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A Tribute to Alfred Hitchcock
Page One - Hitchcock's Life, Common Characteristics of his Films, and What is Meant by the Term MacGuffin
By Ivana Redwine

Alfred Hitchcock was born to a working-class, Roman Catholic family in suburban London in 1899. After attending a Jesuit preparatory school, he entered the work force at age 14 by taking an office position at Henley Telegraph and Cable Company, where he remained employed until 1920. At age 21 Hitchcock took his first job in the movie business, where he worked until his death in 1980.

Movies were still silent for the first nine years Hitchcock worked on them, and he got his start designing inter-titles in London. During his first six years, the young Hitchcock did a little bit of everything from art director to script writer to production manager to assistant director. Then in 1926 Hitchcock directed his first film, a thriller titled "The Lodger."

Near the end of 1926, Hitchcock married Alma Reville, who also worked in the film industry. They remained married until Hitchcock's death nearly 54 years later. Their union produced one child, a daughter named Patricia, who was born in 1928.

In the late 1920s Hitchcock directed more silent films, and in 1929 he directed the first British talkie, a thriller titled "Blackmail." Throughout the 1930s Hitchcock continued to direct thrillers in England, several of which were excellent. In 1938 David O. Selznick signed Hitchcock to a contract, and in 1939 Hitchcock took up permanent residence in the United States. In 1955 he became a U.S. citizen.

The first American movie directed by Hitchcock was "Rebecca" (1940), a critical and box-office success. Over the next 36 years Hitchcock directed an astonishing number of popular films, and he made a cameo appearance in each one. He also appeared on weekly television shows bearing his name from 1955 to 1965. Also, photographs of Hitchcock appeared frequently in magazines and newspapers, and by the mid-1960s he had become one of the most recognizable people in the world.

Many Hitchcock movies have certain characteristics in common, and one of these is that the leading lady is often an icy young woman, usually a blonde. The quintessential Hitchcock blonde would probably be Grace Kelly in "Rear Window," but other good examples are Eva Marie Saint in "North by Northwest," Kim Novak in "Vertigo," and Tippi Hedren in "The Birds."

Hitchcock popularized the use of the term MacGuffin to describe an object in a story that superficially drives the plot but ultimately has little to do with what makes the story interesting. Treasure maps, secret formulas, valuable jewels, and bags of narcotics are typical MacGuffins. For example, in "Psycho" the MacGuffin is the $40,000 that Janet Leigh's character impulsively steals from her employer, causing her to go on the run and check into the off-the-beaten-path Bates Motel. But by the end of the film, most of the audience will remember the $40,000 only dimly if at all.

When asked about his use of the term MacGuffin, Hitchcock would say that two men were traveling by train in Great Britain, and one of them upon seeing that the other carried an odd-looking package asked, "What's that?" "That's a MacGuffin," came the reply. "What's a MacGuffin?" asked the first man. "It's a device for trapping lions in Scotland," replied the second man. "But there are no lions in Scotland!" objected the first man. "Well," said the second man, "then I guess it's not a MacGuffin."

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