Born: Aug. 13, 1899 in England
Died: April 29, 1980 (age 80)
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Nickname: “The Master of Suspense”
Awards: Five Oscar nominations, one Thalberg Award (1967); Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Award (1972); AFI Life Achievement (1979); eight-time nominee of Directors Guild of America Award; four Emmy nominations, including “best male personality” as host of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (1956).
Known for: cameos in each movie, his distinct profile, and his drawling deadpan “Good evening” as he introduced each episode of his TV series
Impact: He created a genre known as the “Hitchcockian thriller,” which mixes suspense, humor, romance and striking visuals, often in a story about an innocent person thrust into a dangerous situation. It’s a style that’s been often imitated, rarely duplicated.
Recognition factor: He became a “brand” director when it was rare: He was a selling point as early as the 1940s, and his name and image were key in marketing his movies. His recognizability increased as he hosted his TV anthology series from 1955 to 1965.
Why he mattered: The 45-second shower scene of “Psycho” is enough to put him in the movie pantheon. Beyond that landmark film, he inspired generations of filmmakers who studied his blend of camera, editing, script and performance to keep the audience entertained.
Deep dive: Every great director has careers highs and lows. But few filmmakers have enjoyed a three-year run to match Alfred Hitchcock’s trio of “Vertigo” (1958), “North by Northwest” (1959) and “Psycho” (1960). The three have a wide range of moods and styles, but all are unmistakably Hitchcock.
“Psycho” — which marks its 60 birthday this year — remains one of the best known of his films. It was both a crystallization of 25 years’ experience and a daring experiment.
Hitchcock made the film in complete secrecy. He optioned Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, and bought up all printed copies, to keep the plot secret. The book appealed to his dark sense of humor. The first chapter ends with a woman showering in a motel: “Mary started to scream … a hand appeared, holding a butcher’s knife. It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream. And her head.”
Though Hitchcock was under contract to Paramount, he refused to give executives a script and, to further distance them, he shot the film on the Universal lot, where his TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” was based.
The filmmaker assembled a team of experts at the top of their game, including editor George Tomasini, composer Bernard Herrmann (with his influential strings-only score), actors Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh, and scripter Joseph Stefano, adapting Bloch’s novel. As cinematographer, he hired John L. Russell, who worked quickly and efficiently on the TV show in B&W, a big change from the lush color of his usual d.p., Robert Burks.
“Psycho” showed Hitchcock an amazing artist; he was also a smart businessman.
The Sept. 21, 1960, issue of Variety reported that Hitchcock’s deal on “Psycho” was “unprecedented.” In exchange for his autonomy at Paramount, he deferred a salary, instead receiving 60% of the negative ownership. Variety estimated the director would earn at least $5 million (more than $40 million today), which was not counting the decades of income that followed from television and other rights.
Most movie fans today have heard about the shower scene before watching the film, so it’s hard to convey how stunned people were when they first saw “Psycho.”
Early in the film, Hitchcock threw audiences off balance in subtle ways. In 1960, it was daring to show a star like Leigh in a brassiere, and when her character throws scraps of paper in the toilet, it was the first time moviegoers saw a toilet being flushed in a Hollywood movie.
But of course the big shock came 45 minutes in, after an elaborate setup: Will Marion Crane return the stolen money? Will she find happiness with Sam? Viewers are asked to get involved but ultimately all of this is a red herring and the film’s biggest star is killed off; Hitchcock was basically telling the audiences “You think you know the rules of watching a film, but we’re changing the rules here.”
On June 29, 1960, Variety said the film’s marketing campaign “focuses almost entirely on producer-director Hitchcock.” And he made a new rule that’s now commonplace at premium cinemas: In those days, people entered a theater whenever they wanted, even if it was long after the movie’s starting time, and would stick around to see what they had missed. Hitchcock didn’t want late-comers wondering where Leigh was, so dictated that no one would be seated after the film started.
“Psycho” opened June 17, 1960 on the East Coast, made to Los Angeles by Aug. 10, then widened across the U.S. and internationally. The rollout plan meant that most people were seeing the film long after it had debuted, but audiences generally kept spoilers to themselves. Clearly, it was a very different time.
