Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) is considered to be one of the greatest and most influential directors of films in the suspense genre. He directed over 50 films, starting with silent movies in England in the 1920s. He was also known for his rather peculiar habits, particularly his obsession with actress Tippi Hedrin, who appeared in The Birds and Marnie in the 1960s.
Alfred Hitchcock was fond of relating a story of one of his father’s “teaching” lessons when he was a teen. His father sent him to a local police station with a note. When the police read the note, they locked him in a cell for a few minutes. This lesson certainly is expressed in many of Hitchcock’s films where there exists a distrust of authority figures, of both parents and the police.
Many of his films contain similar thematic elements. A protagonist is falsely accused of a crime, and must somehow find a way to exonerate him or herself. Alternately, a protagonist believes he or she has committed a crime, and further information either shows the crime was committed when the person was insane or someone else arranged the circumstances to make the protagonist falsely believe in his or her own guilt. Notable departures from this theme are often seen in later films. The first film to explore this thematic structure is the 1926 silent film, The Lodger
Film critics hail 39 Steps, one of the early “talkie” Alfred Hitchcock films as a critical masterpiece. This again features the innocent protagonist who thinks he is a criminal. The film is also humorous, something that would recur frequently in Hitchcock’s films. Toward the end of his career, much of his films display a “gallows' humor,” that does not always seem appropriate. Alfred Hitchcock is better when the comedy is light, in most cases.
In the 1940s, Alfred Hitchcock moved from his native England to California, and began partnering with the director David O. Selznik. The partnership was not always successful, as Selznick frequently ran out of money on films. Despite its problems, this partnering brought us Hitchcock’s only Academy Award winning film, Rebecca.
The 1940s also saw production of the classic films Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound and Notorious. The two former represent his collaboration with Ingrid Bergman, as well as his work with both Cary Grant and Gregory Peck. Alfred Hitchcock called Doubt his favorite film. It is a very suspenseful film dancing on the edge of allusion to incest and pointing out evils in a small town. It features a multi-layered performance by Joseph Cotton that is truly fascinating to observe.
Alfed Hitchcock was known for his partnership with several respected actors. He worked with the aforementioned actors, as well as, Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly. He would often work with actors repeatedly, and made the most films with Stewart and Grant who appear in the lion’s share of his work in the 50s-60s. One of the lesser known of his works is the darkly comic The Trouble with Harry from 1955, starring a young Shirley MacLaine.
Many consider Psycho in 1960 to be one of the most frightening films ever. A wonderful piece of trivia regarding the film is that the studio was not at all bothered by the famous “shower scene,” but expressed concerned that Hitchcock showed a toilet flushing. The murder in the shower was probably made more acceptable because it was shot in black and white, yet this is the first of Hitchcock’s films to feature extremely graphic violence. Later films like Frenzy would also push the envelope on both violence and nudity.
Hitchcock also had his own television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and directed over 20 episodes from the mid 50s-60s, which are now available on DVD. All of his films are also on DVD. Most Hitchcock fans will recommend the following: The 39 Steps, Lifeboat, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Birds, and Psycho. Alfred Hitchcock fans will doubtless point to other of his films as the “best.” In all his later films look for Hitchcock cameos, as he loved to appear for brief moments onscreen.