Tuesday, August 13, 2013

AUGUST 13 = Alfred Hitchcock is Born

"We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, 'Boom!' There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: 'You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!' In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense".

This rather extensive quotation encapsulates quite nicely the difference between "surprise" and "suspense" as it was understood by the author of the quotation, film director Alfred Hitchcock, born on today's date, August 13 in 1899. Small wonder that Hitchcock came to be known as "The Master of Suspense".  For this was a man who spent his whole career slipping little bombs of one kind or another under tables, and frightening but entertaining audiences around the world through 53 films, scores of Alfred Hitchcock mystery anthology stories and a well known TV series.

Little Alfie is Sent to Jail...

It was into the hardworking tradesman's home of  William and Emma Jane Hitchcock that young Alfred John was born on this August 13.  His father was a master greengrocer who ran a wholesale and retail fruiterers shop in a modest London suburb called Leytonstone.  Alfred was the youngest of three children, he had a brother, William and a sister, Nellie. They were a devoutly Catholic family, and little Alfie was seven years younger than his sister, which to children of that age seems an eternity, so he was a well-behaved, but rather solitary child.  In spite of his being well-behaved his father played a little game on his young son which would have a profound effect on the boy.  His biographer, John Russel Taylor relates:

"...(W)hen Hitchcock was five or six, in punishment for some minor transgression... he was sent down to the police station with a note.  The officer in charge read it and locked him in a cell for five minutes, saying 'That is what we do to naughty boys.' The story is so convenient, accounting as it does for Hitchcock's renowned fear of the police, the angst connected with arrest and confinement in his films, that one might expect it to be of  the 'ben trovato' { adj. Appropriate even if untrue} category.  And probably Hitchcock has told the story so often that he is not sure himself anymore if it is true.  But his sister insists that it actually did happen." 

Hitchcock Becomes a Director

Hitchcock studied drafting and eventually got a job as a drafts- man and advertis- ing designer with a cable company named   Henley's. He first began to dabble with stories at this time, writing short stories for the in-house publication.  He became interested in photography, and  got a job designing title cards for the London arm of what would become Paramount Pictures.  In 1920 he acquired a full time position with Islington Studios designing title cards for silent movies. And from there his career took off with his first directorial effort coming in 1926's The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, which was a major commercial and critical success, employing a life-long Hitchcock theme, that of the wrongly accused man. It was also in 1926 that Hitchcock married one of his assistant directors, Alma Reville, who would become his life-long primary collaborator.  She worked with him very closely on scripts and other facets of production throughout his career. Although this facet of his work was something which was kept hidden from the public, as Alma was an intensely private person. They would have one child together, Patricia, who became an actress herself and starred in several of her father's films. They are pictured above circa early 1940's.

Alfred Hitchcock... Where Do I Begin??

 Where does a fan of films as I am start when discussing Alfred Hitchcock? One could discuss his lifelong fear of the police and how that plays out in his films... particularly "Psycho" (1960), wherein Janet Leighs's character awakens in her car to an absolutely menacing gaze from a Policeman in sunglasses staring in at her.
You could look at the theme which appears again and again throughout his work of the man who is falsely or wrongly accused of some crime such as Robert Cummings in "Saboteur" (1942) wherein Cummings character winds up having it out with his pursuers (Norman Lloyd) while hanging from the Statue of Liberty.  The same trouble bedevils Cary Grants character in "North by Northwest" (1959) with shadowy men who are hell-bent and convinced that he is someone he is not.  And thus Grant ends up being chased across the country and has it out with his pursuers (James Mason, et al) while hanging from the very face of Mt. Rushmore (above, right)!  Or you could take that trouble of the falsely accused man to "Strangers On a Train" (1951) with Farley Granger being framed for a murder by a psychopath played by Robert Walker.  This features another favorite Hitchcock device: the diabolical murder committed in seemingly surreal surroundings with the audience just viewing it calmly.  Walker stalks and then chokes a character played by Patricia Hitchcock to death and the killing is shown in the lenses of a discarded pair of glasses (above, left), while the happy music of the carnival just grinds on in the background.   Or you could
remember "The Birds" (1963) where we watch the birds descend upon a New England fishing village and create mayhem. Tippi Hedren's character sits outside a classroom filled with singing children as the birds gradually assemble behind her (above).

The Voyeur Or the BOMB!! 

Then of course there is Hitchcock the voyeur.  We see a truly notorious example of this in his classic thriller "Psycho" (1960) wherein the character of  Norman Bates played with such sinister finesse by Anthony Perkins peers menacingly at Janet Leigh's character through a peep hole in the wall of the Bates Motel (above), before stabbing her to death in the infamous shower scene.  Or you could turn to my personal favorite of all Hitchcock films, "Rear Window" (1954) wherein Jimmy Stewart plays a man with a broken leg
who watches the goings on in an apartment across his courtyard and with his girlfriend played by the gorgeous Grace Kelly becomes convinced that a man has murdered his wife.  Or there is the definition of suspense that this "Master of Suspense" gives us at the top of this posting. Probably the best (or at any rate, my favorite) example of that comes in the movie "Notorious"  (1946) where Ingrid Bergman plays a woman who is being slowly poisoned to death by her husband and her mother-in-law.  They sit calmly and with seeming concern discussing her "illness" on one side with Bergman on the other while in the foreground looms the coffee cup with the poisoned coffee in it (above).

The AFI Salutes Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock died on Tuesday, April 29, 1980 of natural causes at the age of 80.  But in March of the  previous year, the American Film Institute presented him with it's very prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award. Many of his favorite stars from his films turned out to recognize and pay tribute to this film genius.  Among them were Jimmy Stewart and Ingrid Bergman.  But sitting through the whole ceremony, Hitchcock was his same old droll self, attempting to stuff the award itself in his tuxedo jacket as if to steal it.  When he commented on his honor, he used his mordant wit to the finish.  The award was "...meaningful  because it came from  my fellow criminals and dealers in celluloid.  Afterall, when a man is found guilty of murder and condemned to death, it always makes him feel better to know that it was done by a jury of his friends and neighbors... with the help of an inadequate attorney." And his best advice to those "fellow criminals" gathered around him? In this he hearkened back to the little five year old who had been briefly locked up by his father:  "Staaaaay out of jail." 

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The "suspense" quote at the top can be found in it's entirety at:

by John Russell Taylor, Pantheon Books, New York, 1978.


The Cincinnati Enquirer, April 30, 1980

+ 789.

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