“If it’s a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.”
Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on this day in Leytonstone, England in 1899. Today is the 113th anniversary of his birth.
He grew up as the middle child of three siblings in a very strict family. When he was a little boy his father once sent him with a note to the town police station. The note asked the constable to lock Alfred up for a jail term of 10 minutes as punishment for bad behavior. The possibly apocryphal story ended with the policeman putting 5-year-old Alfred in a cell for a few minutes before letting him out with a stern warning that “this is what we do to naughty boys.” It was a bit more fire and brimstone guilt heaped on top the boys already strict Catholic upbringing.
He attended St. Ignatius College and London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation. He was rejected for service in WWI because of his health, but served as a cadet with the Royal Engineers. He worked for a company called Henley’s as a draftsman and advertising designer. The company had an in-house publication, The Henley Telegraph, and Hitchcock became one of its most prolific contributors. His stories were generally suspenseful, funny and usually ended with a twist.
His first foray into films was as a title card designer for the nascent Paramount Pictures (London) where he designed title cards for silent movies. He worked for a number of studios at the start of his career and began to write for the movies in the early 1920’s. He did work in Germany where he observed the expressionistic style at Babelsberg Studios. His directorial debut was a bit of a fizzle as Number 13 (1924) was cancelled before it the film got in the can for financial reasons, The Pleasure Garden was flop, and all prints for The Mountain Eagle have been lost.
In 1926 Hitchock had his first directorial success with The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. His first talkie was Blackmail, which he made while working with British International Pictures. It was also the first of Hitchcock’s films to use a famous landmark (this time the dome of the British Museum) as a back drop. Other Hitchcock films from the period are The Man Who Knew Too much (1934) and the excellent 39 Steps. He was the highest-paid director in England and earned the nick name “Alfred the Great.”
In 1939, as the specter of war loomed again in Europe, Hitchcock was lured to Hollywood to work for David O. Selznick. He directed a film based on the Daphne du Maurier book Rebecca (the film won an Oscar). He worked steadily and successfully through out the 1940s for a number of Hollywood studios, producing movies like Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945), and Notorious (1946) .
Rope (1948) was the first movie he made in color. It starred Jimmy Stewart (Stewart would star in four Hitchcock films) and featured long tracking shots that ranged from 4.5 to 10 minutes. (10 Minutes was the maximum a camera could hold at one time.) The necessary cuts were “hidden” as a dark object came in front of the lens. The result was a seamless story.
Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and To Catch a Thief marked a trifecta of 50’s films where the director collaborated with the beautiful Grace Kelly. Hitchcock paired her against Ray Miland (Murder), Stewart (Window) and Grant (Thief). They were extremely popular. Kelly stopped making films the next year when she married Prince Rainier of Monaco.
He rounded out the 1950s with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960). He also became a US Citizen in 1955 and debuted the television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
In 1963 he adapted another Daphne du Maurier story, The Birds.
He continued to direct, write and produce, but his health problems meant the pacing slowed down. The critics said the quality diminished as well, with the exception of Marne.
He had a cameo in almost all of his movies. Often he is just standing or sitting or walking by a main character, very briefly in a scene. In Lifeboat he appeared in a newspaper advertisement as the before and after client for Reduco weight loss product. The site Alfred Hitchcock The Master of Suspense has a full list of his Cameos.