12 Comments | Add
Rate & Share:
Alfred Hitchcock, a True Legend
By Jarrod Sarafin
May 20, 2007
© Universal Pictures
April 29th marked the 27th year of the passing of one of cinema’s greatest directors ever. A man who re-invented a style on the thriller and suspense genres all his own and created new inspiration for directors of today to build off. This genius behind the camera is one of my all time personal favorites in the industry. Never mind the fact that his last directed movie occurred 2 years before I was born (Family Plot-1976) and he died two years after I was born. It doesn’t matter if I was still learning to walk and say something even resembling modern English out of that toddler mouth of mine. His movies transcend beyond the movement of time and his style behind the camera, a movie created 50 years ago, still resonate passionately within audiences even today.
I’m speaking of Alfred Hitchcock.
Hitchcock may have died on April 29, 1980 but his influence in cinema will continue to live on so let’s talk about his life. Let’s talk about some of his classics and even his personal hang-ups which motivated some of his movies. His life, his love (cinema) and his legacy.
Alfred Hitchcock was born in Leytonstone, London on August 13, 1899. He was the youngest child of a catholic family whose father ran a poulterer's and green-grocer's business and whose mother came of Ireland. Hitchcock loved his mother dearly from all reports and the reason I state as much here for all of your reading enjoyment because if you’re the least bit familiar with Hitchcock’s work, the motherly role in nearly all of his films played darker characters. There’s irony in saying that there was an emotional gap between his love for his mother and the emotion he put towards motherly characters in his movies and shows of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents…” Most directors draw their acting and directing quirks from their own inner demons. Think of all those comedians out there which have graced the world with laughter yet had tormented childhoods. It’s a gauge of fueling ones past into that imaginative canvas they have in their own selves and in this case, nobody to this day knows where the “motherly” quirks from his movies comes from. For that matter, the constant battle of the sex themes from his movies.
Alfred was largely an independent in his young days in England and he had a love for attending films and plays on his own. This is where he would draw some inspiration for his future career but not all of it. In the literacy world, he would also read works by Dickens, Poe, Chesterton, Buchan, Flaubert and Wilde. For his first career, a job which would jumpstart him into the industry, he had training in electrical engineering and draughtsman ship acquired at night school. While working for a cable company at the age of 20, he joined the London studios of Famous Players-Lasky which was affiliated with Paramount Pictures. He was hired on as a title designer, something he would do with passion regarding all their movies for his first two years attached to the studio. In 1923, he had a chance to direct his first film, Always Tell Your Wife (1923) when the original director for the film fell sick. If you caught my Star Spotlight dedicated to the legendary Robert Wise, you’ll see a similarity here. Mr. Wise got started early on and impressed studios early by filling in on unfinished projects. It seems Hitchcock had the same beginning. The studio was so impressed with Alfred’s work on the above movie; they gave him his own first movie to work from scratch, Number 13. Due to bad luck though, it was never finished because the studio shut down. For a year after the studio shut down, Hitchcock was employed there as part of a deal by producer Michael Balcon of Gainsborough Pictures as an assistant director. It was here where Hitchcock would find other sources of inspiration. He had a chance to observe F.W. Murnau on the set of The Last Laugh (1924), a film which Hitchcock would later describe as a perfect example of pure cinema. (1924), a film which Hitchcock would later describe as a perfect example of .
In these early years he worked under two top directors, George Fitzmaurice, a director noted for the artistic way he conceived a film including its sets and costumes. The other director was Graham Cutts. Cutts' vision was reflected in both the subject matter of his films often emphasizing theatrical spectacle. Hitchcock's first feature, The Pleasure Garden(1925), set in and around a London music hall had quite a bit of style from his mentor Cutts involved in it. This is the early beginnings of his career, before moving to America, where Hitchcock would go on to learn influences which would inspire him to become the legend he would later become. (1925), set in and around a London music hall had quite a bit of style from his mentor Cutts involved in it. This is the early beginnings of his career, before moving to America, where Hitchcock would go on to learn influences which would inspire him to become the legend he would later become.
