The acknowledged master of the thriller genre he virtually invented, director Alfred Hitchcock was also a brilliant technician who deftly blended sex, suspense and humor while creating a number of motifs and devices - most famously the MacGuffin - to advance his intricate plots. Hitchcock went through four distinct periods throughout his career, starting with his silent period where he made "The Lodger" (1926) and a handful of others before entering the sound era and properly beginning his so-called British period. During the 1930s, he honed his master of suspense chops with a number of acclaimed espionage films like "The 39 Steps" (1935), "The Secret Agent" (1936) and "Sabotage" (1936). He attracted the attention of Hollywood with "The Lady Vanishes" (1938) and embarked on the third phase of his career, starting with "Rebecca" (1940), "Foreign Correspondent" (1940), "Suspicion" (1941) and "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943). After "Spellbound" (1945), Hitchcock directed "Notorious" (1946), his most emotionally mature film at the time. Fond of ordinary men accused of crimes they did not commit and icy blondes in despair, Hitchcock entered the most artistically fruitful part of his career, directing "Strangers on a Train" (1951), "To Catch a Thief" (1955) and "The Wrong Man" (1956) alongside masterpieces like "Rear Window" (1954), "Vertigo" (1958), "North by Northwest" (1959) and "Psycho" (1960). Though he faltered after "The Birds" (1963), Hitchcock remained a highly influential director whose life and career retained a high level of interest decades after his death.
Born on Aug. 13, 1899 in Leytonstone, England, Hitchcock was raised one of three children by his father, William, a poultry dealer and fruit importer, and his mother, Emma. Hitchcock had a rather lonely childhood due in part to his obesity, which left him sheltered and isolated. His parents had unusual methods of discipline; his father sent him to the local jail with instructions for the police to lock him in a cell for 10 minutes for misbehaving, and his mother often forced him to stand at the foot of her bad for hours after explaining to her his indiscretions. Both experiences found their way thematically into Hitchcock's later work, particularly the idea of a wrongfully accused man being punished. When he was 14 years old, Hitchcock's father died, which was also the same time that he left St. Ignatius College in London to study engineering at the School of Engineering and Navigation. Following his graduation, Hitchcock became a draftsman and designer for W.T. Henley's Telegraph Works Company. It was there that he first delved into creative endeavors when he began publishing short stories like "Gas" (1919) and "The History of Pea Eating" (1920) for the Henley Telegraph, the company's in-house magazine.
Hitchcock began his filmmaking career in 1920 when he began working as a title card illustrator on silent films for Paramount Picture's Famous Players-Lasky studio in London. While there, he learned scripting, editing and art direction, and soon rose to become head of the title department. In 1922, he was made an assistant director when Famous Players was taken over by Michael Balcon's production company and was given his first chance at directing the short film, "No. 13/Mrs. Peabody" (1922), which was left unfinished. After making his first film as assistant director, art director and sole writer on "Woman to Woman" (1923), Hitchcock directed his first feature, "The Pleasure Garden" (1925), a tale of adultery and murder that he made on an extremely limited budget and showed flashes of his future brilliance. He next directed the rather silly comedy, "The Mountain Eagle/Fear o' God" (1925), which inaccurately portrayed life in Kentucky where the film was set, but nonetheless became a hit and allowed Hitchcock to choose his next picture.
That turned out to be "The Lodger" (1926), Hitchcock's breakthrough film and one that became the template of the classic Hitchcock-esque plot: an innocent protagonist falsely accused of a crime who becomes involved in a web of intrigue. The protagonist in this case was Jonathon Drew (Ivor Novello), a boarding house lodger who finds himself accused of being Jack the Ripper and goes on the run to prove his innocence. He directed a number of sub-part films for the remainder of his silent period; "Downhill" (1927), "Easy Virtue" (1927) and "Champagne" (1928) were all forgettable entries in the Hitchcock canon. Hitchcock displayed early technical virtuosity with his creation of subjective sound for "Blackmail" (1929), his first talkie. In this story of a woman (Joan Barry) who stabs an artist to death when he tries to seduce her, Hitchcock emphasized the young woman's anxiety by gradually distorting all but one word - "knife" - of a neighbor's dialogue the morning after the killing. He further expounded on the themes of sex and violence in "Murder" (1930), which featured the groundbreaking technique of recording a character's thoughts onto the soundtrack.
