Born on 13 August 1899 in Leytonstone, (then part of Essex, now part of London), England, Hitchcock was the second son and the youngest of three children of William Hitchcock (1862–1914), a greengrocer and poulterer, and Emma Jane Hitchcock (née Whelan; 1863–1942). Named Alfred after his father’s brother, Hitchcock was brought up as a Roman Catholic and was sent to Salesian College and the Jesuit Classic school St Ignatius’ College in Stamford Hill, London. His parents were both of half-English and half-Irish ancestry. He often described a lonely and sheltered childhood worsened by his obesity. Around age five, according to Hitchcock, he was sent by his father to the local police station with a note asking the officer to lock him away for five minutes as punishment for behaving badly. This incident not only implanted a lifetime fear of policemen in Hitchcock, but such harsh treatment and wrongful accusations would be found frequently throughout his films. When Hitchcock was 15, his father died. In the same year, he left St. Ignatius to study at the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation in Poplar, London. After leaving, he became a draftsman and advertising designer with a cable company called Henley’s. During the First World War, Hitchcock was rejected for military service because of his obesity – sometimes thought to have been caused by a glandular condition. Nevertheless, the young man signed up to a cadet regiment of the Royal Engineers in 1917. His military stint was limited: he received theoretical briefings, weekend drills and exercises. Hitchcock would march around Hyde Park and was required to wear puttees, which he could never master how to wrap around his legs properly. While working at Henley’s, Hitchcock began to dabble creatively. After the company’s in-house publication, The Henley Telegraph, was founded in 1919, he often submitted short articles and eventually became one of its most prolific contributors. His first piece was “Gas” (1919), published in the first issue, in which a young woman imagines that she is being assaulted one night in Paris – only for the twist to reveal that it was all just a hallucination in the dentist’s chair, induced by the anaesthetic. Hitchcock’s second piece was “The Woman’s Part” (1919), which involves the conflicted emotions a husband feels as he watches his wife, an actress, perform onstage. “Sordid” (1920) surrounds an attempt to buy a sword from an antiques dealer, with another twist ending. The short story “And There Was No Rainbow” (1920) was Hitchcock’s first brush with possibly censurable material. A young man goes out looking for a brothel, only to stumble into the house of his best friend’s girl. “What’s Who?” (1920), while humorous, was also a forerunner to the famous Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First?” routine. “The History of Pea Eating” (1920) was a satirical disquisition on the various attempts people have made over the centuries to eat peas successfully. His final piece, “Fedora” (1921), was his shortest and most enigmatic contribution. It also gave a strikingly accurate description of his future wife, Alma Reville (whom he had not yet met). During this period, Hitchcock became intrigued by photography and started working in film production in London, working as a title card designer for the London branch of what would become Paramount Pictures. In 1920, he received a full-time position at Islington Studios with its American owner, Famous Players-Lasky, and their British successor, Gainsborough Pictures, designing the titles for silent movies. His rise from title designer to film director took five years.
Hitchcock’s last collaboration with Graham Cutts led him to Germany in 1924. The film The Blackguard (German title Die Prinzessin und der Geiger, 1925), directed by Cutts and co-written by Hitchcock, was produced in the Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam near Berlin. Hitchcock also observed part of the making of F. W. Murnau’s film The Last Laugh (1924). He was very impressed with Murnau’s work and later used many techniques for the set design in his own productions. In a book-length interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock also said he was influenced by Fritz Lang’s film Destiny (1921). He was likewise influenced by other foreign filmmakers whose work he absorbed as one of the earliest members of the “seminal” London Film Society, formed in 1925. Hitchcock’s first few films faced a string of bad luck. His first directing project came in 1922 with the aptly titled Number 13. The production was cancelled because of financial problems; filmed in London, the few scenes that had been finished at that point have been lost. In 1925, Michael Balcon of Gainsborough Pictures gave Hitchcock another opportunity for a directing credit with The Pleasure Garden made at UFA Studios in Germany; the film was a commercial flop. Next, Hitchcock directed a drama called The Mountain Eagle (possibly released under the title Fear o’ God in the United States). This film was also eventually lost. In 1926, Hitchcock’s luck changed with his first thriller, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, a suspense film about the hunt for a Jack the Ripper type of serial killer in London. Released in January 1927, it was a major commercial and critical success in the United Kingdom. As with many of his earlier works, this film was influenced by Expressionist techniques Hitchcock had witnessed first-hand in Germany. Some commentators regard this piece as the first truly “Hitchcockian” film, incorporating such themes as the “wrong man”. Following the success of The Lodger, Hitchcock hired a publicist to help strengthen his growing reputation. On 2 December 1926, Hitchcock married his assistant director, Alma Reville, at the Brompton Oratory in South Kensington, London. Their only child, daughter Patricia, was born on 7 July 1928. Alma was to become Hitchcock’s closest collaborator, but her contributions to his films (some of which were credited on screen) Hitchcock would discuss only in private, as she was keen to avoid public attention.
