Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia
The continuing stream of books on Alfred Hitchcock over the past few years underlines the immense popularity of this seminal director. The ‘master of suspense’ directed more than 50 feature films over six decades, and Hitchcock continues to create academic and cinematic interest 40 years after his death. Any reasonable list of the top ten directors in cinema history will almost certainly include him. The University Press of Kentucky has become a minor Hitchcock production line with several books published or re-published over the past few years. These cover a broad range of approaches to the director and cinema, from academic theorists to more grounded film critics and historians.
First released in 1995, Paula Marantz Cohen’s Alfred Hitchcock: The Legacy of Victorianism gained polite reviews, and just over 25 years down the track, it is being re-released in paperback. Cohen is a respected academic whose work has also been widely referenced by many scholars working on Hitchcock. This book extends her ideas in her earlier work, The Daughter’s Dilemma: Family Process and the Nineteenth-century Domestic Novel, published in 1991. Despite her literary focus, Cohen had written on Hitchock as early as 1969, when she looked at Alfred Hitchcock Presents’s TV series. In 1994, she wrote a paper called “The Ideological Transformation of Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” into Hitchcock’s “Sabotage,” which is the starting point for this more extensive work.
The book has an intriguing premise that Victorian values shaped Hitchcock, and the views were reflected in his cinema. She is focused on the literary sources of Hitchcock’s films. In the opening chapters, she employs Hitchcock’s comments to Francois Truffaut that he basically used the essential plot ideas of the novel and then created his cinematic version of it. She often takes issue with this point, arguing that Hitchcock drew a lot of his material from novels. Given her focus on 19th Century literature, it is interesting that she neglected to mention the extended discussion with Truffaut concerning Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Hitchock says the book was too dense, with every sentence carrying meaning, and he could not convert it into a film. Hitchock’s relationship with novelists is hardly unique. It is difficult to point to any significant director of Hollywood’s classical era who did not often use books or plays as a basis for their films. Under the studio system, the rights for the books were often highly contested and bought because they were bestsellers, with a ready-made audience. How they converted these works to cinema is an exciting field of study.
Having set up this framework, Cohen argues that Hitchcock eventually moved away from Victorian or novelistic values later in his career. Given Hitchcock’s English origins and the time of his birth, it was inevitable that his work would reflect some measure of Victorian values. Extending this idea, Cohen argues Hitchcock wrestled with: “[T]he two faces of Victorianism: the feminine legacy of feeling and imagination associated with the domestic novel and the masculine legacy and hierarchy – the world of the schoolyard – associated with institutions.” (3) This idea is intriguing, but some points raised by Cohen are debatable. For example, are these ‘two faces of Victorianism’ solely confined to the 19th century? Can it also be argued that 19th Century fiction represented female concerns and the twentieth-century film focused on the male gaze? The evidence presented by Cohen is that literary and film theorists have decreed it so, but is it accurate or only true to an extent? Cohen makes these broad statements – and does not consider alternate possibilities – then uses them as a base to analyse Hitchcock’s cinema.
In doing so, the book often gets lost in a raft of theoretical positions. Given Cohen’s broad – or close to freewheeling – theoretical approach, which encompasses feminism, psychoanalysis, and family systems, it is hard to think of any significant classical-era director that wouldn’t fit her criteria to some degree. Take, for example, John Ford’s Rio Grande, which has the main character deciding between his family and the military traditions of the cavalry. Does this mean that Ford and all directors of this vintage shared or were attracted to the same type of dilemmas? Cohen never lifts her gaze to look at the wider studio system.
In presenting her case, Cohen often seems to be reading too much into simple scenes. For example, in the American version of The Man Who Knew Who Knew Too Much, she describes a scene where Jimmy Stewart has difficulty sitting at a table to eat some food in the Arab tradition. Stewart is quite tall, and the actor awkwardly places himself on the floor. The scene is a minor comic one in a tense thriller. Hitchock often juxtaposed comedy and suspense. Cohen sees the scene as depicting “two perspectives on masculinity.” Aside from being impatient with the customs of ‘other “less civilized” peoples,’ Cohen further sees: “The wife’s behavior, as it differs from his in this context, merely supports the conventional doctrine of separate spheres in which women concern themselves with trivial and domestic matters, men with issues that are really important (as a surgeon, he is, after all, confronted with matters of life and death on a daily basis.).” (117) That is quite a leap from someone finding it difficult to get their long legs under a small table. It is almost as if Cohen is attempting to drag too much meaning from the scenes. You can practically hear Hitchock’s dismissive response: “It’s only a movie.”
