Among great film stars the longevity of Lillian Gish is unmatched: She remains active after a career that began in 1912 when she was 16. The comparable distinction among great directors belongs to Alfred Hitchcock, who made his first important movie in 1926 and hopes to begin his 54th feature, an espionage thriller called "The Long Night," later this year.

Hitchcock was honored with the American Film Institute's seventh annual Life Achievement Award at a banquet held in Los Angeles Wednesday, and a 90-minute version will be telecast over CBS tomorrow night at 9:30. It includes a typically droll acceptance speech from the honored guest himself, who refers to the AFI's ultimate (and, lest we forget, fundraising) citation as "the life amusement award."

It's a particularly felicitous turn of phrase when one considers Hitchcock's extraordinary career. "A pretty good case could be made for Alfred Hitchcock as the master entertainer of the movie medium," Pauline Kael wrote several years ago. "From the 1930s to the 1960s his films have been a source of perverse pleasure."

Although the quality and frequency of Hitchcock's work began to decline in the mid-'60s ("Marnie," despite some grievous casting and writing problems, seems the last of his thrillers still animated by the distinctive Hitchcock streamlining and flamboyance), nothing has happened to contradict Kael's evaluation.

Nearing 80, Hitchcock has been slowed by arthritis and a heart condition that requires a pacemaker. Since photos of the late 1930s and early 1940s show a grotesquely obese Hitchcock, it seems miraculous that he has survived into a productive, modestly corpulent old age.

He was born in the northeast London suburb of Leyton, his father a grocer, the family Catholic. He was enrolled at a Jesuit boarding school at an early age.

One of Hitchcock's most vivid childhood memories is presumed to have had a lasting influence. An ofttold tale, Hitchcock recalled it for Francois Truffaut in 1966: "I must have been about 4 or 5 years old. My father sent me to the police station with a note. The chief of police read it and locked me in a cell for five or ten minutes, saying, 'This is what we do to naughty boys.'"

When Truffaut asked why he was being punished, Hitchcock replied, "I haven't the faintest idea. As a matter of fact, my father used to call me his 'little lamb without a spot.' I truly cannot imagine what it was I did."

Hitchcock also suggested that his preoccupation with fear had more than one source. "As I think back upon it," he said, "we must have been a rather eccentric little group. At any rate, I was what is known as a well-behaved child. At family gatherings I would sit quietly in a corner, saying nothing.I looked and observed a good deal.... I was a loner -- can't remember ever having had a playmate. I played by myself, inventing my own games.

"... Ours was a Catholic family and in England, you see, this in itself is an eccentricity. It was probably during this period with the Jesuits that a strong sense of fear developed -- moral fear -- the fear of being involved in anything evil.... I was terrified of physical punishment. In those days they used a cane made of very hard rubber.... It wasn't done casually, you know; it was rather like the execution of a sentence."

Avid for the movies and talented at graphics and caricature, Hitchcock secured a job as a title illustrator with the newly established (and short-lived) London branch of Famous Players-Lasky, the forerunner of Paramount, in 1920. His duties often demanded rewriting titles as well as illustrating them, and he quickly acquired a practical knowledge of the peculiar, flexible syntax of silent movie storytelling. He got his first chance at directing in 1921, but the picture, "Number Thirteen," was left unfinished when the Americans abandoned their London outpost. Hitchcock was immediately snapped up by the late, indispensable British producer Michael Balcon, then a producer of advertising films trying to expand into features with a new independent production company.

Hitchcock worked as a scenario writer, art director and assistant director on five movies before Balcon finally gave him the chance to direct his first feature, "The Pleasure Garden," in 1925. A year later "The Lodger," obviously influenced by his exposure to expressionist German filmmaking at its height, established Hitchcock as the most promising and distinctive director in England. Hollywood called immediately, but it was 13 years before Hitchcock began the American phase of his career most auspiciously for producer David O. Selznick with the Oscar-winning "Rebecca."