It was around this time, 1926, where Hitchcock would marry his long time partner, Alma Reville and it wouldn’t be long before the couple had their first and only child, Patricia in 1928. It should be said that in a cinematic world where couples don’t last long at all, Alfred and Alma were against the grain here. They were married for 54 years until Alfred’s death in Bel Air, California. It should also be noted that while this is an achievement, a lot of reports have indicated that Hitchcock was only truly married to his work first and foremost. The marriage, though affectionate, was hardly a passionate one. By Hitchcock's admission, he led a celibate lifestyle full of sublimations, foremost among which was his work but which included travel, eating at exclusive restaurants, attending symphony concerts at the Albert Hall, and collecting first editions and original works of art. A persistent theme of his films is the battle of the sexes. It's tempting to speculate how much he drew on his own marriage. One hears that the diminutive Alma more than stood up to the often grossly overweight Alfred – being described as “peppery” and given to “bossing” her husband. I guess he reached an understand with his wife on this or they were just old school enough not to care much about their own marriage issues in relation to this. Perhaps, this is where some of his movie themes came from? Perhaps he liked Alma for always keeping him on his toes.
When he first visited Hollywood in 1940, he was turned down by virtually all major motion picture studios because they didn’t think he could not make a "Hollywood" picture. He was finally offered a seven-year directing contract by producer David Selznick. His first project was supposed to be a film about the Titanic, but Selznick scrapped the project because he "couldn't find a boat to sink." Selznick assigned Hitchcock to direct Rebecca (1940) instead. A first film in Hollywood which garnered him an Oscar nomination. Ironically enough, this would be his only film to win the Best Picture award at the Academy Awards though he wouldn’t be getting the trophy for it. That always goes to the producer for a Best Picture award, in this case, it was producer Selznick. He was still nominated for best Director for Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945), Rear Window (1954), and Psycho (1960).
His Best Picture nominations were Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Spellbound (1945)Needless to say, getting nominated and winning Best Picture for Rebecca helped convince those skeptical other studio executives that this new man in town Alfred Hitchcock had a future in cinema.
Selznick gave him his first break in the Hollywood scene, there were hang-ups here. Selznick had a very restrictive mentality in regards to projects and creative control. He also always had money problems so he ended up loaning out Hitchcock to other studios (after they were convinced of his marketability) in later years. I have a feeling it this was restrictive beginning which contributed him to being such a driven director in terms of creative control. Let’s also say here he didn’t approve of the “Method Approach” that was popularized in the 1960s when his own career was reaching its climax.
I covered Ridley Scott for the site a few weeks back and it can be said quite readily that he is an “actor’s director”. Hitchcock is quite the opposite. He’s always been known for his belief that the director is the one truly in charge of making a movie what it is and the essence of power behind the camera is what makes a movie good or bad. In fact, he turned quite a few heads early into his career in Hollywood when he would refer to actors as “cattle” just like any other part of a director’s overview, i.e. settings, storyboarding, etc.
Here’s what Alfred had to say about that one:
"There is a dreadful story that I hate actors. Imagine anyone hating Jimmy Stewart... or Jack Warner. I can't imagine how such a rumor began. Of course it may possibly be because I was once quoted as saying that actors are cattle. My actor friends know I would never be capable of such a thoughtless, rude and unfeeling remark, that I would never call them cattle... What I probably said was that actors should be treated like cattle."
Here’s another funny little jab at actors from Hitchcock:
"When an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, 'It's in the script.' If he says, 'But what's my motivation?, ' I say, 'Your salary.'"
"To make a great film you need three things - the script, the script and the script."
Hah. Obviously a lot of actors didn’t much like this kind of approach but it never stopped Alfred from working frequently with some big stars in the industry. He worked closely with Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant (whom he publicly professed to love), James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Malcolm Keen, Leo G. Carroll, Hume Cronyn, Clare Greet and John Williams.
Some of Hitchcock’s “quirks” which made its way into his films.
Cameos by Hitchcock
Hitchcock loved to insert little cameos of himself in his films. In fact later on, audiences would go out of their way to find him and it was around this fact that Hitchcock figured he would insert himself early on so the audiences attention wouldn’t divert from the story itself. the director would be seen for a brief moment boarding a bus, crossing in front of a building, standing in an apartment across the courtyard, or appearing in a photograph. This playful gesture became one of Hitchcock's signatures. As a recurring theme he would carry a musical instrument.
Brandy and Staircases
He loved Brandy and would have it appear in just about every one of his films. He even had James Stewart reference the beverage as “medicine” in Vertigo. Another quirk is staircases, a setting which the director loved to put in just about all his films one way or the other. He would use staircases as suspenseful moments and story plot devices in a lot of his films as well.
