Alfred Hitchcock

The Master of Suspense

Alfred Hitchcock, known as the “Master of Suspense,” directed over 50 feature-length films from the 1920s to the 1970s and became one of the most renowned directors of the 20th century. His unique style greatly influenced the horror genre, with films like Vertigo, Psycho, and North by Northwest ranking among his most iconic works.

Alfred Hitchcock, 1960s

Alfred Hitchcock, 1960s

Born and raised in the East End of London—an area once terrorized by the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper—Hitchcock grew up hearing tales of the Ripper that remained prevalent throughout his childhood. Despite having two siblings, he often described his youth as lonely.

His father, a strict Catholic, once made five-year-old Hitchcock take a note to the local police station claiming he had misbehaved. The sergeant, following his father’s instructions, briefly locked him up. This incident instilled in Hitchcock a lifelong fear of enclosed spaces and police—a theme that would prominently appear in his later work. Aside from these harsh lessons, his mother tended to overindulge him with food, which Hitchcock later linked to his trademark paunch.

The only way to get rid of my fears is to make films about them.

Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock began his educational journey at St. Ignatius College and then moved on to the London County Council School of Marine Engineering and Navigation. After spending six years in the sales and advertising departments of a telegraph company, the 21-year-old Hitchcock transitioned to the film industry. His directorial debut, The Pleasure Garden, was followed by The Mountain Eagle, a silent melodrama set in Kentucky.

Today, all that remains of The Mountain Eagle are a few production photos and a lobby card discovered at a flea market, as all prints have disappeared. Despite Hitchcock’s relief at the film’s loss—he once described it as “a very bad movie”—it now tops the British Film Institute’s “Most Wanted” list of lost films.

Meanwhile, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog is considered by Hitchcock and many cinema scholars as his first real work. Drawing on his childhood environment, the film sets the template for many of his future works, featuring a man wrongly accused of being a Jack the Ripper-like killer and struggling to prove his innocence. This film not only became Hitchcock’s first hit but also marked his first on-screen cameo, setting a trend for his future films.

Hitchcock pioneered the trend of directors appearing in their own films. In North by Northwest, he is seen missing a bus in the opening credits. Often appearing as a pedestrian or passenger, these cameos became so iconic that Hitchcock began placing them early in his films to prevent them from distracting the audience.

One of his most inventive cameos appeared in Lifeboat, set entirely on a raft at sea. Despite the limited setting, Hitchcock made his appearance in a newspaper ad for a weight loss product, “Reduco Obesity Slayer,” shown in “before” and “after” photos.

Hitchcock’s cameo in Lifeboat, 1944

Hitchcock’s cameo in Lifeboat, 1944

Hitchcock collaborated with many top Hollywood talents, yet his wife, Alma Reville, was undoubtedly his most trusted advisor. The couple married when Hitchcock was 27, following their time together at the production company Famous Players-Lasky. Reville’s involvement in Hitchcock’s career was profound; she worked as a writer, script supervisor, editor, and assistant director on many of his early films. Hitchcock valued her opinion above all others, to the extent that as a young director, he would look over to Reville after each take and ask, “Was it all right?” before proceeding to the next shot.

The Hitchcocks on the day of their wedding, December 2, 1926

The Hitchcocks on the day of their wedding, December 2, 1926

Hitchcock invented the “Hitchcockian thriller,” a genre blending suspense, humor, romance, and striking visuals, typically revolving around an innocent person thrown into peril. This style has been widely imitated but rarely replicated.

When filming Psycho, Hitchcock enveloped the production in secrecy to preserve the film’s surprising twists. He acquired the rights to Robert Bloch’s novel via intermediaries and purchased as many copies of the book as possible to conceal its plot. He also required his cast and crew to swear an oath not to disclose the storyline and deliberately avoided press screenings to prevent spoilers. The film’s newspaper ads implored viewers, “Please do not give away the ending. It’s the only one we have!”

During the theatrical release of Psycho, Hitchcock implemented a unique policy that prohibited late admissions to the cinema

During the theatrical release of Psycho, Hitchcock implemented a unique policy that prohibited late admissions to the cinema

The 45-second shower scene in Psycho alone secures Hitchcock’s place in cinematic history. Although many viewers are aware of this scene before watching the film, it remains shocking, particularly to those experiencing it for the first time. Hitchcock’s approach was groundbreaking, as it challenged conventional film-watching expectations and significantly altered the narrative rules, reshaping how stories could be told in cinema.

He also disoriented audiences with subtle provocations early in the film. In 1960, it was provocative to show a star like Janet Leigh in a brassiere, and featuring a toilet flushing—a first for a Hollywood movie—added to the boundary-pushing nature of the film.

The iconic shower scene in Psycho, 1960

The iconic shower scene in Psycho, 1960

Hitchcock directs the shower scene in Psycho

Hitchcock directs the shower scene in Psycho

Hitchcock introduced several innovative techniques in Vertigo, including the “zoom dolly” technique to vividly portray the sensation of vertigo. He achieved this by zooming in with the camera while simultaneously dollying out. This shot, known as the Vertigo shot, was famously replicated by directors like Steven Spielberg in Jaws, where he uses it to amplify the shock when Chief Brody first sees the shark.

The vertigo shot in Vertigo, 1958

The vertigo shot in Vertigo, 1958

North by Northwest is often hailed as “the first James Bond film” for setting the standard for action-suspense thrillers, influencing the Bond franchise and beyond. This fast-paced, entertaining masterpiece defined the action genre with its epic chase sequences, high-octane stunts, sharply dressed hero, complex seductress, and charismatic villain, inspiring films from Mission Impossible to Die Hard.

In North by Northwest, there is a scene where the hero is chased across a highly realistic recreation of Mount Rushmore. Although Hitchcock initially received permission to film on the actual monument, this was revoked by the US Department of the Interior after he disclosed his plans to film a violent chase across the presidential faces. He instead filmed the scene in a studio but cleverly thanked Mount Rushmore and the department in the credits, leading many to believe it was shot at the real location.

Mount Rushmore scene in North by Northwest, 1959 

Mount Rushmore scene in North by Northwest, 1959 

Hitchcock’s tendency to disregard the rules defined much of his filmmaking style. When he was denied permission to film outside the United Nations building in New York, he didn’t let that stop him. Instead, he covertly filmed Cary Grant approaching the entrance using cameras hidden in a nearby van. These iconic, albeit illegal, shots added to the allure of the film.

Although knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and honored extensively, the Academy Award for Best Director eluded Hitchcock. Nominated five times—for Rebecca, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window, and Psycho—he famously described himself as “always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” In 1967, when he received an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar, he delivered one of the ceremony’s shortest speeches, simply stating, “Thank you…very much indeed.”

Words of wisdom

“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” —Søren Kierkegaard

“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” —Voltaire

“It’s not always necessary to be strong, but to feel strong.” —Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

“I could die for you. But I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, live for you.” —Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

Bibliography

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