Hitchcock's flair for psychological terror and dynamic pictorial storytelling was evident in "The Lodger," with its bravura opening -- the image of a screaming girl followed by shots of a play title, "Tonight, Golden Curls," on an electric sign flickering in the water, and then the corpse of the girl being pulled from the water as bystanders, police and journalists crowd around -- and startling inventions, like the well-known shot through a glass ceiling of the murder suspect nervously pacing in his room.

The movie also initiated Hitchcock's custom of making cameo appearances. In fact, he appeared twice -- in the setting of a newspaper office and a crowd scene. The practice later required inanimate appearances in the confined settings of "Lifeboat," "Rope" and "Dial M for Murder," where Hitchcock was glimpsed in a newspaper ad, on a billboard and in a photograph, respectively. "By now it's a rather troublesome gag," he told Truffaut. "I'm very careful to show up in the first five minutes so as to let the people look at the rest of the movie with no further distraction."

Despite his special affinity for thrillers, reaffirmed in the 1929 "Blackmail," his first talkie, Hitchcock did not begin specializing in them until he and Balcon were reunited in 1934 on "The Man Who Knew Too Much." This project, his 18th feature, came at a low point in Hitchcock's career. He had been languishing on a disastrous non-musical drama about the Strausses, "Waltzes From Vienna," which inspired him to conclude, "I hate this sort of stuff. Melodrama is the only thing I can do!"

Hitchcock became the master of suspense with the group of films that followed his unhappy brush with costume romance: "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "The 39 Steps," "The Secret Agent," "Sabotage," "Young and Innocent" and "The Lady Vanishes." The climactic sequence at Albert Hall in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" emerged as the first textbook example of Hitchcock's orchestration of suspense: The audience is carefully primed for the moment when an assassin will synchronize his gunshot with the clash of cymbals during a symphonic concert. "The 39 Steps" streamlined the romantic chase thriller to an extent that no one has improved on. Hitchcock himself was still ringing amusing changes off the premise almost 25 years later in "North by Northwest."

Hitchcock is perhaps the supreme example of a premeditated movie artist. All his scenic and emotional effects are calculated well in advance of the shooting, predetermined in the script and frequently visualized in detailed sketches. While not unknown, improvisation and inspiration on the set are alien to the Hitchcock method.

Hitchcock's facetious crack, "Actors are cattle," is an extreme expression of a viewpoint he summarized more politely back in 1937: "... Film work hasn't much need for the virtuoso actor who gets his effects and climaxes himself.... Mostly he is wanted to behave quietly and naturally (which, of course, isn't at all easy), leaving the camera to add most of the accents and emphases. I would almost say that the best screen actor is the man who can do nothing extremely well."

One can cite playful starring performances in Hitchcock movies -- Robert Walker in "Strangers on a Train" or Anthony Perkins in "Psycho" -- but it's impossible to imagine passionately intuitive dramatic actors like Brando or Pacino or De Niro flourishing under his direction.

Hitchcock's need for nearly absolute creative control can pay thrilling and amusing dividends, as everyone fond of "The 39 Steps" or "The Lady Vanishes" or "Rebecca" or "Notorious" or "Strangers on a Train" or "Rear Window" or "The Trouble With Harry" or "Vertigo" or "North by Northwest" or "Psycho" can testify. At the same time it has limited his expressive range by suppressing the pontaneous, unpredictable creative elements in filmmaking. Hitchcock's admission that the shooting process tends to become a bore eventually led to the lifeless quality of his recent pictures, which reflect his characteristic premeditation but lack zestful, incisive depiction.

Hitchcock's influence on fellow professionals continues to be enormous. Within the past year or so Hitchcockian recollections, touches or tributes have been conspicuously though not always effectively apparent in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind, "High Anxiety," "The Fury," "Coma," "Dear Inspector," "Capricorn One," "Foul Play," "The Boys From Brazil" and "The Great Train Robbery." It appears that one of the most promising releases of the spring, Jonathan Demme's "Last Embrace," may be yet another homage.

Brian De Palma, who may emerge as the greatest stylist in the Hitchcock tradition since the founder himself, was asked to explain the mystique on one occasion and replied, "He's one of the few directors who advanced the form, the art of visual storytelling. Anybody who knows anything about film grammar cannot help but be snowed under by Hitchcock. It's like studying Bach."