WEEK 0: The Early Years

1920-29

Before I begin Weekly Hitch in earnest, I thought it best to go over a little bit about Hitchcock’s early life and formative years – a sort of primer for those who may not know much about the man – and a refresher for myself and those who do.

I’m not generally one who believes that you can trace every aspect of an artist to their upbringing and history – but, I do think there are some elements of Hitchcock’s life and family and childhood which will help us in future attempts to trace his influences and artistic choices over the course of his career. So, we’ll begin – as they do – at the beginning.

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on the outskirts of London in August of 1899. He was the youngest of three children, his siblings both being quite a bit older than him – so in effect he was, in a way, both an only child and the youngest.

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Hitchcock’s father was a wholesale greengrocer, dealing in vegetables and, later on, fish (the family ran horse-drawn carts around carrying their wares – something which shows up in many of his films) and his mother was a homemaker. By all accounts the family was fairly religious – being Irish Catholic, and Hitchcock would have been raised with a fairly standard lower-middle-class English life at the time.

Hitch often tells a story from his early years, about being 5 or 6 and his having done something bad – after which his father set him to the local police station with a note. He gave the note to the officer there, who read it and promptly put the child Hitchcock into a cell for five minutes, telling young Alfred – “This is what we do to naughty boys.”

Suffice to say, this somewhat scarred the young Hitchcock and, he claimed, gave him a deep mistrust of the police and a fear of incarceration which would last him the rest of his life. Now, how much of this story is mere myth, or how much of an influence it may have truly had – we can’t tell. But it at least fits in with the man he tried to portray.

Which, in a way, gets very near the root of Hitchcock as far as I can tell – in that he was a very, very private and secretive man – and only showed the parts of himself that supported the type of person he wanted to be. His past – his history and lineage – they are all blurred and protected. He never talked much about his childhood – and even then it was the same well-worn stories and tales.

Young Alfred and his father outside the family store

Young Alfred and his father outside the family store

For example, he once mentioned that every day he would come home from school and have to stand at the end of his mother’s bed and tell her what happened throughout his day. So, does this mean that his mother was very controlling and took a great, somewhat possessive interest in her youngest son? Was it simple maternal love, or the clutching fear of a woman who’s elder children are moving away and who holds her youngest so tightly and with such adoration and indulgence that he becomes sexually repressed and obese and withdrawn? Best not to presume.

Other things we do know about the young Hitchcock include the fact that he was overweight from a fairly young age, quite smart,  a self-described loner. He claimed to have never had any friends – that he would have to make up his own games, or just observe and watch people. He was also, by some accounts, mischievous and a bit of a troublemaker. All these tendencies seem to have helped to only isolate Hitchcock further. There’s never mention of any girls in his life, and Hitchcock himself puts this all on what he decided were his repellent looks.

I suppose themes can emerge here, of loneliness and desire to be included. An attraction to beauty that can’t be reached, a fondness for cold women who show no interest perhaps. Love of food and of watching – a voyeur  maybe? You can see how the urge to read the elements of Hitchcock’s future into his past is very tempting.

By the age of fifteen, Hitchcock (by now using the self-applied nickname of “Hitch”) was out of school and into the workforce – as was common in those days. Hitch also audited several courses at the university, seemingly trying to find his passion – and through those found drafting and illustration. Those passions, in turn,  led him to work for an electrical cable company – where his drawing abilities led him into their in-house advertising departments.

Now, throughout all this – Hitchcock developed and fostered a keen and voracious eye for cinema. His family had always been interested in the theatre – like most of the age – and when the new cinemas began showing motion pictures in Hitch’s late teen years, Alfred became somewhat obsessed.

Young Hitchcock (approx. 1922)

Young Hitchcock (approx. 1922)

Hitchcock tells of going to the library or the trades-persons book stores and reading the cinema magazines – not fan magazines full of whatever celebrity gossip or fashion there might be – but the actual trade papers of the day, and through this he came to learn that Famous Players-Laskey, a large American film production company, was coming to London to set up shop. And as soon as Hitchcock heard that, he packed up his drawing portfolio – went over to the studio of a day, took a meeting, and was immediately hired on.

This is one of those odd and wonderful moments in history – and one that, I think, made a real difference in the world. Hitchcock had a job, a decent life, he could have stayed on that road as many young men did. He would have worked his way up the company ladder and so it would have gone. But Hitchcock had a passion – a seriously deep and fundamental need to try for something more. He took a big risk that day, he actually had a dream – saw the means to get nearer to it – and he went for it. He was brave.

Hitchcock was confident and determined and brave. And he was rewarded for that one day of courage with a chance to become possibly the greatest film director we’ve ever known.

Hitchcock (far right) directing Number 13

Hitchcock (far right) directing Number 13

From that day, it was a slow and steady ascent, as far as I know. Hitch was hired to draw and letter title cards for the early silent films – first for Famous Players-Laskey, and then eventually moving over to Gainsborough Pictures. Hitch worked his way up through the art department – working under his future wife, the young Alma Reville – and then, after a stint in Germany, where he started to take a stab at writing scenarios for films, Hitch was given his very first shot at directing in 1922… a picture, fatefully titled Number 13 – which collapsed due to budget problems and was never finished.

But while in Germany, Hitchcock had the chance to observe the new expressionistic film techniques of F.W. Murnau, (Nosferatu, Sunrise) and Fritz Lang (Metropolis, M). Judging from Hitchcock’s work over the years, it’s clear that the expressionist style – cutting angles, deep shadows, darkness, and a distaste for reality – would be one of the greatest influences on Hitchcock as a filmmaker throughout his life.

There is little doubt that movies such as Psycho and Vertigo and The Lodger and Strangers on a Train, among others, all owe some debt to the German influence on Hitchcock during his time there.

It was a couple years after the collapse of Number 13 that Hitch was given one more shot behind that camera by Michael Balcon at Gainsborough  – his official directorial debut – 1925’s The Pleasure Garden.

Which is where Weekly Hitch will begin…

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