would truly announce his arrival on the cinematic scene. Inspired by the Ripper murders, The Lodger introduced audiences to Hitchcock’s unsettling fascination with blonde women, as well as the plot of the wrongly accused man. The titular lodger is mistakenly pegged as a serial killer and is subsequently chased by a mob. The Lodger allowed Hitchcock to better tell his stories through images. He would improve on this throughout the silent period, influencing his later works in Hollywood.
In 1928, Hitchcock directed one of the earliest British talkies, Blackmail. Telling the story of a woman who kills her would-be rapist, Blackmail is also, paradoxically, Hitchcock’s final silent. This is because the film was converted into a talking picture after it had been shot, with dialogue being dubbed over. Nevertheless this minor hack-job was a success, heralding the end of silent films.
The ’30s brought both success and failure to Hitchcock. On the one hand, he made his first classic with the 1935 adaptation of The 39 Steps, a timeless adventure yarn. He also made The Man Who Knew Too Much, starring the inimitable Hungarian actor Peter Lorre. But, there were also plenty of forgettable films like Waltzes From Vienna in 1934 and Jamaica Inn in 1939. The former was Hitchcock’s sole foray into the musical genre. Apparently, he called the cast and crew together to announce: “I hate this film, I hate this kind of film and I have no feeling for it.” His attitude is reflected in the quality of the finished product.
Despite this, Waltzes From Vienna represents an important milestone for Hitchcock. He was exploring the new relationship between film (particularly editing) and music. The sound era had handed musical control over to the filmmaker. He would later say that “to neglect music, I think, is to surrender … a chance of progress in filmmaking”. Indeed, music would go on to be instrumental in Hitchcock’s films. His collaborations with composer Bernard Herrmann would eventually lead to the creation of that iconic shower scene in Psycho.
Even with slight hiccups, by the 1930s Hitchcock was regarded as one of the best directors in Britain. In another world that may have been the peak of his rise through the film industry, but history had different ideas. In 1939, Hitchcock signed a Hollywood contract with movie mogul David O. Selznick, who had just produced Gone with the Wind. Hitchcock was to direct an adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier novel Rebecca in America. He left England for Hollywood and it would be there that his most memorable films would be made.
Winning the Oscar for Best Picture, Rebecca was a bittersweet film for Hitchcock. He and Selznick had clashed furiously during production, disagreeing over nearly everything. Hitchcock was economical in his shooting, whereas Selznick wanted to have lots of backup shots just in case. The Brit wanted comic moments while the American found such humour to be vulgar. Despite everything, Rebecca is a classic of 1940s Hollywood. Supremely Gothic, it tells the tale of a young woman who marries a rich widower, only to find out that he may have killed his first wife. To make matters worse she is tormented by the man’s housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who is obsessed with the dead woman. There is a homoerotic undertone to Danvers’ fixation. A gay subtext would frequently resurface in Hitchcock’s later films, most noticeably in Rope and Strangers on a Train. The mix of romance with the macabre pervades the film, which is made even more seductive by the Hollywood sheen.
Hitchcock would continue to grow as an artist in 1940s Hollywood, constantly challenging himself. In Lifeboat he confined the action to the eponymous boat. With this restriction in place he would use the camera to accentuate the drama between desperate characters. Then in Spellbound, he incorporated a surrealist dream sequence designed by Salvador Dalí.
Perhaps his most ambitious experiment in this period was Rope in 1948. The film was set within a single room, and was made to look as if it had been shot in a single long take. The film opens with two students murdering an acquaintance, and hiding the body in a chest before a party. The unedited look of the film means that the audience constantly has an eye on the chest, wondering when a guest will open it. The shoot was notoriously difficult because the set had to be moved back and forth during the ten minute takes. This was done to make room for the roaming Technicolor camera, which was a huge piece of equipment. As such, everything was meticulously rehearsed, more so than for a regular production. Rope is ultimately a good film, although the gimmick can make it feel too stagy.
