Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born in 1899 to a lower-middle class family from Eastern London. He was brought up in a strict Catholic family, with a strict father. Hitchcock states that as a child his father would play tricks on him. For example, “his father had played a cruel trick on him, arranging for the boy to be locked up in a local police cell to teach him a lesson” (2). These types of tricks are reflected in Hitchcock’s films. Police officers continuously appear in films such as Psycho, Shadow of a Doubt and Notorious among others. Different aspects of Hitchcock’s life and influences are examined in Nicholas Haeffner’s, Alfred Hitchcock. The information presented in the book provides us with what exactly makes the “Hitchcock picture”.
Starting out, Hitchcock struggled to get his films viewed. He had four films blocked by chief distributor, C.M. Woolf and from critics as well. Hitchcock’s filming career took a turn for the better at the age of 28; he was the highest paid director in England. His techniques started to develop as well.
In the 1930s, Hitchcock’s suspense thrillers were being developed as well. Movies like The Man Who Knew Too much,The 39 Steps,Secret Agent,Sabotage,Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes became known as the “thriller sextet” (5).
Although his movies were gaining attention, Hitchcock criticized British movies. He liked American cinema and soon made a deal with American companies such as Paramount and MCA.
As Hitchcock made movies in the United States, he was criticized for not making films at home in England to help with the war effort. Hitchcock fired back by saying that he was helping-he was showing the American audience British talent.
Hitchcock died on April 29th of 1980 due to his poor eating and drinking habits. Hitchcock can be seen as a genius, as stated in the beginning of Haeffner’s book. His upbringing and childhood may be a factor in his talent, but being influenced by European cinema played an important factor as well.
Hitchcock states in a 1960 French journal article that, “subconsciously we are always influenced by the book that we’ve read, the novels, the paintings, the music and all the works of art in general” (14). This is very true for Hitchcock’s work. From being influenced by the French and Germans to the Russians, Hitchcock uses techniques he has seen in movies from international directors.
Hitchcock was a fan of the great German director Fritz Lang. From Lang, Hitchcock borrowed actors to use in his films, such as the actor Peter Lorre from Lang’s movie, M. Also, Hitchcock’s niche for symbolism came from German cinema. The art form of Expressionism came from Germany and it is clear that Hitchcock took notice to Expressionist films. Hitchcock adapted the use of shadows, mirrors, as well as the use of stairs from German Expressionist films. It’s known that Hitchcock seen the German movie, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Having seen this movie, I can see examples of Expressionistic symbols that Hitchcock has used in his movies. In The Cabinet of Dr Caligari a murder is committed, but the audience only sees the shadow of the killer as the murder takes place. In many of Hitchcock films shadows are used to supplement the actual person.
Besides being influenced by German Expressionists, Hitchcock adapted surrealism in his films from the French. Surrealism emphasizes on dream-like states and turning ordinary objects into dark and dangerous objects. Hitchcock uses surrealism in films such as Blackmail and Suspicion.
“Only montage has that power of audience suggestion. I’m very keen on that method of storytelling,” (27) Hitchcock said. He picked up on the use of montage from Russian cinema. Montage, a form of editing is also a type of special effects and Hitchcock makes use of this.
Exposure to German, French, and Russian cinema greatly influenced Hitchcock’s films. In 1925, the Film Society was formed for the British audience. Through the Film Society, a society to “popularizes world cinema in the face of domination by American product” (23), people were able to see films of other countries. But, it had a negative effect on the British people because of the indifferences.
Not only was Hitchcock influenced by cinema, but he was also influenced by the genre of Gothic romance in novels. He adapted three of Daphne Du Maurier’s books into movies. The genre has a suffering heroine who endures emotional torture to emerge victorious in love, as stated in the book.
Besides the Gothic romance, Hitchcock uses another Gothic theme, doubles or doubeling. Hitchcock uses doubling in many of his films. In class, we watched Shadow of a Doubt, which has a character named Uncle Charlie and a niece named Charlie. Not only is the name doubled, but their personalities mirror one another. With doubles, there is always a dark side, and we see this in Shadow of a Doubt-Uncle Charlie is a killer, where as the niece is innocent even though they share many commonalities.
Hitchcock has made many films and is well known today as an auteur director. But many critics have questioned if Hitchcock is really the author and/or creator of many of the works he is credited for. Haeffner says, “He manipulated his image carefully to maximize the impact of both” (29). Haeffner statement shows that Hitchcock was great at self-promotion; it is easy for an audience to believe that Hitchcock created everything with his name on it.
In 1930 Hitchcock was successful with creating a public relations company to bring attention to him. Things that he did are still done today, such as life-sized cardboard cut outs of his image in cinema entrances to promote his latest films. We can go to a movie theatre or even a video store and see cardboard cut outs of actors promoting their latest movies.
With Hitchcock’s fame came critics trying to knock him down. For example, a writer named Donald Spoto wrote a biography called, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock in 1983. He portrays Hitchcock as one of the villains of his films instead of a human being.
Spoto’s book came out after Hitchcock’s friend, John Russell Taylor’s biography, Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock was released. In Taylor’s biography, he portrays Hitchcock as a man who had a cruel sense of humor and took jokes a little too far sometimes. This makes sense because it mirrors how Hitchcock’s father treated him. Hitchcock says that his father locked him up in a jail cell as a cruel lesson. Hitchcock could be seen as a double of his father.
Even with various biographies and critics speaking out against Hitchcock, he did all that he could to create a public image for himself. Although he was successful at creating a public image for himself, he wasn’t the first one. Another writer, Robert A. Kapsis states that other people in the industry self-promoted. They just weren’t as successful as Hitchcock.
