Historical story

Alfred Hitchcock, The Master of Suspense

Alfred Hitchcock is widely regarded as one of the greatest film directors of all time. This is also the reason why the EYE film museum is honoring the influential filmmaker this year with a special program in which his best films are shown. More than 34 years after his death, Hitchcock is still known as 'The Master of Suspense'. But who was Hitchcock, and what makes his films so unique?

Alfred Hitchcock is an icon within the film world. He gained international fame with films such as Strangers on a Train, Vertigo and Psycho. Vertigo was even voted the best film of all time in 2012 by the film magazine Sight and Sound. His films still inspire many filmmakers today and are still as exciting as the day they came out.

Hitchcock's life

Already at the age of fourteen, the London-born Alfred Hitchcock lost his father. As a result, he was dependent on his mother, who was struggling with psychotic problems. After some time, when his mother was unable to care for young Alfred, he was sent to a Catholic boarding school, where he was dismayed by an extremely Orthodox upbringing. Hitchcock let many things from this period of his life (such as the Catholic Church as a location for bad events, and the psychotic character of his mother) reappear in his films.

Yet Hitchcock developed his love for photography during this bleak period. This predilection made him decide at the age of 21 to leave for Germany, where he found a job as a photographer of intertitles for silent films. Later he worked as an assistant director on a number of German films.

At 26 he returned to England, where by accident (the intended director was ill, and Hitchcock was the only one with the experience necessary to fill in for him) he was given the direction of the film The Pleasure Garden. The Pleasure Garden was a romantic comedy nothing like the movies that would make Hitchcock famous; the Thriller. After having achieved many successes in this genre, including The Man Who Knew Too Much (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938), he left for Hollywood in 1940.

Hitchcock was also very successful in Hollywood with films such as Rebecca (1940) and Dial M for Murder (1954). Yet Hitchcock himself was less satisfied, because the director in Hollywood did not enjoy the same artistic freedom as in England. In the United States, it was common for the production company to disassemble the film when it was finished. To counter this, Hitchcock founded his own production company in 1948, which was largely financed by Universal Pictures.

The great success of his films, combined with his eccentric behavior in the media, made Hitchcock an international celebrity in the film and television world. Hitchcock died in 1980 at the age of 80.

Unique style

In every film Hitchcock has directed, he gave himself a small extra role, a so-called cameo appearance. This started as a necessity, because during the filming of The Lodger:A Story of the London Fog (1927) there was a shortage of extras, and later became a regular fixture in Hitchcock's films.

Another stylistic feature of many of his films is the use of huge set pieces. This was taken advantage of because Hitchcock did not like to film on location. He preferred to use sets in studios. Some of his films clearly show that they were not filmed on location, such as the Mount Rushmore scene in North by Northwest (1959) and practically the entire film Rear Window (1954). The decor of the dream scene in the film Spellbound (1945) was built by none other than Salvador Dali.

The substantive success of Hitchcock's films rests on a number of styles which, although he generally did not come up with them himself, he mastered to perfection. An example of this is the way he often gave the viewer more knowledge about certain situations than the characters. When a journalist asked Hitchcock himself what the secret was behind the tension in his films, he came up with the following example:A happy couple is sitting together at the table. What the couple does not know, but the viewer does, is that there is a bomb with an increasingly shorter fuse under the table. The images of the pleasantly chatting couple are interspersed with close-ups of the shortening fuse. This creates an enormous tension because the viewer knows more than the characters. This storytelling technique is also called dramatic irony.

The effect of dramatic irony is enhanced by the fact that the main characters in Hitchcock's films are often simple, ordinary people who get into trouble because of events beyond their control (such as a crime or a false accusation). Viewers can easily identify with such characters, which also makes you more empathetic if, for example, there is a bomb under their table without the characters themselves being aware of it.

German Expressionism

German Expressionism, known from films such as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), seem to have been a great source of inspiration for Hitchcock. Gerwin van der Pol, media and cultural scientist at the University of Amsterdam, says that Hitchcock did not invent these style elements, but that he perfected them. “Every director influences, and is influenced by, other directors. With Hitchcock, for example, the influences of German Expressionism are quite evident. What Hitchcock excelled at was perfecting various style elements. He has taken the best of all the films he has seen, and applied it appropriately in his own films,” said van der Pol.

Hitchcock has defined the Thriller genre forever with his style. His frequently used theme of voyeurism and the doppelganger can be seen in the work of, among others, Brian DePalma, and even Steven Spielberg indicated that Hitchcock is his great example. This can be seen in films such as Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), in which Spielberg tries to create tension in the same way as Hitchcock.

Some of his films even have sequels made by other directors, such as Richard Franklin (Psycho II, 1983) and Anthony Perkins (Psycho III, 1986). Perkins played Norman Bates in the original version of Hitchcock. “Each director takes, consciously or not, elements from films he has seen before. The fact that you see elements from Hitchcock's work in so many films confirms how good his films are," says van der Pol.

Finally, what is also striking is the special role that women play in Hitchcock's films. An example of this is Hitchcock's penchant for blonde actresses. Grace Kelly, Doris Day, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, Ingrid Bergman and Tippi Hedren, all played beautiful, intelligent and vulnerable women. This is also often combined with subcutaneous references to beauty and sexuality of women. An example of this is the end of the film North by Northwest, in which the enamored main characters go to sleep next to each other in a moving train car. The film ends with the train entering a tunnel, a clear reference to sexual penetration.