All this experimentation would pay off for Hitchcock in the 1950s, the decade in which he reached his peak with masterpiece after masterpiece. He opened the decade, however, with a little-known detour back to England called Stage Fright. A murder mystery set in a theatre, it contains a twist that rivals the one in Psycho.
Hitchcock went on to make Strangers on a Train, I Confess, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, The Wrong Man and a remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much. These films are wonderful, with shared themes that complement one another, yet all of them have their own distinctive flavours. His three most famous films from the ’50s though are North by Northwest, starring Cary Grant, and Rear Window and Vertigo, both starring Jimmy Stewart.
North by Northwest is the quintessential Cold War thriller. It makes full use of Cary Grant’s comedic abilities, as well as his overpowering sex appeal. It manages to out-Bond James before the series came to cinema screens in 1962, and manages to be funnier than all the Bond films combined.
By confining the camera’s perspective to Jimmy Stewart’s apartment, Rear Window sees Hitchcock return to the restraint of Lifeboat and Rope. The main character spies on his neighbours and may be witness to a murder. The genius of Rear Window is that it makes the viewer complicit in Stewart’s voyeurism by never leaving his perspective. It creates a moral unease. We yearn to see what happens next, despite us knowing how intrusive Stewart’s character is being. It’s nearly impossible to do justice to this film in writing and only François Truffaut himself managed to do so.
Stewart would star in a Hitchcock film one last time for Vertigo in 1958. This was the film to end Citizen Kane‘s 50-year reign as the number one film in Sight and Sound’s prestigious poll. A retired, vertigo-suffering detective is hired by a college acquaintance to follow his wife. whom he believes is possessed by a malevolent spirit. As the detective follows this mysterious, beautiful woman he slowly falls in love with her. To say any more would rob the magic for first-time viewers. Vertigo is Hitchcock’s Ulysses, his Waste Land. It can be rewatched countless times and still offer something new. It’s seductive, yet vaguely terrifying. All the big Hitchcock themes come into play: voyeurism, misogyny, deviancy, and guilt. The score by Bernard Herrmann swoons between romance and horror. The music coalesces with the images in such a way that every moment oozes atmosphere. Vertigo represents the peak of Hitchcock’s artistry, but he didn’t stop there.
In 1960, Hitchcock released another experiment. After the Hollywood extravaganza of North by Northwest he dialled it back, using the television crew from Alfred Hitchcock Presents… and filming in black and white to create Psycho, arguably his most popular film. This most famous of slasher movies reached its lofty status through a variety of factors: boundary-pushing violence, iconic moments, a truly memorable twist, and a compulsive desire to trick the audience. The violence may be viewed as tame today, but Psycho had a profound impact. It influenced a generation of horror filmmakers, who would go on to lead that genre into its ’70s golden age.
Hitchcock followed Psycho with The Birds, an apocalyptic film of the avian variety. Today it is infamous because of how Hitchcock treated its star Tippi Hedren. In a 2012 talk Hedren spoke about how he ruined her career by telling producers and directors that she was too busy to work. “The one that really hurt the most,” she said, “was François Truffaut, who wanted me for one of his films and I didn’t even know about it”.
Hedren did one other film with Hitchcock, playing the titular Marnie. She is a thief who ends up marrying one of her would-be victims, played by Sean Connery. This would be the last great film of Hitchcock’s career. It’s a film that creates the feeling of unease that defines some of his best films.
After Marnie, Hitchcock revisited the spy thriller twice with Torn Curtain and Topaz. It’s a race to the bottom to decide which is the worst film he made since arriving in Hollywood. Admittedly, Torn Curtain had a troubled production, though this was also true of Rebecca. Overlong and tedious, Torn Curtain is a tale of double agents that elicits yawns where the similarly-themed North by Northwest heaped thrills. Topaz is even worse. Besides an interesting chase scene at the beginning there is nothing to recommend about it. A film about nuclear fears and Russian spy rings, Topaz saw Hitchcock mount a European cast for a Hollywood production.
