Alfred Hitchcock Master Of Suspense Essays

Books discussed in this essay:

Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much, by Michael Wood.

Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Volume 2: Selected Writings and Interviews, edited by Sidney Gottlieb.

Alfred Hitchcock, by Peter Ackroyd.

Hitchcock à la Carte, by Jan Olsson.

Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films, by Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr. 

bout halfway through Michael Wood’s little book on Alfred Hitchcock—one in a series called “Icons”—we come upon a curious passage concerning a documentary about the Holocaust made just after the war, titled Memory of the Camps (1945), on which Hitchcock was credited as “treatment advisor.” When he saw the film, Wood writes that he was particularly struck by one scene in which the huts at Bergen-Belsen were burned by the Allied occupiers to arrest the spread of typhus among the surviving inmates. After trying—in my view not quite successfully—to explain why the scene struck him so powerfully, Wood writes:

I’m sure I would not have felt any of this if I hadn’t known of Hitchcock’s involvement in the film. I don’t attribute the shot to his guidance; I am not making a rational or causal claim. Indeed, this particular sequence was probably completed before Hitchcock came to work on the film. But Hitchcock can change the way we see. Sometimes the name alone will effect the change, and our minds do the rest.

Perhaps he intends by this observation to adduce a hitherto unknown corollary of the Kuleshov effect, one of Hitchcock’s favorite film-making principles, which explains how cutting or montage—context, as the non-film-making world would describe it—affects what we see, and how we understand what we see. In any case, the observation has a contextual effect of its own when put together with Wood’s subtitle, which is also the title of a movie Hitchcock made twice, once in England and once in America: The Man Who Knew Too Much.

 It’s not just that Wood takes the great director’s interest in the processes and consequences of knowing and not knowing as his theme. What, after all, is the “Suspense” that Hitchcock was said (perhaps most often by himself) to be “Master” of but knowledge deferred or denied? It’s the not entirely pleasurable thrill you get from not knowing something that you desperately want to know—whether the bomb will be discovered before it goes off or the policeman will turn around to see the innocent fugitive escaping. But, in the quoted passage above, Wood, too, claims to know too much. Or rather, he makes a claim to knowledge to which he is not reasonably entitled solely on the grounds of his reverence for the allegedly iconic Hitchcock’s genius. What he knows or thinks he knows is of less interest or importance, either to him or to us, than how he knows it—merely through his knowledge of Hitchcock’s participation in the film.

A Pretext

Although Wood does not make explicit the comparison, Hitchcock himself appears to have based his career on a similar kind of thinking. It’s implicit in the idea of the “MacGuffin,” mentioned in all these books in one way or another as it is in every account of the great man’s life and work. Sidney Gottlieb’s second of his two volumes of Hitchcock on Hitchcock (the first came out in 1995) will give you the origin of the word, but it is defined in Peter Ackroyd’s new biography as

the nonsense clause in his films which ties together the improbabilities and implausibilities. It is, to use a more familiar phrase, the red herring, the device that sends the plot and the characters on their way—such as the attempt to assassinate a foreign leader in [The Man Who Knew Too Much]—but remains of little or no interest to the audience; it is simply an excuse for all the activity on the screen.

That definition is slightly misleading, since a red herring implies a distraction or a detour from the real trail the heroes (or the villains) are trying to follow. To Hitchcock there typically isn’t a real trail—or not one that matters any more than a false one for its own sake. Everything matters only subjectively, through its effects on the main character—and through him or her on the audience—whether the knowledge is true or false. For Hitchcock the important realities were always mental ones. That’s why Gottlieb writes in introducing one of the interviews he reprints that Hitchcock “comes close to saying that story in general is itself a MacGuffin: extremely valuable and captivating but basically a pretext. The key challenge, if not paradox, is that story should get and keep things going, catching the attention of the audience, but not get in the way or dominate.”

Get in the way of what? The answer must be emotion in general—a film studio is an “emotion factory,” says Hitchcock in an article he wrote in 1928—and fear in particular. French film director François Truffaut classified him among the great “artists of anxiety,” along with Edgar Allan Poe, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Franz Kafka. Suspense is of course also a form of fear. Fear and doubt (the words were once interchangeable) go together, and what we fear is most often the unknown, which is the fear that Hitchcock himself shared as he sometimes claimed in interviews that he was himself fearful of almost everything—which is why he demanded to live according to strict routine. Though he has been much criticized for his off-the-cuff dictum that the key to making successful melodrama was to “torture the women,” it’s clear that the purpose of such fake torture on the screen was to torture the audience in real life.

Latent Paranoia

Anything else, including plot and character—which interested him hardly at all—was secondary to this emotional manipulation, and he had nothing but contempt for those he variously called the “plausibles” or “plausibilists.” He always insisted that movies had a logic of their own that made the logic of the plausibilists redundant. And in his films he very often pits his heroes against their own version of the plausibilists, eager to point out to them that the things they think they know cannot possibly be true—although they invariably are true, or become true merely by their knowing them. By knowing too much. Thus when Cary Grant is mistaken for a non-existent American agent in North by Northwest (1959) he finds that he himself has become the man.

