Book Interview: Hitchcock and the Censors

Hitchcock and the Censors - Cover

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.

Joseph Breen

Joseph Breen headed the Production Code Administration until his failing health forced him to step down in 1954.

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.

Dial M For Murder - The Knife Murder

Seeing repeat screenings of Alfred Hitchcock’s work was a formative experience for Billheimer: “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)

The 39 Steps - Censored Bed Scene

The chaste “bed scene” in The 39 Steps passed the British censors unscathed, but America’s Production Code was less lenient.

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…

Notorious - The Kissing Scene

The infamous “kissing sequence” in Notorious was so much more than a way around the censor’s rule that no kiss should last longer than three seconds. However, it may have never existed without the rigid requirements of the Breen office.

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.

To Catch A Thief - The Fireworks Seduction

“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.” -John Billheimer

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