Alfred Hitchcock Dies Of Natural Causes At Bel-Air Home

Alfred Hitchcock Dead Obit
Peter Dunne/Express/Getty Images

Alfred Hitchcock, an acknowledged great among Hollywood filmmakers who became an internationally recognizable personality, a stature few directors have achieved, died at 9:15 a.m. yesterday at his home in Bel-Air. He was 80 last Aug. 13, and had been in declining health for several weeks.

Present at the time of death, which was attributed to natural causes, were his wife of 54 years (Alma Reville); daughter Patricia (Mrs. Joseph) O’Connell and grandchildren, Mrs. Jack Nickel, Mrs. Jerry Stone and Katey O’Connell.

Mass of the Resurrection will be said at 10 a.m. Friday in the Roman Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills.

The family suggests flowers or contributions be sent to the Motion Picture & TV Country House and Hospital or the Cystic Fibrosis Center of The Children s Hospital in Los Angeles.

Baron/Getty Images

Among the honors that marked his career, he cherished the knighthood bestowed last Jan. 1 by Queen Elizabeth. Lew Wasserman, board chairman and chief executive officer of MCA Inc. and previously Hitchcock’s longtime agent, yesterday said:

“I am deeply saddened by the death of my close friend and colleague, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, whose death today at his home deprives us all of a great artist and an even greater human being. “Almost every tribute paid to Sir Alfred In the past by film critics and historians has emphasized his continuing influence In the world of film. It Is that continuing influence, embodied in the magnificent series of films he has given the world, during the last half-century, that will preserve his great spirit, his humor, and his wit, not only for us but for succeeding generations of film-goers.

“My condolences, as well as those of all of us who were associated with Sir Alfred at MCA/Universal, go to Lady Hitchcock and the other members of Sir Alfred’s family.”

For a private and self-professed fearful man who carefully fashioned a lifestyle which sheltered him from the outside world, Hitchcock accomplished the incredible feat of becoming the most famous of contemporary film directors. Aside from the unique case of Chaplin, no director was ever as instantly recognizable, and none’s name so immediately conjured up a distinct point of view or type of film.

Throughout most of his 60 years in the motion picture business, Hitchcock was popularly known as the “master of suspense,” and all but a handful of his works did fall into the general category of “thrillers.”

But Francois Truffaut, fervent Hitchcockian and author of the definitive Interview study, “Hitchcock,” which helped legitimize his subject among llterary- oriented intellectuals, argues that the portly Englishman belonged “among such artists of anxiety as Kafka, Dostoyevsky and Poe.”

Hitchcock’s Children

Alluding to the master’s pervasive Influence over cinema form and styles, Truffaut wrote that, “the new American cineastes are almost all Hitchcock’s children. But behind their taste for filmed violence, they lack something essential to Hitchcock’s cinema: The Intimate and profound comprehension of the emotions projected on the screen . . . Even If the disciples can lay claim to rivaling the virtuosity of the maestro, they will surely lack the emotional power of the artist.”

Besides his Olympian skills as a filmmaker, Hitchcock possessed two other talents crucial to the eminence he attained. Undoubtedly endowed with the shrewdest sense of promotion since DeMille, Hitchcock was a shameless showman who kept his ample profile highly visible to the public and who often staged amusing and sometimes macabre stunts to hawk his pictures.

When he returned to London in 1971 to shoot “Frensy,” his first British production In 20 years, a photograph seen worldwide showed a life-sized replica of Hitchcock floating down the Thames River. A few years later, a press luncheon heralding the commencement of “Family Plot” was held on a cemetary set on the Universal lot with placecards in the form of miniature headstones bearing the names of the invited journalists.

Alfred Hitchcock in front of a caricature of his profile in a promotional portrait for the TV anthology series ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents.’ photo credit: Central Press/Getty Images

Hitchcock was also among the wealthiest of directors. Not only did his pictures enjoy a consistently high degree of profitability, but the sale of syndications rights to his tv series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” which ran in half-hour form on CBS from 1980-09, moving to NBC In 1980 and becoming an hour show for the 1961-62 season, made him the third or fourth biggest stockholder in MCA.

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born Aug. 13, 1899, into a lowermiddle class family in the London suburb of Leytonstone, Essex. His father was an East End greengrocer and poultrymonger.

An anecdote Hitchcock loved to retell and swore was highly formative occured when he was six or seven. After presumably having committed some minor infraction at home, young Alfred was sent to the local constabulary with a note from his father, which he showed to the station officer. He was promptly locked up with the admonition, “This is what we do to boys who are naughty.”

Hitchcock claimed to have henceforth harbored an intense fear of the police In particular and authority in general, and much of this apprehension found Its way Into his creative work.

An indifferent student, he excelled only In geography. By age eight, he had ridden the entire length of every bus line in London and indulged his dreams of travel (which he later fulfllled) by tracking the progress of the British merchant fleet with pins stuck in a world map from information gathered from a dally shipping bulletin.

After his Jesuit education and a spell at the University of London, Hitchcock took a job as a technical clerk with a cable manufacturer, soon moving to the advertising department where he could make use of his drawing skills. Still a solitary type, Hitchcock was an avid theatregoer, kept abreast of the latest innovations in silent films and was a member of London’s first cine-club along with Ivor Montagu and other intellectuals of the period.

When Hitchcock heard that the American Famous Players- Lasky Company was opening a London office In 1920, he devised a plan to enter the motion picture business. Noting the lackluster design of most films’ silent title art, Hitchcock drew up a series of title frames which he presented to an executive. In short order the young man was hired and over the next few years at the American company, as well as Gainsborough and UFA in Germany, he worked as a title composer, scenario writer, art director, assistant director and production manager. His first screen credit was as art director on “Woman To Woman” in 1923.

Hitchcock’s first film as a director was “The Pleasure Garden,” shot on the continent in 1925. After “The Mountain Eagle” came his first great success, “The Lodger,” a Jack the Ripper story which gave the first real indications of the Hitchcock style to come. “Downhill,” “Easy Virtue,” “The Ring,” “The Farmer’s Wife,” “Champagne” and “The Manxman” all followed within the next couple of years. His first sound work, “Blackmail,” in 1929, was the breakthrough talkie for the British film industry, marking its director as the most promising domestic talent.

Nonetheless, the early 1930s brought uneven results in such pictures as “Blstree Calling,” “Juno And The Paycock” (from the O’Casey play), “Murder,” “The Skin Game,” “Rich And Strange,” “Number Seventeen” and “Waltzes From Vienna” (or “Strauss’ Great Waltz,” his only musical). Subsequently, however, Hitchcock’s standing as the greatest British director was successively confirmed by “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “The 39 Steps” (winner of the 1938 N.Y. Film Critics award for best direction), “Secret Agent,” “Sabotage,” “Young And Innocent” (“A Girl Was Young”) and “The Lady Vanishes.”

Increasingly during the mid- 1930s Hitchcock was courted by the Hollywood studios, but he begged off until 1938 when, after his first visit to the Coast, he flnally signed with David O. Selznick to direct five pictures for $800,000. Their first project together was to have been the saga of the ill-fated Titanic, but by the time Hitchcock returned from shooting his last English picture, “Jamaica Inn,” the pair decided to drop the idea.

Instead, Hitchcock directed Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” as his first American film. Starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson, it won the Academy Award as Best Picture of 1940 though Hitchcock himself lost the Best Direction Oscar to John Ford. Hitchcock credited some of the picture’s success to the fact that, during Its production, Selznick was so immersed in making “Gone With The Wind” that he had little time to interfere with “Rebecca.”

Selznick couldn’t provide his prolific emigree with enough work to keep him busy, so the producer loaned him out to other studios at considerable personal profit. Later In 1940 came the classic espionage adventure “Foreign Correspondent,” followed the next year by the change-of-pace romantic comedy “Mr. And Mrs. Smith, ” which he directed as a favor to its star Carole Lombard. “Suspicion” won an Oscar for Joan Fontaine and contains one of the definitive Hitchcock Images, that of Gary Grant carrying a luminous glass of milk up the stairs to his defenseless bride.

“Saboteur” was followed in 1943 by the film that remained the director’s favorite among his own works, “Shadow Of A Doubt.” Shot on location in Santa Rosa, Calif., this highly atmospheric evocation of middleclass America stars Joseph Cotten as a deceptively likeable compulsive murderer. The film stands as a prime example of the director’s penchant for presenting evil lurking in commonplace settings and depicting the extraordinary feelings of ordinary characters. In “Lifeboat,” Hitchcock deliberately confined himself to the smallest possible playing area and invented what was probably the most amusing of his trademark cameo appearances, that of a before-and-after model in a weight reduction newspaper ad. At the request of his friend, Sidney Bernstein of the British Ministry of Information, Hitchcock returned to London in 1944 to make two short pictures highlighting the efforts of the French Resistance, “Bon Voyage” and “Aventure Malgache.”

“Spellbound” was symptomatic of Hollywood’s fascination with Freudian psychology, complete with brief Salvador Dali dream sequence, while “Notorious” in 1946 marked perhaps Hitchcock’s supreme achievement up to that point.