The great examples, however, are The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Rear Window (1954), wherein Margaret Lockwood and James Stewart, respectively, are both constantly assured that plausibility demands they deny the evidence of their own senses, though both are vindicated when their respective love interests (Michael Redgrave and Grace Kelly) choose to believe them instead of the plausibilists. What cannot be true, must be true. In his earliest interview with Truffaut, reprinted by Gottlieb from Cahiers du Cinéma, Hitchcock says of The Wrong Man (1956) that “my direction is entirely subjective”—as it typically is in other examples of “the wrong man,” from his 1926 silent film The Lodger to Young and Innocent (1937) to Saboteur (1942) to Strangers on a Train (1951) to North by Northwest to Frenzy (1972). The paradigmatically nightmarish situation in which one is pursued for a crime one has not committed is fear at its most basic. And even when the apparently wrong man becomes the right man, as in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) or Stage Fright (1950), the audience’s surrogate (a vulnerable young woman in both cases) must be taken in by the deception along with the audience.

Either way, it is the audience’s latent paranoia he is always appealing to. Thirty-five years after Hitchcock’s death, the justified paranoiac has become a cinematic cliché—though probably less through the Hitchcockian model than its vulgarization in a thousand second-rate horror movies and would-be political allegories where only one person knows the awful truth and desperately tries, mostly without success, to alert the rest of the town, country, or world. By this roundabout method, Hitchcockian mistrust of authority—sometimes humorously attributed in an anecdote, which no biographer has been able to verify and which is doubted by Ackroyd, to his father’s having asked the local police to lock up the five-year-old Alfred to teach him that “This is what happens to naughty boys”—has now become the cultural norm.

Michael Wood tries rather unconvincingly to politicize Hitchcock’s fears when he cites what he calls German critic Theodor Adorno’s “version of the saying that even paranoids have enemies” in his retrospective anticipatory fear of Nazism. But it seems to me rather a stretch to write, as he goes on to do, that Hitchcock’s conspiracy movies of the 1930s were meant to warn his fellow Britons of what they were insufficiently paranoid about during that decade. It would be much more likely that Hitchcock simply understood better than most others the commercial value of entertaining people by manipulating their already existing fears.


But the question arises: is the Hitchcockian mode adaptable to anything but his peculiarly effective sort of cinematic illusionism? Does it have anything to do with anything in the real world, or is it just a sort of MacGuffin of its own, a part of what everybody agrees was Hitchcock’s genius for marketing and publicity—and self-publicity? Jan Olsson’s book, Hitchcock à la Carte, is particularly good on this aspect of the man. It shows how from his first arrival in America in 1937 he saw the potential benefits to the Hitchcock brand of marketing himself as an overweight buffoon and supposed gourmand with an equally ponderous wit, both in talking about his films and in the films themselves.

This book is also valuable for its extensive treatment of Hitchcock’s two television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which ran on CBS and NBC from 1955 to 1962, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour from 1962 to 1965. His weekly introductions to the TV shows, most of them scripted by Jimmy Allardice, were meant to play up to this image as well as to provide a way of ironically moralizing a great many of the episodes which would otherwise have fallen foul of network and sponsors by showing murderers and other criminals too sympathetically, or allowing them to escape uncaught and unpunished. Unfortunately, much of his book is written in the often impenetrable jargon of lit and film “theory,” which makes it a chore to get through—in addition to imperfectly disguising the unremarkable quality of many of its critical insights.

For the more strictly cinematic sort of genius which everyone agrees Hitchcock had, the best bets are the volume edited by Gottlieb, and the exploration of the lesser-known byways of his long career, Hitchcock Lost and Found, by Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr—though the latter, consisting so largely of piecing together bits of information about films that no longer exist, is likely to be of more interest to Hitchcock scholars and biographers than a general audience. But the authors also quote from Drexel University’s Paula Marantz Cohen the great justification for Hitchcock scholarship, which is that “to study him is to find an economical way of studying the entire history of cinema.”

This identification of the man with his technique would have appealed to Hitchcock himself who, in his conversations with Truffaut in 1962,

preferred anecdotes and technical detail to any disquisitions on theme or meaning. He did not wish to enquire too deeply into his motives or the reasons for any particular subject or film. He was only interested in content or plot in so far as they prompted his visual imagination.

That’s the summary of Peter Ackroyd’s book, and it fits well with what we know of Hitchcock from Wood and other witnesses. But it is also clear that that imagination was always in the service of commercial success.

