It’s been a while – I know.
I guess that about 75% of you weren’t even aware of this series’ existence. It’s one of the earliest series on my blog, where I thought that it’d be fun to indulge myself in film history and share the things I found to be interesting. I was planning to go over pivotal directors and movies of film history in chronological order and talk a bit about them. Turns out that it takes a lot of time researching and writing one of these, so I eventually just quit. But since it’s my birthday and this was my birthday present, I thought that I’d write one for old times’ sake. Don’t expect them more often – it’s just for this occasion.
So, we all know who Hitchcock is, or we’ve at least heard of him, if not of him under his alias, The Master of Suspense. But who really was Hitchcock, and how did he achieve his success?
The man was born on the 13th of August in 1899 in London, to a family of four; there was his brother Willem, who was born nine years prior, his sister Ellen, who was seven years older, and evidently there were both of his parents, but even with a family of this size, he often recalls being lonely. He was a well-behaved boy who never did anything wrong, but this was for a very good reason. At age five his father sent him to a couple of police officers with a note saying that he’d been bad, due to which the young boy ended up spending a couple of minutes in prison. From that moment on, Hitchcock was quite afraid of the cops, false imprisonment and small spaces, all of which would make reappearances in his later films, think of Saboteur, for example. In his youth, Hitchcock’s family tended to move a lot, and at age eleven, they landed in Stepney, a different district in London. There he went to a Jesuit Grammar School, where his disciplinarian youth was continued. The priests taught with an iron fist, while the students were constantly in fear of inevitable punishments. Even though he was treated harshly, he still said: “The Jesuits taught me organization, control and, to some degree, analysis”. This type of education also didn’t permit him from becoming a notorious prankster on his future movie sets. He’d find out what the phobia was of one of his stars was, like mice or spiders, and he’d sent them in a box to the actors. Though before he achieved that status, he first went to London University, where he studied Engineering and followed art classes. His passion for art would later shine through in his work, as he often collaborated with painters while working on films. He famously worked together with Salvador Dali while crafting a dream sequence for his 1945 film Spellbound, which would go on to win an Oscar for Best Music, but it was also nominated for Best Visual Effects and Best Director among others.
When he finished his studies, he went on to work in a telegraph company. Thereafter he’d start to work as a title card writer for silent films for a company that’d later become Paramount Pictures. He slowly started to become more and more interested in the film world and wanted to make his own movie, which he eventually did in 1925. The film was called The Pleasure Garden, though this wasn’t his first attempt. In 1922 he tried to make a comedy called Mrs. Peabody, but unfortunately, this film remained unfinished due to not enough funding. Another unfortunate thing is that Hitchcock’s second feature film has been lost throughout the years. The man himself didn’t seem to dislike the fact that the prints had disappeared, as he thought that the film was badly made. The film was called The Mountain Eagle and it’s currently his only film that’s been lost.
Hitchcock’s first commercial hit would be his third film, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927). It’d be a story centered on a character based upon Jack the Ripper. It’d also be the first time he’d make a cameo in one of his own films, which would grow on to become his trademark. Think of the guy changing clocks in Rear Window or the guy inspecting a window in the background at the beginning of Psycho; that’s all him. These cameos were always well-hidden and fun to spot.
A year prior to his commercial hit, Hitchcock married Alma Reville, with whom he’d frequently collaborate throughout the years. She’d help to edit, cast, and re-write his films. He’d ask her for help or for confirmation since she was one of the few people whose opinion he respected the most. With her, he’d have one child, Patricia Alma Hitchcock, in 1927. She was his only wife; they never had a divorce, nor did she remarry after his death.
In 1929 his non-silent feature film would be released, and unsurprisingly, it was a hit. It would be England’s most popular film of the year and, it’s also seen as the first British film with sound. Hitchcock slowly began to garnish himself an audience, but mostly in Great Britain. A few years later, he’d make classics like The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935), which gave him international success, and which would lead to David O. Selznick – an American film producer, screenwriter, and film studio executive – signing him a seven-year contract. Hitchcock moved to Hollywood, and from that point on, his career pretty much skyrocketed, though not as smoothly as he’d liked. Selznick suffered from financial problems, not ideal when your job comes down to giving money to people, and Hitchcock found that the guy had too much creative control over the final product. Nonetheless, Hitchcock’s first American film, Rebecca, was a success. It was nominated for 11 Oscars. It marks the first time Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director¸ which he’d be for four other times as well, though he’d never win once. Rebecca won two of those 11 nominations; Best Picture and Best Cinematography for a Black and White Film. The award for Best Picture went to the producer, Selznick, not Hitchcock himself. During the production of this film, it really showed how far Hitchcock’s willing to go to make the film he wants to make. The lead actor wanted that his co-star would be played by his then-girlfriend, rather than the actress that Hitchcock cast. Due to this, the actor would behave mean towards this girl, so that she’d leave and his girlfriend could replace her. Instead of intervening, Hitchcock decided to use that hatred the main actor had towards the actress for his own good. He told the actress in question, that not only her co-star but everyone on set despised her, due to which the girl became very shy, which is exactly what Hitchcock needed her performance to be. The same year he’d make another film, Foreign Correspondent, which was also nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.