Hitchcock would try to go back to his roots in 1972 with the British film Frenzy. A fruit seller is raping and murdering women, but it is the serial killer’s friend who is fingered for the crimes. His most graphic film, Hitchcock did not shy away from the graphic sexual and physical violence of the villain. While Frenzy is suitably grisly, previous films managed to be more disturbing. Earlier works had misogyny and horrific violence simmer beneath the surface. For example, another misogynist Hitchcock serial killer is Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt. Masterfully played by Joseph Cotten, Uncle Charlie manages to inspire dread in the audience despite never killing anyone during the events of the film. From any other director, Frenzy would be regarded as a great film, but from the master of suspense it’s only slightly above average.
Torn Curtain, Topaz, and Frenzy all indicate that Hitchcock was becoming irrelevant by the late ’60s and early ’70s. The first two can be seen as an attempt to capitalise on the growing popularity of the James Bond franchise. Meanwhile, Frenzy appears to try and recapture that Psycho magic by pushing the boundaries of violence even further. Hitchcock was becoming passé. This was all but confirmed when Steven Spielberg released Jaws in 1975, giving birth to the modern blockbuster in the process. The iconic shark film has Hitchcock’s DNA all over it. In a way then, the younger director is a sort of usurper as the king of thrills. This is solidified by the fact that Hitchcock lent his voice to the Jaws theme park ride, which apparently made the septuagenarian feel like a “whore”. He even refused to meet Spielberg.
The year after Jaws, Hitchcock released Family Plot. In this story about two criminal couples, the macabre humour that was a sideshow in previous films became more prominent. It was to be Hitchcock’s final film. The legendary director was knighted in 1979 and passed away a year later in his home in Bel-Air.
Having dedicated over 50 years to filmmaking, from the height of the silent era, to the dawn of the modern blockbuster, Alfred Hitchcock is a vital cinematic figure. He inserted himself into the public consciousness through his television show, the revolutionary promotion of his films, and his famous cameos. No matter how long it lasts there will always be a fat eccentric British man in the canon of film history. Although we must not gloss over his personal flaws, it is impossible to deny the artistry of his films. He has left behind a wealth of treasures that wait to be discovered by successive generations of film fans everywhere.
Top 5 Alfred Hitchcock Films:
Shadow of a Doubt (1943) Joseph Cotten gives the best performance of his career as a serial killer hiding in the suburbs. A true wolf in sheep’s clothing, his unflinching normalcy disturbs more than Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter ever could. This film subtly probes the nature of evil, as well as the relationship between violence and fiction.
The Wrong Man (1956) As the title says, this is the purest example of Hitchcock’s most persistent theme. Based closely on real events, Henry Fonda plays a man who is wrongly imprisoned for murder. The film chronicles the ordeal he and his wife (played by Vera Miles) go through. It’s probably Hitchcock’s most poignant work, and relies heavily on character rather than atmosphere.
North by Northwest (1959) Cary Grant plays an every man who unwittingly gets caught up in a game of spies, leading to a chase around the United States. Veering wildly between excitement and hilarity, it’s also an excellent extension of Hitchcock’s work in the silent era, allowing him to tell an effective story through images alone.
Rear Window (1954) Hitchcock’s self-imposed limitations and experiments led to interesting, if flawed, films. Not so here, as he is able to craft a fascinating world from the space of a single apartment. Jimmy Stewart plays a housebound journalist who spies on his neighbours out of boredom, but believes he witnesses a murder. The film is also notable for the wonderful costumes that Edith Head designed for Grace Kelly, who plays Stewart’s socialite girlfriend.
Vertigo (1958) The best place to start with Hitchcock, Vertigo features the best work of everyone involved. Stewart gives the darkest performance of his career, while Bernard Herrmann has perhaps created the perfect film score. Edith Head’s costume design not only looks great but adds to the film’s themes. And Hitchcock shows how to tell a story with nothing but visuals, as the film sometimes goes on for ten minutes with no dialogue, yet remains utterly captivating throughout.