15 Fascinating Facts About Alfred Hitchcock

Peter Dunne, Express/Getty Images
Peter Dunne, Express/Getty Images

The shower scene in Psycho. The biplane chase in North by Northwest. The gas station attack in The Birds. They’re some of the most memorable and terrifying scenes in cinema history—and they came from the mind of one man: Alfred Hitchcock. The Master of Suspense, who went by the nickname “Hitch,” is also one of the most recognizable Hollywood icons, and his life was as fascinating as his films. Here are 15 things you might not have known about the legendary filmmaker.

1. HE WAS AFRAID OF LAW ENFORCEMENT ... AND BREAKFAST.

Hitchcock’s mastery of thrillers may have earned him the nickname the “Master of Suspense,” but the plucky filmmaker had phobias of his own.

His lifelong fear of police stemmed from an incident in his childhood when his strict father, William, punished him by sending him to the local Leytonstone police station on the outskirts of his family's home in east London. “I was just sent along with a note, I must have been four or five years of age, and the head of the police read it and then put me into the cell and said, ‘That’s what we do to naughty boys,’” Hitchcock later recalled of the experience.

Also, omelettes were decidedly not his favorite breakfast food. "I'm frightened of eggs, worse than frightened, they revolt me," he once said in an interview. "That white round thing without any holes … Have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its yellow liquid? Blood is jolly, red. But egg yolk is yellow, revolting. I've never tasted it."

2. HIS BEGAN HIS WORK IN SILENT FILMS.

Known for the complex title sequences in his own films, Hitchcock began his career in cinema in the early 1920s, designing the art title cards featured in silent films. The gig was at an American company based in London called the Famous Players-Lasky Company (it would later become Paramount Pictures, which produced five Hitchcock-directed films). As Hitchcock later told French filmmaker François Truffaut in their infamous Hitchcock/Truffaut conversations, “It was while I was in this department, you see, that I got acquainted with the writers and was able to study the scripts. And, out of that, I learned the writing of scripts.” The experience also led Hitch to try his hand at actual filmmaking. “If an extra scene was wanted, I used to be sent out to shoot it,” he told Truffaut.

3. HE LEARNED FROM ANOTHER CINEMA MASTER.

In 1924, Hitchcock and his wife Alma were sent to Germany by Gainsborough Pictures—the British production company where he was under contract—to work on two Anglo-German films called The Prude’s Fall and The Blackguard. While working in Neubabelsberg, Hitchcock was taken under the wing of expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau, who created the chilling Dracula adaptation Nosferatu, and was shooting a silent film called The Last Laugh. “From Murnau,” Hitchcock later said, “I learned how to tell a story without words.”

4. MOST OF HIS EARLY FILMS ARE LOST, BUT A 1923 SILENT MELODRAMA WAS FOUND IN NEW ZEALAND.

Only nine of Hitchcock’s earliest silent films still exist. The earliest surviving film he worked on, a 1923 melodrama titled The White Shadow—about twin sisters, one good, one evil—was thought lost until three of the film’s six reels were found sitting unmarked in the New Zealand Film Archive in 2011. The film reels were originally donated to the Archive in 1989 by the grandson of a Kiwi projectionist and collector.

While the film was technically directed by leading 1920s filmmaker Graham Cutts, the 24-year-old Hitchcock served as the film’s screenwriter, assistant director, and art director.

5. HE BROUGHT SOUND TO BRITISH MOVIES.

The 1929 movie Blackmail, about a murder investigation headed up by the murderer’s fiance, was Hitchcock’s first hit film, and also the first “talkie” film released in Britain. (The first full-length talkie, The Jazz Singer, was released in the U.S. in 1927.)

While Blackmail was originally conceived and created as a silent film, the final cut was dubbed with synchronized sound added in post-production using then-state of the art audio equipment imported from the U.S.

6. HE POPPED UP ON SCREEN ALL THE TIME.

The most constant image in Hitchcock’s films seem to be Hitchcock himself. The filmmaker perfected the art of the cameo, making blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances in 39 of his own films.

His trickier appearances include the single-location film Lifeboat, where he appears in a weight-loss advertisement in a newspaper read by one of the film’s characters. The only film he actually speaks in is 1956’s The Wrong Man; his traditional cameo is replaced by a silhouetted narration in the introduction. That replaced a scrapped cameo of the director exiting a cab in the opening of the film.

