A number of factors determine what makes a director truly great – critical acclaim, a distinct, auteur voice and audience approval are just a few that indicate brilliance. However, very few directors (if any) can claim that their name has derived an adjective that is emblematic of their film-making voice and is applied to any work by other artists that dare emulate/pay homage to it. Calling a piece of cinema ‘Hitchcockian’ is probably the highest compliment that it could be paid and serves as a reminder the incomparable legacy that British director Alfred Hitchcock has lorded over film culture.
Born at the end of the Victorian era and the son of a grocer, Hitchcock came from humble beginnings. During his late teens/early twenties, he began to delve into creating writing, submitting short articles and stories to The Henley Telegraph and becoming one of the publication’s most frequent contributors. Hitchcock had been an avid film fan from his teenage years and undertook several apprenticeships at various London studios where his role as a title-card designer led to scriptwriting duties, and eventually, the director’s chair in 1922. His first feature, Number 13, was ill-fated and unfinished (footage from the film is widely sought after by film historians and collectors) but he firmly established his style in 1927 with The Lodger, a thriller starring Ivor Novello as a man who may or may not be a serial killer.
As a young child, Hitchcock was locked behind the bars of a police cell as a form of punishment for misbehaving. The incident greatly effected him, telling biographer Charlotte Chandler, “I can still hear the clanging of the jail door behind me” and instilled a fear of policemen in him. The ramifications of this brief but traumatic incident seeped into his films as themes that they often explored include injustice and mistreatment. Vertigo (considered Hitchcock’s finest and one of the greatest films ever made), a warped psychological romance starring Hitchcock regular James Stewart as retired detective Scottie and Kim Novak as Judy Barton/Madeleine Elster is a prime example. Scottie is tasked to return to his detective work and observe the whereabouts of Madeleine Elster, a beautiful but mysterious woman with a guarded secret. He quickly becomes infatuated and as the story develops and the plot takes many twists and turns (no spoilers shall be disclosed), Scottie’s behaviour becomes harsh and questionable and the film’s denouement results in an unjust fate for one of its characters.
Many of the period’s most celebrated actors including the aforementioned James Stewart, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant appeared in Hitchcock’s films but the director openly disparaged them, stating bluntly, “Actors are cattle.” His relationship with one in particular, Tippi Hedren, has been the cause of much heated hearsay and discussion over the decades; after rejecting his romantic advances, Hedren’s life was reportedly made hell on set of The Birds with the director using real birds in a particular scene instead of the promised mechanical ones. The actress was deeply traumatised and signed off work by her director for five days. Understandably, Hedren viewed upon Hitchcock with great resentment but also acknowledged his artistic prowess, “I think he was an extremely sad character. We are dealing with a brain here that was an unusual genius, and evil, and deviant, almost to the point of dangerous, because of the effect that he could have on people that were totally unsuspecting.”
Meanwhile, other directors and film-makers idolised him and his illustrious career, most notably the French auteur Francois Truffaut, Truffaut implored Hitchcock to engage in a series of interviews with him by a letter that lavished praise on the master of suspense. An excerpt read, “Since I have become a director myself, my admiration for you has in no way weakened; on the contrary, it has grown stronger and changed in nature. There are many directors with a love of cinema, but what you posses is a love of celluloid itself.” That sentiment is echoed across the industry and while the director’s character is fairly scrutinised, there’s no denying the lasting impact of his filmography.
• Strangers on a Train (1951)
• Rear Window (1954)
• Vertigo (1958)
• North by Northwest (1959)
• Psycho (1960)
• The Birds (1963)
By Evie Brudenall