Who was Alfred Hitchcock?
The son of a modest family of merchants, his father was a fruit and vegetable trader, Alfred Hitchcock studied in a strict boarding school of Jesuit fathers. After the loss of his father he enrolled in a naval engineering school. After the war ended, he found a job as an advertiser at the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company. His interest in film work came when Famous Players-Lasky opened a branch in London. He works first in the office dealing with subtitles, then moves on to screenwriting and directing. The first films, Number 13 (1922) and Always Tell Your Wife (1923), were not particularly successful.
He made two other silent films: The pleasure garden (1925) followed by The Lodger (1926). The Tenant is Hitchcock’s first particularly successful work, loved by both critics and audiences. In the meantime he changes production, starts working with British International Pictures with which he shoots his first sound film, Blackmail, in 1929. It was written and conceived as a silent film, but with the arrival of the new technology Hitchcock changes the screenplay little before shooting. From then on he enjoyed appearing as an extra in all of his films, eventually becoming a well-known television personality a few decades later. Hitchcock creates with his personality a very strong brand for all thriller lovers, a genre from which he will never stray.
Hitchcock’s films in Hollywood
In the mid-thirties his fame as a master of thrills arrives in Hollywood with the film The Man Who Knew Too Much, from 1934. In 1939 he decides to move to work in the United States in the Mecca of cinema. In 1940 he made Rebecca. The film wins the Oscar for best actress and brings the young Jean Fontaine into the limelight.
Hitchcock only has to be content with a nomination for best director. In the course of his career, five other nominations will follow: Suspicion (1941), Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945), Rear window (1954), Psyco (1960).
In the 1940s, Hitchcock returned to England only to make two propaganda documentaries. Back in Hollywood he shoots Notorious. In the cast there are two stars of those years Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. The film is a huge commercial success.
In 1948 he made his first color film Rope, where he experimented with something never made before: a sequence shot that lasted the entire duration of the film. The period, however, is not the best, his production company, Transatlantic, fails, Hitchcock is forced for a period to teach directing at the University of Los Angeles.
Hitchcock’s masterpieces of the 50s and 60s
In 1951 he managed to resume his activity and in 1955 he began the famous television series Alfred Hitchcock presents, with which he also became a well-known television personality. In the following years he created a series of masterpieces, one after the other: To Catch a Thief (1955), Vertig (1959), The Birds (1963).
Cinema according to Hitchcock by Truffaut
In 1966 the book-interview created by François Truffaut Cinema according to Hitchcock contributes to changing the opinion of both critics and the public on his work. American critics did not consider him a filmmaker of arthouse cinema but an entertainer, a thriller professional.
The French critics, on the other hand, saw his filmography in another way: a great author with a personal and recognizable style who, for a variety of reasons, was able to work with large budgets within the Studios. Hitchcock knew how to use and create stars, he knew how to respect the genres and needs of industrial cinema.
And he did all this without giving up creating as great artists do: becoming a means of communication between the work of art and unknown worlds. He makes films by delving into his irrational fears and transforming them into fears of the collective unconscious.
Until the 1960s, Alfred Hitchcock was considered a good craftsman, a thriller creator in the Hollywood commercial system, but he was not considered a great film artist.
Alfred Hitchcock, from entertainer to artist
The French filmmakers and critics of the Nouvelle Vague, including Truffaut, Chabrol, Rivette, Rohmer, wrote a series of articles on Cahiers du cinema, the magazine directed by the godfather of the movement Andre Bazin, which subverted ideas traditional on certain films and certain directors. One of their main theses was that classic American cinema was not always to be considered commercial cinema, when behind it there was a director with a strong personality. Filmmakers who according to their thinking were absolutely great artists and geniuses of cinema but who managed to work within the rigid system of Studios.