After directing a number of lesser works like "Rich and Strange" (1931), "The Skin Game" (1931) and "Number 17" (1932), Hitchcock established himself as a commercial success with "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934), a box office and critical hit that was one of the first of many of his films to explore family relationships within a suspenseful story. He made arguably his best film of his British period with "The 39 Steps" (1935), a stylish and efficiently told chase film that showcased a mature Hitchcock while also introducing the concept of the MacGuffin - a plot-driving element that compels the major characters to do anything to obtain it and remains vague and sometimes unknowable to viewers. He next adapted two W. Somerset Maugham stories into "The Secret Agent" (1936), which starred John Gielgud as a British writer whose death is faked by British intelligence in order to send him to Switzerland on a secret mission. Rounding out his unofficial espionage trilogy, the master created one of his most famous suspense sequences in "Sabotage" (1936), when a young boy unknowingly carries a package that contains a bomb onto a crowded bus that gets routinely delayed, resulting in a shocking and unexpected denouement.
Hitchcock had one of his biggest British successes with "The Lady Vanishes" (1938), a fast-paced and entertaining comedic thriller that stars Margaret Lockwood as a woman traveling Europe by train who gets caught up in a bizarre web of intrigue after the disappearance of a charming spinster (Dame May Whitty). The film garnered the attention of Hollywood, which would soon beckon for Hitchcock's services. Before crossing the pond, he directed his last British film, "Jamaica Inn" (1939), a rather dull period thriller about a group of smugglers that was muddied by star and producer Charles Laughton's heavy hand. But that mattered little when Hitchcock arrived in Hollywood and was employed by legendary producer, David. O. Selznick, who had signed the director to a seven year contract. He made an auspicious American debut with "Rebecca" (1940), an excellent gothic thriller that starred Joan Fontaine as a naïve woman newly married to urbane widower, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). Known only as the second Mrs. de Winter, the new bride moves into her husband's country estate, where she is psychologically harassed by the cruel Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) and eventually learns the true fate of her husband's first wife. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, "Rebecca" won for Best Picture.
Despite its somewhat muddled narrative, Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent" (1940), starring his most vanilla hero, Joel McCrea, was the first of his Hollywood films to exhibit his recognizable style, while returning to the espionage plots he mastered in "The 39 Steps" and "Sabotage." With "Suspicion" (1941), Hitchcock returned to familiar territory of a marriage disintegrating under the heavy weight of deceit and murder in this thriller about a wealthy socialite (Fontaine) swept off her feet by a charming ne'er-do-well (Cary Grant), only to grow increasingly suspicious that he plans to kill her for her money. Exceptionally well acted, "Suspicion" earned Fontaine an Academy Award for Best Actress, making her the only performer male or female ever to win an Oscar for her work with Hitchcock. The master next directed his first comedy, "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" - his only reason being, to work with the film's star Carole Lombard - and "Saboteur" (1942), which hit upon one of his favorite plot elements - an innocent man wrongly accused - in this suspenseful yarn about an aircraft plant worker (Robert Cummings) set up as a fall guy for a ring of Nazi spies. Hitchcock next directed one of his finest masterpieces, "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943), a disturbing film about a young woman (Teresa Wright) who learns that a favorite uncle (Joseph Cotten) is a serial killer - a sobering look at the dark underpinnings of American middle-class life that hit upon the Hitchcockean themes of the charming psychopath and family torn asunder by doubt and suspicion.
Seeking to stretch his creative muscles after years of making suspense thrillers, Hitchcock directed "Lifeboat" (1944), which was adapted from a John Steinbeck story and took place entirely on a small lifeboat carrying a small group of survivors aimlessly adrift after a U-boat attack. The diverse collection of people - including a sophisticated magazine writer (Tallulah Bankhead), a wounded Brooklynite (William Bendix), a mild-mannered radio operator (Hume Cronyn) and a half-crazed woman (Heather Angel) sheltering the dead body of her baby - struggle to work together under trying circumstances, especially when they rescue a suspected Nazi (Walter Slezak). "Lifeboat" was anchored by an exemplary performance from Bankhead and earned Hitchcock his second Oscar nomination for Best Director. Compelled by Selznick to make a film centered around psychotherapy, Hitchcock made the first of three collaborations with one of his most unforgettable leading ladies, Ingrid Bergman, with "Spellbound" (1945). Bergman played a psychoanalyst who falls for her new boss (Gregory Peck), only to learn that he is a troubled amnesiac who may also have committed murder. Hitchcock clashed repeatedly with Selznick throughout the production and had little to do with the famed dream sequence designed by surrealist artist, Salvador Dali. Still, Hitchcock's work was top-notch and earned him another Academy Award nomination for Best Director.