Visual Storytelling

In a revealing comment made in the interview with film critic Anthony Macklin, reprinted in Hitchcock on Hitchcock, the director mentions his own bad judgment in Sabotage (1936), his adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent, in allowing the bomb carried unwittingly by a child to go off, killing him and a busload of passengers: 

I’ve never made that mistake since. If you get the suspense from an audience from a thing like a bomb, it mustn’t go off. It’s got to be discovered and thrown out of the window. You’ve got to relieve that suspense in other ways. Otherwise they get angry with you.

In Conrad’s subtle and prescient investigation of the mind of a terrorist, of course, the death of the boy is central, indispensable. But Hitchcock is only interested in sending the audience home happy, not in the mind of the terrorist. Nor, for that matter, in other kinds of mind either. You can’t see the ending of Psycho—when, as someone on the crew is reported to have put it, “the head shrinker comes on and explains it all”—and preserve any belief in Hitchcock’s interest in psychology as anything but a joke. This made for some interesting interactions with the newer sort of “method” actors in Cold War-era America. According to one report, Paul Newman is supposed to have made the mistake of asking Hitchcock what his “motivation” was in a particular scene of Torn Curtain. “Your motivation is your salary,” answered Hitchcock.

 An equally revealing comment from the Macklin interview comes in answer to Macklin’s question about whether he ever discovers new ideas in the course of making a film. “No,” says Hitchcock. “It never happens?” asks the interviewer, incredulously. “No,” Hitchcock repeats. Elsewhere we are told that he storyboards everything in advance, so that the film already exists in his head before filming actually starts. As Gottlieb writes, he cannot have been entirely joking when he said, “I wish I didn’t have to shoot the picture.” Director Peter Bogdanovich has written that Hitchcock referred to the physical process of film-making as “the area of compromise.”

The point is that Hitchcock’s greatness lies in his brilliance at visual storytelling. Hitchcock thought Rear Window “the most cinematic” of his pictures—because it was the most purely visual. You may try for yourself the experiment of watching one of his movies with the sound off. Though you will miss many details and all the music, which was always very important, you will have no difficulty at all in following the main outlines of the story because, like all Hitchcock films, it will have been conceived as a visual experience from the outset. As the director himself wrote in another piece reprinted by Gottlieb:

The secret of good directing is to remember that you are telling a story visually. Your medium is that of sound and sight. The screen should tell this story as much as possible—not the dialogue. [Emphasis in the original.]

In an important sense, Hitchcock went on for his whole career making the silent films in which he got his start.

Michael Wood relates the opinion of Anthony Perkins, who starred as Norman Bates in Psycho (1960), that Hitchcock was shocked to discover “that audiences at screenings…were laughing as well as screaming” at the famous shower scene. Perkins said: “He was confused, at first, incredulous second, and despondent third”—but, writes Wood, “from then on he claimed to have had his tongue in his cheek all along.” Ackroyd quotes him telling an interviewer in 1964 that “I once made a movie, rather tongue-in-cheek, called Psycho,” intending it to be “a big joke. I was horrified to find that some people took it seriously.” Was he there misremembering his own state of mind at the time or was Perkins mistaken? As in so much of Hitchcock, both ways of seeing it could have their own truth, but that in itself suggests that he ought to be recognized today, among his many other accomplishments, as the progenitor of postmodernism. As Hitchcock told Peter Bogdanovich in 1963, “The area in which we get near to the free abstract in movie making is the free use of fantasy, which is what I deal in.” Or was this always implicit in the elusive and illusory history of cinema itself, with which Alfred Hitchcock’s career is so often identified?

"Hitchcock" redirects here. For other uses, see Hitchcock (disambiguation).

Sir Alfred Joseph HitchcockKBE (13 August 1899 – 29 April 1980) was an English film director and producer, widely regarded as one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema. He directed 53 feature films[a] in a career spanning six decades, becoming as well-known as any of his actors thanks to his many interviews, his cameo roles in most of his films, and his hosting of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955–1965).

Born on the outskirts of London, Hitchcock entered the film industry in 1919 as a title card designer after training as a technical clerk and copy writer for a telegraph-cable company. His first successful film, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), helped to shape the thriller genre, while his 1929 film, Blackmail, was the first British "talkie".[3] Two of his 1930's thrillers, The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938), are ranked among the greatest British films of the 20th century. By 1939 Hitchcock was a filmmaker of international importance, and film producer David O. Selznick persuaded him to move to Hollywood. A string of successful films followed, including Rebecca (1940), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and The Paradine Case (1947); Rebecca was nominated for 11 Oscars and won the Academy Award for Best Picture.[4]

The "Hitchcockian" style includes the use of camera movement to mimic a person's gaze, thereby turning viewers into voyeurs, and framing shots to maximise anxiety and fear. The film critic Robin Wood wrote that the meaning of a Hitchcock film "is there in the method, in the progression from shot to shot. A Hitchcock film is an organism, with the whole implied in every detail and every detail related to the whole." By 1960 Hitchcock had directed four films often ranked among the greatest of all time: Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960); in 2012 Vertigo replaced Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941) as the British Film Institute's best film ever made.[6] By 2016 seven of his films had been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry,[b] including his personal favourite, Shadow of a Doubt (1943).[c] He received the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1979 and was knighted in December that year, four months before he died.[9]