Hitchcock’s image became recognized with his television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Because he was becoming one of the most recognized directors, people thought Hitchcock wrote and directed all of the episodes. The truth is that he only directed a handful and didn’t write any of them. From Hitchcock’s fan mail, an upset scriptwriter for the show realized that the audience believed Hitchcock was the man behind the creation.
Movies that Hitchcock actually wrote and directed were being targeted as not being ‘Hitchcock pictures’ because they didn’t follow the suspense and thriller genre that his other movies portrayed. Other directors started making films that were ‘Hitchcocking Hitchcock’ as Hitchcock struggled with his movies not holding up to the standards of a classic ‘Hitchcock picture’, other directors started making films that were ‘Hitchcocking Hitchcock’. For example, a French director Henri-George Clouzot made a film, Les Diaboliques which had the aspects of a Hitchcock film.
Although Hitchcock’s movies were being out done by other directors, he was still considered an auteur. As an auteur, Hitchcock uses the concept of mise-en-scene, which is the visual language in his films. For example, the opening scene of Psycho is shot on an aerial view of the city which gives it the effect of God’s eye view. He also plays with the camera in a way that makes it look like it is able to freely move throughout a room, giving us a sense of voyeurism.
With the visuals in the films comes the use of sound. Hitchcock says, “Sound is in its own way…an image maker” (55). For example, in the movie Psycho the sound we hear during the shower scene adds a more terrifying effect. His use of sound in his movies is just another form of creativity; Hitchcock seen the use of sound as going hand-in-hand with the visuals. He felt the sound wasn’t just music, but a structured design to make an effect for the movie.
For sound, Hitchcock worked with a composer named Bernard Herrmann, who composed music for the movie Citizen Kane. They worked together on quite a few films and Hitchcock gave Herrmann artistic freedom when Herrmann was composing music for the movies. Eventually, Herrmann won worldwide acclaim as a film composer.
The way women are portrayed in Hitchcock’s films has caused, and still does, major controversy. Many people have accused Hitchcock of being a misogynist. The controversy over Hitchcock’s hatred for women is full of contradictions.
Mothers in Hitchcock films have been viewed as problematic characters-most notable would be Norman Bate’s mother in Psycho. In the movie Notorious, it’s the mother who decides to poison her daughter-in-law instead of the character who would be fit to do this, the Nazi son.
Women in general, not just mothers, have been viewed in a negative light in Hitchcock films. In the films women have been raped, gassed, attacked by birds, stabbed, strangled and punched in the face. Because women are treated poorly in the films, many critics view the treatment of fictitious characters as a reflection of who Hitchcock really is. But the contradiction is that in real life Hitchcock seemed to get along fine with the women that surrounded him. He valued his wife’s opinion highly. His personal assistant was a woman. Also, an actress he worked with said that she thought he liked women (70).
Although he surrounded himself with women, there is still the flip-side. It’s argued, “The director was a cruel misogynist who, in his increased frustration that these blondes took no interest in him sexually, had turned from torturing the heroine on screen to tormenting her off screen too” (69). When working on The Birds, actress, Tippi Hedren said that real birds were thrown at her when she was promised fake birds. This can be seen as a way for Hitchcock to view a woman, who is blonde, suffering in real life. On the other hand, it can be viewed as a way to realistically capture fear on screen.
The argument that Hitchcock was a misogynist and that he held hatred towards blonde women continues with a critical study by Molly Haskell in 1973. Haskell argues that Hitchcock’s feeling towards sexuality isn’t far from homicidal impulses. She lists how blonde women are treated poorly in his films and that they are punished by ‘long trips through terror’ (69). Hitchcock, on the other hand, argues that it is women who choose to go watch his films and that he thought women would enjoy his films.
The opening scene of Hitchcock’s movie, Notorious is one of the many movies analyzed as having elements that may make it a misogynist film. The male character, Devlin is sitting down with the camera behind him, not revealing his face. This can be perceived as Devlin being a domineering character over Alicia, but then again it’s all up to interpretation.
Hitchcock’s films are examined in various ways from how women are treated to what cinematically influenced him. Another perspective on Hitchcock films is that of psychoanalysis, “During the 1980s and 1990s the use of psychoanalytic theories became a dominant tendency in film studies, especially in the case of Hitchcock’s films” (81). Hints of psychoanalysis have been afloat in a few of Hitchcock’s films. Hitchcock carefully throws in Freud’s name in his movies. For example, Tippi Hedren says, “You Freud, Me Jane” in Marnie. A character in his movie, Rope talks about what a psychoanalyst would say because he forgot something. Using Freudism and psychoanalysis is just another aspect of Hitchcock’s films.
Not all of the psychoanalysis came solely from Hitchcock. The screenwriter who worked as an analysis would bring up Freud with Hitchcock. Overall, it is certain that Hitchcock held an interest in psychoanalysis since it appears in various movies.
Although he looked down on his audience, Hitchcock was appreciative of them. He held an interest in them on top of psychoanalysis. He looked down on his audience because they held him back from making the films he ultimately wanted to make. The audience didn’t have a sophisticated enough response to his movies, so if Hitchcock were to step his movies up a notch, he would lose the audience’s attention. But he says, “I don’t expect the average spectator to go beyond his emotional reaction… this may explain why occasionally one of my films is indifferently received and then a year later, it becomes a classic” (94). Hitchcock is saying that the audience is slowly progressing.
From Haeffner’s book, Alfred Hitchcock we see that there are many things that make Hitchcock who he is. The different influences, camera tricks and even controversies over his films show just how great a director he is.
Haeffner, Nicholas: Alfred Hitchcock. Longman, 2005.