Three Ways of How He Influenced Film
His American success was huge and he’d go on to direct classic after classic, with a handful of duds along the way. Though those duds are disputable for the things he’s achieved. The cinematographer of Vertigo, together with Hitchcock himself invented a new camera technique that we now know as the Vertigo Zoom. It’s achieved by zooming in at the same speed as you move the camera backward, which makes it seem like the thing the camera’s focusing on stays still, and that the background moves. It’s used in films like Jaws to encapsulate that sense of fear, while in Vertigo it was used to emulate vertigo, which it did really well.
We’ve all been praising Victoria and The Russian Ark for telling its story in one take, though it was Hitchcock who was one of the first to do it in 1948 with his film Rope. In Rope, Hitchcock moved the camera behind a black surface to hide the edit, like they did in Birdman, though in that one, the evolution of technology really helped at hiding those edits, while in Rope, they’re quite obvious. These edits in Rope weren’t really by choice; the projector reel could only carry ten minutes of celluloid, so they had to shoot scenes lasting no longer than ten minutes. The film exists out of 10 shots and lasts for 80 minutes. It also marks Hitchcock’s first color film.
Psycho too was a revolutionary film in terms of storytelling and protagonists. Even though it’s come out in 1960, I don’t want to spoil the film for those who haven’t seen it, because it’s certainly a film that’ll surprise you. The way it treats its protagonist was novel at the time, and even this day it’s a rarity to see it happen again. I know that I’m being really vague right now, but I really don’t want to spoil the film.
During the production of Psycho, Hitchcock also bumped heads with censorship, as did he with many other of his films. He sent the MPAA a cut of the film with extremely violent scenes so that their attention would be drawn away from other, more subtle scenes, that also had gruesome imagery. According to History.com, the censors asked him to reshoot the opening of the film, as they thought that it was too sexually suggestive. Hitchcock acted like he didn’t understand what they were referring to, and that they should come to set and give him instructions on how to do it. The censors didn’t come, and Hitchcock was allowed to keep the scene in.
These are just three examples of how Hitchcock influenced film, but there’s still so much more to discuss, though I’ll leave it at that since I’m pretty sure I’ve bored you enough. And this article’s becoming way too long.
The Master of Suspense
One of the main reasons why he’s seen as The Master of Suspense is because he knew exactly what to show, how to show it and when to do so. He knew what perspective to use, how to use the film’s soundtrack to its fullest potential, and what elaborate editing technique fitted best with the scene. There’s this famous quote of his where he explains exactly how he builds suspense, which really shows how well he’s mastered the craft.
“Four people are sitting around a table talking about baseball or whatever you like. Five minutes of it. Very dull. Suddenly, a bomb goes off. Blows the people to smithereens. What does the audience have? Ten seconds of shock. Now take the same scene and tell the audience there is a bomb under that table and will go off in five minutes. The whole emotion of the audience is totally different because you’ve given them that information. In five minutes time, that bomb will go off. Now the conversation about baseball becomes very vital. Because they’re saying to you, “Don’t be ridiculous. Stop talking about baseball. There’s a bomb under there.” You’ve got the audience working.”
In Rear Window (my personal favorite of his) we’re shown glimpses of the killer, which creates a sense of mystery, same goes with Vertigo, where we know that there’s someone pulling strings, though we don’t find out for quite some time who that really is. It’s that sense of mystery and the fact that you know something’s there, but the nescience of when he’s going to strike, that makes his films as tense as they are. For that, I really do believe that he’s worthy of the title “Master of Suspense”.
Final Films and Final Moments
Even though that after 1948 he produced nearly all of his films on his own, his last 6 films would be made for Universal, oppose to Paramount, with whom he’s also made quite a few of his films. The Birds was the first of these six films, and Family Plot in 1976 would be the last feature film Hitchcock would make. The Birds was also Hitchcock’s last film to be nominated for an Oscar, this time for Best Visual Effects, a few of the other five films were nominated for Golden Globes. Hitchcock didn’t earn any Oscars at all during his career, but he did get an Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award from the Academy in 1968. He was also knighted in 1979, even though he had been an American citizen for quite some time. One year after was knighted, he passed away due to renal failure. But still, after nearly forty years, his legacy still goes on. We’re still talking about what he’s achieved and what kind of impact he’s had. He’s one of the best filmmakers who has ever lived, if not the best, so you can be sure that I’m more than happy with my Blu Ray boxset :).
Sources of Information:
The Pleasure Garden: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0016230/mediaviewer/rm3013364480
Images for GIF of Vertigo were taken from this video: