He was known to his audiences as the ‘Master of Suspense’ and what Hitchcock mastered was not only the art of making films but also the task of taming his own imagination. Director of many works such as Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds and The 39 steps, Hitchcock told his stories through intelligent plots, witty dialogue and tales of mystery and murder. In doing so, he inspired a new generation of film makers and revolutionized the thriller film, making him a legend around the world. His brilliance was sometimes too bright: He was hated as well as loved. Hitchcock was unusual, inventive, impassioned, yet demanding.
Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on August 13, 1899(Sennet 108). His birthplace is Leytonstone, England(Sennet 108). He went to St. Ignatius College in London England where he learned to excel in many things(Sennet 110). Not only was Alfred Hitchcock a film director but he was also a screen writer and a film producer. He began his film making career in 1919 illustrating title cards for silent films at Paramount’s Famous Players-Lasky studio in London(Philips 50). There he learned scripting, editing and art direction, and rose to assistant director in 1922. That year he directed an unfinished film, MRS. PEABODY. His first completed film as director was THE PLEASURE GARDEN (1925), an Anglo-German production filmed in Munich(Spoto 41). “In 1926, Hitchcock created the film that would set off his career, THE LODGER, his breakthrough film, was a prototypical example of the classic Hitchcock plot: an innocent protagonist is falsely accused of a crime.”(Spoto 45).
In 1929, Alfred made his first sound film, BLACKMAIL. In this story of a woman who stabs an artist to death when he tries to seduce her, Hitchcock emphasized the young woman’s anxiety by gradually
distorting all but one word—”knife”—of a neighbor’s dialogue the morning after the killing(Spoto 56). Here and in MURDER! (1930), Hitchcock first made the link between sex and violence. “THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934), a commercial and critical success, established a favorite pattern: an investigation of family relationships within a suspenseful story”.(Spoto 70). THE 39 STEPS (1935) showcases a more mature Hitchcock; it is an efficiently told chase film containing exciting incidents and memorable characters. In 1938, Hitchcock created another film, THE LADY VANISHES. This is a sleek, fast-paced, and magnificently entertaining film.
Hitchcock’s last British film, JAMAICA INN (1939), and his first Hollywood effort, REBECCA (1940), were both handsomely mounted though somewhat uncharacteristic works based on novels by Daphne du Maurier(Spoto 82). Despite its somewhat muddled narrative, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940) was the first Hollywood film in his recognizable style. SUSPICION (1941), the story of a woman who thinks her husband is a murderer about to make her his next victim, was an exploration of family dynamics; “its introduction of evil into the domestic arena foreshadowed SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943), Hitchcock’s early Hollywood masterwork.”(Spoto 87).
Hitchcock would return to the feminine sacrifice-of-identity theme several times, most immediately with the masterful NOTORIOUS (1946), a love story about an FBI agent who must send the woman he loves into the arms of a Nazi in order to uncover an espionage ring. Other psychological dramas of the late 1940s were SPELLBOUND (1945), THE PARADINE CASE (1948), and UNDER CAPRICORN (1949). Both LIFEBOAT (1944) and ROPE (1948) were interesting technical exercises. In ROPE, Hitchcock sought to make a film that appeared to be a single, unedited shot. ROPE shared with the more effective STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), a villain intent on committing the perfect murder(Spoto 121).
During his most inspired period, from 1950 to 1960, Hitchcock produced a cycle of memorable films which included minor works such as I CONFESS (1953), the classy thrillers DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954) and TO CATCH A THIEF (1955), THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956) and the “black comedy” THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955). He also directed several top-drawer films like STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and THE WRONG MAN (1956), a critique of the American justice system.
His three masterpieces of the period were investigations into the very nature of watching cinema. In 1954, Hitchcock created REAR WINDOW. “This film made viewers voyeurs, then had them pay for their pleasure.”(Spoto 160). This story of a photographer who happens to witness a murder was a huge success. VERTIGO (1958), as haunting a movie as Hollywood has ever produced at the time, took the lost-feminine-identity theme of SHADOW OF A DOUBT and NOTORIOUS and identified its cause as male fetishism. However, NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) is perhaps Hitchcock’s most fully realized film of the period. this exciting chase movie is full of all the things for which many remember Hitchcock: “ingenious shots, subtle male-female relationships, dramatic score, bright color, inside jokes, witty symbolism and—above all—masterfully orchestrated suspense.”(Spoto 173).
Films created in Hitchcock’s later years included THE BIRDS (1963). This film presented evil as an environmental fact of life. It is also one of Hitchcock’s more popular films. In 1964, he created MARNIE. Hitchcock’s disappointing TOPAZ (1969), an unfocused story set during the Cuban missile crisis, was not of his typical narrative economy and wit. He returned to England to produce FRENZY (1972), a tale much more in the Hitchcock style, about an innocent man suspected of being a serial killer. His final film, FAMILY PLOT (1976), pitted two couples against one another: a pair of professional thieves versus a female psychic and her working-class lover. “It was a fitting end to a body of work that demonstrated the eternal symmetry of good and evil.”(Spoto 180).