While it is a provocative approach, Cohen’s basic concept that Hitchcock moved from the Victorian to the post-modern is not entirely convincing. Other views have developed greater resonance. Around the time of the publication of Cohen’s book, Jane Sloan introduced her extensive Alfred Hitchcock bibliography arguing that Hitchcock was a “sponge” who was “eager to adapt the point of view that would sell, and open to any idea that seemed good.” Sloan’s view of Hitchcock appears to have gained greater traction over the years and has been employed by many film critics such as Charles Barr (1999), Murray Pomerance (2004), Thomas Leitch (2011), Mark William Padillia (2016), Edward White (2021).
Another approach to Cohen is shown in John Billheimer’s Hitchcock and the Censors, also published in 2019 by the University of Kentucky Press and recently reissued in paperback. The book shows the constant struggle that Hitchcock had with the censors over his long career. Film directors had to deal with a raft of controls, and Hitchcock strained against the restrictions at every turn, trying a series of highly inventive moves to circumvent the Production Code. Billheimer details Hitchock’s struggles with the censors with his films from the 1930s through to the 1970s. Even though the Production Code was for films from the United States, British studios wanted an American release to boost profits and had to submit to the same restrictions. As early as 1934, the Production Code forced changes to a shootout in the conclusion in The Man Who Knew too Much. Billheimer shows how Hitchcock wrestled with complaints about sex, violence, and even the flushing of toilets in Psycho (1960).
When controls relaxed, Hitchcock presented more and more graphic depictions of sex and violence. In 1972, when the limits of the Production Code were lifted, he gave full vent to depictions of sexual violence in Frenzy (1972). Some critics designated the graphic rape scene as the most repulsive scene of Hitchcock’s cinematic career. This approach suggests that Hitchcock’s restraint had nothing to do with rejecting Victorian values. Hitchcock had been kept on the leash until the later part of his career. Billheimer concluded that: “Hitchcock had every reason to be pleased with the critical and box office response to Frenzy. Freed from the restrictions of the Production Code, he made the movie he wanted to make, from a story he selected personally.” It is a solid counterpoint to Cohen’s approach.
One aspect of Cohen’s work that has been quoted frequently is her belief that “to study him is to find an economical way of studying the entire history of cinema.” The expression is mentioned in Phillip French’s foreword to Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films, written by Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr, again published by the University of Kentucky Press in 2015. The introductory chapter also repeats the idea.
Charles Barr has a long pedigree of publishing in English cinema with a particular focus on Hitchcock. Alain Kerzoncuf has published several pieces on Hitchcock, including Hitch and the Remakes. The stated aim of Kerzoncuf and Barr is “to examine successive stages of Hitchcock’s career in a level-headed way […] providing solid data about a wide range of lost or neglected or otherwise problematic material” (2). The book is clear and focused in its aims and delivers a fascinating survey of Hitchock’s forgotten films.
The book is aimed at the Hitchcock fanatic, and they are well served. The authors track down many of Hitchcock’s forgotten films, providing an interesting assessment of the movies and shorts to help reassess Hitchcock’s broader career. The writers range widely to discuss the alternate ending for Murder! (1930), highlight a virtually unknown film on the cotton industry in Let’s Go Bathing (1931), or a section cut from The 39 Steps. The authors are careful with their conclusions, using evidence from several sources to back their views. They are also scrupulous in citing other writers when presenting their judgments. The book is at its best when it compares some scenes of these minor or early films with the later canonical works. You get a sense of the director developing his skills and ability – no matter how minor the film or show may be. The book is backed by meticulous research that adds to understanding Hitchcock’s place in cinema history. It is astonishing how much material they find.
The book often takes the form of notes, as if it were a compilation of material – almost a series of blogs. However, in those notes is a host of valuable information about Hitchcock, beginning with the films he made before The Pleasure Garden (1925) when his directorial presence began to be felt. This opening section is a fascinating glimpse at the development of Hitchcock. Like all period historians, Kerzoncuf and Barr have to grapple with an incomplete record. Still, they have produced a book that sheds new light on a director by looking at the lesser films, documentaries, and TV shows. When cross-checking many movies listed in the book with the standard biographies and critical works, it is clear that Kerzoncuf and Barr have revealed many films that have been neglected or completely ignored. They have opened new avenues of research and discovery for people interested in the director. While Billheimer saw Hitchcock’s career essentially beginning in 1934 with the British version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Cohen is focused almost exclusively on American films, Kerzoncuf and Barr show he had a long history in the British film industry before he came to prominence.
The only caveat to the publication of these books is that reissues should contain some updating or a new introduction to discuss the books and their impact on Hitchcock studies. Every author reconsiders their books to a greater or lesser degree, and it would be good to know how their ideas have developed.