In 1929, Hitchcock began work on his tenth film Blackmail. While the film was still in production, the studio, British International Pictures (BIP), decided to convert it to sound. As an early ‘talkie’, the film is often cited by film historians as a landmark film, and is often considered to be the first British sound feature film. With the climax of the film taking place on the dome of the British Museum, Blackmail began the Hitchcock tradition of using famous landmarks as a backdrop for suspense sequences. It also features one of his longest cameo appearances, which shows him being bothered by a small boy as he reads a book on the London Underground. In the PBS series The Men Who Made The Movies, Hitchcock explained how he used early sound recording as a special element of the film, stressing the word “knife” in a conversation with the woman suspected of murder. During this period, Hitchcock directed segments for a BIP musical film revue Elstree Calling (1930) and directed a short film featuring two Film Weekly scholarship winners, An Elastic Affair (1930). Another BIP musical revue, Harmony Heaven (1929), reportedly had minor input from Hitchcock, but his name does not appear in the credits. In 1933, Hitchcock was once again working for Michael Balcon at Gaumont-British Picture Corporation. His first film for the company, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), was a success and his second, The 39 Steps (1935), is often considered one of the best films from his early period with the British Film Institute ranking it the fourth best British film of the 20th century. Already acclaimed in Britain, the success of the film made Hitchcock a star in the US, and established the quintessential English ‘Hitchcock blonde’ Madeleine Carroll as the template for his succession of ice cold and elegant leading ladies. This film was also one of the first to introduce the “MacGuffin”. In The 39 Steps, the MacGuffin is a stolen set of design plans. Hitchcock told French director François Truffaut: There are two men sitting in a train going to Scotland and one man says to the other, “Excuse me, sir, but what is that strange parcel you have on the luggage rack above you?”, “Oh”, says the other, “that’s a Macguffin.”, “Well”, says the first man, “what’s a Macguffin?”, The other answers, “It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.”, “But”, says the first man, “there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands.”, “Well”, says the other, “then that’s no Macguffin.”
Hitchcock’s next major success was his 1938 film The Lady Vanishes, a fast-paced film about the search for a kindly old Englishwoman Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who disappears while on board a train in the fictional country of Bandrika. By 1938, Hitchcock had become known for his alleged observation, “Actors are cattle”. He once said that he first made this remark as early as the late 1920s, in connection to stage actors who were snobbish about motion pictures. However, Michael Redgrave said that Hitchcock had made the statement during the filming of The Lady Vanishes. The phrase would haunt Hitchcock for years to come. During the filming of his 1941 production of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Carole Lombard brought some heifers onto the set with name tags of Lombard, Robert Montgomery, and Gene Raymond, the stars of the film, to surprise the director. Hitchcock said he was misquoted: “I said ‘Actors should be treated like cattle’.” Lauded in Britain where he was dubbed “Alfred the Great” by Picturegoer magazine, by the end of the 1930s Hitchcock’s reputation was beginning to soar overseas, with a New York Times feature writer stating; “Three unique and valuable institutions the British have that we in America have not. Magna Carta, the Tower Bridge and Alfred Hitchcock, the greatest director of screen melodramas in the world.” Variety magazine referred to him as, “probably the best native director in England.” David O. Selznick signed Hitchcock to a seven-year contract beginning in March 1939, and the Hitchcocks moved to Hollywood.
Selznick lent Hitchcock to the larger studios more often than producing Hitchcock’s films himself. In addition, Selznick, as well as fellow independent producer Samuel Goldwyn, made only a few films each year, so he did not always have projects for Hitchcock to direct. Goldwyn had also negotiated with Hitchcock on a possible contract, only to be outbid by Selznick. Hitchcock was quickly impressed with the superior resources of the American studios compared with the financial limits he had often faced in England. With the prestigious Selznick picture Rebecca in 1940, Hitchcock made his first American movie, set in a Hollywood version of England’s West Country and based on a novel by English author Daphne du Maurier. The film starred Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. The story concerns a naïve (and unnamed) young woman who marries a widowed aristocrat. She goes to live in his huge English country house, and struggles with the lingering reputation of the elegant and worldly first wife, whose name was Rebecca, and who died under mysterious circumstances. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1940. The statuette was given to Selznick, as the film’s producer. Hitchcock was nominated for the Best Director award, his first of five such nominations, but did not win. There were additional problems between Selznick and Hitchcock, with Selznick known to impose restrictive rules on Hitchcock. At the same time, Selznick complained about Hitchcock’s “goddamn jigsaw cutting”, which meant that the producer did not have nearly the leeway to create his own film as he liked, but had to follow Hitchcock’s vision of the finished product. Rebecca was the fourth longest of Hitchcock’s films, at 130 minutes, exceeded only by The Paradine Case (132 minutes), North by Northwest (136 minutes), and Topaz (142 minutes). Hitchcock’s second American film, the European-set thriller Foreign Correspondent (1940), based on Vincent Sheean’s Personal History and produced by Walter Wanger, was nominated for Best Picture that year. Hitchcock and other British subjects felt uneasy living and working in Hollywood while their country was at war; his concern resulted in a film that overtly supported the British war effort. The movie was filmed in the first year of the Second World War and was inspired by the rapidly changing events in Europe, as fictionally covered by an American newspaper reporter portrayed by Joel McCrea. The film mixed footage of European scenes with scenes filmed on a Hollywood back lot. The film avoided direct references to Nazism, Germany, and Germans to comply with Hollywood’s Production Code censorship.
