“Good Evening, Ladies and Gentle
An introduction to Alfred Hitchcock, and why he has come to be considered perhaps the cinema’s greatest genius.
Why Are You Here?
You may be drawn to this course because you’ve always loved the films of Alfred Hitchcock, or because you’ve always heard that you ought to love them. Whatever your reasons, go to the Message Board and meet your instructor and fellow students. Talk about your reasons for taking the course and find out what brought your classmates here!
The Art of Alfred Hitchcock
Today the word “genius” is overused to the point of losing its value: We might bestow it on a Nobel Prize winner in one breath, a versatile bartender in the next. But when we consider great films by Alfred Hitchcock like Notorious (1946), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960) — films that still make us laugh, gasp, shudder, or think — there is no question that we are in the presence of what we label genius. Hitchcock’s art affects us on so many levels that it seems to be the only word that fits.
This course will examine the films, methods, and themes of Alfred Hitchcock to discover why he is routinely considered one of the greatest film directors of all time — perhaps the greatest. A figure of such popular and critical success that he continues to influence the world of film — and the world at large — 20 years after his death, Hitchcock is truly worth our time and effort.
In this lesson, we’ll introduce Hitchcock, his body of work, and the film world he entered and changed forever. Future lessons will cover how Hitchcock created his own storytelling method, who influenced his artistic vision, and what philosophies he expressed through his films, among other topics. We’ll even contrast and compare two of his more popular films to break down consistent elements and track craft evolution.
Our text for the course will be Donald Spoto’s The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures, from which you will have reading assignments to clarify and expand upon topics from these lessons. Watching videos of the movies discussed in the course is not a requirement, though seeing Hitchcock’s films can better help you understand many of the points presented throughout the lessons.
Take the earliest opportunity to visit the Message Board to meet your fellow students. You’ll find that combining the lessons, readings, and discussion with your classmates will help give you the fullest possible understanding of Hitchcock and his work.
A Life in Cinema
Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on August 13, 1899, and died on April 29, 1980. His life encompassed almost every period of the history of the cinema, from its earliest beginnings in primitive silent films to today’s blockbuster films, full of sound and special effects.
Many things set Hitchcock apart from his contemporaries (including such great directors as Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, John Huston, John Ford, and Frank Capra). One is the combination of popularity and critical acclaim Hitchcock attained during his lifetime; another is the mushrooming interest he still attracts 25 years after the release of his final film. Yet another is the seriousness and continuity of subjects he considered in his work. Finally, Hitchcock’s knowledge of the technical aspects of film and his innovations in cinematic storytelling make him unlike any other director of his era.
Today Steven Spielberg towers over the world film scene and offers perhaps the closest analogue to the blend of success and acclaim that Alfred Hitchcock achieved. But like virtually every other contemporary Hollywood director, Spielberg owes a mighty debt to Hitchcock’s technique and form.
Without Hitchcock’s mastery and experimentation, the work of Spielberg and other contemporary directors like Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Francis Ford Coppola, and Brian De Palma might never have existed, or might have come to us in very different form. Without Alfred Hitchcock, the world of the cinema would be a very different place.
Meet Alfred Hitchcock
Look at the “Hitchcock Album” found after the storyboard sketches in the back of The Art of Alfred Hitchcock. These photos cover Hitchcock’s career from his earliest days in England to his final days in Hollywood and provide a brief visual history of the man and his work.
50 Years, 53 Films
Alfred Hitchcock was born in London in 1899 to middle-class parents. Hitchcock’s father was a grocer and poultry dealer. The youngest of three children, Alfred attended Saint Ignatius preparatory school as a teenager, but the death of his father ended any thoughts of pursuing college exclusively.
Hitchcock’s first job proved prophetic of his later career: He worked both as a technician and a designer of advertisements for the Henley Telegraph Company. The combination of engineer and artist thus shows early in Hitchcock’s life, and the two would only become more closely entwined as he found his true calling.
Because of his interest in the cinema, Hitchcock submitted some of his designs to the Famous Players-Lasky film studio in London and found himself put to work. After several years spent learning the ropes of the film business in London and Munich, Hitchcock directed his first feature film, The Pleasure Garden, in 1925.
