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The Master of Suspense is Dead

Sir Alfred Hitchcock, whose career spanned the silent and sound eras of film and whose talents terrified and delighted movie audiences all over the world, died Tuesday at his home. He was 80.

His death came of natural causes, and was not unexpected in the Hollywood community. Mr. Hitchcock had been in falling health for four years and was visibly faltering in March 1979, when he was given the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award. He nevertheless refused to announce his retirement, and was preparing a new movie - his 55th, to be titled "The Short Night" - at the time of his death.

He was one of the most famous of all film directors. His rotund, cherubic presence was familiar to millions through his brief walk-ons in most of his movies and through his macabre appearances as host of his own popular television series, which ran from 1955 to 1965. Mr. Hitchcock's name above the title was enough to lure audiences into a theater with the promise of sophisticated, chilling suspense.

Although his name alone sold tickets, Mr. Hitchcock almost always used big stars in his films. He said their star images saved him time because he did not have to open his pictures by establishing their characters. He directed some of the most famous performances of Cary Grant ("North by Northwest"), James Stewart ("Rear Window"), Ingrid Bergman ("Notorious"), Grace Kelly ("To Catch a Thief"), Anthony Perkins ("Psycho") and Laurence Olivier ("Rebecca").

Janet Leigh, who never will be forgotten for her grisly stabbing death in the shower scene in "Psycho," also remembered Mr. Hitchcock for his humor:

"Whenever we did see each other, he had a wonderful little story to tell, certainly he was a master at his profession."

Mr. Hitchcock's 54 motion pictures began with silent short dramas directed in his native London, and ended with "Family Plot," released in 1976. He began in the British film industry as an artist employed to decorate the title cards of silent films, and by the end of his 55-year career he was generally agreed to be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

He never won an Academy Award as best director, although he was nominated four times and his "Rebecca" was named the best film of 1940, the year he moved to America.

He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1955, but his greatest honor was British knighthood, conferred on her former subject by Queen Elizabeth on Dec. 31, 1979. He was unable to travel to England to be dubbed a knight because of poor health; his problems included arthritis, kidney disease and a weak heart assisted by a pacemaker.

Alfred Hitchcock was an intensely private person who preferred to spend his evenings at home with his wife of more than half a century, Alma. She was at his bedside in the Los Angeles suburb of Bel Air when he died Tuesday, along with their daughter, Patricia, and three grandchildren.

Funeral services will be held Friday morning at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, a family spokesman said. Burial plans were not announced.

Mr. Hitchcock, the son of a London green grocer, stood out in Hollywood, where the bizarre is predictable, by being so noticeably respectable. He was, wrote his biographer John Russell Taylor, "a straightforward middle-class Englishman who just happens to be an artistic genius." Summer and winter, wherever he found himself, he always dressed like an undertaker in a black suit, white shirt and black tie.

That was invariably the garb for his walk-ons, brief cameo appearances in almost all his movies. After the walk-ons became famous, he inserted them early in his films, so watching for him wouldn't distract the audience. He was the man walking two little dogs, or the portly figure struggling with a cello in a revolving door, or the man waiting for the bus, or the corpse fished from the river.

His most ingenious cameo was in "Lifeboat" (1943), in which he was obviously not one of the characters in the lifeboat but made his appearance as both the "before" and "after" silhouettes in a newspaper weight-reduction ad.

His most famous film probably was "Psycho," the 1960 thriller with its gruesome and unforgettable scene in which Leigh was stabbed to death in a shower, and amateur taxidermist Perkins was revealed to have stuffed his dead mother. The film gave rise to a classic Hitchcock story. A fan wrote him: "After seeing 'Diabolique,' my daughter was afraid to take a bath. Now she has seen 'Psycho' and is afraid to take a shower, What should I do?" Mr. Hitchcock's reply: "Send her to the dry cleaners."

The most familiar plot situation in a Hitchcock film involved an innocent man accused of a crime and powerless to defend himself. "The Wrong Man" (1957), "North by Northwest" (1959) and "Frenzy" (1972) were examples.

The theme had its origin in a traumatic incident from Mr. Hitchcock's childhood. Young Alfred misbehaved and was sent to the nearest police station with a note from his father. An officer read the note, locked the little boy in a cell, and said: "This is what we do to naughty boys." By the time he was retrieved by his father, Mr. Hitchcock had acquired a lifelong guilt phobia involving policemen, and even refused to drive a car because of his fear of being stopped by police. Mr. Hitchcock was known as one of the film industry's most meticulous craftsmen, and his methods in preparing a screenplay were legend. He detailed every single shot and camera position, and employed a cartoonist to sketch the action.

When a screenplay was complete, he said, "I don't look at it while I'm shooting. I know it by heart, just as an orchestra conductor need not look at the score. It's melancholy to shoot a picture. When you finish the script, the film is perfect. But in shooting it you lose perhaps 40 percent of your original conception."

He refused to discuss the themes, messages and meanings of his films, if any, and can be observed sidestepping the philosophical questions of his great admirer, Francois Truffaut, the French director, in a book-length interview they did 13 years ago.

He preferred to say he wanted to "play the audience like a piano," creating the desired emotions and thrills with his manipulation of screen images. He claimed, perhaps mischievously, to have little regard for actors; quoted as saying they were cattle, he corrected the quote: "They should be treated like cattle."

His first great films were made in England in the 1930s. After making "Rebecca" and deciding to stay in America, he made his greatest films, starting with "Foreign Corespondent" in 1940 and including "North by Northwest," partly shot in Chicago in 1959. Of his later films, "Frenzy" (1972) was thought by critics to rank with his best work, but his last film, "Family Plot" (1976), was a disappointment.

Mr. Hitchcock's authorized biography, Hitch, was published by Taylor in 1979 and made the claim that Sir Alfred, through his TV appearances, his movie walk-ons and the famous, deceptively simple line caricature he drew of himself, was "the most universally recognizable person in the world."

In a 1979 telephone conversation, I asked him for his response, and he replied in an imperturbable monotone: "I would say there is some truth in that."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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