Early life: 1899–1919[edit]

Early childhood and education[edit]

Hitchcock was born in the flat above his parents' leased grocer's shop at 517 High Road, Leytonstone, on the outskirts of east London (then part of Essex), the youngest of three children: William (born 1890), Ellen Kathleen ("Nellie") (1892), and Alfred Joseph (1899). His parents, Emma Jane Hitchcock, née Whelan (1863–1942), and William Hitchcock (1862–1914), were both Roman Catholics, with partial roots in Ireland;[11] William was a greengrocer as his father had been.[12] There was a large extended family, including Uncle John Hitchcock with his five-bedroom Victorian house on Campion Road, Putney, complete with maid, cook, chauffeur and gardener. Every summer John rented a seaside house for the family in Cliftonville, Kent. Hitchcock said that he first became class-conscious there, noticing the differences between tourists and locals.[13]

Describing himself as a well-behaved boy—his father called him his "little lamb without a spot"—Hitchcock said he could not remember ever having had a playmate. One of his favourite stories for interviewers was about his father sending him to the local police station with a note when he was five; the policeman looked at the note and locked him in a cell for a few minutes, saying, "This is what we do to naughty boys." The experience left him, he said, with a lifelong fear of policemen; in 1973 he told Tom Snyder that he was "scared stiff of anything ... to do with the law" and wouldn't even drive a car in case he got a parking ticket.[15]

When he was six, the family moved to Limehouse and leased two stores at 130 and 175 Salmon Lane, which they ran as a fish-and-chips shop and fishmongers' respectively; they lived above the former.[16] It seems that Hitchcock was seven when he attended his first school, the Howrah House Convent in Poplar, which he entered in 1907.[17] According to Patrick McGilligan, he stayed at Howrah House for at most two years. He also attended a convent school, the Wode Street School "for the daughters of gentlemen and little boys", run by the Faithful Companions of Jesus; briefly attended a primary school near his home; and was for a very short time, when he was nine, a boarder at Salesian College in Battersea.[18]

The family moved again when he was 11, this time to Stepney, and on 5 October 1910 Hitchcock was sent to St Ignatius College in Stamford Hill, a Jesuitgrammar school with a reputation for discipline.[20] The priests used a hard rubber cane on the boys, always at the end of the day, so the boys had to sit through classes anticipating the punishment once they knew they'd been written up for it. He said it was here that he developed his sense of fear.[21] The school register lists his year of birth as 1900 rather than 1899; Spoto writes that it seems he was deliberately enrolled as a 10-year-old, perhaps because he was a year behind with his schooling. Hitchcock said he was "usually among the four or five at the top of the class"; at the end of his first year, his work in Latin, English, French and religious education was noted.[24] His favourite subject was geography, and he became interested in maps, and railway and bus timetables; according to Taylor, he could recite all the stops on the Orient Express. He told Peter Bogdanovich: "The Jesuits taught me organization, control and, to some degree, analysis."


Hitchcock told his parents that he wanted to be an engineer, and on 25 July 1913,[27] he left St Ignatius and enrolled in night classes at the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation in Poplar. In a book-length interview in 1962, he told François Truffaut that he had studied "mechanics, electricity, acoustics, and navigation". Then on 12 December 1914 his father, who had been suffering from emphysema and kidney disease, died at the age of 52.[28] To support himself and his mother—his older siblings had left home by then—Hitchcock took a job, for 15 shillings a week (£66 in 2017),[29] as a technical clerk at the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company in Blomfield Street near London Wall.[30] He kept up his night classes, this time in art history, painting, economics, and political science.[31] His older brother ran the family shops, while he and his mother continued to live in Salmon Lane.

He was too young to enlist when World War I broke out in July 1914, and when he was old enough, in 1917, he was classified as "C3" ("free from serious organic disease, able to stand service conditions in garrisons at home ... only suitable for sedentary work").[33] He joined a volunteer corps of the Royal Engineers and took part in theoretical briefings; there was one session of practical exercises in Hyde Park, during which, John Russell Taylor wrote, his puttees kept falling down around his ankles.

After the war, Hitchcock began dabbling in creative writing. In June 1919 he became a founding editor and business manager of Henley's in-house publication, The Henley Telegraph (sixpence a copy), to which he submitted several short stories.[d] Henley's promoted him to the advertising department, where he wrote copy and drew graphics for advertisements for electric cable. He apparently loved the job and would stay late at the office to examine the proofs; he told Truffaut that this was his "first step toward cinema". He enjoyed watching films, especially American cinema, and from the age of 16 read the trade papers; he watched Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith and Buster Keaton, and particularly liked Fritz Lang's Der müde Tod (1921).