Perhaps no other film changed Hollywood’s perception of the horror film as drastically as did PSYCHO. More surprising is the fact that this horror classic was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, a
film maker who never relied upon shock values until this film. “Here Hitchcock indulged in nudity, blood baths, necrophilia, transvestitism, schizophrenia, and a host of other taboos and got away with it, simply
because he was Hitchcock.”(Rebello 31). The great director clouded his intent and motives by reportedly stating that the entire film was nothing more than one huge joke(Rebello 32). No one laughed; Instead they cringed in their seats, waiting for the next assault on their senses. The violence and bloodletting of PSYCHO may look tame to those who have grown up on Freddy Krueger and Jason, but no one had ever seen anything like it in 1960.
Inspired by the life of the demented, cannibalistic Wisconsin killer Ed Gein (whose heinous acts would also inspire THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, 1974 and DERANGED, 1974)(Rebello 30), PSYCHO is probably Hitchcock’s most gruesome and dark film. PSYCHO’s enduring influence comes not only from the Norman Bates character, but also from the psychological themes Hitchcock develops. “Enhancing the sustained fright of this film are an excellent cast, from which the director coaxes extraordinary performances, and Bernard Herrmann’s chilling score.”(Rebello 60). Especially effective is the composer’s so-called “murder music,” high-pitched screeching sounds that flash across the viewer’s consciousness as quickly as the killer’s deadly knife. Bernard Herrmann achieved this effect by having a group of violinists frantically saw the same notes over and over again(Rebello 62). Hitchcock really shocked Paramount when he demanded that he be allowed to film the sleazy, sensational novel that Robert Bloch based on the Gein killings. Bloch’s subject matter and characters were far from the sophisticated homicide and refined characters usually found in Hitchcock’s films, but the filmmaker kept after the studio’s front office until the executives agreed. He was told, however, that he would have to shoot the film on an extremely limited budget—no more than $800,000. Surprisingly, Hitchcock accepted the budget restrictions and went ahead with the film, utilizing television technical people, who were less expensive than standard Hollywood crews(Rebello 89). Moreover, the director, realizing that Paramount expected this to be his first box-office failure, proposed that he finance the film with his own money in return for 60 percent of the profits. Relieved that this wouldn’t be a big loss, Paramount agreed to act as the film’s distributor. But even Hitchcock’s close associates refused to believe that he was making a wise decision. His longtime associate producer, Joan Harrison, refused to take points in this film, opting for a direct salary, telling him “You’re on your own on this one, Hitch.”(Rebello 95). After rejecting writer James Cavanaugh’s adaptation of the Bloch novel, Hitchcock, at the urging of MCA, met briefly with writer Joseph Stefano, who had only one screenplay credit, THE BLACK ORCHID (1959), a less-than-inspiring film starring Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn(Rebello 104). Although he had expressed doubts about Stefano, Hitchcock changed his mind after meeting the writer and gave him the green light. When Stefano told Hitchcock that he could not work up much sympathy for a peeping Tom killer in his forties (the age of the murderer in Bloch’s novel), the director proposed using a much younger character and even suggested to the writer that Perkins get the lead role(Rebello 111). When Hitchcock began production on PSYCHO, he was told that he would have to use the facilities at Revue Studios, the television division of Universal Studios, which Paramount had rented for the making of the film(Rebello 112). Although he was unable to use his regular cinematographer, Robert Burks, Hitchcock managed to convince Paramount that his special editor, George Tomasini, should be included in the production(Rebello 110).
The director’s desire for detail was in full force here. He insisted that Stefano and others scout motels along Route 99 to learn how they operated, who stopped at them, and who ran them. The Bates Motel was then put together on the Universal back lot and was definitely on the seedy side, with a scaled-down The mansion cost only $15,000 to construct and technicians cannibalized several other stock buildings on the lot to keep the costs down, throwing onto the structure a tower that had been part of the Dowd home in HARVEY(Rebello 150). Perkins, then only twenty-seven, was hired without the actor even reading the script. The rising young performer owed Paramount one film under his contract and was taken aboard because Hitchcock thought him right for the role of Norman Bates along with other reasons(Rebello 128).
The role of the female lead was a problem. Hitchcock was interested in using Shirley Jones, but her salary would have been too high. Instead, he selected Leigh, who was more of a starlet than a star at the time, although this part would change that(Rebello 132). Leigh received a copy of the Bloch novel before shooting began, but the director wrote a note to her pointing out that the female victim, who is almost incidental in the novel, would have much more importance in the film(Rebello 133). Actually Leigh is on screen for only forty-five minutes before she is brutally slashed. Leigh’s relatively rapid departure forces viewers to switch the focus that they began. To protect the murderous mother’s real identity, Hitchcock announced to the press that he was “considering” Helen Hayes or Judith Anderson to play the role(Rebello 136). This attempt to set up viewers for the surprise ending (an atypical finish for a film by a director who always avoided surprise endings) backfired somewhat when Hitchcock was attacked with wires and letters from actresses asking to be considered for the role of the mother(Rebello 136).
