Publisher: Oxford University Press Release Date: September 01, 2020 A Conversation with Dan Callahan “Even when we know everything about a movie down to its shooting schedule and budget and … Continue reading Book Interview: The Camera Lies – Acting For Hitchcock
Publisher: Middlebrow Books Release Date: July 01, 2020 A Conversation with Robert Jones “Hitchcock’s California: Vista Visions from the Camera Eye” celebrates (and re-creates) images that evoke scenes from many … Continue reading Book Interview: Hitchcock’s California – Vista Visions from the Camera Eye
Publisher: The University Press of Kentucky
Release Date: June 14, 2019
A Conversation with John Billheimer
John Billheimer has written a book that seems long overdue. In Hitchcock and the Censors, he “traces the forces that led to the Production Code and describes Hitchcock’s interactions with code officials on a film-by-film basis as he fought to protect his creations, bargaining with code reviewers, and sidestepping censorship to produce a lifetime of memorable films. By examining Hitchcock’s priorities in dealing with the censors, this work highlights the director’s theories of suspense as well as his magician-like touch when negotiating with code officials.”
Billheimer has graciously agreed to discuss both his book and Alfred Hitchcock’s battle with censorship in this exclusive interview.
AHM: Would you tell us about your new book? How did you happen upon the idea for a book that focused on the director’s relationship with the censors, and what challenges did you face in order to make it a reality?
JB: The book traces the rise of movie censorship in Britain and the US and documents the demands made by the censors on Hitchcock and his reaction to those demands. I got the idea when I accompanied a writer friend to the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills and looked into their archives while she was doing research. I stumbled onto the reams of correspondence between the Production Code censors and Hitchcock and was fascinated by them. The biggest challenge in bringing the book to fruition was finding a publisher. Most of the agents and publishers I approached felt that there were already too many Hitchcock books on the market and that it wouldn’t be a money-making proposition.
AHM: It’s surprising to hear that publishers weren’t immediately interested. As a matter of fact, one would think that such a book would have already been written about this topic as it is obviously one that should hold great interest for both casual fans and scholars. Why do you think that this particular subject hadn’t been comprehensively dissected until now?
JB: Funny you should make that observation. The first review of the book, by Leonard Maltin, begins by saying, “Here is a book that should have (and could have) been written years ago.” He goes on to call it “…an important piece of work.” I can only guess at the reasons it hasn’t been comprehensively done until now. The existence and accessibility of the correspondence between Hitchcock and the censors isn’t generally known, and those researchers who have discovered the letters have generally been interested in a particular film rather than the complete archives.
AHM: What was your most surprising discovery while researching the various documents that form the basis for this text? Do you see Alfred Hitchcock’s work differently now than you did when you started the project?
JB: I think the most surprising thing was the sheer volume of the demands made on each of his films. Production Code censors averaged 22.5 comments on each film, ranging from the mundane to the mind-boggling, and each one had to be addressed in order to get a film released. In addition, there were other groups, like the Office of War Information and the Humane Society, whose concerns had to be accommodated as well. I definitely see his work differently now. I’m much more aware of his thought processes and tend to see why he emphasized certain elements. I’m also conscious of those elements that were removed from various sequences, like the overhead shot in Psycho and lines of dialogue in other films.
AHM: How did you first become interested in Alfred Hitchcock’s work, and why do his films appeal to you?
JB: While in high school, I worked as an usher in one of the three local theaters in my home town of Huntington, West Virginia, and my theater happened to be the one screening Hitchcock’s films. He was the only director whose name was generally recognized, and I had a chance to watch his films over and over. I was particularly impressed by the audience reaction to such set pieces as the attempted murder in Dial M For Murder, first as the murderer lifts and withdraws the scarf as Grace Kelly raises and lowers the phone from her ear, and then as the killer falls, plunging the scissors deeper into his back, which never failed to elicit an audible gasp from the audience.
AHM: Were there any major differences between the rules put into place by ‘The British Board of Film Censors’ and Hollywood’s production code? Was Alfred Hitchcock able to get away with things in Britain that he would get into trouble for in America? (Or visa-versa?)