Inter-war career: 1919–1939[edit]

Famous Players-Lasky[edit]

While still at Henley's, he read in a trade paper that Famous Players-Lasky, the production arm of Paramount Pictures, was opening a studio in London. They were planning to film The Sorrows of Satan by Marie Corelli, so he produced some drawings for the title cards and sent his work to the studio.[page needed] They hired him, and in 1919 he began working for Islington Studios in Poole Street, Hoxton, as a title-card designer.Donald Spoto writes that most of the staff were Americans with strict job specifications, but the English workers were encouraged to try their hand at anything, which meant that Hitchcock gained experience as a co-writer, art director and production manager on at least 18 silent films.The Times wrote in February 1922 about the studio's "special art title department under the supervision of Mr. A. J. Hitchcock".[47] His work there included Number 13 (1922), also known as Mrs. Peabody, cancelled because of financial problems—the few finished scenes are lost—and Always Tell Your Wife (1923), which he and Seymour Hicks finished together when Hicks was about to give up on it. Hicks wrote later about being helped by "a fat youth who was in charge of the property room ... [n]one other than Alfred Hitchcock".

Gainsborough Pictures[edit]

When Paramount pulled out of London in 1922, Hitchcock was hired as an assistant director by a new firm run in the same location by Michael Balcon, later known as Gainsborough Pictures. Hitchcock worked on Woman to Woman (1923) with the director Graham Cutts, designing the set, writing the script and producing. He said: "It was the first film that I had really got my hands onto." The editor and "script girl" on Woman to Woman was Alma Reville, his future wife. He also worked as an assistant to Cutts on The White Shadow (1924), The Passionate Adventure (1924), The Blackguard (1925), and The Prude's Fall (1925).The Blackguard was produced at the Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam, where Hitchcock watched part of the making of F. W. Murnau's film The Last Laugh (1924).[53] He was impressed with Murnau's work and later used many of his techniques for the set design in his own productions.

In the summer of 1925, Balcon asked Hitchcock to direct The Pleasure Garden (1925), starring Virginia Valli, a co-production of Gainsborough and the German firm Emelka at the Geiselgasteig studio near Munich. Reville, by then Hitchcock's fiancée, was assistant director-editor. Although the film was a commercial flop, Balcon liked Hitchcock's work; a Daily Express headline called him, "Young man with a master mind". Balcon asked him to direct a second film in Munich, The Mountain Eagle (1926), released in the United States as Fear o' God. The film is lost; Hitchcock called it "a very bad movie".

Hitchcock's luck changed with his first thriller, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), about the hunt for a serial killer who, wearing a black cloak and carrying a black bag, is murdering young blonde women in London, and only on Tuesdays. A landlady suspects that her lodger is the killer, but he turns out to be innocent. Hitchcock had a glass floor made so that the audience could see the lodger pacing up and down in his room above the landlady. Hitchcock had wanted the leading man to be guilty, or for the film at least to end ambiguously, but the star was Ivor Novello, a matinée idol, and the "star system" meant that Novello could not be the villain. Hitchcock told Truffaut: "You have to clearly spell it out in big letters: 'He is innocent.'" (He had the same problem years later with Cary Grant in Suspicion (1941).) Released in January 1927, The Lodger was a commercial and critical success in the UK.[62] Hitchcock told Truffaut that the film was the first of his to be influenced by the Expressionist techniques he had witnessed in Germany: "In truth, you might almost say that The Lodger was my first picture." He made his first cameo appearances in the film, purely because an extra body was needed, sitting in a newsroom and later standing in a crowd as the leading man is arrested.


On 2 December 1926, Hitchcock and Alma Reville (1899–1982) married at the Brompton Oratory in South Kensington. The couple honeymooned in Paris, Lake Como and St. Moritz, before returning to London to live in a leased flat on the top two floors of 153 Cromwell Road, Kensington. Reville, who was born just hours after Hitchcock, converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, apparently at the insistence of Hitchcock's mother; she was baptized on 31 May 1927 and confirmed at Westminster Abbey by Cardinal Francis Bourne on 5 June.[68] In 1928, when she learned that she was pregnant, the Hitchcocks purchased "Winter's Grace", a Tudor farmhouse set in 11 acres on Stroud Lane, Shamley Green, Surrey, for £2,500.[69] Their daughter and only child, Patricia Alma Hitchcock, was born on 7 July that year. Reville became her husband's closest collaborator; Charles Champlin wrote in 1982: "The Hitchcock touch had four hands, and two were Alma's."[71][e]

Early sound films[edit]