The ultimate romantic thriller, made for Selznick from a Ben Hecht script, the Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman starrer has often been imitated but never equalled.

“The Paradine Case,” one of his lesser efforts, ended Hitchcock’s obligations to Selznick. Henceforth, the director functioned as his own producer (though never with screen credit as such).

At Warners he made “Rope,” a radical experiment in real-time filming which featured invisible cuts only at the end of each reel and which was the director’s first color film. He then traveled to England for the first time since the war to make the Australian-set period piece “Under Capricorn,” and “Stage Fright,” with Marlene Dietrich.

Upon his return to Hollywood for “Strangers On A Train,” 1951, Hitchcock entered what was inarguably his most fertile, as well as profitable, period. “Strangers,” “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “North By Northwest, ” “Psycho ” and “The Birds” all stand as masterpieces.

Along with other excellent works of the time such as “I Confess,” “Dial M For Murder,” “To Catch A Thief,” “The Trouble With Harry,” the remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “The Wrong Man” and “Mamie,” these films represent one of the most impressively sustained interludes of artistry in the history of the cinema.

Asked by Truffaut about his tremendous surge In the 1950s, Hitchcock, in one of his most sublime understatements, replied, “I was feeling very creative at the time.”

Hallmarks of the period were the superb precision of his screenplays, which the director always supervised and for which he prepared detailed storyboards, to the extent that he considered the actual shooting rather perfunctory; his collaboration, usually in color, with cinematographer Robert Burks; his union with composer Bernard Herrmann; and his inspired work with such stars as Cary Grant, James Stewart and Grace Kelly.

Despite the undeniable importance of such actresses as Joan Fontaine and Ingrid Bergman in the director’s career, most would agree that Kelly represented the quintessential Hitchcockian woman — blonde, cool and with an “indirect” sex appeal.

As he told Truffaut, “I think the most interesting women, sexually, are the English women. I feel that the English women, the Swedes, the northern Germans, and Scandinavians are a great deal more exciting than the Latin, the Italian, and the French women. Sex should not be advertised. An English girl, looking like a schoolteacher, is apt to get into a cab with you and, to your surprise, she’ll probably pull a man’s pants open . . . without the element of surprise the scenes become meaningless. There’s no possiblllty to discover sex.”

During the seven years of its run, Hitchcock presided over more than 350 episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents ” (known In Ita Anal year am “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour”). He (directed 17 of the programs himself, and the series provided early opportunities for many writers, actors, and directors, such as Robert Altman and William Friedkin.

Perhaps most significant for Hitchcock himself was the fact that his patented introductions and signoffs made his profile and voice even more recognizable to the public at large. Always droll and frequently outrageous, the host’s comments often included gibes in the direction of his show’s sponsors.

As he reflected at the time, “My guess is that my sponsor enjoys my lack of obsequiousness but in the beginning had difficulty in getting used to my learn than worshipful remarks. However, the moment they became aware of the commercial effects of my belittling, they stopped questioning the propriety of my cracks.”

Active Syndication

The Revue series, on which longtime Hitchcock assistant Joan Harrison served as associate producer, is still in active syndication. During the same period, Hitchcock also directed an hourlong drama for the “Suspicion” series and another hour’s production for Ford Star Time.”

In 1956, publication began of “Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine,” which provided additional source material for the television series and continues successfully today. Soon thereafter Random House, and later Dell in paperback, undertook Issuing popular anthologies with such titles as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories My Mother Never Told Me.” “Stories To Be Read With The Lights On,” and “Stories That Scared Even Me.”

Abandoning his lush color ventures for the moment, Hitchcock took his tv crew into the studios and, on a low budget, made “Psycho” in 1960. First surprise was the killing off of a star the magnitude of Janet Leigh so early in the picture, but the manner of her demise sent shocks through critics and viewers and comprised what is undoubtedly the most famous sequence in the Hitchcock canon.

The shower murder sequence lasts only 45 seconds onscreen, but required seven days and 70 camera setups to shoot. Few scenes have so severely shaken public complacency. Part of the picture’s sell consisted of the warning that no one would be admitted after the film began, and the director’s appearance in the trailer traded successfully off his now-established tv image.

By the mid-1960s firmly ensconsed at Universal, Hitchcock had a couple of subpar outings with “Tom Curtain” and “Topax,” which led some detractors to claim he was in decline. When “Frenzy” was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1972, however, critics were virtually unanimous in stating that the director was operating at the peak of his powers once again.

