Alfred Hitchcock was the most well-known director to the general public, by virtue of both his many thrillers and his appearances on television in his own series from the mid-’50s through the early ’60s. Probably more than any other filmmaker, his name evokes instant expectations on the part of audiences: at least two or three great chills (and a few more good ones), some striking black comedy, and an eccentric characterisation or two in every one of the director’s movies.
Originally trained at a technical school, Hitchcock gravitated to movies through art courses and advertising, and by the mid-’20s he was making his first films. He had his first major success in 1926 with The Lodger, a thriller loosely based on Jack the Ripper. While he worked in a multitude of genres over the next six years, he found his greatest acceptance working with thrillers. His early work with these, including Blackmail (1929) and Murder (1930), seem primitive by modern standards, but have many of the essential elements of Hitchcock’s subsequent successes, even if they are presented in technically rudimentary terms.
Hitchcock came to international attention in the mid- to late ’30s with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), and, most notably, The Lady Vanishes (1938). By the end of the 1930s, having gone as far as the British film industry could take him, he signed a contract with David O. Selznick and came to America.
(1940) and Saboteur (1942), Hitchcock was one of Hollywood’s “money” directors whose mere presence on a marquee attracted audiences. Although his relationship with Selznick was stormy, he created several fine and notable features while working for the producer, either directly for Selznick or on loan to RKO and Universal, including Spellbound (1945), probably the most romantic of Hitchcock’s movies; Notorious (1946); and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), considered by many to be his most unsettling film.
In 1948, after leaving Selznick, Hitchcock went through a fallow period, in which he experimented with new techniques and made his first independent production, Rope; but he found little success. In the early and mid-’50s, he returned to form with the thrillers Strangers on a Train (1951), which was remade in 1987 by Danny DeVito as Throw Momma From the Train; Dial M for Murder (1954), which was among the few successful 3-D movies; and Rear Window (1954). By the mid-’50s, Hitchcock’s persona became the basis for the television anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which ran for eight seasons (although he only directed, or even participated as producer, in a mere handful of the shows). His films of the late ’50s became more personal and daring, particularly The Trouble With Harry (1955) and Vertigo (1958), in which the dark side of romantic obsession was explored in startling detail. Psycho (1960) was Hitchcock’s great shock masterpiece, mostly for its haunting performances by Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins and its shower scene, and The Birds (1963) became the unintended forerunner to an onslaught of films about nature-gone-mad, and all were phenomenally popular — The Birds, in particular, managed to set a new record for its first network television showing in the mid-’60s.
By then, however, Hitchcock’s films had slipped seriously at the box office. Both Marnie (1964) and Torn Curtain (1966) suffered from major casting problems, and the script of Torn Curtain was terribly unfocused. The director was also hurt by the sudden departure of composer Bernard Herrmann (who had scored every Hitchcock’s movie since 1957) during the making of Torn Curtain, as Herrmann’s music had become a key element of the success of Hitchcock’s films. Of his final three movies, only Frenzy (1972), which marked his return to British thrillers after 30 years, was successful, although his last film, Family Plot (1976), has achieved some respect from cult audiences.
In the early ’80s, several years after his death in 1980, Hitchcock’s box-office appeal was once again displayed with the re-release of Rope, The Trouble With Harry, his 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo, all of which had been withheld from distribution for several years, but which earned millions of dollars in new theatrical revenues.