Hitchcock would return to the feminine sacrifice-of-identity theme several times, most immediately with the masterful "Notorious" (1946), a perverse love story about a government agent (Cary Grant) who must send the woman he loves (Ingrid Bergman) into the arms of a neo-Nazi leader (Claude Raines) in order to bring down an espionage ring. "Notorious" marked a serious thematic leap forward for Hitchcock in this first real attempt at a more mature love story, while also highlighting great performances from both Grant and Bergman. He collaborated for his third and final time with Bergman on the underwhelming thriller, "The Paradine Case" (1947), widely considered to be one of the weakest efforts made during his prime years. Never one to play it safe, Hitchcock experimented with style in an attempt to create the illusion of one long continuous take that was actually several long shots cleverly edited together in "Rope" (1948), his first color film and first collaboration with James Stewart, who would vault over Cary Grant as the director's most favored actor. Stewart played a mild-mannered philosophy professor who suspects two of his students (Farley Granger and John Dall) of murder during a dinner party. Though not his greatest suspense flick, "Rope" remained Hitchcock's most technically challenging movie.
After directing Ingrid Bergman one last time in the costume thriller "Under Capricorn" (1949), Hitchcock entered into his most inspired period, which began in 1960 and continued on through the early part of the next decade. He started off with "Stage Fright" (1950), which hit upon his favorite theme of an innocent man accused of a crime he did not commit. The innocent in question was a man (Richard Todd) spotted fleeing the scene of a murder who takes refuge with his actress ex-girlfriend (Jane Wyman). Hitchcock went on to direct one of his all-time classics, "Strangers on a Train" (1951), which marked his return to form following the disappointments of the late-1940s. The complex psychological thriller followed a charismatic, but unhinged stranger (Robert Walker) who offers to kill the unfaithful wife (Laura Elliott) of a tennis pro (Farley Granger) in exchange for killing his father - two perfect crimes committed by two strangers with no apparent motivation. Based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, "Strangers on a Train" was a masterfully constructed film with a number of themes and motifs expertly weaved into the plot, particularly in the famed murder scene with the stranger killing the tennis pro's wife, which is seen through the distorted viewpoint of a fallen pair of glasses. The film was a big hit with audiences and marked the start of Hitchcock's greatest stretch.
Following a number of memorable films that included minor works such as "I Confess" (1953) and the sophisticated "Dial M for Murder" (1954), starring the most alluring of his leading ladies, Grace Kelly, Hitchcock directed the first of three unassailable masterpieces, "Rear Window" (1954). The film starred James Stewart as an adventurous photojournalist taken to spying on his neighbors while on the mend from a badly broken leg. His new perch takes a startling turn when he suspects one of his tenement neighbors, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), of killing his nagging bedridden wife, leading to a tense sequence where he hopelessly watches his fashion model girlfriend (Grace Kelly) break into the apartment to find clues. A taut and highly entertaining mediation on the theme of voyeurism, "Rear Window" was an instant classic and ranked high as one of Hitchcock's best movies. He next directed the more lighthearted romp, "To Catch a Thief" (1955), which starred Cary Grant as a retired jewel thief suspected of returning to his old tricks after a series of copycat burglaries crop up on the French Riviera. This light, breezy and deceptively simple romantic thriller featured great sexual interplay between Grant and Kelly, both of whom remained Hitchcock's most attractive leads.
Having staked his claim as the Master of Suspense, Hitchcock turned in his second comedy with "The Trouble with Harry" (1955), which starred Shirley MacLaine as a mother whose son (Jerry Mathers) discovers the body of her ex-husband in the woods, leading to a madcap effort between her and a retired sea captain (Edmund Gwenn) to hide the body since both think they are responsible. Certainly not the most notable Hitchcock effort, it remained one of the director's personal favorites. Also that year, Hitchcock stepped into the television world with the popular anthology series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (CBS/NBC, 1955-1965), which started as a half-hour series before being expanded to a full hour and retitled "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour" in 1962. The show's title sequence was almost as famous as the show itself, which featured a simple caricature of Hitchcock's profile - drawn by the man himself - which would dissolve when his silhouette would step into it while Charles Gounod's "The Funeral March of a Marionette" played over it. Hitchcock would then wish the audience a "Good Evening," before introducing the episode. Already famous for his movies, Hitchcock was vaulted into celebrity status thanks to the popular series.