7. HE WAS AS SUCCESSFUL IN FRONT OF THE CAMERA ON THE SMALL SCREEN AS HE WAS BEHIND THE CAMERA ON THE BIG SCREEN.

By 1965, Hitchcock was a household name. That was the same year his long-running anthology TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents—which began in 1955 and was later renamed The Alfred Hitchcock Hour after episode lengths were stretched from 25- to 50-minute runtimes—came to an end.

The series was known for its title sequence featuring a caricature of Hitchcock's distinctive profile, which was replaced by Hitchcock himself in silhouette. But Hitchcock also appeared after the title sequence to introduce each new story. At least two versions of the opening were shot for every episode: An American opening specifically poked fun at the show’s network advertisers, while Hitchcock usually used the European opening to poke fun at American audiences in general.

7. HE LITERALLY WROTE THE ENCYCLOPEDIA ENTRY ON HOW TO MAKE MOVIES.

The filmmaker would write (at least part of) the book on the medium that made him famous.

Hitchcock personally contributed to writing a portion of the “Motion Pictures, Film Production” entry in the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, giving typically cheeky first-hand insight into the fundamentals and technical aspects of filmmaking.

On the practice of moving the camera during a shot, Hitchcock wrote, “it is wrong to suppose, as is all too commonly the case, that the screen of the motion picture lies in the fact that the camera can roam abroad, can go out of the room, for example, to show a taxi arriving. This is not necessarily an advantage and it can so easily be merely dull.”

8. HE POPULARIZED THE MACGUFFIN.

Even if you don’t know it by name, you know what it is. The MacGuffin is the so-called motivating element that drives a movie’s plot forward. Think: the eponymous statue in The Maltese Falcon, or the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, or the airplane engine plans in Hitch’s own The 39 Steps.

The term was coined by Angus MacPhail (note the prefix in his surname), Hitchcock’s screenwriting collaborator on films like Spellbound and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Even though such plot details were supposed to be important, Hitchcock didn’t seem to think they truly mattered. “The main thing I've learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing. I'm convinced of this, but I find it very difficult to prove it to others,” Hitchcock told Truffaut in 1962, highlighting how the audience never finds out why the government secrets (a.k.a. the MacGuffin) in North by Northwest truly matter. “Here, you see,” Hitchcock said, “the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!”

9. HE SCRAPPED HIS OWN DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST.

Hitch’s films flirted with mentioning the escalating tensions in Europe that would spark World War II, like in the shocking plane crash climax of 1940’s Foreign Correspondent. But the film Hitchcock collaborated on about the explicit horrors of the war would go unseen for decades.

Memory of the Camps, a 1945 documentary filmed by crews who accompanied the Allied armies that liberated those in the Nazi death camps at the end of the war, was stored in a vault in the Imperial War Museum in London until 1985. Originally commissioned by the British Ministry of Information and the American Office of War Information, Hitchcock served as a “treatment advisor” at the behest of his friend Sidney Bernstein, who is the credited director of the film. But the final film was scrapped because it was deemed counterproductive to German postwar reconstruction.

The film was put eventually together as an episode of PBS’s FRONTLINE, and aired on May 7, 1985 to mark the 40th anniversary of the liberation of the camps.

10. HE DIDN’T WANT YOU TO SEE FIVE OF HIS MOST FAMOUS FILMS FOR DECADES.

Vertigo may have topped many best-of movie polls, but for over 20 years, between 1961 and 1983, it and four other Hitchcock classics were almost virtually impossible to see. It turns out it was Hitchcock’s fault that Vertigo, Rear Window, Rope, The Trouble with Harry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much were purposefully unavailable to the general public.

The filmmaker personally secured full ownership to the rights of the five films per a contingency clause in the multi-film deal he made with Paramount Pictures in 1953. Eight years after the release of each film, the rights reverted back to Hitchcock, which, in the years before Blu-ray and DVD, seemed like a financially savvy move on Paramount’s part. Three years after Hitch’s death in 1980, Universal Pictures acquired the film rights to all five classics, making them available once again.

