From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Until the later part of his career, Hitchcock was far more popular with film audiences than with film critics, especially the elite British and American critics. In the late 1950s the French New Wave critics, especially Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and François Truffaut, were among the first to see and promote his films as artistic works. Hitchcock was one of the first directors to whom they applied their auteur theory, which stresses the artistic authority of the director in the film-making process.
Psychoanalytical film theorists such as Slavoj Žižek (The Pervert's Guide to Cinema) have noticed how Hitchcock often applied Freudian concepts to his psychological thrillers, as in Rebecca, Spellbound, Vertigo, Psycho, and Marnie. Additionally, Hitchcock often dealt with matters that he felt were sexually perverse or kinky, and many of his films aimed to subvert the restrictive Hollywood Production Code.
Themes and devices
Hitchcock preferred the use of suspense over surprise in his films. In surprise, the director assaults the viewer with frightening things. In suspense, the director tells or shows things to the audience which the characters in the film do not know, and then artfully builds tension around what will happen when the characters finally learn the truth.
Audience as voyeur
Further blurring the moral distinction between the innocent and the guilty, occasionally making this indictment inescapably clear to viewers one and all, Hitchcock also makes voyeurs of his "respectable" audience. In Rear Window (1954), after L. B. Jeffries (played by James Stewart) has been staring across the courtyard at him for most of the film, Lars Thorwald (played by Raymond Burr) confronts Jeffries by saying, "What do you want of me?" Burr might as well have been addressing the audience. In fact, shortly before asking this, Thorwald turns to face the camera directly for the first time — at this point, audiences often gasp.
Similarly, Psycho begins with the camera moving toward a hotel-room window, through which the audience is introduced to Marion (Janet Leigh) and her divorced boyfriend. They are partially undressed, having apparently had sex though they are not married and Marion is on her lunch "hour." Later, along with Norman (Tony Perkins), we watch Marion undress through a peephole.
One of Hitchcock's favourite devices for driving the plots of his stories and creating suspense was what he called the "MacGuffin." The Oxford English Dictionary, however, credits Hitchcock's friend, the Scottish screenwriter Angus McPhail, as being the true inventor of the term. Hitchcock defined this term in an interview to François Truffaut, in 1966. Hitchcock would use this plot device extensively. Many of his suspense films revolve around this device: a detail which, by inciting curiosity and desire, drives the plot and motivates the actions of characters within the story, but whose specific identity and nature is unimportant to the spectator of the film. In Vertigo, for instance, "Carlotta Valdes" is a MacGuffin; she never appears and the details of her death are unimportant to the viewer, but the story about her ghost's haunting of Madeleine Elster is the spur for Scottie's investigation of her, and hence the film's entire plot. In Notorious the uranium that the main characters must recover before it reaches Nazi hands serves as a similarly arbitrary motivation: any dangerous object would suffice. And state secrets of various kinds serve as MacGuffins in several of the spy films, especially his earlier British films The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes. In Psycho, an obvious MacGuffin at the beginning of the film (a package containing $40,000 in stolen money) is actually a red herring.
Signature appearances in his films
Many of Hitchcock's films contain cameo appearances by Hitchcock himself: the director would be seen for a brief moment boarding a bus, crossing in front of a building, standing in an apartment across the courtyard, or appearing in a photograph. This playful gesture became one of Hitchcock's signatures. As a recurring theme he would carry a musical instrument — especially memorable was the large double bass case that he wrestles onto the train at the beginning of Strangers on a Train.
In his earliest appearances he would fill in as an obscure extra, standing in a crowd or walking through a scene in a long camera shot. But he became more prominent in his later appearances, as when he turns to see Jane Wyman's disguise when she passes him on the street in Stage Fright, and in stark silhouette in his final film Family Plot. (See a list of Hitchcock cameo appearances)
Recurring items and themes
Hitchcock includes the consumption of brandy in nearly every sound film. "I'll get you some brandy. Drink this down. Just like medicine ..." says James Stewart's character to Kim Novak, in Vertigo. In a real-life incident, Hitchcock dared Montgomery Clift at a dinner party around the filming of I Confess (1953) to swallow a carafe of brandy, which caused the actor to pass out almost immediately. This near obsession with brandy remains unexplained. In Torn Curtain and Topaz, brandy is defined more closely as cognac.
Another almost inexplicable feature of any Hitchcock film is the inclusion of a staircase. Of course, stairways inspire many suspenseful moments, most notably the final sequence in Notorious and the detective's demise in the Bates' mansion in Psycho. However, a completely nonfunctional staircase adorns the apartment of the James Stewart character in Rear Window, as if Hitchcock feels compelled to its inclusion by some unspoken superstition. This, too, could be Hitchcock under the influence of German Expressionism, the films of which often featured heavily stylized and menacing staircases (cf. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). In fact, early director Leopold Jessner is often credited with creating the first dramatic, filmic staircases in his 1921 film Hintertreppe.
A recurring theme in Hitchcock's movies is mistaken identity. Audiences see this theme in almost all of Hitchcock's movies. A prime example can be found in North By Northwest, when Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for George Kaplan, a non-existent government agent made up by the CIA.
Another recurring theme is presence of the main character's mother - or some other character's mother - and the hold she either has or wishes to maintain, as seen in Rope, Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds.
In many of Hitchcock's movies, an ordinary person is thrust into an extraordinary situation. In The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) Dr. Ben McKenna is an ordinary man from Indianapolis who is on a vacation in Morocco and he winds up with his son getting kidnapped. This entangling of an ordinary protagonist in peril and guilt is also evident in Strangers on a Train, I Confess, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Saboteur, Psycho, The Birds and others.
Hitchcock loved the number 7. He often placed numbers that added up to 7 in his movies.
Another recurring theme in Hitchcock's films is that of the bumbling authorities. In almost every single film, the police have little to no impact, often mistaking important clues or letting the villain go. This reportedly stems from an incident when Hitchcock was a young man, when as part of a tour to a police station he was locked in a cell briefly.
Hitchcock often dealt with matters that he felt were sexually perverse or kinky, and many of his films aimed to subvert the restrictive Hollywood Production Code that prohibited any mention of homosexuality.
Hitchcock seemed to delight in the technical challenges of filmmaking. In Lifeboat, Hitchcock sets the entire action of the movie in a small boat, yet manages to keep the cinematography from monotonous repetition. His trademark cameo appearance was a dilemma, given the claustrophobic setting; so Hitchcock appeared on camera in a fictitious newspaper ad for a weight loss product.
In Spellbound two unprecedented point-of-view shots were achieved by constructing a large wooden hand (which would appear to belong to the character whose point of view the camera took) and outsized props for it to hold: a bucket-sized glass of milk and a large wooden gun. For added novelty and impact, the climactic gunshot was hand-coloured red on some copies of the black-and-white print of the film.
Rope (1948) was another technical challenge: a film that appears to have been shot entirely in a single take. The film was actually shot in eight takes of approximately 10 minutes each, which was the amount of film that would fit in a single camera reel; the transitions between reels were hidden by having a dark object fill the entire screen for a moment. Hitchcock used those points to hide the cut, and began the next take with the camera in the same place.
His 1958 film Vertigo contains a camera trick that has been imitated and re-used so many times by filmmakers, it has become known as the Hitchcock zoom.
Although famous for inventive camera angles, Hitchcock generally avoided points of view that were physically impossible from a human perspective. For example, he would never place the camera looking out from inside a refrigerator. This helps to draw audience members into the film's action. (A notable exception is the pacing of the mysterious lodger being viewed through the floor from beneath in The Lodger (1927), giving the audience a visual to what the family is imagining in response to the sound of footsteps - which otherwise wouldn't come across as strongly in a silent film.)
His character and its effects on his films
Hitchcock's films sometimes feature characters struggling in their relationships with their mothers. In North by Northwest (1959), Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant's character) is an innocent man ridiculed by his mother for insisting that shadowy, murderous men are after him (in this case, they are). In The Birds (1963), the Rod Taylor character, an innocent man, finds his world under attack by vicious birds, and struggles to free himself of a clinging mother (Jessica Tandy). The killer in Frenzy (1972) has a loathing of women but idolizes his mother. The villain Bruno in Strangers on a Train hates his father, but has an incredibly close relationship with his mother (played by Marion Lorne). Sebastian (Claude Rains) in Notorious has a clearly conflictual relationship with his mother, who is (correctly) suspicious of his new bride Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman). And, of course, Norman Bates' troubles with his mother in Psycho are infamous.
