"Goood Eeeevening, Ladies and Gentlemen." In the
1950s and 1960s, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "The
Alfred Hitchcock Hour" were among the most enjoyed and anticipated
shows on television. He was always a perfect gentleman, well
dressed and well mannered. His grandfatherly image and unintimidating
soft features and portly silhouette belied the fact that film
director Alfred Hitchcock's single mission, in the movies and
on TV, was to scare you out of your wits. Even today, 100 years
after his birth and 75 years since he directed his first movie,
the "Master of Suspense" can still have you biting
your nails and too riveted with anticipation to even think about
taking your eyes off the screen. It's an amazing feat, considering
that Alfred Hitchcock has not been with us for nearly 20 years.
He was born Alfred Joseph Hitchcock on August
13, 1899 in Leytonstone, in the London borough of Waltham Forest.
His father, William, was a moderately successful poultry dealer,
greengrocer and fruit importer. His mother was the former Emma
Whelan. Alfred was the third and youngest child in the family.
He might have gone on to follow in his father's footsteps or
develop a career of less notoriety except, perhaps, for a chilling
incident in his early youth.
Alfred was just five years old the day he committed some misdeed
that convinced his father he needed a lesson in discipline. William
sent him down to see the chief of police, with a note about what
should be done to teach Alfred the error of his ways. The police
chief promptly put him into a cell and slammed the door shut.
Later, Alfred recalled that "the sound and solidity of that
closing cell door and the bolt" never left his memory. It
was an experience that would probably have left an impression
on a boy twice or three times his age, even though he was really
only abandoned behind bars for five minutes. Upon his release,
the officer made sure to impress him with the chilling words
"that's what we do to naughty boys."
Alfred's fear of authority and punishment was reinforced during
his years at the Jesuit school, St. Ignatius College. At that
time, corporal punishment was meted out by ritual beatings on
the hands with a hard rubber strop. Alfred Hitchcock would later
recall that those incidents felt to him much like "going
to the gallows." Punishment, and the terror of it being
unfairly administered by the police to someone undeserving, would
later emerge in Hitchcock's movies, particularly "The Thirty-Nine
Steps," "I Confess," "The Wrong Man"
and "North by Northwest."
Indeed, what makes many of Alfred Hitchcock's movies so compelling
is his focus on ordinary people being drawn into extraordinary
and frightening events. There are no giant beasts or extraterrestrial
beings. The monsters may well be the neighbors across the way,
as in "Rear Window," or inside the psychotic mind of
an otherwise likable young man, namely Norman Bates in "Psycho."
Espionage, terrorism and military sabotage, genuine fears during
the years leading up to World War II and throughout the Cold
War, formed the basis for "North by Northwest," "Secret
Agent" and "Saboteur."
is reported to have said that "the easiest way to worry
people is to turn the tables on them." In a Hitchcock film,
the enemy spy isn't James Bond or someone traveling in elite
circles. It's the next door neighbor you'd never suspect. The
most unassuming character is really the murderer. The situations
are everyday occurrences, much like places you and I would go
and people we would be likely to meet or pass by. You soon start
to think, "That could really happen...and it could happen
Another technique that Hitchcock used to build suspense was
to get the audience in on the real danger early in the movie,
but leave the characters in the dark. In "A Woman Alone,"
also called "Sabotage," he has a delivery boy carrying
a package that contains a time bomb set to go off at 1:45 PM.
The audience knows this but the delivery boy only knows he's
been told to deliver the package to an address in London by 1:30.
As he dawdles down the street, distracted by this and that, tension
builds as the clocks keep ticking off the minutes. Finally, he
boards a bus to make up time. The bomb sits quietly in its unsuspected
wrapping paper, while the passengers chatter about what passengers
usually chatter about until.....