11. HE DIDN’T WANT TO WORK WITH JIMMY STEWART AFTER VERTIGO.

Everyman actor Jimmy Stewart worked with Hitchcock a number of times, including as the nosy, wheelchair-bound photographer in Rear Window, and as the dastardly murderer in the “one-take” film Rope. After Stewart appeared in Vertigo in 1958, the actor prepared to appear in Hitchcock’s follow-up a year later, North by Northwest. But Hitch had other plans.

The director felt that one of the main reasons Vertigo wasn’t more of a smash hit was because of its aging star, and vowed to never use Stewart in any film ever again. Hitch wanted actor Cary Grant instead, and, according to author Marc Eliot’s book, Jimmy Stewart: A Biography, “Hitchcock, as was his nature, did not tell Jimmy there was no way he was going to get North by Northwest.” But when Stewart grew tired of waiting, and took a part in the movie Bell Book and Candle instead, “Hitchcock used that as his excuse, allowing him to diplomatically avoid confronting Jimmy and maintaining their personal friendship, which both valued.”

12. HE PERSONALLY FUNDED PSYCHO.

When Hitchcock approached Paramount Pictures—where he was under contract—to put up the money to make Psycho, the studio balked at the salacious story. So Hitchcock financed the movie himself, foregoing his normal salary in exchange for 60 percent ownership of the rights to the film; Paramount agreed to distribute the film. To cut costs even more, the filmmaker enlisted his relatively cheaper Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV crew and shot the film on less pricey black and white film. Hitch’s gamble worked: He reportedly personally earned $6 million from Psycho—about $50 million in today's dollars.

13. HE WOULDN'T ALLOW THEATERS TO LET ANYONE—NOT EVEN THE QUEEN OF ENGLAND—IN TO SEE PSYCHO ONCE IT HAD STARTED.

Psycho (1960) has one of the best twists in movie history—and Hitchcock went to great lengths to not only make sure audiences didn’t spoil that twist, but to make sure they enjoyed the entire movie before the twist.

Hitchcock attempted to buy all copies of author Robert Bloch’s source novel to keep the twist under wraps in cities where the movie opened. The promotional rollout of the film was controlled by Hitchcock himself, and he barred stars Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins from doing interviews about the movie. He also demanded that theaters in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia adhere to strict theatrical showtimes and not allow admittance after the movie had started.

Marketing materials for Psycho included lobby cards meant to be prominently displayed with the message, “We won't allow you to cheat yourself. You must see PSYCHO from the very beginning. Therefore, do not expect to be admitted into the theatre after the start of each performance of the picture. We say no one—and we mean no one—not even the manager's brother, the President of the United States, or the Queen of England (God bless her)!”

14. HE LOVED MOVIES THAT WERE NOT "HITCHCOCKIAN."

The filmmaker had a habit of screening films in his studio lot office every Wednesday, and his daughter Patricia revealed that one of his favorite films—and, in fact, the last movie he personally screened before his death—was the 1977 Burt Reynolds movie Smokey and the Bandit.

15. HE NEVER WON AN OSCAR.

Hitchcock is in the bittersweet class of venerable filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman, and more who never received their industry’s highest honor as Best Director. Hitchcock did get Oscar nominations for directing Rebecca (which took home Best Picture), Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window, and Psycho. But he personally went home empty-handed every time.

When the Academy finally honored him with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1967, his long-time-coming speech was only five words long: “Thank you, very much indeed.”

21 Fun Facts About Elf

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Everyone knows the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear! But the second best way is to enjoy Elf. Revel in the giddy glow of this modern holiday classic with a slew of secrets from behind the scenes.

1. Jim Carrey was initially eyed to play Buddy the elf.

When David Berenbaum's spec script first emerged in 1993, Carrey was pre-Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and attached to front the Christmas film. However, it took another 10 years to get the project in motion, at which time Saturday Night Live star Will Ferrell was signed to star. Carrey would go on to headline his own Christmas offerings—the live-action How The Grinch Stole Christmas and the CGI animated A Christmas Carol.

2. Will Ferrell worked as a mall Santa.


Warner Bros.

And his A Night at the Roxbury co-star Chris Kattan was his elf. This was back when the pair were pre-Saturday Night Live, and part of the comedy troupe The Groundlings. Ferrell recollected to Spliced Wire, "I have some experience playing Santa Claus … Chris Kattan was my elf at this outdoor mall in Pasadena for five weeks, passing out candy canes. It was hilarious because little kids could care less about the elf. They just come right to Santa Claus. So by the second weekend, Kattan had dropped the whole affectation he was doing and was like (Ferrell makes a face of bitter boredom), 'Santa's over there, kid.'"

