Biography of Alfred Hitchcock

British director Alfred Hitchcock was an unparalleled innovator of modern cinema, still considered to be one of the most gifted filmmakers in the history of the medium. He made over 50 feature films during his celebrated career, most of which can be classified as psychological thrillers (thus earning him the nickname "The Master of Suspense"). Due to his keen technical prowess, his desire to constantly challenge himself, and his understanding of the interplay between a film and its audience, he developed a signature "Hitchcockian" style that has been often mimicked but never matched.

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born in 1899 in Leytonstone, which is part of the London county of Essex, to William, a greengrocer, and Emma Hitchcock. He had an older brother, William Jr, and an older sister, Ellen (nicknamed "Nellie"). Notoriously private, Hitchcock did not speak extensively about his childhood. However, he did share one particular anecdote about his father. Apparently, William Hitchcock wanted to teach a misbehaved Alfred a lesson, so he sent him to the local police station and had the policemen lock the boy in a cell. He was only in jail for a few minutes, but Hitchcock claims he never forgot that episode.

As a teenager, Hitchcock attended Saint Ignatius College, an all-boys secondary school in Enfield Town, London. After studying engineering at the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation, he got a job as a technician at an electric cable company, and soon, he was designing advertisements for them. Hitchcock's filmmaking career started in 1920 in Famous Players-Lasky, an American studio in London, where he was employed as a title-designer. This initial foray into the filmmaking process piqued Hitchcock's interest in screenwriting, and he started working on screenplays in his spare time. After Famous Players-Lasky shut down and became a rental studio, Hitchcock waited around for work and took on any open position that was offered to him. As a result, he quickly became proficient in both the creative and technical sides of filmmaking. In 1926, Hitchcock married Alma Reville, who was working as a film editor at the time. She was not only his partner in life and the mother of his only child, Patricia (b. 1928), but Alma became an indispensable creative collaborator for her husband. Despite her aversion to public attention, Alma's influence is palpable in all of Hitchcock's work.

Through the late 1920s and early 1930s, Hitchcock churned out a series of silent films in England, with varying degrees of success. He refers to The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926) as his first English film, even though it was his third under contract to Michael Balcon at Gainsborough Studios in London. After two forgettable missteps, The Lodger, a thriller about a Ripper-esque serial killer, is the film in which many aspects of what would become Hitchcock's signature style began to emerge. With Blackmail (1929), Hitchcock became one of the first British directors to start making "talkies", but his first commercial and critical success was The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). He would remake the film in America nearly 20 years later, saying that the first version was "the work of a talented amateur, the remake that of an accomplished professional."

The next major turning point in Hitchcock's career was his 18th film, The 39 Steps, which critic Donald Spoto calls "Hitchcock's first indisputable masterpiece." Based on a novel by John Buchan, The 39 Steps is a political thriller (with a heavy dose of comedy) in which Hitchcock explores his soon-to-be-signature plot-line about a man who is on the run with a comely blonde after being wrongfully accused of a crime.

By the late 1930s, Hitchcock's profile in England was on the rise, with successful outings like Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), and The Lady Vanishes (1938), which caught the attention of legendary American producer David O. Selznick (Gone with the Wind). Selznick championed Hitchcock's arrival to the United States in 1939, where he immediately signed the British filmmaker to a 7-year contract. Hitchcock's first Selznick picture, Rebecca, was based on Daphne Du Maurier's gothic thriller and starred Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. It won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1940; Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director (his first of 5 nods), but he did not win.

During World War II, Alfred Hitchcock continued to work in the US, directing Suspicion (1941), which he also produced, and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), a seminal film noir that started his long collaboration with Cary Grant. He reunited with Selznick for Spellbound (1945), starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, and subsequently cast Bergman and Grant in Notorious (1946). The Paradine Case (1947), a forgettable courtroom drama, was Hitchcock's third and last film for Selznick, who had hired him out to other studios and producers for 7 films over the course of their working relationship. At this point in his professional life, Hitchcock was determined to exercise more control over his career and formed a production company called Transatlantic Pictures with British producer Sidney Bernstein.

Hitchcock's first film for Transatlantic was Rope (1948), based on Patrick Hamilton's play. Ever the risk-taker, Hitchcock challenged himself to make the entire film with as few cuts as possible - a major stylistic shift from his previous work. While he was able to achieve his goal (Rope is seamlessly composed of 9 shots that are 10 minutes each), the film was not a financial success. Transatlantic Pictures was struggling; Hitchcock moved to Warner Brothers for his next several movies.

By the late 1950s, thanks to hits like Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M For Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), and To Catch a Thief (1955), Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most powerful directors in America. The biggest stars of the time, like Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Doris Day, were clamoring to work with him. He eventually left Warner Brothers in 1957 and relocated to Paramount, where he earned $250,000 per film and a large percentage of the back end as well. At Paramount, Hitchcock made some of the most successful films of his career - Vertigo (1958), North By Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960), which marked the height of Hitchcock's commercial success. Once he shifted to a new contract with Universal, Hitchcock followed up Psycho's stratospheric performance with The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964), both starring Tippi Hedren.

Hitchcock's health was deteriorating in the mid-1960s, which slowed the prolific director's output significantly. He managed to finish out his contract with Universal by making Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969), neither of which resonated with his audiences. He went back to England for Frenzy (1972); his last film was Family Plot (1976). In 1980, Queen Elizabeth II appointed Alfred Hitchcock a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (KBE). He died on April 29th of that same year at home in Bel Air.


Study Guides on Works by Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock’s first Hollywood movie was Rebecca, based on the novel by author Daphne DuMaurier. DeMaurier’s twisted love story allowed Hitchcock to make quite the splashy introduction to the Hollywood way of making movies after perfecting his...

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 suspense film Dial M for Murder presents a textbook case for why 3-D movies failed to catch fire in the 1950s and then again failed again to catch fire during a brief resurgence in the 1980s and has failed to become the...

Alfred Hitchcock had just witnesses audiences and critics alike essentially reject one of his most personal films; a movie that defied easy categorization and explored (in an appropriately 1950s Hays Code-era way) themes related to sexual...

Notorious is one of those Hitchcock movie titles that give some moviegoers pause. Why? Why isn’t anyone in Vertigo actually diagnosed with that disorder? Why does the titular jewel in Topaz play absolutely no significance in the story? How come ...

In 1957, mystery novelist Robert Bloch was inspired to write Psycho after studying the grisly details of the crimes committed by serial killer Ed Gein, who notoriously slaughtered nearly 40 women over 10 years. Simon and Schuster published Bloch's...

Rear Window is based on a story from the February 1942 issue of Dime Detective Magazine called "It Had to be Murder", written by Cornell Woolrich (under the pseudonym William Irish). Alfred Hitchcock, who was a longtime fan of Woolrich's pulp...

By the middle of the second of the 21st century, Hollywood was on the verge of a filmmaking revolution. The capability to attach a movie camera to a drone carried with the potential to undo the damage that the music videos of the 1980s and the...

So far, To Catch a Thief has not yet managed to become one of those films regarded as a rather lightweight addition to the canon of Alfred Hitchcock at the time of its original release that a later generation rediscovers and decides is high art....

It is typical to get believe that Alfred Hitchcock gave the title Vertigo to his 1958 suspense film due to the unusually kinky character portrayed by Jimmy Stewart penchant for getting dizzy whenever he looks down from tall heights. In fact,...