On 13 August City Connect celebrates the anniversary of the birth of Alfred Hitchcock, one of the most famous and innovative film directors and producers of the 20th century. He is best remembered as a pioneer in the genre of psychological thrillers and as the director of such famous films as North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds.
Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, KBE was born on 13 August 1899 and died on 29 April 1980. After a successful career in England in both silent films and early talkies, Hitchcock moved to Hollywood. In 1956 he became an American citizen while retaining his British citizenship.
Over a career spanning more than half a century, Hitchcock fashioned for himself a distinctive and recognisable directorial style. He pioneered the use of a camera made to move in a way that mimics a person’s gaze, forcing viewers to engage in a form of voyeurism. He framed shots to maximise anxiety, fear, or empathy, and used innovative film editing. His stories frequently feature fugitives on the run from the law alongside “icy blonde” female characters.
Many of Hitchcock’s films have twist endings and thrilling plots featuring depictions of violence, murder, and crime, although many of the mysteries function as decoys or “MacGuffins” meant only to serve thematic elements in the film and the extremely complex psychological examinations of the characters. Hitchcock’s films also borrow many themes from psychoanalysis and feature strong sexual undertones. Through his cameo appearances in his own films, interviews, film trailers, and the television program Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he became a cultural icon.
Hitchcock directed more than fifty feature films in a career spanning six decades. Often regarded as the greatest British filmmaker, he came first in a 2007 poll of film critics in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, which said: “Unquestionably the greatest filmmaker to emerge from these islands, Hitchcock did more than any director to shape modern cinema, which would be utterly different without him. His flair was for narrative, cruelly withholding crucial information (from his characters and from us) and engaging the emotions of the audience like no one else.” The magazine MovieMaker has described him as the most influential filmmaker of all-time, and he is widely regarded as one of cinema’s most significant artists.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, Hitchcock directed what many see as his three greatest films: North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963).
In North by Northwest, Cary Grant portrays Roger Thornhill, a Madison Avenue advertising executive who is mistaken for a government secret agent. He is hotly pursued by enemy agents across America, apparently one of them being Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint).
Psycho is almost certainly Hitchcock’s most well known film. Produced on a highly constrained budget of $800,000, it was shot in black-and-white on a spare set. The unprecedented violence of the shower scene, the early demise of the heroine, the innocent lives extinguished by a disturbed murderer were all hallmarks of Hitchcock, copied in many subsequent horror films. After completing Psycho, Hitchcock moved to Universal, where he made the remainder of his films.
The Birds, inspired by a Daphne Du Maurier short story and by an actual news story about a mysterious infestation of birds in California, was Hitchcock’s 49th film. Hitchcock signed up Tippi Hedren as his latest blonde heroine opposite Rod Taylor. The scenes of the birds attacking included hundreds of shots mixing actual and animated sequences. The cause of the birds’ attack is left unanswered.
The latter two films were particularly notable for their unconventional soundtracks, both orchestrated by Bernard Herrmann: the screeching strings played in the murder scene in Psycho exceeded the limits of the time, and The Birds dispensed completely with conventional instruments, instead using an electronically produced soundtrack and an unaccompanied song by school children (just prior to the infamous attack at the historic Bodega Bay School).
Hitchcock’s films sometimes feature characters struggling in their relationships with their mothers. In North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant’s character) is an innocent man ridiculed by his mother for insisting that shadowy, murderous men are after him. In The Birds, the Rod Taylor character, an innocent man, finds his world under attack by vicious birds, and struggles to free himself of a clinging mother. Norman Bates has troubles with his mother in Psycho.
Hitchcock heroines tend to be lovely, cool blondes who seem proper at first but, when aroused by passion or danger, respond in a more sensual, animal, or even criminal way. In Rear Window, Lisa (Grace Kelly) risks her life by breaking into Lars Thorwald’s apartment. The best known example is in Psycho where Janet Leigh’s unfortunate character steals $40,000 and is murdered by a reclusive psychopath.
Hitchcock worked several times with the same actors, notably Cary Grant, James Stewart, Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly.
Hitchcock is famous for playing cameo roles appearing briefly in many of his own films, usually playing upon his portly figure in an incongruous manner, for example, seen struggling to get a double bass onto a train, or walking dogs in the background. He is quoted as saying that “the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder”.
Hitchcock died on 29 April 1980. He passed away peacefully in his sleep due to renal failure in his Bel Air, Los Angeles, California home at the age of 80, survived by his wife and their daughter. His funeral service was held at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Beverly Hills. Hitchcock’s body was cremated and his ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.
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