Alfred Hitchcock was born in London on August 13, 1899. Over a 50-year career as a movie director, he helped revolutionized film style with taut, twist-filled classics like “Psycho,” “Rear Window” and “Vertigo.” His dapper fashion sense, rotund physique and trademark dark humor also established him as one of Hollywood’s most beloved behind the camera celebrities. On the 115th anniversary of his birth, learn nine surprising facts about the man known as the big screen’s “Master of Suspense.”
1. One of his first films is lost to history.
Following a six-year stint in the sales and advertising departments of a telegraph company, the 21-year-old Hitchcock made the jump to the movie business in 1921. He got his first chance to direct a full-length film with 1925’s “The Pleasure Garden,” and then followed up his debut with “The Mountain Eagle,” a silent melodrama set in Kentucky. All the prints of the “The Mountain Eagle” have since disappeared, and today all that remains of the film is a handful of production photos and a lobby card that was found at a flea market. Hitchcock was reportedly happy that the film was lost—he once called it “a very bad movie”—but it now stands at the top of the British Film Institute’s “Most Wanted” list of lost films.
2. His wife was his closest collaborator.
Hitchcock worked with many of the top talents in Hollywood, but his most trusted advisor was almost certainly his wife, Alma Reville. The two married in 1926 after working together at the London brach of a production company called Famous Players-Lasky. Reville later served as a writer, script supervisor, editor and assistant director on dozens of Hitchcock’s early films, and he came to value her opinion above all others. As a young director, he was even known to look over to Reville after each take and ask, “Was it all right?” before moving on to the next shot. Reville moved further behind the scenes as Hitchcock’s career progressed, but she continued to consult on key script, casting and editing decisions well into the 1960s. Among other contributions, she was responsible for persuading Hitchcock to consider using composer Bernard Herrmann’s now-famous string score for the shower murder scene in the film “Psycho.”
3. He was a notorious practical joker.
Hitchcock had a penchant for pulling absurd and often cruel pranks on his movie sets and in his private life. He delighted in placing whoopee cushions under his coworkers’ chairs, and once held a dinner party where all the courses had been inexplicable dyed blue with food coloring. For one of his most elaborate stunts, Hitchcock bet one of his crew that the man couldn’t spend a whole night locked in handcuffs. The crewman accepted, only to later find that the director had secretly dosed him with a laxative before slapping on the cuffs. In some cases, Hitchcock even used his pranks as part of the creative process. During the filming of “The 39 Steps,” he handcuffed the two leads together for a scene and then pretended to have lost the key. The actors were chained to each other for a good while before Hitchcock suddenly “found” the key in a coat pocket and explained that the ordeal had been a ruse to help them build chemistry.
4. He made cameos in most of his films.
Part of Hitchcock’s fame was due to the self-referential and often humorous appearances he made in 39 of his movies. The director usually appeared in the background as a pedestrian or a public transportation passenger, and his walk-on parts eventually became so beloved that he had to place them early in the film to avoid distracting his audience. One of the most creative cameos came in the 1944 film “Lifeboat,” which takes place entirely on a raft adrift at sea. The portly Hitchcock can be seen in the “before” and “after” photos in a newspaper ad for a weight loss product called “Reduco Obesity Slayer.”
5. He made a documentary about Nazi concentration camps.
Like many Hollywood directors, Hitchcock chipped in during World War II by making propaganda films for the Allies. He famously shot two short films for the British Ministry of Information about French resistance fighters, and in the summer of 1945, he helped assemble concentration camp footage for an ambitious documentary called “Memory of the Camps.” Hitchcock collaborated with writers who had seen the atrocities first hand, and sent instructions to cameramen on how to properly film the horror of the death camps. The film was originally intended for a German audience, but it was shelved after the British government decided it would be a blow to the nation’s already crippled morale. “Memory of the Camps” remained unreleased until the 1980s, when it was shown at film festivals and on public television.
6. He worked with famous painters and literary figures.
Hitchcock teamed with legendary Hollywood actors like Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Jimmy Stewart, but he also enlisted the help of talents from outside the film world. The director hired the likes of Dorothy Parker, Raymond Chandler, Thornton Wilder and John Steinbeck to punch up his scripts, and tried to get both Ernest Hemingway and Vladimir Nabokov to write for him. For 1945’s Spellbound, Hitchcock even brought in surrealist artist Salvador Dali to help concoct the film’s complex dream sequences.
7. He often battled with Hollywood censors.
Hitchcock spent most of his career bristling at the restrictions of the Hays Code, the industry guidelines that regulated the content of Hollywood films, and he often devised clever techniques to circumvent the rules. While making “Psycho,” he intentionally sent the Hays Office scenes with graphic violence and nudity to distract them from axing the more subtle shots he wanted to keep. He also convinced the officials that a shot of a toilet—long forbidden under the restrictions of the Hays Code—was crucial to the film’s plot. When the censors later asked him to reshoot the sexually suggestive opening of “Psycho,” Hitchcock claimed he didn’t understand their requests and needed them to personally join him on set and give instructions. The gambit worked: when the censors didn’t show, the director was able to leave the scene unchanged.
8. He went to great lengths to keep the twist ending of “Psycho” a secret.
Hitchcock shrouded the production of 1960’s “Psycho” in mystery in the hope of keeping the film’s twists a surprise. He bought the rights to Robert Bloch’s novel through intermediaries, and may have even instructed his secretary to buy up as many copies of the book as she could to help keep its content under wraps. He later forced his cast and crew to take an oath swearing they wouldn’t divulge the plot, and intentionally held the film out of press screenings to prevent critics from spoiling it. The film’s newspaper ads pleaded with the audience to play along, saying, “Please do not give away the ending. It’s the only one we have!”
9. He never won an Oscar.
Hitchcock was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1980 and received numerous honors for his work, yet the Academy Award for Best Director always eluded him. He was nominated for the prize five times—for “Rebecca,” “Lifeboat,” “Spellbound,” “Rear Window” and “Psycho”—but remained, in his own words, “always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” When Hitchcock finally received an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar in 1967, he gave one of the shortest acceptance speeches in the ceremony’s history, saying only, “Thank you…very much indeed.”