Hitchcock began work on his tenth film, Blackmail (1929), when its production company, British International Pictures (BIP), converted its Elstree studios to sound. The film was the first British "talkie"; it followed the first American sound feature film, The Jazz Singer (1927).[3]Blackmail began the Hitchcock tradition of using famous landmarks as a backdrop for suspense sequences, with the climax taking place on the dome of the British Museum.[73] It also features one of his longest cameo appearances, which shows him being bothered by a small boy as he reads a book on the London Underground.[74] In the PBS series The Men Who Made The Movies, Hitchcock explained how he used early sound recording as a special element of the film, stressing the word "knife" in a conversation with the woman suspected of murder.[75][clarification needed] During this period, Hitchcock directed segments for a BIP revue, Elstree Calling (1930), and directed a short film, An Elastic Affair (1930), featuring two Film Weekly scholarship winners.[citation needed]An Elastic Affair is one of the lost films.[76]

In 1933 Hitchcock was once again working for Michael Balcon at Gaumont British.[citation needed] His first film for the company, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), was a success; his second, The 39 Steps (1935), was acclaimed in the UK and made Hitchcock a star in the US. It also established the quintessential English "Hitchcock blonde" (Madeleine Carroll) as the template for his succession of ice-cold, elegant leading ladies. Screenwriter Robert Towne remarked, "It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with The 39 Steps".[77] This film was one of the first to introduce the "MacGuffin" plot device, a term coined by the English screenwriter Angus MacPhail.[78] The MacGuffin is an item or goal the protagonist is pursuing, one that otherwise has no narrative value; in The 39 Steps, the MacGuffin is a stolen set of design plans.[79]

Hitchcock released two spy thrillers in 1936. Sabotage was loosely based on Joseph Conrad's novel, The Secret Agent (1907), about a woman who discovers that her husband is a terrorist, and Secret Agent, based on two stories in Ashenden: Or the British Agent (1928) by W. Somerset Maugham.[f]

Hitchcock's next major success was The Lady Vanishes (1938), "one of the greatest train movies from the genre's golden era", according to Philip French, in which Miss Froy (May Whitty), a British spy posing as a governess, disappears on a train journey through the fictional European country of Bandrika.[80] The film saw Hitchcock receive the 1939 New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director, the only time he won an award for his direction.[81][not in citation given] Benjamin Crisler, the New York Times film critic, wrote in June 1938: "Three unique and valuable institutions the British have that we in America have not: Magna Charta, the Tower Bridge and Alfred Hitchcock, the greatest director of screen melodramas in the world."[82]

Early Hollywood years: 1939–1945[edit]

Selznick contract[edit]

David O. Selznick signed Hitchcock to a seven-year contract beginning in March 1939, and the Hitchcocks moved to Hollywood.[83] In June that year Life magazine called him the "greatest master of melodrama in screen history".[84] The working arrangements with Selznick were less than ideal. Selznick suffered from constant financial problems, and Hitchcock was often unhappy about Selznick's creative control over his films. In a later interview, Hitchcock said: "[Selznick] was the Big Producer. ... Producer was king. The most flattering thing Mr. Selznick ever said about me—and it shows you the amount of control—he said I was the 'only director' he'd 'trust with a film'."[85] At the same time, Selznick complained about Hitchcock's "goddamn jigsaw cutting", which meant that the producer had to follow Hitchcock's vision of the finished product.[86]

Selznick lent Hitchcock to the larger studios more often than producing Hitchcock's films himself. Selznick made only a few films each year, as did fellow independent producer Samuel Goldwyn, so he did not always have projects for Hitchcock to direct. Goldwyn had also negotiated with Hitchcock on a possible contract, only to be outbid by Selznick. Hitchcock was quickly impressed by the superior resources of the American studios compared to the financial limits he had often faced in Britain.[87]

The Selznick picture Rebecca (1940) was Hitchcock's first American film, set in a Hollywood version of England's Cornwall and based on a novel by English novelist Daphne du Maurier. The film stars Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. The story concerns a naïve (and unnamed) young woman who marries a widowed aristocrat. She goes to live in his huge English country house, and struggles with the lingering reputation of his elegant and worldly first wife Rebecca, who died under mysterious circumstances. The film won Best Picture at the 13th Academy Awards; the statuette was given to Selznick, as the film's producer. Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director, his first of five such nominations.[4][88]

Hitchcock's second American film was the thriller Foreign Correspondent (1940), set in Europe, based on Vincent Sheean's book Personal History (1935) and produced by Walter Wanger. It was nominated for Best Picture that year. Hitchcock felt uneasy living and working in Hollywood while his country was at war; his concern resulted in a film that overtly supported the British war effort.[89] Filmed in the first year of World War II, it was inspired by the rapidly changing events in Europe, as covered by an American newspaper reporter played by Joel McCrea. Mixing footage of European scenes with scenes filmed on a Hollywood backlot, the film avoided direct references to Nazism, Nazi Germany, and Germans to comply with Hollywood's Motion Picture Production Code censorship at the time.[90][not in citation given]

Early war years[edit]

In September 1940 the Hitchcocks bought the 200-acre (0.81 km2) Cornwall Ranch near Scotts Valley, California, in the Santa Cruz Mountains.[citation needed] Their primary residence was an English-style home in Bel Air, purchased in 1942.[91] Hitchcock's films were diverse during this period, ranging from the romantic comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) to the bleak film noirShadow of a Doubt (1943).

