Alfred Hitchcock: Biography & Films

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Famous for his ability to create suspense and fear of the absolute mundane for his viewers, Alfred Hitchcock was one of the great early film directors. His techniques have been copied by many and are no small part of why today's scariest films can keep people awake at night.

Early Life

Alfred Hitchcock was born in 1899 on the outskirts of London, and his childhood would prove inspiration for the depths that his films would explore. Obese as a child, he was socially outcast and shy, and on one occasion, when he misbehaved, his father asked the local police to put him in a jail cell for a few minutes as punishment.

As a young man, his obesity would keep him out of World War I. Following the war, he began to write, and immediately his work took a turn to the recesses of the human mind, with themes of assault, moral questionability, and satire. By 1926, Hitchcock was working in film designing sets, and within a few years he had begun to direct and create his own films. It was during this time that he married Alma Reville, another successful director.

Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock

Early Hitchcock: the British Period: 1925-1939

Hitchcock's time in the British film industry marked the director's attempts to pioneer different ways of building suspense in an audience. One of the primary ways he accomplished this at this point of his career was by using montage, or a series of pictorial elements pieced together, to switch back and forth between simultaneous events, allowing the audience knowledge of events happening on either side of a wall, just as they were about to collide.

Another technique of Hitchcock's was to intentionally create suspicion of an innocent character. For example, in the film, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, based roughly on the search for Jack the Ripper, the viewer is led to believe that a shadowy traveler is responsible for a series of murders. The town mob beats him until it is revealed that he is innocent.

It was during this time that the director began to make use of famous landmark locations for the endings of his film, such as the British Museum, which was used in the end of Blackmail. This trend would continue into his American films.

Hitchcock also began to break away from the standard wide shot that many film directors had used, which mimics the way an audience would see a play. He started using advanced camera techniques, such as the 360-degree shot and wide angles, to help draw the audience into the action.

It was during this time that Hitchcock began directing spy thrillers, such as The Man Who Knew Too Much and 39 Steps. He combined humor with the horror and absurdity faced by his characters, making the audience uneasy. It was also in these early films that he introduced the MacGuffin, a person, object, or even an idea, that motivates the actions of the characters in the film, yet does little to move the plot.

Cameo by Hitchcock in Blackmail
Cameo by Hitchcock

American Period: 1939-1976

By 1939, the resources available to a director in Hollywood had become too great to ignore, and Hitchcock would spend the rest of his career in the United States. The next year, he won an Academy Award for his work on Rebecca, based on the work of writer Daphne du Maurier. She would go on to inspire more of Hitchcock's work, including The Birds.

During World War II, Hitchcock used his abilities to support the war effort. Before the war, he directed Foreign Correspondent, recreating the rise of Hitler in Germany. During the war, he produced shorter films for use as British-sponsored Free French propaganda, as well as films such as Lifeboat, reminding audiences about the dangers of the war. At the end of the war, Hitchcock would produce a film on the Holocaust, Memory of the Camps, that would not premiere until 1985.

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