JB: The British censors were far more interested in social issues, class distinctions, and keeping workers in their place. American censors were far more concerned with sex and violence. The differences are highlighted in the last group of thrillers Hitchcock made in England before departing for America. These were passed by the British censors, but had to be ‘Okayed’ by the Production Code office before they could be shown in the US. In The 39 Steps, the male and female leads are handcuffed together while fleeing from both the police and enemy agents and are forced to spend the night together in a double bed. In the British version, the couple are fully clothed, at odds with one another, and the man goes to sleep while the woman frees herself from the handcuffs. Before the movie could be imported, American censors insisted that the scene of the two in bed together be excised, even though the two were fully clothed and arguing. The producers argued that eliminating the scene would create a discontinuity (the two leads would be shown preparing for bed while handcuffed and waking up freed), but the American censors insisted on the deletion, observing that they never would have allowed the scene to be filmed in the first place.
AHM: Do you feel that it is possible for a film to “lower the moral standards of those who see it?”
JB: An interesting question. The quote, of course, comes from the opening of the Production Code. I suppose it depends on the strength of one’s moral standards to begin with. If someone has been brought up to believe that drinking alcohol is sinful and they watch Nick and Nora Charles having a fine time downing martinis and solving crimes, they might decide that drinking isn’t so bad after all. So their standards will have been changed. If they then become an alcoholic, do you blame Dashiell Hammett? I’m against the sort of censorship that sets itself up as the supreme authority on what is “acceptable” and has the authority to enforce their views and stifle creativity. There are, of course, limits (child pornography always rears its ugly head). I’d rather see the marketplace sort out what’s acceptable. There are two quotes on censorship that reflect my views and I wish I’d included in my book: “I dislike censorship. Like an appendix it is useless when inert and dangerous when active.” (Maurice Edelman); and “Censorship, like charity, should begin at home, but, unlike charity, it should end there.” (Clare Boothe Luce)
AHM: In the books second chapter, you state that “in a few instances, the censors’ suggestions actually improved the final films.” Which of his films were positively influenced, and how did the eventual changes improve them?
JB: Notorious is a good example of a film that was actually improved by the Code. The Breen office actually improved the film by demanding that Ingrid Bergman’s character be reformed (that she “live by her wits” rather than being a “loose woman”) and suggesting that she marry the lead spy, played by Claude Rains, who had once been in love with her. This made Rains a sympathetic villain, since his affection for Bergman was far more evident than that of the nominal lead, Cary Grant.
AHM: Which Hitchcock films were most negatively affected by the demands of the code?
JB: In my view, the Code rule that did the most damage to Hitchcock’s films was the admonition that evildoers must be punished. Blind adherence to this rule led to an implausible explanation for the death of the title character in Rebecca. It also led to the outlandish absolution of Cary Grant’s character in Suspicion, forced an improbable ending onto The Paradine Case, kept Farley Granger from completing the criss-cross murder in Strangers On A Train, and saved Montgomery Clift from the gallows in I Confess. It’s hard to argue that Rebecca was ruined by meddling, since it won the Best Picture Oscar. But the plot was implausible—not that implausibility ever bothered Hitchcock. The novel Rebecca tells the story of a man who kills his beautiful wife as she taunts him over an extramarital affair and claims to be pregnant with another man’s child. In the movie, the wife falls while taunting her husband, hits her head, and dies. The husband then convers up her accidental death just as he did her murder in the book, for no apparent reason, other than the need stick closely to the book’s plot.
I Confess was also harmed by the implausibility forced upon the plot by the Production Code. In the play on which the film is based, the priest played by Montgomery Clift goes to the gallows because he won’t reveal the identity of the real murderer, who has confessed his guilt and is protected by the seal of the confessional. Clift is accused of the murder because he was being blackmailed by the murdered man who, in the play, knew that the priest had fathered an illegitimate child before he was ordained. The Code caused the illegitimate child to vanish, and be replaced by an evening Clift spent with his girlfriend after being caught in a storm long before he decided to become a priest. As a source of blackmail, this rain-soaked evening was pretty thin, but, again, plausibility was never Hitchcock’s first concern. And the need to punish the actual murderer saved Clift from the gallows and a stronger ending.
AHM: In the book’s fifth chapter—which focuses on the symbiotic relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick—you mention that these two men had differing approaches in their dealings with the Breen office. You state that while Selznick entered into “open warfare,” Hitchcock preferred to avoid open confrontation and simply manipulated them to his benefit. Could you give us some examples of these two differing approaches? What do you think that this says about the differences in their personalities?
JB: Selznick met the censors head on, arguing openly for concessions in Gone with the Wind and publicly airing his disgust with the Production Code, calling it “insane, inane, and outmoded.” He was equally disgusted with the Production Code’s stance on Rebecca. “The whole story of ‘Rebecca’ is of a man who has murdered his wife,” Selznick complained, “and it now becomes the story of a man who buried a wife who was killed accidentally!” Hitchcock, on the other hand, took an accommodating and conciliatory stance with the Code officials. It was he who suggested the “accidental death” approach to Rebecca. And as his career progressed, Hitchcock bargained effectively with Code officials, getting his way through indirection and seeming accommodation.