Originally, the concept for the horrific mother was nothing more than a large plastic doll with glass eyes; however, Hitchcock was quick to alter this approach, substituting a sunken-faced and an ossified corpse of his own design(Rebello 137). He used that cadaver for one of the many offbeat pranks he pulled on Leigh, which the actress took so well that she quickly became one of Hitchcock’s favorite performers. Once the corpse was created, Hitchcock had it placed in Leigh’s dressing room so that when she entered and turned on the light the corpse sat grinning at her, causing the actress to let out piercing screams louder and more frightening than her shrieks in the shower scene(Rebello 140).
When it came to that famous shower scene, Hitchcock not only approved of every little detail in the scene—from toilet to shower nozzle—but he demonstrated every move the killer and victim were to make. The director even showed Perkins exactly how he was to wrap the body in the shower curtain. Ironically, Perkins was not present for the filming of Leigh’s murder. He later commented: “Not many people know this, but I was in New York rehearsing for a play when the shower scene was filmed in Hollywood. It is rather strange to go through life being identified with this sequence knowing that it was my double. Actually the first time I saw PSYCHO and that shower scene was at the studio. I found it really scary. I was just as frightened as anybody else. Working on the picture, though, was one of the happiest filming experiences of my life. We had fun making it—never realizing the impact it would have.”(Rebello 192). It was Hitchcock who specifically ordered this murder shown as a brutal thing, scribbling in his own hand for shot 116: “The slashing. An impression of a knife slashing, as if tearing at the very screen, ripping the film”. This brutal slaying is long, terrifying, and gory. Through lightning cuts between Leigh and close ups of the knife striking her body (she is stabbed at least a dozen times) and seemingly piercing her flesh, Hitchcock depicts—for the first time in film history—the bloody realities of violent murder(Rebello 189). Reportedly, a fast motion reverse shot was used to give the impression that the knife actually enters Leigh’s abdomen.
Another of the inventive techniques Hitchcock uses in this legendary scene is the way in which he shows the spray coming directly out of the shower nozzle. Jets of water encompass the camera without ever hitting the lens, as if Leigh is looking directly into the nozzle. To achieve this effect, Hitchcock ordered a huge shower nozzle made, then moved his camera in for a close-up. Even though the film was shot on a hectic schedule of a little over a month, Hitchcock took a full week to shoot the shower scene,
directing it from a tower above the set, employing a single cameraman. He had abandoned the use of Technicolor, so as not to make the film more gory than it already was, and washed chocolate sauce down the drain as if it were Leigh’s blood(Rebello 200). Leigh was opposed to shooting this scene naked. She went through many options such as special garments such as the ones that strippers wore, but none worked. Finally, the director came up with a solution; flesh-colored moleskin. But during shooting hot water from the shower undermined this solution. “I felt something strange happening around my breasts,” Leigh later said. “The steam from the hot water had melted the adhesive on the moleskin and I sensed the napped cotton fabric peeling away from my skin. What to do?—To spoil the so far successful shot and be modest? Or get it over with and be immodest. I opted for immodesty—that was the printed take, and no one noticed my bareness before I could cover it up. I think!”(Rebello 209).
Because he owned so much of the film, Hitchcock turned promotion minded with PSYCHO, devising the entire publicity campaign for his gruesome masterpiece. He insisted that no moviegoer be seated during the showing of the film. The director said that he had fun with the film. In an interview with French director François Truffaut, Hitchcock stated that “it was rather exciting to use the camera to deceive the audiences—The game with the audience was fascinating. I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them like an organ— I didn’t start off to make an important movie. I thought I could have fun with this subject and this situation— My main satisfaction is that the film had an effect on the audience— I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion. With PSYCHO we most definitely achieved this. It wasn’t a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film. That’s why I take pride in the fact that PSYCHO, more than any of my other pictures, is a film that befilm.”(Rebello 234). In a 1947 press conference the great director laid out his philosophy of the mystery-horror genre: “I am to provide the public with beneficial shocks. Civilization has become so protective that we’re no longer able to get our goose bumps instinctively. The only way to remove the numbness and revive our moral equilibrium is to use artificial means to bring about the shock. The best way to achieve that, it seems to me, is through a movie.”(Rebello 236). PSYCHO provided shocks heard around the world and became an instant smash, breaking all box-office records in its initial release. Hitchcock had the last laugh with the Paramount executives who wanted no part of PSYCHO from the beginning. The film became one of Paramount’s most popular pictures and it made Hitchcock not only a master of the modern horror film but also fabulously wealthy. He had outwitted everyone—the industry, the audience, and the critics.
Alfred Joseph Hitchcock lived for 80 years. He died on April 28, 1980. He lived a long, and very successful life. Throughout his life, he took part in the creation of a countless number of films. His films were very popular at the time that he made them, and they are still appreciated by many today. He is undoubtedly the “Master of Suspense”.
Sennet, Ted. Great Movie Directors. New York: 1982.
Herricks High School Library
Philips, Gene D. Alfred Hitchcock. New York: 1976.
Herricks High School Library
Rebello, Stephen. Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho.
New York: 1986.
Herricks High School Library
Spoto, Donald. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock. Fifty Years of his Motion Pictures.
New York: 1976.
Herricks High School Library