Alfred Hitchcock

Master of Suspense
Alfred Hitchcock: Biographical Details
NAME: Sir Alfred Joseph
United Kingdom
Producer, Television
Personality, Screenwriter
BIRTH DATE: August 13, 1899
DEATH DATE: April 29, 1980
Alfred Hitchcock: Biographical Details
•Alfred Hitchcock entered the
film industry in 1920, writing
scenarios and assistant
•In 1939 Hitchcock went to
Hollywood, where his first film,
Rebecca, won an Academy
Award for best picture.
•During the next three decades
Hitchcock usually made a film a
year, including the classics Rear
Window and Psycho.
•He received the AFI's Life
Achievement Award in 1979 and
died in 1980.
Alfred Hitchcock and Auteur Theory
Auteur theory , famously championed by such directors as Francois Truffaut,
assumes that SOME films lend themselves to critical interpretation as the
personal artistic expression of the “auteur” (French for “author”).
This title can be applied to writers, cinematographers and even producers,
but it is most often applied to directors (such as Steven Spielberg, Tim
Burton, etc.).
Alfred Hitchcock and Auteur Theory
Auteur Theory is often expressed in a certain “look” or “flavor” that a
particular film director or artists brings to a film. It is like their own, unique,
artistic fingerprint on a film.
Alfred Hitchcock and Auteur Theory
Some mise-en-scene and other elements that lend themselves to critiquing
Hitchcock’s films as the work of an auteur include:
Voyeuristic roles of both the audience and the actor (Psycho and Rear
Innocent people caught up in complex, often uncontrollable situations
(North by Northwest)
Montages and German Expressionist influences in his editing and camera
work (Psycho)
Symbolic value in objects (knives and birds of prey in Psycho)
Women (typically blonde) who are trapped / imprisoned and who act as
victims or unpredictably – which might lend his films to feminist
interpretation and occasional suggestions that Hitchcock’s films were sexist.
Alfred Hitchcock and Auteur Theory
There is one famous example of how Alfred Hitchcock sometimes may have
regarded his actors as little more than set pieces (he often meticulously
storyboarded his films, leaving virtually nothing for producers to change
or cut). Since there were no alternative versions of his films due to
extensive storyboarding, there was no way for producers to change it
with additional shots.
Allegedly, he was quoted as having said, “Actors are cattle,” or “Actors
should be treated like cattle,” implying their primary role was to be
herded from place to place by the auteur / director / Hitchcock himself.
Actress Carole Lombard, in reaction to this comment by Hitchcock, brought
cows to the first day of shooting on the film; Mr. and Mrs. Smith as a
clever way of criticizing Hitchcock’s approach to actors – a criticism that
may have been unfairly given, since Hitchcock generally got along fine
with his actors.
Partial Hitchcock Filmography
(“Greatest Hits”)
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934
and remade in 1956)
The 39 Steps (1935)
Sabotage (1936)
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Rebecca (1940)
Suspicion (1941)
Saboteur (1942)
Notorious (1941
Lifeboat (1943)
Notorious (1946)
Rope (1948)
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Rear Window (1954)
To Catch a Thief (1955)
Vertigo (1958)
North by Northwest (1959)
Psycho (1960)
The Birds (1963)
Frenzy (1972)
Hitchcock’s Definition of Suspense
Paraphrasing Alfred Hitchcock’s
definition of suspense, the film
audience experiences suspense when:
•The audience expects something bad
to happen
•The audience has (or believe they
have) a superior perspective on events
in the drama's hierarchy of knowledge.
(referred to in literature as “dramatic
•The audience is powerless to
intervene to prevent the event (s) from
The Actor as Audience
This voyeuristic / “helpless
audience” element can be found in
Hitchcock’s suspense films such as
Rear Window.
Jimmy Stewart’s Character (L.B.
Jefferies) watches a neighbor’s
apartment as he sits at home, laid
up with a broken leg, unable to
Later, he believes he sees a
murder, but is unable to do much
about it in his current condition.
He can only watch and do nothing,
like the typical audience watching
a suspenseful film.
The MacGuffin
Alfred Hitchcock, at Columbia University in 1939,
attibuted the idea of a McGuffin to his friend; Angus
MacPhail. He described it with the following anecdote:
Two Scotsmen are riding in a train. One asks the other
what is contained in a package in the overhead luggage
"It's a MacGuffin."
"What's a MacGuffin?"
"A device for hunting tigers in Scotland."
"But there are no tigers in Scotland."
"Well, then, it's not a MacGuffin, is it?"
The MacGuffin
A “McGuffin” is a goal, desired object or motivator that drives the
protagonist or the plot of a film forward. These are frequently used
to heighten suspense. It is often important both to the characters
and the audience, but may diminish or disappear from importance by
the end of the film. Some MacGuffins in film include:
The $40,000 stolen by Janet Leigh’s character Marion Crane in Hitchcock’s
film; Psycho.
Marion Crane herself, following her death, in Hitchcock’s film; Psycho
The microfilm sought by the antagonists in Hitchcock’s film; North By
George Caplan, a fictional spy for which Roger Thornhill is mistaken in
Hitchcock’s film; North By Northwest
Uranium-filled wine bottles in Hitchcock’s film; Notorious
The MacGuffin
Some other, non-Hitchcock films that include a MacGuffin include:
The sled Rosebud in Orson Welles’ masterpiece film; Citizen Kane
The mysterious briefcase that glows a golden glow when opened in Quentin
Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction
The titular item in John Huston’s Film Noir; The Maltese Falcon. It is
described as , “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.”
The Ark of the Covenant in Steven Spielberg’s film; Raiders of the Lost Ark
(also the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)
The death star plans in George Lucas’ film; Star Wars
The “Ring of Power” in Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s
novel trilogy; The Lord of the Rings
Unobtanium (get it?) in James Cameron’s film; Avatar
The Wrong Man
A common conceit in Hitchcock films, the protagonist is often mistaken
for someone else, which leads to suspenseful circumstances. For
example, Roger O. Thornhill (played by Cary Grant in his classic film,
North By Northwest) is mistakenly believed to be someone he is not and
becomes involved in a web of kidnapping and murder.
The Wrong Man
The “wrong man” character often heightens the suspense within a film, as
they are frequently innocent people caught in circumstances beyond their
control or understanding.
The 39 Steps (1935)
The Wrong Man
Other Hitchcock films that contain the “wrong man” character include:
•The 39 Steps (1935)
•Young and Innocent (1937)
•Saboteur (1942)
•To Catch a Thief (1955)
•Frenzy (1972)
The Identification of Suspense
When applying the title of “suspense” to films, these types of films might be
characterized or described by critics as:
A distinct genre, such as Horror or Sci-Fi
A cross-genre element, such as a “Mystery /
Suspense” film or a “Detective / Suspense” film
A “Thriller”
Sources Cited
"Sir Alfred Hitchcock." 2012. 29 Mar 2012, 03:20
Hitch: The Genius of Alfred Hitchcock / Hitch: Alfred the Great. Films for the
Humanities & Sciences, 2004. Film.
Hitch: The Genius of Alfred Hitchcock / Hitch: Alfred the Auteur. Films for the
Humanities & Sciences, 2004. Film.

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