The different approaches the two men took with the Code definitely reflected the differences in their personalities. As I wrote in the book, “Selznick was an extrovert, while Hitchcock was subdued and secretive; Selznick was explosive and overbearing, while Hitchcock hated conflict and disagreement…”
AHM: What various strategies Hitchcock use to manipulate the censor’s into allowing material that they would not usually allow?
JB: Hitchcock proceeded by indirection, stalling, sweet-talking, surrendering by degrees, and swapping off lesser elements to protect cherished images. Often, the material to be swapped included questionable elements inserted precisely for that purpose. In Rear Window, Hitchcock captured three separate views of the delectable Miss Torso, filming her once topless from behind, once in a white negligee, and once in black. The topless version was intended as bait for the censors, and he replaced it with the protective negligee footage when they objected, using his “capitulation” to buy concessions in other areas of the film. As his career progressed, Hitchcock would deliberately film elements of dialogue that the censors had flagged as objectionable in their script review, so that they were available as trading chips to protect scenes that raised the censors’ hackles during their review of the finished film.
AHM: Geoffrey Shurlock took over the Production Code Administration after Joseph Breen stepped down in 1954. What were the differences between these two men in terms of production code policy, and how did Alfred Hitchcock use these changes to his benefit?
JB: Joseph Breen was an ambitious anti-Semitic autocrat who enjoyed imposing his will on the studio heads, whom he characterized as “scum” and “lice” in private correspondence. His successor, Geoffrey Shurlock, was a more cultured man with an appreciation for the arts who allowed directors he liked (Hitchcock was one) some latitude in their moviemaking. By way of comparison, the number of comments on Hitchcock’s films under Breen’s supervision (26.7) was more than double the number (12.5) produced under Shurlock. The fireworks seduction scene in To Catch A Thief, which Breen condemned during his final months in office, passed almost intact after he had surrendered the baton to Shurlock.
AHM: How would Hitchcock’s filmmaking be different if he were making his movies today? Would they be better or worse without the code?
JB: Hitchcock’s final three films, Topaz, Frenzy, and Family Plot were made after the Code had been replaced by a version of the rating system we have today. In Frenzy, he took advantage of relaxed restrictions on nudity and violence, but there is little evidence that freedom from the Code affected the other two films. He would certainly have had a broader range of topics to choose from in the absence of the Code, and that could only have improved his output.
The Code had its greatest impact on Hitchcock at the start of his American career, when its influence was strongest. By the end of his career, he was able to manipulate the censors so that they had little real impact on his films. Still, he would have been freed from the need to interact with Code officials, which could only help his output. But the need to bend images to fit Code guidelines led to some of his most memorable scenes. The shower scene is Psycho, one of the most memorable in film history, was precisely constructed to subvert Code guidelines, as was the prolonged “kissing” scene in Notorious. On balance, though, Hitchcock’s films would have been better without the Code, particularly at the start of his American career.
AHM: What is it about Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work that makes it so ripe for scholarship? Why are people still fascinated with his filmmaking?
JB: Hitchcock was the first director whose work was generally recognized by the public, both because of his self-promotion and because of the genuine pleasure he provided in his work. He knew how to push the buttons of his audience systematically and effectively, and provided a lifetime of lasting images. The shower scene in Psycho is easily the most memorable montage ever put on film, and he created other images almost equally memorable, including the crop-dusting sequence in North by Northwest, the aborted strangling in Dial M For Murder, the avian attack in The Birds, and the excruciating murder in Torn Curtain. Four of his films were listed among the list of the 100 greatest films of all time compiled by the American Film Institute, and nine were among the AFI’s list of the 100 greatest thrillers. He was the cinema’s master technician, and his films are a pleasure to view and study.
[Note: Some of the opinions expressed in this interview are not necessarily shared by Alfred Hitchcock Master. Please be respectful to others in your comments if you wish to dispute any of these opinions. This is a friendly community.]
