Alfred Hitchcock was born August 13, 1899 in Leytonstone, London, the second son and youngest of the three children of William Hitchcock, a greengrocer, and his wife, Emma Jane Whelan. He was educated at various Catholic boarding schools in London, and always spoke of his childhood as lonely and protected. But the memory of the period he most often quoted as having shaped his attitude toward authority, fear, and guilt, was being sent by his father at the age of five with a note addressed to the superintendent of the local police station, where he was locked in a cell for ten minutes and then released with the words "That is what we do to naughty boys."
His father died when Hitchcock was fourteen and he left S. Ignatius's College to study at the School for Engineering and Navigation, and then became a draftsman and advertising designer with a cable company. After some free-lance work designing silent-movie titles, he obtained a full-time job at Islington Studios in 1920, and under its American owners, Famous Players-Lasky, and their British successors, Gainsborough Pictures, he gained a knowledge of all aspects of the business before the producer Sir Michael Balcon gave him the opportunity to direct his first picture, the extravagant melodrama The Pleasure Garden in 1925.
The following year Hitchcock drew on his fascination with the classic English murders to make a movie about a man suspected of being Jack the Ripper, The Lodger (1926), which was his first thriller and the first time he "signed" a film by making a brief personal appearance. In 1929 he directed the first British talking film, Blackmail, another thriller. Hitchcock soon came to specialize in thrillers, and after the success of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), only one film--a version of the Broadway comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)--took him away from his chosen metier.
Through such films as The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), and The Lady Vanishes (1938), the comedy-thriller many consider the finest achievement of his English period, Hitchcock became the most successful and highly regarded director in Britain. In 1939, after completing a film of Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn, he left for Hollywood where his first assignment for his new employer, David O. Selznik, was to adapt du Maurier's Rebecca (1940). It won an Academy award for the best film of the year. Suspicion (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and Notorious (1946) strengthened his already successful artistic reputation in the U.S.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Hitchcock developed a fascination for solving technical problems. His wartime melodrama Lifeboat (1943) is confined to the inside of a lifeboat after an American merchant ship has been torpedoed by a German U-boat. His version of Patrick Hamilton's play Rope (1948) is shot in a series of ten-minute takes so that the whole picture appears seamless and unedited. In 1954 he filmed another play Dial M for Murder, using the three-dimensional camera, and in the same year he restricted the point of view of Rear Window to what a temporary crippled photographer could see from the window of his New York apartment.
In the decade between his psychological thriller Strangers on a Train (1951) and his influential horror film Psycho (1960), Hitchcock produced within the perimeters of his chosen genre an extraordinarily varied range of work. It included I Confess (1952), the story of a Canadian priest prevented by the confidences of the confessional from clearing his name of a murder charge; The Wrong Man (1957), the reconstruction of a true story of a New York musician falsely accused of robbery; and North by Northwest (1959), an immaculate comedy-thriller that recaptured the light touch of his pre-war British films.
After The Birds (1963), the story of a mysterious avian attack on a small California community that initiated a cycle of ecological horror films, there was something of a decline in Hitchcock's work. His old-fashioned psychological melodrama Marnie (1964) was a throwback to the Freudian thrillers of the 1940s he had inspired with Spellbound (1945); his cold-war espionage pictures, Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969), and his film about a psychopathic murderer in London, Frenzy (1972), seemed dated, the products of a man not really living in the contemporary world.
Then in 1976, working with a cast of mostly young American actors in the sprightly Family Plot, he showed himself once more the unchallenged master of the comedy-thriller, his set pieces as ingenious as ever, the Hitchcock touch as deft and definite. He was still discussing projects and planning a new film when he died in Los Angeles on April 29, 1980.
In 1926 Hitchcock married Alma Reville (died 1982), the daughter of an employee of Twickenham Film Studio and herself a script girl and assistant editor. She collaborated on the screenplays of many of her husband's films. This man who took a gleeful delight in terrifying audiences with movies that were often violent, sadistic, and erotic in character (he often spoke of taking film-goers for an emotional roller-coaster ride), lived a happy, quiet domestic life of impeccable rectitude. When not busy filming, he devoted much of his spare time to indulging a gourmet's taste for good food and wine. The Hitchcocks had one child, a daughter Patricia, born in 1928, who trained as an actor at RADA in London and appeared in three of her father's films.
--MICHAEL BILLINGTON, ed., from
Stage and Screen Lives.
A selection of Alfred Hitchcock related films.
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A selection Alfred Hitchcock related books.
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