Alfred Hitchcock: Master of Suspense

The Legendary Director Who Defined a Genre

The jowly one
A Hitchcock Profile. (c) Universal

The jowly Brit with the morbid wit made dozens of films, hardly a misfire among them. Alfred Hitchcock all but invented the suspense genre, hosted a wildly popular TV anthology series, and is generally revered as one of the greatest creative minds in the history of the movies.

Just the Facts:

Full Name: Alfred Joseph Hitchcock
Born: London, August 13, 1899
Died: Los Angeles, April 29, 1980
Career: Movie/TV director, producer, actor and writer from the 1920s to the 1970s in Britain and the United States

Recurring Hitchcock Themes:

Through a career spanning a half-century, Hitchcock sounded the same themes again and again: Mistaken identity. Innocents falsely accused. Ordinary people thrust into extraordinary peril. People who are not what they seem to be. Trust and betrayal. Hair-breadth escapes. Perfect crimes and double-crosses.

Just about every Hitchcock film has a central couple -- lovers who turn out to be either very good for each other or very, very bad. There's usually a gorgeous blonde who rescues a great guy from a tough spot; sometimes it's a bad guy with an idea for the perfect crime; and often, bumbling policemen after the wrong man.

There are always moments of macabre humor, and lots of playful sexual tension and teasing - along with darker explorations of the unsettling relationship between violence and sex.

Thrills and Chills:

Hitchcock knew that the suspense is generated when the audience can see danger his characters cannot see, or can only suspect.

He once said, "There's no terror in the bang of the gun, only the anticipation of it." And while his later films grew more graphic (and less effective), his earlier work could create vivid terror in the mind of the viewer with very little spatter on the screen.

Hitchcock's Silent Films:

The director started out in 1919 as a designer of title cards for silent films.

His work on an unsuccessful German/British collaboration, The Pleasure Garden, is credited with inspiring the expressionistic streak that runs throughout his work. His early silent film The Lodger was the first to establish the classic Hitchcock plot of the innocent man caught in a web of intrigue.

The Great English Films:

The Man Who Knew Too Much was acclaimed in 1934, and a year later, The 39 Steps established Hitchcock among Britain's leading directors. In the great Hitchcock tradition, the hero of 39 Steps is a man falsely accused and on the run -- relying on the help of a pretty blonde to save his hide, prove his innocence, and solve an international espionage plot. Hitchcock followed with the comic suspense film Sabotage, and The Lady Vanishes, a diverting mystery set aboard a train.

Hitchcock in Hollywood:

In 1940, David O. Selznick lured Hitchcock to Hollywood to direct Rebecca. They made great movies together, but their battles were legendary, and the last film they made together was Spellbound in 1945. "Hitch" split with Selznick, and was at the top of his game in the years that followed.

Hitchcock's Great Works:

He produced several undisputed masterpieces in the '50s and '60s.

Try Strangers On a Train, a tense thriller with an innocent man entangled in a psychotic charmer's murder plot. Or Rear Window, with Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly in the nail-biting tale of a man stuck in a wheelchair who thinks he sees his neighbor kill his wife. And don't miss Notorious, a masterful spy story with Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant and Claude Rains.

For my money, the best is North by Northwest, a hugely entertaining cross-country thriller with Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason that winds up at Mount Rushmore, of all places. (One of the working titles was "The Man in Lincoln's Nose." Ugh.) Many critics tag Vertigo as Hitchcock's greatest film, an "is-she-or-isn't-she" spellbinder with Kim Novak in a double role.

The Big Shocker:

Psycho, while not his best film, might be his most famous. The psychological thriller was controversial for its violence at the time (1960) and therefore extremely lucrative. It inspired so many imitators that it seems clichéd and a little campy now, but it can still deliver a shock or two, and Anthony Perkins is still deliciously creepy. Hannibal Lecter owes him a thing or two.

The Later Films:

The Birds is the best of Hitchcock's later movies, departing from his traditional themes. It's an odd, nerve-wracking tale of birds attacking a seaside town in waves of inexplicable savagery. The sight of silent crows settling one by one on a schoolyard jungle gym is unforgettable.

Hitchcock's last great film, 1972's Frenzy, marked his return to England. A lot of critics love it, but I found its rape scene too raw and too real, even by modern standards.

Hitchcock Signatures:

Hitchcock and his off-screen collaborators pioneered many now-familiar tricks of the trade, including the "Hitchcock zoom," in which the foreground remains steady while the background swells closer, producing the sensation that the world is closing in on the helpless subjects.

He appeared in cameos in all of his films, usually as a face in the crowd, a bus passenger or some such mundane extra. In Lifeboat, a tense thriller set entirely on a tiny boat, the only way he could manage to appear was as the "before and after" photo in a newspaper ad for a diet program.


For a man who specialized in movie mayhem, he had a stable and by all accounts happy home life. He was devoted to his wife, Alma Reville, whom he married in 1926, and who collaborated with him on every film. Nevertheless, he had his quirks and could be quite unpleasant. He was said to be unable to look at Alma when she was pregnant with their only child, Patricia. He once sent a doll that looked like Tippi Hedren (who he detested) in a coffin to the daughter of the ice-blonde star of The Birds. And he had a dreadful fear of eggs.

Hitchcock's Humor:

Hitchcock was celebrated for his dry one-liners and funereal delivery. When an actor inquired what his motivation for a scene ought to be, Hitchcock replied, "Your salary." Of his television show, he said, "Television has brought murder back into the home, where it belongs." And he gave the shortest and best Oscar acceptance speech ever made: "Thank you."

He departed the stage to a well-deserved ovation.