Interview by: Devon Powell
Publisher: McFarland Release Date: April 23, 2019 A Conversation with Wes D. Gehring An analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s methodical use of comedy in his films is past due, and Hitchcock … Continue reading Book Interview: Hitchcock and Humor
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Release Date: September 15, 2018 A Conversation with Constantine Santas It doesn’t matter what you’ve read or what you may have heard about the importance of Alfred … Continue reading Book Interview: The Essential Films of Ingrid Bergman
Publisher: Insight Editions
Release Date: May 01, 2018
A Conversation with Caroline Young
From his early days as a director in the 1920s to his heyday as the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock had a complicated and controversial relationship with his leading ladies. He supervised their hair, their makeup, their wardrobe, and pushed them to create his perfect vision onscreen. These women were often style icons in their own right, and the clothes that they wore imbued the films with contemporary glamor.
Quite a lot has been written over the past few decades regarding Alfred Hitchcock’s use of women in his films—some of it from a scholarly or theoretical standpoint and some of it from a sensationalized tabloid angle that only serves to muddy the waters of responsible scholarship. However, it must be said that this new Insight Editions release of Caroline Young’s Hitchcock’s Heroines doesn’t quite fall into either category. She chronicles six decades of glamorous style while exploring the fashion legacy of these amazing women and their experiences working with Hitchcock. It is informative without being pushy but still manages to have a point of view. What’s more, Young’s text is well researched and beautifully illustrated with studio pictures, film stills, and original drawings of the costume designs. Anyone with a fondness for attractive coffee table books should consider adding this volume to their collection.
Caroline Young is based in Edinburgh Scotland. Her love of film and fashion led to her writing Classic Hollywood Style, Style Tribes: The Fashion of Subcultures, and Tartan and Tweed. Young recently consented to this exclusive interview with Alfred Hitchcock Master, and we hope that you enjoy it as much as we did!
AHM: When did you first become interested in Alfred Hitchcock’s work and what instigated the interest?
CY: I have been a Hitchcock fan since my early teens. I would read Empire magazine, which would often do lists of the best films ever made, and Hitchcock was frequently on the list. So I would rent as many videotapes as I could, and I think the first one I saw was Rear Window. I just loved the visuals and the way it felt like I was in this tenement in a sweltering summer in New York. I did film studies at university so my appreciation was further built, studying the shower scene and applying various film theories to his work.
AHM: Could you describe Hitchcock’s Heroines for our readers? What makes this book stand out amongst the others in your opinion?
CY: Hitchcock’s Heroines is the first book to visually explore the costumes and image of the women in Hitchcock’s films. It has great images and costume sketches, including one from Frenzy that has never been published, but it offers a lot more than this. I wanted to take a balanced approach to Hitchcock’s relationship to his leading ladies, weave in details on the making of the films, and celebrate these amazing actresses and their stories. I also researched and found further detail on the designers behind the different films, such as Adrian for Shadow of a Doubt, and how it was David O Selznick who shaped the character’s image in Rebecca and Spellbound.
AHM: What gave you the initial idea to write a book that centers on the heroines in Hitchcock’s canon and what were the biggest challenges in making it a reality?
CY: The idea came from my first book, ‘Classic Hollywood Style,’ which explore the story behind the costumes in classic movies. As a follow up I wanted to do another film costume book that focused entirely on Hitchcock, as I had only featured To Catch a Thief, but I had found out so much more information on the costumes in his films that I would’ve liked to have included. This was in 2012, and there was also a lot of interest in the relationship between Tippi and Hitchcock at this time, and his obsession over blondes, particularly on the release of The Girl. But rather than look at him through this misogynistic filter, I was interested in seeing how the women in his films were sympathetic and inspiring, how their image was constructed, and what the actresses thought of Hitchcock and how they got on with them.
The main challenge was the topic, as firstly, Hitchcock was considered controversial, and also that books on film fashion are not always considered popular. I was also conscious of being respectful to Tippi and that a balanced approach didn’t diminish what she was saying.
AHM: Do you have a favorite Hitchcock heroine? If so, who would that be and why is she your favorite?
CY: Difficult to choose, but I adore Nova Pilbeam as she’s really fresh and plucky in Young and Innocent (you wonder how did she learn skills from being in a boxer’s dressing room), but Ingrid Bergman in Notorious is another favorite. I like the character arc from self-destructive to showing complete guts in sacrificing herself for duty, the way the ‘female gaze’ is reversed in the party scene, and those Edith Head costumes which use stark black and white to make her stand out. Also, Ingrid Bergman does being drunk really well.
AHM: Now, the reverse of the last question: Which of Hitchcock’s leading ladies is your least favorite and why did she not appeal to you?
CY: Maureen O’Hara in Jamaica Inn, probably because the film doesn’t really feel like a Hitchcock work, and it doesn’t leave a memorable impression.