3. Director Jon Favreau favored practical effects.

Inspired by the Christmas specials he grew up with, Favreau explained in the film's commentary track that he employed “old techniques” instead of CGI whenever possible. This included stop-motion animation, and using forced perspective to make Buddy look like a giant among his elf peers. For North Pole scenes, two sets were built—one larger scale for the actors playing elves, the other smaller to make Buddy and Santa look big. These elements where then carefully overlaid in camera, using lighting to blend the seams.

4. Snow was often computer-generated.


Warner Home Video

Some effects just couldn't be practical. These included the snowflakes that drift over the opening credits, and many of the snowballs in Buddy's pivotal fight scene. It's probably not much of a shocker that much of these were added in post, considering Buddy's perfect aim. But to further underscore the drama that is a snowball fight in frosty New York, Favreau asked composer John Debney to give this section a Western vibe that would recall The Magnificent Seven.

5. Elf's production design was heavily influenced by Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The classic stop-motion Christmas special from 1964 gave a memorable presentation of Santa's winter wonderland to which Favreau wanted to pay tribute. The elves' costumes in Elf were inspired by those worn by Hermey and his peers in the animated film. And Elf's workshops were modeled after the Rankin/Bass designs, as were the stop-motion animals of the area. The production did secure permission for these allusions, and was even granted the privilege of using the company's signature snowman.

6. There's a Christmas Story cameo.

Peter Billingsley, who memorably played the Red Ryder-wanting Ralphie in the 1983 holiday classic, popped in to play Ming the elf. It's an uncredited role, but between the glasses and those bright baby blue eyes, Billingsley stands out as an A Christmas Story Easter egg. This marks just one of many Billingsley and Favreau's collaborations. Billingsley has been a producer on several of Favreau's film and television projects.

7. Jon Favreau played multiple parts in Elf.

Jon Favreau directs Will Ferrell in 'Elf' (2003)
Alan Markfield, New Line Productions

As a writer/director/actor, Favreau has often appeared in his own films. He fronted Made with friend Vince Vaughn, and later found a sweet supporting role for himself in Iron Man. You may have picked him out as the doctor in Elf, but on the DVD commentary, Favreau revealed he also tapped in to his inner narwhal and provided the voices for some of the stop-animation critters who see Buddy off from the North Pole. He also voiced the rabid raccoon Buddy encounters.

8. Baby buddy was fired.

To play the bubbly baby version of the titular elf, Favreau had initially cast twin boys whose blonde curly hair made them great little doubles for the mop-topped Ferrell. However, the production ran into a problem when the boys couldn't perform. Instead of smiling and crawling as needed, they cried relentlessly. To replace them, brunette triplet girls were brought in, who were far perkier and more playful, and thereby ready for their close-ups.

9. Buddy was bullied in an early version.

In first drafts of Berenbaum's Elf script, Buddy's decision to seek out his dad was in part because he was being hassled by the actual elves for being different. Favreau pushed to take out this element. He preferred to keep the North Pole characters warm, even when Buddy bugs them. In the DVD commentary, Favreau offers, “It explained why Buddy was doing all these good things in New York if he grew up in a world where everybody was so sweet even when he’s obviously screwing everything up and doesn’t fit in at all.”

10. Elf hockey hit the cutting room floor.

Poor Buddy accidentally wreaks all kinds of havoc on his elf community because of his ungainly size. One such scene of his well-meaning mayhem featured Buddy playing hockey on a frozen pond. The friendly game becomes unintentionally violent when the too-big Buddy takes to the ice. Though it was shot, it ended up being chopped from the finished film.

11. Elf was shot on location in New York when it counted.

Like many productions, this one took advantage of the financial benefits of filming in Canada, and much of Elf was shot in sound stages in Vancouver. However, when Buddy comes to New York, it was important to Favreau to shoot on location whenever possible. This includes all the Manhattan exteriors, as well as scenes shot at Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and Central Park West, where Buddy's dad lives.