Well, you get the idea, don't you? Hitchcock thrillers still
take you to the edge of your chair every time. All this from
a man who, himself, was the antithesis of sensationalism. He
lived quietly. His vices were fine wines and gourmet food, which
he was reluctantly forced to moderate with dieting to maintain
a modest 220 pounds for his 5 foot 8 inch frame. His wife, Alma,
was both his life's companion and a partner in the film making
process. He was also blessed with a daughter, Patricia and three
grandchildren. He was never known to raise his voice on the set,
and employed a methodical technique of painstakingly sketching
every camera shot in the movie, leaving nothing to chance in
the filming. His most notorious remark, often misquoted, was
that "actors are like children.They should be treated like
cattle." Perhaps that was true disdain for the fickleness
of performers or just another Hitchcock "tongue in jowl"
The "Master of Suspense" was also a noted practical
joker and would have relished the knowledge that the centenary
of his birth fell on Friday the 13th, 1999. One of his favorite
pranks was to start an engaging story in a crowded elevator and
then stop just short of the punch line as the door opened and
he exited to his floor. Now, as for fate of that poor boy entrusted
with delivering the explosive package seated next to him on the
bus and the other unsuspecting passengers in the movie "Sabotage,"
well I'm afraid we've run out of space this week and must close
our story at this time. A good day to you all.
Books of Interest:
Hitchcock's Notebooks; An Authorized and Illustrated Look
inside the Creative Mind of Alfred Hitchcock by Dan Auiler.
From a couple racing across the top of Mount Rushmore to a woman's
final shower at an isolated motel, no other filmmaker has given
movie fans more unforgettable images or heart-pounding thrills
than Alfred Hitchcock. Now for the first time, you can finally
share in the Master of Suspense's inspiration and development
-- his entire creative process -- in HITCHCOCK'S NOTEBOOKS. With
the complete cooperation of the Hitchcock estate and unprecedented
access to the director's notes, files, and archives, Dan Auiler
takes you from the very beginnings of story creation to the master's
final touches during post-production. Actual production notes
from Hitchcock's masterpieces join detailed interviews with key
production personnel, including writers, actors and actresses,
and his personal assistant of more than thirty years. Mirroring
the director's working methods to give you the actual feel of
his process, the book explores the production files of SHADOW
OF A DOUBT, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and others,
as well as the legendary lost works: THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE and the
unfinished film KALEIDOSCOPE. Highlighted by nearly one hundred
photographs and illustrations, chapters focus on finding and
constructing the right story (featuring interviews with such
renowned screenwriters as Charles Bennett, Samuel Taylor, and
Ernest Lehman); envisioning the film (from storyboards to set
design); the filming (spotlighting Hitchcock's innovations and
trick shots); music; and much more. No fan or film student should
be without this definitive guide to the renowned filmmaker's
The Art of Alfred Hitchcock Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures
by Donald Spoto. This completely revised and updated edition
of the classic text describes and analyzes every movie made by
master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.
Hitchcock on Hitchcock (Directors on Directors Series)
by Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Gottlieb (Editor). The "Master
of Suspense" weighs in on his lengthy career in this collection
of excerpts from over 40 years of writings and lectures. Here
he discusses his style, filming techniques, individual films
and his working relationship with his actors. Did he think that
actors are like cattle, or only that they should be treated like
cattle? The essays include "Why I Am Afraid of the Dark,"
"Why Thrillers Thrive," and a whimsical but revealing
essay, "Women Are a Nuisance."(apparently, something
about men being better actors - Ed.)
Hitchcock Poster Art by Tony Nourmand (Editor), Mark
H. Wolff (Editor). In honor of the centenary of Mr. Hitchcock's
birth, a remarkable collection of memorabilia has been gathered
in full color layouts. Promotional posters, lobby cards and more
cover 39 of the director's films. Some items are so rare that
they are the only copy known to still exist. The editors, movie
art and Hitchcock experts, have located items from around the
world. This book is a must-have for any true Hitchcock, movie
or poster aficionado.
Also visit these related
- His True Power is Emotion - An article by famed director
Francois Truffaut ran in The New York Times on March 4, 1979.
You may want to do a site search for "Alfred Hitchcock"
as the New York Times has a wealth of articles archived online.