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by William H. Benson

August 10, 2006

     He began his television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with the words, “Good evening,” which he spoke slowly and precisely with an English accent while standing alone on a stage.  When he had finished and the show was about to begin, Hitchcock would turn sideways and his profile—a bulging set of lips and an enormous torso—would match up with a pencil drawing of the same.  It was his signature profile, something he had sketched years before for a Christmas card.

     Hitchcock did not act in his television shows, for he was the director.  But the plots were typical of him—about murder and terror and ordinary people swept up in extraordinary situations.  For example, a young husband and his wife might accidentally kill a guest in their home and then struggle to cover up their crime.  Hitchcock’s genius was matching up the extremes of human behavior with the routine and the common.

     He entered the movie industry in his native England and then came to America where he began directing one movie after another.  In every movie, except one, he inserted himself in a small cameo role, just for a few seconds.  And he did so at the beginning of his films because he knew that audiences were looking for him, and he did not want them distracted from the story too long.

     Critics now consider some of his movies as classics.  Birds is a story in which thousands of birds inundate a small village and terrorize the citizens.  In North by Northwest Cary Grant finds himself alone on a country road when an airplane repeatedly tries to cut him down.  Hitchcock directed Vertigo, Stagefright, and Lifeboat.  And then in 1960 he cast Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho.

     Hitchcock had noticed that a lot of trashy horror films were being produced for very little and then were making gigantic profits.  He wondered if he too could make a cheap horror film but do it superlatively well.  The story he selected was that of a single middle-aged guy, Norman Bates, who lives in a motel, the Bates Motel, with his bossy mother.  A young girl named Marion, played by Janet Leigh, checked into the motel but would never check out. 

     The Bates Motel still stands on a hill on Universal Studios property, and is on the tour, seen by thousands every year.

     Hitchcock suffered from certain phobias.  Small children terrified him as did policemen.  He never received a driver’s license because of his fear that a policeman might stop him.  And he loved to play practical jokes, some of which were cruel.  If he discovered someone was terrified of mice or spiders, he would send them an entire box filled with mice or spiders.

     Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar for best director, but in 1967 he did receive the Irving Thalber Memorial Award.  He gave the shortest speech in Oscar history, just two words, “Thank you.”  Unlike the rest of Hollywood, he did not socialize, for he preferred an evening at home with his wife and daughter.

     He wore a suit everyday to the studio, and after drinking his afternoon tea, he would throw cup and saucer over his shoulder letting it fall and break behind him.

     For all of Hitchcock’s strangeness, oddities, and devotion to the macabre,  Entertainment Weekly recently voted him the greatest director of all time.  And for all of his professionalism, artistry and technique with a camera, Alfred maintained a level head.  He once told an actress, “It’s only a movie, and, after all, we’re all grossly overpaid.”

     He was born on August 13, 1899 and died in 1980 at the age of eighty.  On his tombstone, it reads, “I am in a plot.”