Among them were certainly Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. Against Alfred Hitchcock of French filmmakers from Nouvelle veg conduct a real promotional campaign that spreads everywhere. The fundamental article was written in October 1954 by Alexandre Astruc in an editorial entitled When a man…
The themes of Alfred Hitchcock
“When a man for 30 years and through 50 films tells roughly the same story, that of a soul grappling with evil, and maintaining along this unique line the same style essentially made up of an exemplary way of undressing the characters and immersing them in the abstract universe of their passions, it seems difficult to me not to admit that we are, for once, of in the face of what appears increasingly rare in this industry: a film author. “
Hitchcock’s career will continue for more than twenty years after this article and the work of promotion by the filmmakers of the Cahiers du cinema. But his style and themes will remain personal and consistent until the end of his career, confirming what Astruc said.
But while Orson Welles‘ career was not often rewarded by commercial success and the director became a financial danger to be avoided by the studios, Hitchcock’s films were nearly all major commercial successes and helped create bias from some critics who he looked suspiciously at the Hollywood directors making box office cashes.
Hitchcock, thrill master
One of the reasons was probably that Hitchcock specialized in only one genre that I never give up. The public identified him over the decades as the master of the thrill and remained faithful to him until the last film. From the very beginning of his career in England, Hitchcock focused on the thriller genre and suspense. The moral themes that will focus his attention in the following years are guilt and sin, reality and appearance, anguish and suspicion.
The symbols of the Hitchcock film
To do this, Hitchcock uses real stories and actions that however acquire a strongly symbolic dimension. Vertigo, the sense of sinking and sinking are deep fears of the unconscious that run through much of his filmography. Starting from concrete locations and characters, Hitchcock’s films become increasingly abstract and symbolic during the narration: the faces, the lights, the objects, the spiral camera movements, the shots from above or below are no longer simple directorial tricks but real and own iconographic galleries of the unconscious. This ability of Alfred Hitchcock to transform the details and images of reality into a mysterious and irrational journey, to discover the most hidden fears, makes him one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema.
Even the seemingly lighter films that insert a comedy tone are a very classic narrative and suitable for the large mass audience, such as by Northwest, Hitchcock always maintains an underground dimension that allows the most attentive viewers a deeper reading. What Hitchcock really cares about is analyzing human nature. His characters are always looking for their own identity within distressing and disturbing stories.
Experimental Cinema Inside the Studios
Hitchcock’s style is a continuous experimentation and innovation throughout his filmography. The classic language is continually transgressed in the memorable camera movements that lead us from the largest to the smallest to the discovery of insignificant details that allow us to discover the killer, as in Young and Innocent. Or real challenges of the classic ideas of cinema like the film shot in a single sequence shot by Rope, from 1948. Or the fragmentation of the murder in the shower of Psycho, which is inspired by the models of the Soviet avant-garde .
In the first films such as The lodger, 1927, Blackmail of 1929, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps of 1935, Sabotage of 1936, Young and innocent of 1937, The Lady Vanishes of 1938 Hitchcock creates a moral and psychological universe in which his personal obsessions become a very recognizable visual and directing style, which he subsequently perfects from film to film. Hitchcock’s thriller becomes more and more a dream journey in search of a fundamental problem: the identity of the individual, the split between conscious and unconscious, normality and madness, morality and instinct.
The lodger – 1927
It is Alfred Hitchcock’s first real feature film, with the style and characteristics that will make him famous in the following years: suspense, a clash between good and evil, a simple but exciting style. We are in London. On a dark winter afternoon the body of a woman is found on the banks of the Thames, a crowd of onlookers both gather to watch. The news spreads quickly in the city: it seems that there is a killer who kills blond women every Tuesday leaving a note with a signature: “The avenger”.
The secret agent – 1940
In 1916 the news spread that a British writer died at the front. It is actually a cover for starting a secret agent mission in Switzerland. The protagonist must kill a spy to preserve British interests in the Middle East. Listed among the best foreign films of 1936 by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures.
