Alfred Joseph Hitchcock (August 13, 1899 — April 28, 1980) was a genius. His contribution to the world of cinema is unparalleled within the genre of the suspense thriller, which he is responsible in part for defining. This writeup examines Hitchcock's philosophies about film making, and some of the formulas which he developed over the course of his 53 films.

Hitchcock's attitude toward fear and its dramatization was based largely on experiences he had during his childhood in England. When he was a young boy, his father sent him down to the local police station with a note. Young Alfred gave the note to the constable, and was then locked in a holding cell for five minutes. When the cell was opened, the constable told him, "This is what we do to naughty boys." This experience, among others, left Hitchcock psychologically scarred at a very impressionable age, but developed a sense of humor and an appreciation for practical jokes that earned him something of a reputation later in his personal life.

He firmly believed that the world was not a safe place to live in. Terrible things happen to ordinary people every day - even in broad daylight - and we are powerless to do anything about it. The evil in mankind can rear its ugly head at almost any time, regardless of where you are. No one is immune, and there is no such thing as an "innocent man." To Hitchcock, everybody is guilty of something. Everyone has good and evil in them, and "good people" are capable of committing evil deeds, if the circumstances are right. In Alfred Hitchcock's world, no one is safe - no one.

In dramatizing this fear, Hitchcock employs a technique he calls the "Bomb Theory." This scenario runs as follows: Two men are sitting at a table discussing baseball. They talk for about five minutes, when suddenly, there is a huge explosion, which gives the audience a terrible shock, which lasts for about about fifteen seconds. According to Hitchcock's Bomb Theory, when the scene opens, you show the audience that there is a bomb under the table, which is set to go off in five minutes. While the men are sitting casually discussing baseball, the audience is squirming in their seats, thinking Don't sit there talking about baseball... there's a bomb under the table! Get rid of it! The audience is overwhelmed with the sense to warn the characters of the danger which they perceive, and which the characters are not aware of. Hitchcock's method transfers the menace from the screen to the minds of the audience, until it becomes unbearable - at which point there is a climax. An important footnote to this theory: You must never let the bomb go off and kill anybody. Otherwise, the audience will be very mad at you.

A variation of the Bomb Theory is employed in Rope (1948). At the beginning of the film, the audience learns that there has been a murder, and that the body has been put inside a large wooden trunk. During the course of the film, the dinner guests arrive and, as an inside joke to the murderers, dine on the trunk. Among the guests is the victim's father, friends and fiancee. While all this is going on, and the guests are wondering why the victim has not arrived at the party, the audience is anxiously thinking, Look in the trunk! They killed him and put his body in the trunk! It's two feet away from you! Look! Eventually Jimmy Stewart figures it out, and the "bomb" is defused. Another example, in Marnie (1964): Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren) is robbing money from the safe, in a split-shot, with the maid mopping the floor outside in the corridor. As Marnie tip-toes out, trying to escape without the maid hearing her, her shoe drops off on the floor. The maid does not react, and Marnie escapes undetected. The bomb is the maid discovering Marnie's presence, but the bomb does not go off — and we soon afterward learn that the maid is hearing impaired... one of Hitchcock's jokes, and thus a tension breaker.

The Bomb Theory is what made Hitchcock "The Master of Suspense." He lets the audience know everything about the menace's presence in advance, while the characters usually know virtually nothing. As the characters stumble haplessly into the trap, the emotion of suspense is created. Hitchcock was never so concerned with the details of his films as he was with their style. His attitude of "style is everything" comes across with his definition of "MacGuffin." The MacGuffin is "the thing that the spies are after, which nobody else cares about" - what we would normally term a catalyst. The plot of the film is simply a vehicle for Hitchcock to wave his magic wand of suspense. In Notorius (1946), the MacGuffin is Uranium-235 that the Nazis want so they can build an atom bomb. In North By Northwest (1959), it's the microfilm ("government secrets") that Vandamm (James Mason) is taking out of the country. To Hitchcock, the MacGuffin is really nothing at all. It's not important what the MacGuffin is - it could be anything - and Hitchcock generally reveals its identity sometime before the end of the film, so that its revelation is not a part of the dramatic conclusion.

Hitchcock employed much the same formula for most of his films. His favorite premise is that of mistaken identity, or the "Wrong Man" theme. In North By Northwest, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken to be a spy, which turns his life upside down. In Frenzy (1972), Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) is set up by his friend Bob Rusk (Barry Foster) to take the fall for a series of "necktie" murders. In Vertigo (1958), Judy Barton (Kim Novak) poses as the deranged and suicidal Madeline Elster, luring John "Scotty" Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) into playing the alibi for a murder set up. Hitchcock has many variations on this theme throughout his filmography.

Well-known locales are used in many of Hitchcock's films. He does this to emphasize the fact that evil exists in the most moral places and revered halls of America and the world. The Statue of Liberty (Saboteur, 1942), Mount Rushmore (North By Northwest), London (Frenzy), and scores of other famous places are the backdrops to Hitchcock's dramas of terror. The moral commonplace of these locales is used to intensify the presence of evil, a technique Hitchcock uses to his greatest advantage.

Hitchcock made an invaluable contribution to the motion picture industry during his lifetime. His philosophies, techniques, and style make him one of the cinematic greats, along with Orson Welles, John Huston, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and others. His career spanned a unique period in the film industry that is gone forever, and we are fortunate to have the majority of his work to study and enjoy, and to preserve for posterity.

Filmography - Director

The British Period
Always Tell Your Wife (uncredited, 1923)
The Pleasure Garden (1925)
The Lodger (1926)
Downhill (1927)
Easy Virtue (1927)
The Ring (1927)
The Farmer's Wife (1928)
Champagne (1928)
The Manxman (1929)
Blackmail (1929)
Juno and the Paycock (1930)
Murder (1930)
The Skin Game (1931)
Rich and Strange (1932)
Number Seventeen (1932)
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
The 39 Steps (1935)
The Secret Agent (1936)
Sabotage aka A Woman Alone (1936)
Young and Innocent (1937)
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Jamaica Inn (1939)

The American Period
Rebecca (1940)
Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)
Suspicion (1941)
Saboteur (1942)
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Lifeboat (1944)
Spellbound (1945)
Notorious (1946)
The Paradine Case (1948)
Rope (1948)
Under Capricorn (1949)
Stage Fright (1950)
Strangers on a Train (1951)
I Confess (1953)
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Rear Window (1954)
To Catch a Thief (1955)
The Trouble With Harry (1955)
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
The Wrong Man (1957)
Vertigo (1958)
North by Northwest (1959)
Psycho (1960)
The Birds (1963)
Marnie (1964)
Torn Curtain (1966)
Topaz (1969)
Frenzy (1972)
Family Plot (1976)

Filmography source: IMDb
©2001, 1989 panamaus


Gorgonzola says You might mention that Alfred Hitchcock made a cameo appearance in every one of his movies.

panamaus says I might, but this isn't intended to be a comprehensive biography of Sir Alfred - merely an examination of his film making philosophy and the formulas he used. And as it happens, he didn't make a cameo in all of his films, only most of them, beginning with The Lodger in 1926. But that's the subject of another writeup by another author, methinks. (hint hint, dear reader)