Alfred Hitchcock Before He Was Alfred Hitchcock

7 01 2010

One more post before we start looking at Hitch’s movies, just to set the stage a bit. Alfred Hitchcock was born on August 13, 1899, in Leytonstone, London, and grew up sheltered and lonely, the second of three children. As an adult, he often said that when he was eight years old – or ten, or twelve, depending on which version of the story you heard – his father brought him to the local police station. The chief locked him in a cell for a few minutes, saying, “That’s what we do with naughty boys.” The incident made an indelible impression on Hitch; he remained terrified of the police the rest of his life.

Growing up, he became interested in crime, and in particular, murder. The memory of Jack the Ripper was then still fresh, and the British tabloids were as sensational as they are today, with stories full of sex and violence. Hitch also became an avid fan of movies and the theater, and took in everything he could in the early days of the silents and on the London stage, absorbing an enormous amount of craft as well as ideas for stories and how to tell them. His Catholic faith also greatly influenced his worldview.

In his late teens, Hitchcock landed a job as a draftsman with an electric cable manufacturer, where he worked on advertising and catalogues. He became involved in the company’s magazine, and contributed a number of short stories to it, all of which are reprinted in Patrick McGilligan’s excellent 2004 biography “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light.”

By 1920 Hitch had a new job as a designer of title cards for silent films, first for the British precursor to Paramount Pictures, then with several other companies as well. His sense of graphic design served him well, and he was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. Movies were made with very small crews at the time, and he worked closely with the writers (or “scenarists”) and directors to enhance their stories. Between 1920 and 1925, when he switched to directing full-time, he worked not only as a title card designer but also as a scenarist, set decorator and assistant director. All the while he continued studying film and theater, pulling influences from German expressionist movies by Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, American epics directed by the likes of D.W. Griffith, as well as the plots and actors of the British stage.

While this title card, from the Hitchcock film “Champagne” and possibly designed by Hitch, does not seem that impressive, it’s important to remember that the title cards represented the only verbal cues the audience had – and that while the scenarist would write the story, the title card designer was responsible for for both the look of the cards and also the text itself. There had to be a balance of the amount of text and its look, so that it could be read by the entire audience without boring the faster readers or leaving the slower readers behind.

By 1925, Hitchcock had worked on about 20 movies, including one, “Number 13,” that he directed, but which was never finished due to budgetary issues. He was more than ready to move onto his life’s work.

In preparing for this blog, I also reread the invaluable book “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” originally published in 1967 after a weeklong series of interviews that examined Hitch’s entire career. Truffaut, a former film critic for the French Cahiers du Cinema and proponent of the auteur theory of cinema, was a well-regarded director himself, whose films included “The 400 Blows” and “Jules and Jim.” His depth of cinematic knowledge and understanding of the medium helps make “Hitchcock/Truffaut” a mesmerizing read; nevertheless, I get an occasional feeling of false modesty from Hitchcock. He seemed continually dissatisfied with his work, and happiest when discussing his creative solutions to technical challenges. Still, no one can claim to study Hitchcock seriously without reading this book. The discussion of his work is so methodic, so thorough, that I was able to pull a quote from Hitch about each and every film up until the interviews themselves took place; I’ll be sprinkling these quotes throughout the blog as I look at each movie.

I’ll also mention the one other book on Hitch that I read, many years ago: “The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock,” by Donald Spoto. While it’s been a while since I read it, my recollection is that this book is a bit like the Neal Gabler bio of Walt Disney, or the David Michaelis bio of Charles Schulz, in that the author had a preconceived idea of the story he wanted to tell – in this case, that Hitchcock was a moody, bad-tempered, imperious director – and that he shaped the facts of Hitch’s life to fit his narrative.

There are quite a few other books on Hitchcock as well, of course, and I was pleased to discover just recently that there is a Hitchcock wiki site at http://www.hitchcockwiki.com, which is loaded with rare photography, details on the films and his life, and much more.

That’s it from me tonight – but next time, we’ll look at “The Pleasure Garden,” the first completed film directed by Alfred Hitchcock!

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