Saturday, March 3, 2007

25 years since hitchcock

On April 29, 1980, Alfred Hitchcock passed away at the age of 81.
The most widely known and influential director in the history of world cinema, The Master of Suspense created timeless films that continue to chill, thrill and amuse as much today as they did then.

Today, exactly 25 years after Hitch left us, it's interesting to recall his life and work, and take a look at the director's fascinating rise to glory.

In 1899, Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born to greengrocer William Hitchcock and his wife Emma in London's East End. Catholicism drilled strictly into him from the start, he attended a Jesuit preparatory school.

At the age of 14, he took a position at the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company. At around this time, Alfred began to fall in love with movies.

In 1920, when he learned that Cecil B DeMille's Hollywood studio, Lasky, was on course to open a studio in London, Alfred promptly got himself a job as a title designer.
The 21 year old then designed the titles for all the movies made at the studio for the next two years.

In 1923, while the studio was working on Always Tell Your Wife, the film's director fell ill. This proved to be a stupendous stroke of luck for the industrious Hitchcock, who was allowed to complete the film, with impressive results.

Studio bosses handed Alfred his first directorial assignment with Number 13, but before the film could be finished, Lasky wound up its British operations.

By this time, it was clear that Alfred was ambitious enough to pursue his celluloid dreams, and he started working as an assistant director for Michael Balcon's company, to be later named Gainsborough Pictures.
The 'assistant director' tag was a deceptive one, Alfred filling the multiple shoes of writer, title designer, and art director all at the same time.

After several films with the company, Hitchcock was finally given the chance to direct -- a British/German co-production called The Pleasure Garden. Right on its heels came a thriller -- the genre he would make his own -- called The Lodger, in 1926.

Near the end of that year, Hitchcock married Alma Reville (right), and unlike most Hollywood directors, his marriage lasted perfectly, right up to his death 54 years later. Also in the movie business, Alma was born just one day after Alfred.
Hitchcock directing Tippi Hendren in Marnie, the thriller also starring a very young Sean Connery.
Hitchcock's first films, through the late 1920s, were silent productions, and in 1929, the Master directed the first British talkie, Blackmail, an inventive and clever thriller which fully used the opportunities afforded to the director by the advent of sound.
The 1930s saw Alfred make several thrillers in the UK, but he had recognised that the motion picture industry truly lay across the pond.

Starry-eyed yet entirely sure of himself, Hitchcock visited Hollywood. As is the traditional norm, he was turned away from every major motion picture studio because they thought he could not make a 'Hollywood' kind of film.

Eventually, producer David O Selznick signed him to a contract, the result of which was Alfred taking up permanent residence in the United States in 1939.

His first project was supposed to be a film about the Titanic, but Selznick finally scrapped the film, famously announcing that he 'couldn't find a boat to sink!'
Therefore, in 1940, Hitchcock directed his first American film, Rebecca. The film, a box-office and critical success, was a struggle for Alfred, especially as his uncompromising cinematic standards were sorely tested by his producer's domineering style.

In the final scene of the gothic romance Alfred turned into a tale of mystery and dread, Selznick wanted to show smoke coming out of the burning house's chimney forming the letter 'R'.

Hitchcock abhorred this plan, deciding that it lacked any subtlety. Instead, the director finally showed flames licking at a pillow, embroidered with an 'R'.

The rest is history, as, for the next 36 years, Hitch -- his Hollywood nickname -- was the creator of sophisticatedly thrown shadows and constantly hinted of the macabre lurking just under the surface of the ordinary.
His last name became synonymous with Suspense, and, to this day, every great new thriller is, at best, described as 'Hitchcockian.'

A typical list of favourites would include: Psycho, Rear Window, North By Northwest, The Man Who Knew too Much, Rope, Vertigo, The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Lifeboat, and the director's personal pick, Shadow Of A Doubt.

Hitchcock was once famously quoted as hating actors because he referred to them as cattle. He responded with a horrified face, saying, 'My actor friends know I would never be capable of such a thoughtless, rude and unfeeling remark... What I probably said was that actors should be treated like cattle.'
Hitchcock with James Stewart, a favourite leading man. However, as Alfred said, 'Cary Grant is the only actor I ever loved in my whole life.'

Herding his thespians well, Hitch led eight different actors to Academy Award nominated performances, including Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson, Albert Basserman, Michael Chekhov, Claude Rains, Ethel Barrymore, and Janet Leigh.
Fontaine won the Award for 1941's Suspicion, but, in a travesty of monumental proportions, Alfred himself never won the Best Director award at the annual Oscar competition.

When finally given the statuette -- the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award -- at the 1967 Academy Awards, Hitchcock's acceptance speech was characteristically unexpected, the Master just saying, 'Thank you.'

Hitchcock always had a razor-edged sense of humour, oscillating feverishly between whimsical and macabre.

A renowned practical joker, only a few of his pranks -- suddenly showing up on sets in a dress, for example -- actually inspired laughs. Most were said to be more cruel than funny. Usually he delved into someone deep enough to find out their phobias, such as mice or spiders, and, in turn, promptly sent them a boxful.

Hitchcock is also remembered for his innovative cameos, stretching the entire length of his mammoth filmography.
Trying to squeeze his distinctive persona into the frame, without actually taking away from the film itself was always a challenge he seemed to greatly relish.

This was particularly, and obviously, hard in Lifeboat, a film about a few people battling for survival on a small boat. His eventual stroke of genius was to have his picture in a newspaper advertisement lying scattered among the boat's debris.

With classic wit-- this was a weight loss advert -- and, because his own weight fluctuated so heavily due to severe phases of dieting, Hitch was seen in both the 'Before' and the 'After' pictures.

At a Lincoln Center retrospective of his films in New York in 1974, fabled director Fran├žois Truffaut introduced two brilliant Hitchcock sequences: the clash of the cymbals in The Man Who Knew Too Much; and the low-flying plane attack (left) on Cary Grant in North By Northwest.
Both have always been critically rated among the greatest sequences ever filmed.

Truffaut, reflecting on Hitchcock's uniqueness, summed it up superbly: 'It was impossible not to see that the love scenes were filmed like murder scenes, and the murder scenes like love scenes...

'It occurred to me that, in Hitchcock's cinema, to make love and to die are one and the same.'

Inimitably, Hitchcock once famously announced a witty suggestion for his epitaph: 'This is what we do to bad little boys.'
The line can be traced back to Hitch's earliest days. As a child, his father once sent Alfred with a letter to the local police station. The officer read the letter and, without further adieu, locked the young boy up for ten minutes. He then let him go, explaining that this is what happens to people who do bad things.

This triggered off sheer terror, and, for the rest of his life, Hitchcock had a severe phobia of the police. This was his reason for never learning to drive; a person who doesn't drive can't be pulled over and given a ticket.

This is also cited as the reason for the recurring 'innocent man' theme in his films.

Eventually, however, the Master of Suspense chuckled even heartier. At his death in 1980, the tombstone, with a final flourish of genius, read: 'I'm in on a plot'.