Suspicion (1941) marked Hitchcock's first film as a producer and director. It is set in England; Hitchcock used the north coast of Santa Cruz for the English coastline sequence. The film is the first of four projects on which Cary Grant worked with Hitchcock, and it is one of the rare occasions that Grant was cast in a sinister role. Grant plays Johnnie Aysgarth, an English con man whose actions raise suspicion and anxiety in his shy young English wife, Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine). In one scene Hitchcock placed a light inside a glass of milk, perhaps poisoned, that Grant is bringing to his wife; the light makes sure that the audience's attention is on the glass. Grant's character is a killer in the book on which the film was based, Before the Fact by Francis Iles, but the studio felt that Grant's image would be tarnished by that. Hitchcock therefore settled for an ambiguous finale, although, as he told François Truffaut, he would have preferred to end with the wife's murder.[g] Fontaine won Best Actress for her performance.[95]

Saboteur (1942) is the first of two films that Hitchcock made for Universal during the decade. Hitchcock was forced by Universal Studios to use Universal contract player Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane, a freelancer who signed a one-picture deal with Universal, both known for their work in comedies and light dramas.[96] Breaking with Hollywood conventions of the time, Hitchcock did extensive location filming, especially in New York City, and depicted a confrontation between a suspected saboteur (Cummings) and a real saboteur (Norman Lloyd) atop the Statue of Liberty.[citation needed] He also directed Have You Heard? (1942), a photographic dramatisation for Life magazine of the dangers of rumours during wartime.[97] In 1943 he wrote a mystery story for Look magazine, "The Murder of Monty Woolley", a sequence of captioned photographs inviting the reader to find clues to the murderer's identity; Hitchcock cast the performers as themselves, such as Woolley, Doris Merrick, and make-up man Guy Pearce.[citation needed]

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) was Hitchcock's personal favourite and the second of the early Universal films. Charlotte "Charlie" Newton (Teresa Wright) suspects her beloved uncle Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) of being a serial killer. Hitchcock again filmed extensively on location, this time in the Northern California city of Santa Rosa.[99]

Working at 20th Century Fox, Hitchcock adapted a script of John Steinbeck's, which recorded the experiences of the survivors of a German U-boat attack in the film Lifeboat (1944). The action sequences were shot in a small boat in the studio water tank. The locale posed problems for Hitchcock's traditional cameo appearance. That was solved by having Hitchcock's image appear in a newspaper that William Bendix is reading in the boat, showing the director in a before-and-after advertisement for "Reduco-Obesity Slayer".[100] He told Truffaut in 1962:

At the time, I was on a strenuous diet, painfully working my way from three hundred to two hundred pounds. So I decided to immortalize my loss and get my bit part by posing for "before" and "after" pictures. ... I was literally submerged by letters from fat people who wanted to know where and how they could get Reduco.

Hitchcock's typical dinner before the weight loss had been a roast chicken, boiled ham, potatoes, bread, vegetables, relishes, salad, dessert, a bottle of wine and some brandy. To lose weight, he stopped drinking, drank black coffee for breakfast and lunch, and ate steak and salad for dinner, but it was hard to maintain; Spoto writes that his weight fluctuated considerably over the next 40 years. At the end of 1943, despite the weight loss, the Occidental Insurance Company of Los Angeles refused him life insurance.

Wartime non-fiction films[edit]

Further information: German Concentration Camps Factual Survey

"I felt the need to make a little contribution to the war effort, and I was both overweight and over-age for military service. I knew that if I did nothing, I'd regret it for the rest of my life ..."

— Alfred Hitchcock (1967)

Hitchcock returned to the UK for an extended visit in late 1943 and early 1944. While there he made two short propaganda films, Bon Voyage (1944) and Aventure Malgache (1944), for the Ministry of Information. In June and July 1945 Hitchcock served as "treatment advisor" on a Holocaust documentary that used Allied Forces footage of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. The film was assembled in London and produced by Sidney Bernstein of the Ministry of Information, who brought Hitchcock (a friend of his) on board. It was originally intended to be broadcast to the Germans, but the British government deemed it too traumatic to be shown to a shocked post-war population. Instead, it was transferred in 1952 from the British War Office film vaults to London's Imperial War Museum and remained unreleased until 1985, when an edited version was broadcast as an episode of PBSFrontline, under the title the Imperial War Museum had given it: Memory of the Camps. The full-length version of the film, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, was restored in 2014 by scholars at the Imperial War Museum.[104][105][106]

Post-war Hollywood years: 1945–1953[edit]

Later Selznick films[edit]