AHM: How did you decide upon which films and actresses to include in the book?
CY: It was a tough call as there was a limit to how much I could include—so I went for the most notable films in terms of visuals around the female character, along with ones I felt illustrated the journey. Nova Pilbeam is not that well known but had been an early protégée of Hitchcock’s, which is why I included Young and Innocent. I would have liked to have explored Vera Miles in The Wrong Man but her image is secondary in that film. However, that could have been interesting in itself.
AHM: How do you think his British films—and the heroines that feature in these films—differ from those he made as a Hollywood director? Did his heroines change once he moved to America? If so, what are these differences? What do you feel the reasons for this might be?
CY: The British period was when he was finding his own style, developing new techniques and narratives, and in the British period, apart from Anny Ondra, who he enjoyed working with, and Madeleine Carroll who was the first glacial blonde prototype, it wasn’t until Grace Kelly that he found his muse. There are articles in the early 1930s where he talks about what makes the ideal heroine—and he notes that above all they must be appealing to a female audience, so that’s really what he had in mind when casting his British heroines. In later interviews with Hitchcock in the 1950s, when the ideal of the Hitchcock blonde had been established, he pushed a PR line about the Nordic blonde, the ‘snow covered volcano’, and I feel that this was really shaped by Grace Kelly, whose magic he was striving to recreate.
One of the main factors in the differences is that it was in the late 1940s American period where he finally found autonomy in his work as both director and producer, and this allowed him to have complete control, rather than having to answer to other producers. That’s why Notorious is interesting as the first Edith Head collaboration, and the first where he really takes control of the heroine’s image.
Some of the differences are also down to the period they were made. Women in 1930s films often followed the screwball comedy mold, and they were designed to appeal to female audiences who liked plucky, fashionable heroines on screen. Then in the early 1940s, there was a trend for gothic romantic films that delved into the heroine’s anxieties, and this was all shaped by the Second World War. Priscilla Lane in Saboteur was another example of the archetype he would later develop more fully, but I feel he was disappointed a little in her performance. The period of the Hitchcock blonde was predominant in the 1950s, once he had his dream team, and with Edith Head shaping the costumes, and perhaps it could also be argued that the Hitchcock heroine that we think of is very much a 1950s woman.
AHM: As you well know, Hitchcock had originally intended to pull Princess Grace out of retirement so that she could star in MARNIE before later deciding to make the film with Tippi Hedren. How do you think the casting of Grace Kelly would have changed the final film? How do Hedren’s qualities differ from Grace Kelly’s?
CY: I imagine the making of the film would have been a happier experience for all involved if Grace Kelly had played Marnie, and this could, in turn, have had a significant effect on the final work.
Grace Kelly was also a more experienced actress, requiring less guidance than Tippi, and while Tippi has this real vulnerability and emotional quality, I wonder if Grace Kelly would have made the character seem more manipulative and less frightened. Maybe she would have had the ability to convince him of character changes, to cut the rape scene etc, which many people believe he kept in to demonstrate complete control of Tippi.
It’s often said that Hitchcock was never the same after the making of Marnie, it was an upsetting time for Tippi (as she has recounted). If Grace Kelly had done the role, his later films may have been different. He may have been allowed to make Mary Rose… It’s an interesting question as it could potentially have had a big effect on how we judge him now.
AHM: Alfred Hitchcock’s films are still enormously popular all around the globe. Why are his films still relevant while so many others have long been forgotten?
CY: They were highly innovative, combining humor, suspense, and similar themes throughout which have provoked countless theories and examinations around his fetishes and obsessions. He was a great PR man who knew how to publicize himself, evident from some of the early interviews in the 1930s, and so he became a fascinating, intriguing figure in himself. One of the appealing aspects of Hitchcock is also that he captures a particular time and place in his visuals, and Hitchcock, as a British director, captures America through the eyes of a Brit. So he explores Americana in Psycho, with the highways and motel, and uses huge American landmarks for the climax of many of his films (Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, and etc). He was also always looking to be innovative [and] to push boundaries, but he also changed the way we view films with Psycho. [It’s] hard to believe people would just wander into the cinema to see a film at any time, but Hitchcock insisted audiences not be permitted once the film started. So all these factors have contributed to the longevity of his films, and that we are still discussing him in detail along with recent controversies which have continued to keep him in the news.
[Note: Some of the opinions expressed in this interview are not necessarily shared by Alfred Hitchcock Master. Please be respectful to others in your comments if you wish to dispute any of these opinions. Remember that this is a friendly community.]
Interview by: Devon Powell