His 53d and final film, “Family Plot,” was released in 1976. Shortly thereafter, Hitchcock saw another project, “The Short Night,” through completion of the screenplay, but his gradually deteriorating health over the last four years prevented him from actually launching it.

Although his first American picture, “Rebecca,” won an Academy Award for best picture and he was nominated personally five times, for “Rebecca,” “Lifeboat,” “Spellbound,” “Rear Window” and “Psycho,” It is somewhat ironic that virtually the only honor Hitchcock never received during his career was an Oscar as best director.

Receiving the Irving Thalberg Award from the Academy in 1968, Hitchcock’s entire acceptance speech consisted of, “Thank you . . . thank you very much indeed.”

Among his other honors were: honorary doctorates from the U. of California, Santa Clara U. and Columbia U.; the Cecil B. DeMille Award from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association; the Office and, later, Commander of Arts and Letters Award from the French government ; Knighthood of the Legion of Honor of the French Cinematheque; a special tribute from the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 1974, and the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award in 1979.

But among all his awards, Hitchcock almost certainly most highly cherished the knighthood bestowed on him at the beginning of this year by his native Britain. Perhaps only through such an honor could a child of lowermiddle class London feel that he had, once and for all, escaped the limitations placed on him at birth by the class system, and although unable to make the trip to be knighted in person, he made It clear at the time that he was deeply touched by his selection.

His last appearance came on the API’s recent Life Achievement Award tribute to Jimmy Stewart. Hitchcock did not attend the dinner itself, but pretaped some introductory remarks for the CBS broadcast. Hitchcock’s companion, coworker and “toughest critic” throughout his entire career and adult life was his wife, the former Alma Reville, who was born a day after him In 1899. The two met while working on a picture at the Famous Players-Lasky London studio in 1922 and shared a sojourn at UFA in Germany together before marrying in 1926.

Writer of several films away from her husband, Hitchcock pictures on which she received script credit included ‘”His 39 Steps,” “Sabotage.” “Suapicion” and “Shadow Of A Doubt.”

The Hitchcocks, who persisted in living a sedate and relatively modest life in an English-style home in Bel Air since 1942 despite their wealth and prestige, had one daughter, Patricia, who occasionally appeared in her father’s films. The family also had a vacation home near Santa Cruz and always tried to spend Christmas in St. Moritz, Switzerland, the site of the couple’s honeymoon.

The Hitchcock mystique was exemplified by many wonderful anecdotes and stories, many of which he delighted in repeating and which admirers seldom tired of hearing despite their familiarity. Most often cited was his remark that, “Actors should be treated like cattle,” and almost equally famous were his words to an anxietyridden leading lady — “Ingrid, it’s only a movie!”

A compulsive practical joker, Hitchcock loved to recall the formal dinner party he once threw at which all the food was tinted blue. He also enjoyed riding in an elevator, launching into an involved suspense story which would have strangers hanging on his every word, then timing it so that he would exit just before reaching the climax of the tale.

At the same time, Hitchcock was a man of exceedingly regular habits. A devout Catholic and regular churchgoer, he was a gourmet who boasted one of the finest wine cellars in California, enjoyed good cigars, dined every Thursday at Chasen’s and boasted of having lost over 400 pounds on various diets over the years. His wardrobe consisted entirely of dark suits, white shirts and ties. He insisted on punctuality and decorum in his life and work, avoiding confrontations and always proceeding in an orderly, polite manner.

But the real miracle of Hitchcock’s career was that he was a master entertainer and showman who also managed, through the rigorous tackling of personal, obsessive themes, to create great art which invites, and withstands, almost endless investigation. As the last important silent director to continue working into the late 1970s, Hitchcock excelled at telling his stories in a purely visual manner and was one of the last old-school greats who started in the industry before films reached maturity.

It may be the fact that Hitchcock was the most prominent formalist in Hollywood that accounts for more books and articles having been written about his work than about that of any other screen artist, including an authorized biography by John Russell Taylor published last year.

His status as the “master” not only refers to his own command over his material, but to the degree to which he “taught” so many other directors by example of the evidence on the screen.

The name Hitchcock alone stands as a definition of a certain kind of cinema, and despite many challenges by pretenders to the throne, there is no question that his body of work will remain as one of the paramount achievements in twentieth century popular art.


Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s selfcaricature made annual appearances in the anniversary editions of Daily Variety and Variety for 40 years. First rendition had a somewhat sleeker look and featured three lines on the otherwise bald pate, but by 1964 Hitchcock had revised the portrait to the above design, bringing the hairs down to one. Drawing also served as logo for director’s television show.