Hitchcock worked for David Selznick again when he directed Spellbound (1945), which explores psychoanalysis and features a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dalí.[107] The dream sequence as it appears in the film is ten minutes shorter than was originally envisioned; Selznick edited it to make it "play" more effectively.[108]Gregory Peck plays amnesiac Dr. Anthony Edwardes under the treatment of analyst Dr. Peterson (Ingrid Bergman), who falls in love with him while trying to unlock his repressed past. Two point-of-view shots were achieved by building a large wooden hand (which would appear to belong to the character whose point of view the camera took) and out-sized props for it to hold: a bucket-sized glass of milk and a large wooden gun. For added novelty and impact, the climactic gunshot was hand-coloured red on some copies of the black-and-white film. The original musical score by Miklós Rózsa makes use of the theremin, and some of it was later adapted by the composer into Rozsa's Piano Concerto Op. 31 (1967) for piano and orchestra.[110][not in citation given]

Notorious (1946) followed Spellbound. Hitchcock told François Truffaut that Selznick had sold him, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, and the screenplay by Ben Hecht, to RKO Radio Pictures as a "package" for $500,000 (equivalent to $6,274,744 in 2017) because of cost overruns on Selznick's Duel in the Sun (1946).[citation needed]Notorious stars Bergman and Grant, both Hitchcock regulars, and features a plot about Nazis, uranium and South America. His prescient use of uranium as a plot device led to him being briefly placed under surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.[citation needed] According to McGilligan, in or around March 1945 Hitchcock and Ben Hecht consulted Robert Millikan of the California Institute of Technology about the development of a uranium bomb. Selznick complained that the notion was "science fiction", only to be confronted by the news of the detonation of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945.

Transatlantic Pictures[edit]

Hitchcock formed an independent production company, Transatlantic Pictures, with his friend Sidney Bernstein. He made two films with Transatlantic, one of which was his first colour film. With Rope (1948), Hitchcock experimented with marshalling suspense in a confined environment, as he had done earlier with Lifeboat (1944). The film appears to have been shot in a single take, but it was actually shot in 10 takes ranging from 4-½ to 10 minutes each; a 10-minute length of film was the most that a camera's film magazine could hold at the time. Some transitions between reels were hidden by having a dark object fill the entire screen for a moment. Hitchcock used those points to hide the cut, and began the next take with the camera in the same place. The film features James Stewart in the leading role, and was the first of four films that Stewart made with Hitchcock. It was inspired by the Leopold and Loeb case of the 1920s.[citation needed] The film was not well received.

Under Capricorn (1949), set in 19th-century Australia, also uses the short-lived technique of long takes, but to a more limited extent. He again used Technicolor in this production, then returned to black-and-white films for several years. Transatlantic Pictures became inactive after these two unsuccessful films.[113][page needed][114][page needed] Hitchcock filmed Stage Fright (1950) at studios in Elstree, England, where he had worked during his British International Pictures contract many years before.[115] He matched one of Warner Bros.' most popular stars, Jane Wyman, with the expatriate German actor Marlene Dietrich and used several prominent British actors, including Michael Wilding, Richard Todd and Alastair Sim.[116] This was Hitchcock's first proper production for Warner Bros., which had distributed Rope and Under Capricorn, because Transatlantic Pictures was experiencing financial difficulties.[117]

His film Strangers on a Train (1951) was based on the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith. Hitchcock combined many elements from his preceding films. He approached Dashiell Hammett to write the dialogue, but Raymond Chandler took over, then left over disagreements with the director. In the film, two men casually meet, one of whom speculates on a foolproof method to murder; he suggests that two people, each wishing to do away with someone, should each perform the other's murder. Farley Granger's role was as the innocent victim of the scheme, while Robert Walker, previously known for "boy-next-door" roles, played the villain.[118]I Confess (1953) was set in Quebec with Montgomery Clift as a Catholic priest.[119]

Peak years: 1954–1964[edit]

Dial M for Murder and Rear Window[edit]

I Confess was followed by three colour films starring Grace Kelly: Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), and To Catch a Thief (1955). In Dial M for Murder, Ray Milland plays the villain who tries to murder his unfaithful wife (Kelly) for her money. She kills the hired assassin in self-defence, so Milland manipulates the evidence to make it look like murder. Her lover, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), and Police Inspector Hubbard (John Williams

William Hitchcock, probably with his first son, William, outside the family shop in London, c. 1900; the sign above the store says "W. Hitchcock". The Hitchcocks used the pony to deliver groceries.
Petrol station at the site of 517 High Road, Leytonstone, where Hitchcock's family owned a grocer's and where Hitchcock was born; (right) commemorative mural at nos. 527–533.[19]
Hitchcock (right) during the making of Number 13 in London
Trailer for Rebecca (1940)
A typical shot from Rope (1948) with James Stewart turning his back to the fixed camera


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