Back in features, Hitchcock remade his 1934 classic, "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956), this time casing James Stewart and Doris Day as the parents trying to protect their son after stumbling upon an assassination plot. After directing Henry Fonda in "The Wrong Man" (1956), a searing indictment of the American justice system, he directed his second great masterpiece of the decade, "Vertigo" (1958), a deeply personal film that was largely dismissed by critics at the time. The film starred James Stewart - in his last collaboration with the director - as Scottie Ferguson, a cop who turns private investigator after his fear of heights leads to the death of a fellow officer; he is tasked by a college friend to follow his enigmatic wife (Kim Novak), only to witness her apparent death after falling in love with her. The complex thriller was also a miss with audiences, but later grew in stature to be considered one of the best films Hitchcock ever made. Hitting upon familiar themes of lost identity and sexual obsession while echoing his finest earlier works like "Shadow of a Doubt" and "Notorious," "Vertigo" was as haunting and atmospheric a film as Hitchcock ever produced.
Immediately following "Vertigo," Hitchcock made what many would call his greatest film, "North by Northwest" (1959), certainly one of his most fully realized films. From a script by Ernest Lehman and possessing a chilling score from Bernard Herrmann, "North by Northwest" starred Cary Grant - in his last Hitchcock film - as a carefree advertising executive pulled into a web of deceit and intrigue after a case of mistaken identity leads him in a cross-country chase to shake an espionage syndicate that's after a lost microfilm - Hitchcock's most classic MacGuffin. Along the way, he engages in a romance with a seemingly innocent train passenger (Eva Marie Saint), only to learn that she's a plant meant to set him up for a fall. Full of exciting action sequences, particularly when Grant is chased down in an open field by a crop duster, "North by Northwest" was a masterfully orchestrated thriller that featured ingenious cinematography, subtle male-female give-and-take, a tense dramatic score, bright Technicolor, inside jokes, witty symbolism and a famous climatic sequence atop of Mount Rushmore..
Hitchcock went from one of his greatest artistic achievements to his most commercially successful movie with "Psycho" (1960), a groundbreaking thriller that caused a great deal of controversy for its then-explicit depiction of sexuality and violence. Both were most vividly expressed in the film's famed shower scene, where a Phoenix secretary, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), finds herself the victim of a knife-wielding psychopath who repeatedly and graphically stabs her nude frame in the shower. The shock of the violence - as well as the murder of the alleged protagonist during the first act of the film - both disturbed and delighted audiences, who remained increasingly on edge as the movie progressed, revealing that the true star was disturbed taxidermist, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who runs the isolated Bates Motel while adopting the personality of his long-dead mother in killing hapless victims. Hitchcock's use of shock instead of suspense in the shower scene helped create one of the most famous sequences in all of cinema history, paving the way for numerous slasher flicks throughout the decades.
While "Psycho" could be seen as the last great film of his most vibrant period, Hitchcock did have one last brush with greatness in "The Birds" (1963), a horror thriller about a socialite (Tippi Hedren - yet another "Hitchcock Blonde") who finds herself trapped in a seacoast town beset by a massive flock of birds intent on attacking and killing the townsfolk. "The Birds" was the final Hitchcock film to earn both critical and financial success, as the director entered into his most disappointing phase plagued by mediocre films and increasingly poor health. He next directed "Marnie" (1964), a psychoanalytical thriller along the lines of "Spellbound" that showed how a violent, sexually tinged childhood episode turns a woman (Hedren) into a thief. After "Torn Curtain" (1966), an espionage story played against a cold war backdrop and starring Paul Newman, Hitchcock made the disappointing "Topaz" (1969), an unfocused thriller set during the Cuban missile crisis.
Hitchcock returned to England to produce "Frenzy" (1972) with his reputation as a box office success in tatters following three straight flops. The thriller was much more in the Hitchcock vein, with its plot about an innocent man (Jon Finch) suspected of being a serial killer, and became an international hit that rebuilt his Hollywood stature. But he would only make one more film, the mild comedic thriller "Family Plot" (1976), before ill health and concern for his wife, Alma, after she suffered a stroke, took center stage. Though he planned to make an espionage thriller "The Short Night," it never made it past the development stage and Universal Pictures pulled it from their slate in 1979. Hitchcock died on April 29, 1980 from kidney failure in his Bel Air home. He was 80 years old and left behind a body of work that served as inspiration for countless Hollywood artists, while maintaining a high-level of public interest even decades after his death.
By Shawn Dwyer