12. Some of Elf’s sets were built in a horror factory.

Okay, technically it was an abandoned mental hospital, where the production team constructed the interior sets for Walter's Central Park West apartment, Gimbels's lavish toy department, and that grim prison cell. The facility is called Riverview Hospital, and it has played host to a long list of film and television productions, including The X-Files, Final Destination 2, Jennifer's Body, and See No Evil 2.

13. Macy's stood in for Gimbels.

The sprawling department store that takes up a whole block in Manhattan was digitally altered to transform into Elf's Gimbels. A bit awkward: Gimbels was once a real department store, and a noted rival of Macy's. Though immortalized here and in the 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street, the department store closed its doors in 1987, its 100th year of operation.

14. Will Ferrell broke James Caan.


Warner Home Video

The Academy Award-nominated star of The Godfather was hired to play Walter in part because Favreau wanted a stern persona to play against Ferrell's giddy Buddy, and Caan took the comedy of Elf seriously. He knew it was crucial for Walter to be annoyed—never amused—by his supposed son's antics. But when it came to the blood test scene where Buddy bellows when pricked by a needle, Caan cracked. Watch closely and you'll see he turns away from the camera so as not to ruin the take.

15. The studio didn't get a joke from the mailroom sequence.

This was the last set piece shot for Elf, and one that filmmakers were wavering on from its conception late in production. Grizzled Mark Acheson's casting as Buddy's drinking buddy concerned execs because of the line, "I'm 26 years old." The studio noted the actor does not look 26, to which Favreau—who had previously cast Acheson in a small role that had been cut before production—responded that this disconnect was part of the joke.

16. Will Ferrell went method with those jack-in-the-boxes.

In the scene where Buddy suffers as a toy tester, he's subjected to popping open an endless stream of menacing jack-in-the-boxes. The anxiety etched on Ferrell's face in these scenes is real. Rather than standard jack-in-the-boxes that would pop at the song's end, these were remote controlled by Favreau, who purposely manipulated their timing to toy with his star and get authentic reactions.

17. Will Ferrell frolicked all over New York City in character.

The final day of Elf's New York shooting was pared down from a massive crew to just three people: its star, its director, and one cameraman. Together, this trio traveled around the city, looking for mischief for Buddy to get into with random passersby turned background extras. This included him leapfrogging across a pedestrian walk, happily accepting flyers, and getting his shoes shined, all of which made it into the movie's cheerful montage.

18. That epic burp was real, but overdubbed.

Though uncredited, that lengthy belch came not from Ferrell, but from noted voice actor Maurice LaMarche, who might be best known for Brain of Pinky and the Brain. LaMarche shared his secret to such an impressive burp with The A.V. Club, saying, "I’ve always been able to do this weird effect, where I turn my tongue, not inside out, but almost. I create a huge echo chamber with my tongue and my cheeks, and by doing a deep, almost Tuvan rasp in my throat, and bouncing it around off this echo chamber, I create something that sounds very much like a sustained deep burp."

19. Elf made its star stick.

In the movie, Buddy is happy to gobble down an endless supply of sweets, including maple syrup-coated spaghetti and cotton balls made of cotton candy. But this sugary diet played havoc on Ferrell, who told About Entertainment, "That was tough. I ingested a lot of sugar in this movie and I didn't get a lot of sleep. I constantly stayed up. But anything for the movie, I'm there. If it takes eating a lot of maple syrup, then I will—if that's what the job calls for."

20. Will Ferrell refuses to make Elf 2.

Though the comedian reprised the role of Ron Burgundy for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and returned as Mugatu in Zoolander 2, he flat out rejected the possibility of bringing back Buddy, even after being offered a reported $29 million. In December of 2013, he told USA TODAY, "I just think it would look slightly pathetic if I tried to squeeze back in the elf tights: Buddy the middle-aged elf."

21. Elf became a hit Broadway musical.

From November 2010 to January 2011, Elf the musical ran on Broadway, boasting songs like "World's Greatest Dad," "Nobody Cares About Santa," and "The Story of Buddy The Elf." This run was a huge success, taking in more than $1.4 million in one week, a record for the Al Hirschfield Theater where it debuted. Plus, The New York Times called it, "A splashy, peppy, sugar-sprinkled holiday entertainment." A revival hit in time for Christmas 2012, and national tours have been recurring.

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