Hitchcock heroines tend to be lovely, cool blondes who seem proper at first but, when aroused by passion or danger, respond in a more sensual, animal, or even criminal way. As noted, the famous victims in The Lodger are all blondes. In The 39 Steps, Hitchcock's glamorous blonde star, Madeleine Carroll, is put in handcuffs. In Marnie (1964), the title character (played by Tippi Hedren) is a kleptomaniac. In To Catch a Thief (1955), Francie (Grace Kelly) offers to help a man she believes is a cat burglar. In Rear Window, Lisa (Grace Kelly again) risks her life by breaking into Lars Thorwald's apartment. And, most notoriously, in Psycho, Janet Leigh's unfortunate character steals $40,000 and is murdered by a reclusive lunatic. Hitchcock's last blonde heroine was - years after Dany Robin and her "daughter" Claude Jade in Topaz - Barbara Harris as a phony psychic turned amateur sleuth in his final film, 1976's Family Plot. In the same film, the diamond smuggler played by Karen Black could also fit that role, as she wears a long blonde wig in various scenes and becomes increasingly uncomfortable about her line of work.
Hitchcock saw that reliance on actors and actresses was a holdover from the theater tradition. He was a pioneer in using camera movement, camera set ups and montage to explore the outer reaches of cinematic art.
Most critics and Hitchcock scholars, including Donald Spoto and Roger Ebert, agree that Vertigo represents the director's most personal and revealing film, dealing with the obsessions of a man who crafts a woman into the woman he desires. Vertigo explores more frankly and at greater length his interest in the relation between sex and death than any other film in his filmography.
Hitchcock often said that his personal favourite was Shadow of a Doubt.
His style of working
Hitchcock once commented, "The writer and I plan out the entire script down to the smallest detail, and when we're finished all that's left to do is to shoot the film. Actually, it's only when one enters the studio that one enters the area of compromise. Really, the novelist has the best casting since he doesn't have to cope with the actors and all the rest."
Hitchcock would storyboard each movie down to the finest detail. He was reported to have never even bothered looking through the viewfinder, since he didn't need to do so, though in publicity photos he was shown doing so. He also used this as an excuse to never have to change his films from his initial vision. If a studio asked him to change a film, he would claim that it was already shot in a single way, and that there were no alternate takes to consider. However, respected film critic Bill Krohn in his book Hitchcock At Work has questioned the popular notion of Hitchcock's reliance on storyboards. In his book, Krohn after researching script revisions of Hitchcock's most popular works, concludes that Hitchcock's reliance on storyboards has been exaggerated and argues that Hitchcock only storyboarded a few sequences and not each and every scene as most think. He also notes that this myth was largely perpetuated by Hitchcock himself.
Similarly much of Hitchcock's hatred of actors has been exaggerated. Hitchcock simply did not tolerate the method approach as he believed that actors should only concentrate on their performances and leave work on script and character to the directors and screenwriters. In a Sight and Sound interview, he stated that, ' the method actor is OK in the theatre because he has a free space to move about. But when it comes to cutting the face and what he sees and so forth, there must be some discipline' (see ). During the making of Lifeboat, Walter Slezak, who played the German character, stated that Hitchcock knew the mechanics of acting better than anyone he knew. Several critics have observed that despite his reputation as a man who disliked actors, several actors who worked with him gave fine, often brilliant performances and these performances contribute to the film's success.
Regarding Hitchcock's sometimes less than pleasant relationship with actors, there was a persistent rumor that he had said that actors were cattle. Hitchcock later denied this, typically tongue-in-cheek, clarifying that he had only said that actors should be treated like cattle. Carole Lombard, tweaking Hitchcock and drumming up a little publicity, brought some cows along with her when she reported to the set of Mr. and Mrs. Smith. For Hitchcock, the actors, like the props, were part of the film's setting.
Fear of eggs (ovophobia)
Alfred Hitchcock had an extreme fear of eggs (also known as ovophobia), he said: I’m frightened of eggs, worse than frightened, they revolt me. That white round thing without any holes … have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its yellow liquid? Blood is jolly, red. But egg yolk is yellow, revolting. I’ve never tasted it. Fear of eggs
Fear of the police
Hitchcock also had a serious fear of the police, which reportedly was the reason he never learned to drive. His reasoning was that if one never drove, then one would never have an opportunity to be pulled over by the police and issued a ticket. This fear can be attributed to a circumstance encountered by Hitchcock in his youth. In an attempt to punish Hitchcock for an instance of misbehavior, Alfred's father detailed in writing that the young Hitchcock had engaged in some form of childish mischief. Hitchcock's father then handed the description to Alfred, sending him to the local police station to demonstrate his wrongdoing. In response to the written notice, the on-duty police officer immediately brought Hitchcock to an empty cell and locked him there for a full 10 minutes, citing the justification for this action as a means to reprimand the young boy. Undoubtedly, history has recorded this incident as scarring.