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Thill Ride: The Ups and Downs of Alfred Hitchcock's Career
By Maxwell C. Goldberg, Dramaturgy Intern
Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) always thrived on eccentricity. He is said to have feared the police since early childhood, after his father sent him to the police station with a note requesting a five-minute incarceration. To this he attributed his phobia of driving, as motorists were more likely to come in contact with the law.
True or false, these idiosyncrasies created a vast personal mythology that assisted his career and encouraged scholarship after his death. His habits transcended mere personal quirks. Vast ritual affected his work, from morbid practical jokes to the cycle of procrastination and flurried activity with which he revised scripts.
One overarching habit took several stages. First, he would direct a popular and critical hit, establishing fame and greater artistic control over subsequent pictures. Using this power, he would create artistic films using experimental techniques or plots that audiences and critics deplored. Sufficiently cowed by criticism, he would again make a crowd-and-critics pleaser and begin the cycle anew.
Hitchcock's first hit occurred with his third film, the Jack-the-Ripper thriller The Lodger (1926). His first two films had been shelved after poor reception at trade screenings and the personal dislike of his production company's distributor, C. M. Woolf, who could not prevent the critical and commercial success of The Lodger. After several more failures, Hitchcock directed Blackmail (1929), a smash-hit thriller advertised as Britain's first talkie (although this was not true).
Hitchcock lived up to pattern, almost ending his career with four year's worth of unpopular films. Once again, though, he came through just in time. He believed that John Buchan's 1915 novel The Thirty-Nine Steps would be the ideal starting point for "the perfect thriller." Critics and audiences agreed, with one reviewer from The Sunday Times writing, "There is no doubt Hitchcock is a genius. He is the real star of the film." As a result of the 1935 film, Hitchcock not only gained the moniker "Master" in his home country, but caught the attention of American producer David Selznick, who offered him an eight-year contract in Hollywood.
In the U.S., Hitchcock often fought with Selznick over artistic control, even though he produced a string of nine popular successes from 1939 to 1947, including Saboteur (1942) and Notorious (1946). He was less productive (and more true to form) directing for his own production company, Transatlantic Pictures. He experimented with ten-minute takes in his two films for this company, Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949), in order to cut costs. In fact, this technique required a good deal of precision and drove both films far over budget. They were both well-received but could not recoup production losses. Transatlantic Pictures folded soon after.
Even in the troubled periods of his career, Hitchcock managed to maintain his popular image. In the 1930s in Britain, he did this through his publicity company, Hitchcock Baker Productions, and his periodic contributions to film trade publications. In the U.S., his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series, which ran from 1955 to 1965, helped to make him a household name, along with assorted eponymous merchandise ranging from thriller novels to a board game.
The 1950s and '60s proved to be some of Hitchcock's most productive years. All of the films he made in this time did well at the box office, even if some were reviewed harshly. During this time, his pattern recurred several more times. He retreated from the poorly-received I Confess (1953) to direct the successful Dial M for Murder (1954). The failure of The Trouble with Harry (1955) led to a hit remake of his The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Finally, Vertigo (1958), which confused audiences and angered critics, gave rise to North by Northwest (1959).
Hitchcock created two more major psychological thrillers, Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), before he began to slow down. His 50th film, Torn Curtain (1966), intended to be his masterwork, received poor reviews and was noteworthy primarily for its lengthy strangulation scene, intended to demonstrate the physical difficulty of killing.
Hitchcock made three more films after Torn Curtain, but would never attain his prior fame. In 1972, he devoted himself exclusively to script revision and closed his production office entirely in 1979.
Hitchcock never received an Oscar for directing even though he had been nominated five times. He bitterly accepted an honorary Oscar for the "consistent high level" of his productions in 1967 ("Thank you," was his entire acceptance speech). In the '70s, he won many more awards, including the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award. Finally, in 1980, he was awarded knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II of England. By this time, his health was failing rapidly, and he passed away in spring of that year.
After his death, the experimental films that threatened to wreck his career were reexamined and viewed in a new cinematic light. The increase in scholarship in the past thirty years has caused some films, such as Vertigo, to be labeled masterpieces. Only after his death could he achieve what he had sought through his mysterious habits in life: to preserve his reputation for posterity.