He made a total of 23 films — both silent and sound — for British release before coming to America at the invitation of producer David Selznick, who produced Hitchcock’s first American film, Rebecca (1940). A series of American successes and Hitchcock’s skill at self-promotion cemented his reputation as one of the world’s top film directors, and the greater production gloss and star power of Hollywood films showcased Hitchcock’s art as the tiny British film industry never could have done.
Although he himself never received an Academy Award as Best Director, his films were nominees and winners in various categories, and the public grew to anticipate not just Hitchcock’s name above the title of his films, but his particular trademark, a personal cameo in each of his films (a practice he began in 1927’s The Lodger because he had to use himself as an extra).
Licensing a Legend
Alfred Hitchcock released his final film, Family Plot, in 1976. Between 1925 and 1976, he directed a total of 53 films. Before assuming the helm as a director, he had also worked as an editor, a scenario and title card writer (silent films used written cards to convey dialogue and other information to the audience), and a set designer. In later years, Hitchcock continued to be actively involved in the writing and production design of his films and eventually added producing to his other duties.
Hitchcock also licensed his name and likeness for a series of books and a mystery magazine, none of which he had any artistic involvement with, although he did serve as host and directed two dozen episodes of the classic television show which bore his name, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
This body of work represents not only a phenomenal quantity, but also a remarkable quality. Even Hitchcock’s lightly regarded films contain elements of his visual style or inklings of his thematic interests that make them noteworthy to filmgoers and film scholars.
In future lessons, we’ll learn more about both Hitchcock’s technical expertise and the themes he returned to throughout his career. First, we will take a short detour into the silent film industry that Alfred Hitchcock entered in 1920. Only by seeing the landscape of that world before he arrived can we understand the ways he changed it forever.
Terms to Know
A shot is a complete run of the camera, from the time it is turned on until it is turned off. It may last a fraction of a second or minutes at a time. Types of shots include the establishing shot, which gives us necessary visual information about the scene about to take place; medium shots, often used to show characters in conversation; and close ups, which focus our attention on a specific detail — a coffee cup, a key, a face.
Expanding on Silent Films
The film industry Alfred Hitchcock joined in 1920 was around 30 years old, but in many ways still in its formative years. The Lumiere brothers had shown the first projected film in France in 1895, and theaters called nickelodeons had taken the place of hand-cranked personal film viewers, but with few exceptions, silent films were mostly primitive.
The Lumieres’ L’Arrivee d’Un Train En Gare/(Arrival of a Train) (1895) — literally a film of a train pulling into the station — startled and delighted audiences of the day, but today it is largely a historical curiosity. Like many of the earliest silent films, it is limited to one shot, one camera setup, and one take.
American film director David Wark (D.W.) Griffith is credited with transforming film from a faddish amusement to a nascent art form. Over the course of some 400 short silent films he directed between 1907 and 1913, Griffith evolved a grammar and rhetoric for the cinema, which later directors such as Hitchcock would perfect. Among his innovations were establishing shots, medium shots, close-ups, and cross-cutting, an editing device used to build suspense or establish relationships between characters or places, which revolutionized cinematic storytelling.
Griffith later applied these techniques to two of the acknowledged masterworks of silent film, The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). Although Griffith’s star faded in the 1920s and his films now are rarely watched, he is still recognized by many today as the father of film technique. Because of Griffith, film developed forms and structures that gave it the potential for artistry instead of novelty.
As we will see in the next lesson, Alfred Hitchcock — following the lead of Griffith, and absorbing further experiments taking place in silent filmmaking in Germany and Soviet Russia — synthesized film technique into an instrument of incredible strength and subtlety. Be here as we learn how Hitchcock found himself at the right place at the right time to put his genius to work.
If you can’t wait, Chapter 1 of The Art of Alfred Hitchcock provides a thorough look at the director’s creative movement through the Silent Film era.
Assignment: Tracking Technique
Read Chapter 2 in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock.
Donald Spoto’s discussion of Blackmail (1929), Hitchcock’s first major film, serves as a valuable introduction to understanding the man and his work. According to Spoto, how does the film reveal Hitchcock as a technical innovator? What themes does the movie deal with? What similarities in subjects and style that appear in Blackmail might you also find in later Hitchcock works?