As I wrote earlier, it’s been said that Alfred Hitchcock and his mother were close but that didn’t stop the references from appearing in quite a bit of his onscreen characters and motivations. In fact, Hitchcock stated that when he was a boy he used to have to stand at attention at the foot of his mothers bed when being addressed by her. Psycho (1960), anyone?
Psycho wasn’t the only reference though. In North By Northwest, Cary Grant’s character is ridiculed by his mother for insisting he’s being stalked by men. In the Birds (1963), the character is struggling to free himself from a clinging mother. The killer in Frenzy (1972) loves his mother but absolutely hates women. In Strangers on a Train, the character has loves his mother but hates his father. There’s also motherly issues between characters in his Notorious film.
Eggs and Police
Hitchcock had a fear or phobia of both. The fear of police can be explained. When he was a kid in London, Hitchcock misbehaved as kids usually tend to do once or twice. Well, his father wrote in detail what happened on a piece of paper and told Alfred to walk down to the jail and give the paper to the officer in charge. Hitchcock (doing something most kids wouldn’t do these days) obliged and walked to the jail and gave the slip of paper to them. The on duty officer read the paper and locked him up…for 10 minutes.
Obviously, this doesn’t seem like a lot but it appears to have traumatized young Alfred here as it would do with most children. From that point onward, he would always try to stay out of the law’s reach and he would frequently incorporate some of that fear into characters on screen. The law hardly ever solved the problem and they were frequently shown to be bumbling fools or naïve to say the least. Hitchcock would never even attempt to get a drivers license as a result of this scarring incident.
Over the eggs, he was just damn scared of them but I can’t find any reason specifically as to why except this quote:
“I’m frightened of eggs, worse than frightened, they revolt me. That white round thing without any holes … have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its yellow liquid? Blood is jolly, red. But egg yolk is yellow, revolting. I’ve never tasted it.”
Alfred Hitchcock’s Filmography
Hitchcock’s first directed movie was in 1923 and he last directed movie was in 1976. That’s right, the man directed 59 different feature films in 53 years.
He directed 11 silent films from 1922-1929.
He directed 16 British films from 1929-1939.
He directed 32 American films from 1940-1976.
He directed 20 episodes of “Alfred Hitchcocks Presents…” from 1955-1962.
There’s a reason he has been listed as an influence for Steven Spielberg along with countless others today in cinema. He was an influential man whom impacted the history of Hollywood in more ways then one. He was ahead of his time in regards to a lot of his storylines and controversial topics and he was a revolutionary in a lot of behind the camera techniques which would later directors would utilize in future years. There’s even a technique called “the Hitchcock Zoom” method named after him not to mention the story/character device known as the “MacGuffin” method that would became a trademark of his.
Films like Psycho pushed the boundaries of “acceptable” in terms of ratings boards and cinema along with a number of his earlier and later films in terms of society standards. He would sometimes approach very taboo subject matter in his films which would make studio executives and some audiences at that time cringe. He was never afraid on what his storylines may offend and he was most definitely a driving influence behind the pop culture in the middle part of our last century in terms of Cinematic Achievement.
As far as why he will always be a personal favorite of mine. I loved his works for what the suspense and thrills they provided me in my viewing pleasures. He had a certain dry sense of humor which appeals to me at times late at night when his “Alfred Hitchcock Presents…” sometimes appears on the Chiller networks on my satellite and his thrillers would later help shape a genre in which I love very much, Horror.
I remember when it was announced back in 1996-97 that they were remaking Psycho, I wrote up a 30 page rant (seems more like a damn thesis document) on why Hollywood should leave Hitchcock’s classics alone. Hell, I remember posting that 30 page rant here at Cinescape back in the 90s but alas, that was 5 different Forum software ago so its long lost and a few computers back so it’s gone for good. Still, it amounted to nothing because they did go ahead and remake the movie and now, they’re remaking The Birds much to my dissatisfaction.
Oh well, they can continue to remake my two personal favorite directors, Hitchcock and Carpenter but I will always have a special place in my heart for their classics. I may even view their remakes but they will never mean as much to me as the original directorial visions behind the original projects.
Enough of my love on Hitchcock though…Tell me, Maniacs, what you think of Alfred Hitchcock and what are some of your personal favorites from the man whom helped shape the world of cinema.
What are your favorite Hitchcock Ian moments?