By the summer of 1942, the conflagration sparked by Germany’s swift and brutal aggression against its neighbors—including bombing raids on London—and by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 had spread far and wide enough that the conflict could legitimately be seen as a second “world war.” The Axis powers had invaded (and, in most cases, conquered) countries from northern Europe and Russia to North Africa and the southwestern Pacific. From the Allies’ perspective, news from the various fronts was hardly encouraging—and it would be another full year before momentum shifted from the Axis to the British, Soviets, Americans and troops from more than a dozen other allied countries.
As in all wars, propaganda played a central role in the mission and the strategies of the combatants. However, where the Axis had legendarily shrill and, at times, unhinged characters like Joseph Goebbels in charge of their “messaging,” the far-more-fortunate Allies could and did call on the greatest propagandists of all time: Hollywood filmmakers. Acknowledged movie masters like Frank Capra, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Michael Curtiz, John Huston and others made documentaries and films that exhorted “the free people of the world”—i.e., those still resisting Axis aggression—to do whatever was in their power to help the Allied cause.
But perhaps no filmmaker provided richer fare for the Allies during the war itself than Alfred (later Sir Alfred) Hitchcock. Between 1940 and 1945, Hitch made films for England’s Ministry of Information as well as several excellent movies featuring plots that centered on the war (Saboteur, Foreign Correspondent, the remarkable Lifeboat and others). Hitchcock’s most unusual director’s credit from the 1940s, however, wasn’t attached to a movie at all, but instead appeared in the July 13, 1942, issue of LIFE magazine. Titled Have You Heard? (The Story of Wartime Rumors), the feature carrying Hitchcock’s name is a war thriller in photos, shot by LIFE’s Eliot Elisofon from a plot “suggested by” FDR’s press secretary, Stephen Early, and “directed by” Hitchcock himself.
As LIFE told its readers in the introduction to the piece:
From Stephen Early, [White House press] secretary to President Roosevelt, recently came the suggestions that LIFE tell a picture story of wartime rumors and the damage they are liable to do. In accordance with this request, the editors asked Alfred Hitchcock, famed Hollywood movie director, to produce such a story, with LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon as his cameraman. When Mr. Hitchcock graciously agreed, a script was prepared, the director picked his characters from the ranks of movie professionals and LIFE’s Los Angeles staff, and shooting commenced in Hollywood.
‘Have You Heard?’ is the result of their cooperation in photo-dramatization. A simply sexless story, it shows how patriotic but talkative Americans pass along information, true or false, until finally deadly damage is done to their country’s war effort. One false rumor is silenced by a man who later is unwittingly responsible for starting a true rumor which ends in a great catastrophe. Moral: Keep your mouth shut.
What’s especially wonderful about Have You Heard?, meanwhile, is that parts of it really do feel like Hitchcock. Several of Elisofon’s photos might be mistaken for stills from a film by the Master of Suspense, and Hitchcock himself even makes one of his trademark—and refreshingly comical—appearances as a tertiary character in the narrative. (See slide #14 in the gallery above.)
It might not rise to the heights the director scaled in masterpieces like The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, North by Northwest and Vertigo, but as a record of Hitchcock’s willingness to lend his craft in the service of the war effort, Have You Heard? remains a fascinating, and still-entertaining, little gem.
Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com