Sabotage – 1936
A cinema owner actually works for a secret organization that attempts to destabilize the political and social situation in England through terrorist attacks. Film at the time difficult to find in cinemas outside the United Kingdom, it will be released later in many countries in the 60s, after the great success of Hitchcock.
The Lady vanishes – 1938
A young English woman traveling by train to London meets an elderly lady with whom she immediately establishes a pleasant friendship. But a short time later the lady disappears into thin air, everyone denies having known her and the young woman suspects that there is a conspiracy behind the disappearance. Hitchcock’s latest film in England is his English cinematic testament. Highly appreciated and studied in detail by Francois Truffaut.
Jamaica Inn -1939
The film is set in the early 19th century and Jamaica is in is a tavern where a pirate hideout has been established in Cornwall. At night they attract ships with light signals causing them to be shipwrecked on the rocks. One of Hitchcock’s lesser-known films, which went almost unnoticed in cinemas after the great success of The Lady Disappears.
The 39 Steps – 1935
A young Canadian traveling to London becomes embroiled in a spy story and must defend himself against a secret organization called the 39 Steps. To help him he will only find a woman named Pamela. Film particularly appreciated by critics for the very in-depth characters, the fast pace, the complex plot and the suspense.
The Paradine case – 1947
Maddalena Paradine is accused of killing her old and blind husband. Agreeing to defend her in court is a famous lawyer named Kean. Failed film at its release, both from the point of view of critics and that of the public: proceeds were not enough to cover production costs. Hitchcock himself felt he had made some bad choices in the cast and script. It was later re-evaluated by the French filmmakers Rohmer and Chabrol.
Under Capricorn – 1949
In the first half of the nineteenth century in Australia an Irish nobleman falls in love with a tormented alcoholic woman, the wife of a wealthy businessman. An anomalous film for Hitchcock, a costumed melodrama shot with sequence shot technique, already experimented by the director in Rope. Audiences expecting an adrenaline-charged thriller were deeply disappointed. Years later the director Rivette and other critics of the Cahiers du cinema talk about the forgotten and unknown masterpiece of the great British director.
Notorious – 1946
According to Francois Truffaut, the pinnacle of Hitchcock’s abstraction and stylistic perfection is the film Notorious. The French filmmaker comments on it in an article with these words: “Notorious has remained extraordinarily modern, it contains few scenes and is of a magnificent purity. He managed to get the maximum effect with the minimum of elements, all the suspense scenes are built around two objects, always the same, the key and the false bottle of wine. the maximum of stylization and the maximum of simplicity “.
Notorious was born from a screenplay by Ben Hetch that combines the spy story genre with the love story. Ingrid Bergman plays a woman who accepts an assignment to spy on her father’s friend, Sebastian, to redeem herself from her status as the daughter of a Nazi criminal and a woman of easy virtue. Cary Grant plays the secret agent who forces her to accept the job but falls in love with her too. However, Alicia is forced to marry Sebastian.
If in the first part of the film The division between good and evil, between good and bad, may seem simplified as in classic Hollywood cinema, the progression of the story completely questions these values. The good hero played by Cary Grant forces and forces the woman to risk her life and leaves her in the arms of the villain Sebastian. On the other hand, the villain is betrayed by the woman who pretends to love him and marries him, in her good faith and in her sincere feeling of love.
Rear Window -1954
According to the “young Turks” of the Cahiers du cinema, the dominant definition of the thrill master was limiting for Alfred Hitchcock. To confirm this there was a film like Rear Window, a brilliant metacinematographic device, a reflection on observing and being observed. James Stewart is a photojournalist immobilized in a wheelchair due to an accident, and spends his time spying out of the window at the courtyard and the apartments of his neighbors who live across the street. His character alludes directly to the condition of the cinematic spectator who watches the film motionless in his armchair. Every window in every apartment that James Stewart observes with his binoculars is a possible film, a possible world.