Psycho is almost certainly Hitchcock’s best-known film. Produced on a constrained budget of $800,000, it was shot in black-and-white on a spare set. The unprecedented violence of the shower scene, the early death of the heroine, the innocent lives extinguished by a disturbed murderer became the defining hallmarks of Hitchcock’s new horror movie genre and have been copied by many authors of subsequent horror films. The public loved the film, with lines stretching outside of theatres as people had to wait for the next showing. It broke box-office records in China and the rest of Asia, France, Britain, South America, the United States and Canada, and was a moderate success in Australia for a brief period. It was the most profitable black-and-white sound film ever made, and Hitchcock personally realized well in excess of $15 million. He subsequently swapped his rights to Psycho and his TV anthology for 150,000 shares of MCA, making him the third largest shareholder in MCA Inc. and his own boss at Universal, in theory at least. But that did not stop them from interfering with him. Psycho was the most profitable film of Hitchcock’s career, earning $15 million by the end of the first year. Hitchcock’s second most profitable was Family Plot, earning $7.5 million, and third place was a tie between Torn Curtain (1966) and Frenzy (1972), each earning $6.5 million.
The Birds, inspired by a Daphne du Maurier short story and by a news story about a mysterious infestation of birds in Santa Cruz, California, was Hitchcock’s 49th film. Newcomer Tippi Hedren made her screen debut in the film, co-starring Rod Taylor and Suzanne Pleshette. The scenes of the birds attacking included hundreds of shots mixing live and animated sequences. The cause of the birds’ attack is left unanswered, “perhaps highlighting the mystery of forces unknown”. Hitchcock cast Hedren again opposite Sean Connery in his next film, Marnie, a romantic drama and psychological thriller. Decades later, Hedren called Hitchcock a misogynist and said that Hitchcock effectively ended her career by keeping her to an exclusive contract for two years when she rebuffed his sexual advances. In 2012, Hedren described Hitchcock as a “sad character”; a man of “unusual genius”, yet “evil, and deviant, almost to the point of dangerous, because of the effect that he could have on people that were totally unsuspecting.” In response, a Daily Telegraph article quoted several actresses who had worked with Hitchcock, including Eva Marie Saint, Doris Day and Kim Novak, none of whom shared Hedren’s opinion about him. Novak, who worked on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, told the Telegraph “I never saw him make a pass at anybody or act strange to anybody.” Psycho and The Birds had unconventional soundtracks: the screeching strings played in the murder scene in Psycho were unusually dissonant, and The Birds dispensed with any conventional score, instead using a new technique of electronically produced sound effects. Bernard Herrmann composed the former and was a consultant on the latter.
Failing health reduced Hitchcock’s output during the last two decades of his career. Biographer Stephen Rebello claimed Universal “forced” two movies on him, Torn Curtain and Topaz. Both were spy thrillers set with Cold War-related themes. The first, Torn Curtain (1966), with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, displays the bitter end of the twelve-year collaboration between Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann was fired when Hitchcock was unsatisfied with his score. Topaz (1969), based on a Leon Uris novel, is partly set in Cuba. Both received mixed reviews from critics. Near the end of his life, Hitchcock had worked on the script for a projected spy thriller, The Short Night, collaborating with screenwriters James Costigan and Ernest Lehman. Despite some preliminary work, the story was never filmed. This was caused primarily by Hitchcock’s own failing health and his concerns over the health of his wife, Alma, who had suffered a stroke. The script was eventually published posthumously, in a book on Hitchcock’s last years. Hitchcock died in his Bel Air home of renal failure at 9:17 am on 29 April 1980. While biographer Spoto wrote that Hitchcock “rejected suggestions that he allow a priest … to come for a visit, or celebrate a quiet, informal ritual at the house for his comfort,” Jesuit priest Mark Henninger wrote that he and fellow priest Tom Sullivan celebrated Mass at the filmmaker’s home; Father Sullivan heard Hitchcock’s confession. He was survived by his wife and their daughter. Hitchcock’s funeral Mass was held at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Beverly Hills, after which his body was cremated and his remains were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.
- August, 13, 1899
- Leytonstone, London, United Kingdom
- April, 29, 1980
- Bel-Air, Los Angeles, California