English-born motion-picture director whose suspenseful films won immense popularity.
The son of a London poultry dealer, Hitchcock attended St. Ignatius’ College, London, and the University of London, where he studied engineering. In 1920 he began to work in the motion-picture industry, designing title cards for the Famous Players-Lasky Company. Within a few years he had become a scenario writer and an assistant director, and he directed his first film, The Pleasure Garden, in 1925.
With The Lodger (1927), the story of a family who mistakenly suspect their roomer to be Jack the Ripper, Hitchcock began making the “thrillers” with which he was to become identified. His Blackmail (1929) was the first successful British talking picture. During the 1930s, he directed such classic suspense films as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), and The Lady Vanishes (1938). In 1939 Hitchcock left England for Hollywood, where his first film, Rebecca (1940), won an Academy Award for best picture.
During the next three decades Hitchcock usually made a film a year in the Hollywood motion-picture system. Among the important films he directed during the 1940s were Suspicion (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945), and Rope (1948). He began functioning as his own producer in 1948, and he went on in the 1950s to make a series of big-budget suspense films starring some of the leading actors and actresses of Hollywood.
These films include Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955: a remake of the 1934 film), Vertigo (1958), and North by Northwest (1959). In the 1960s, Hitchcock turned to making thrillers with new and original emphases, among these being Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), and Marnie (1964). His Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969) are conventional espionage stories, while in his last films, Frenzy (1972) and Family Plot (1976), he returned to his original themes. From the 1940s on, Hitchcock usually made a fleeting, wordless appearance in a bit part in each of his films.
Hitchcock's films usually centre on either murder or espionage, with deception, mistaken identities, and chase sequences complicating and enlivening the plot. Wry touches of humour and occasional intrusions of the macabre complete this mixture of cinematic elements. Three main themes predominate in Hitchcock's films. The most common is that of the innocent man who is mistakenly suspected or accused of a crime and who must then track down the real perpetrator in order to clear himself.
The second theme is that of the guilty woman who enmeshes a male protagonist and ends up either destroying him or being saved by him; examples of this theme include: Blackmail, Sabotage, Notorious, Rebecca, Vertigo, and Marnie.
The third theme is that of the (frequently psychopathic) murderer whose identity is established during the working out of the plot; examples of this theme include: Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Rear Window, and Psycho. The psychopathic killer theme may sometimes be combined with the plot of the falsely accused innocent man, as in Frenzy.
Hitchcock's greatest gift was his mastery of the technical means to build and maintain suspense. To this end he used innovative camera viewpoints and movements, elaborate editing techniques, and effective soundtrack music. He had a sound grasp of human psychology, as manifested both in his credible treatment of everyday life and in the tense and nightmarish situations encountered in his more chilling films. His ability to convincingly evoke human menace, subterfuge, and fear gave his psychological thrillers great impact while maintaining their subtlety and believability.
Hitchcock produced several popular American television series in the 1950s and ‘60s, which he introduced and sometimes directed. His name also appeared on a series of mystery-story anthologies. He received the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award in 1979 and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1980.