Another sign of the changing times: Paramount execs predicted audience resistance to the “no late seating” rule, but were surprised that patrons complied. Hitchcock’s dictum became a marketing hook and helped reshaped America’s moviegoing habits: It became more important to see a film from the beginning.
“Psycho” was the fifth and final Oscar nomination for Hitchcock, who won the Thalberg Award in 1968, but never won a competitive Academy Award. Though he directed many classics, the only best-picture Oscar winner was the 1940 “Rebecca,” which was his American debut.
When Hitchcock arrived in the U.S., he had already directed two dozen films in his native Britain, making an especially big impression with “The Lodger” (a 1927 silent). His “The 39 Steps” (1935) was a quintessential Hitchcockian thriller, with a plot about an ordinary person who is innocently thrust into a dangerous world. Variety’s reviewer said Hitchcock is “probably the best native director in England.” Another U.K.-made success was “The Lady Vanishes” (1938), which enhanced his international status, so David O. Selznick, the producer of “Gone With the Wind,” beckoned Hitchcock to Hollywood.
In 1940, aside from “Rebecca,” he directed “Foreign Correspondent,” a variation of the “39 Steps”/innocent-in-peril plot.
He branched out occasionally, such as the comedy “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” because he wanted to work with Carole Lombard, and the tour-de-force “Lifeboat” (1944), in which all of the “action” centers on a group sitting in a lifeboat adrift in the ocean.
But the Master of Suspense always returned to the suspense-thriller mode, with such greats in the 1940s as “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Spellbound” and “Notorious.” Like most of his films, they featured themes of guilt and punishment, dark sexuality, and fear of God and fate. They often reflect the Catholic idea of original sin, where all humans are tainted, and thus liable to be punished (or at least tested) even in the most innocent situations.
Many of his key scenes involve suspense in everyday settings: the concert at Albert Hall in “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” the auction house in “North by Northwest,” the schoolyard in “The Birds,” to name a few.
Even now, few film directors are known to audiences by sight, but Hitchcock’s rotund profile was often used in marketing material, and filmgoers tried to spot his cameo appearances in all of his films. His image became even more widely known via TV’s half-hour anthology “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” which ran 1955-1961, and expanded to “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” from 1962 to 1965. Each episode began with Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette,” then Hitchcock’s profile, followed by his entrance and deadpan drawl to the camera, “Good evening.” He introduced every episode with mordantly funny observations, and offered a brief recap at the end.
In the 1954-55 trio of “Dial M for Murder,” “Rear Window” and “To Catch a Thief,” Grace Kelly was the quintessential “Hitchcock blonde” — a beautiful woman with an icy exterior that hides passion and sometimes dark motivations.
In 1956, at the height of her career, Kelly left Hollywood to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco. There were repeated rumors of a comeback, and Hitchcock in 1961-62 offered her the title role in the psychological suspense film “Marnie.” It’s hard to imagine that Her Serene Highness Princess Grace would have seriously entertained the idea of playing an aloof, neurotic kleptomaniac, but she liked the idea of making a film with Hitchcock again.
When it was clear that Kelly wouldn’t do it, Marilyn Monroe expressed interest in the role. Hitchcock gave Variety a noncommittal “It’s an interesting idea” and it might have been an fascinating film, with an even more fascinating set: Hitchcock was a meticulous planner, while Monroe was famous for being late.
The role eventually went to Tippi Hedren, a Hitchcock discovery. Before casting Hedren in “The Birds” (1962) and “Marnie” (1964), he tutored her in every aspect of filmmaking, from pre-production to editing. Hedren later said he was sadistic while filming the attic scene in “Birds,” and soured on her after she rebuffed his sexual advances, even blocking her opportunities in other films by holding her to a seven-year contract.
Hitchcock no doubt used extreme methods to get memorable performances from his preferred group of blonde actresses, some of which would be continued unacceptable and abusive today.
But many actors did some of their best work for him — e.g., Joseph Cotten in “Shadow of a Doubt,” Farley Granger and Robert Walker in “Strangers on a Train,” Stewart and Kim Novak in “Vertigo,” and Cary Grant and James Stewart each worked with him multiple times. It’s hard to believe now given the reputation his films have built up, but thrillers weren’t seen as prestigious at the time, and the only performer to win an Oscar in one of his films was Joan Fontaine in the 1941 “Suspicion.”