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

Book Review: Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films

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Publisher: The University Press of Kentucky

Release Date: March 6, 2015

“Our aim has been to examine successive stages of Hitchcock’s career in a level-headed way, finding out as much as possible about the material from his early years in the industry that still remains lost and providing solid data about a wider range of lost or neglected or otherwise problematic material…

…Most of our research has come to focus on three periods, the first parts of three successive decades: the apprenticeship of the early 1920s; the unstable period of the early 1930s, involving a response to the new technologies of synchronized sound and of primitive television; and the early 1940s, during which Hitchcock did a wide range of topical war-effort work on both sides of the Atlantic in the margins of his Hollywood features…” –Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr (Introduction)

While recent books and articles discussing Alfred Hitchcock’s work tend to focus on the production and philosophy of his iconic Hollywood-era films like Notorious (1946) and Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock Lost and Found moves beyond these seminal works to explore forgotten, incomplete, lost, and recovered productions from all stages of his career, including his early years in Britain. Authors Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr highlight Hitchcock’s neglected works, including various films and television productions that supplement the critical attention already conferred on his feature films.

“We do not spend time on any of the landmark films like Rear Window or The Birds, or give a full account of Hitchcock’s career. We focus instead on periods and productions that have hitherto been obscure, in the belief that, given his iconic status, any new information on Hitchcock is likely to be of interest, and that it is precisely the obscure elements, and the periods of struggle, that are of crucial importance in helping us to get a fresher and fuller understanding of just how Hitchcock came to achieve his very special status in film history.” –Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr

They also explore the director’s career during World War II, when he continued making high-profile features while also committing himself to a number of short war-effort projects on both sides of the Atlantic. Focusing on a range of forgotten but fascinating projects spanning five decades, Hitchcock Lost and Found offers a new, fuller perspective on the filmmaker’s career and achievements.

This might seem to some fans to be of marginal interest. After all, most of these films haven’t been widely seen by contemporary audiences. However, this book isn’t simply a useful tool for the Hitchcock scholar; it is a fascinating text for anyone the least bit interested in detailed ‘behind the scenes’ information about this director’s fascinating career. The obscurity of most of the films discussed only adds interest to an already enjoyable subject.

The depth of Kerzoncuf and Barr’s research will surprise many Hitchcock enthusiasts. The knowledge that they provide goes much deeper than anyone might expect. There is detailed information from many documented sources to support the analysis of each film discussed in the book. This level of detail is rare even in texts about the director’s more popular work.

This detail is organized into four basic units: “Before The Pleasure Garden: 1920-1925,” “The Early 1930s,” “The War Years,” and “After the War.” The first of these units focuses on Alfred Hitchcock’s apprentice years in the industry as it details each of the films that Hitchcock worked on in some capacity. It analyzes what function Hitchcock served (or likely served) on each of the films, and discusses how the work might have influenced the director (or how Hitchcock might have influenced the work). This is really no small task, and one finds themselves almost immediately intrigued.

“The Early 1930s” might be this reviewer’s personal favorite unit. Here readers are guided through the torrid transitional era when British studios were scrambling to keep up with the new technological advancement of sound. Many of these films are reasonably well known (Blackmail, Juno and the Paycock, Murder), but have elements that have gone missing. New discoveries are revealed that enhance ones understanding of how these films fit into the context of Hitchcock’s career. There is also a reasonably in-depth comparison of Murder to its German sister, Mary that should interest any serious Hitchcock fan. This particular unit corrects quite a lot of previously published misinformation, and adds quite a bit of detail to the general knowledge that has already been revealed about these films. Other films from this period have been neglected by scholars. For example, Elstree Calling is finally discussed in a comprehensive manner. Kerzoncuf and Barr use documented information to discuss Hitchcock’s role in the creation of this film. This segment is especially interesting, because Hitchcock was never particularly interested in commenting on this particular film.

“The War Years” is also enlightening in its discussion of Alfred Hitchcock’s participation in the creation of a number of wartime propaganda efforts in the early 1940s. Many fans are already quite aware that the director made two French propaganda shorts for the British Ministry of Information (Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache), and both shorts are actually available on home video. However, these films were unavailable for a great many years, and a comprehensive study of the creation of these shorts has never been adequately achieved. Kerzoncuf and Barr remedy this by offering a wealth of documented knowledge that is supplemented by interviews. The most significant interview for this section was with Janique Joelle, who played a pivotal role in Bon Voyage. Joelle provides an extremely lucid and detailed account of working with the director on this short. It is one of the book’s many highlights, and is certain to delight fans and scholars alike. However, the book has much more ground to cover. The authors give an account of every known wartime project that the director worked on, including the abandoned documentary about the Nazi concentration camps (usually referred to as Memory of the Camps).

“After the War” concentrates on a number of forgotten productions that Alfred Hitchcock appeared in between 1959 and 1969. Two of these efforts were “public service” efforts, and Hitchcock’s participation was mainly to lend his bankable name and image to these productions as a form of charity. The most interesting of these was Tactic (1959). This live television program was essentially a public service announcement concerning cancer diagnosis. To reveal further information here would rob you of the enjoyable experience of reading the more detailed account that appears in this excellent new text.

Just when everyone thought that the subject of Alfred Hitchcock had been picked clean to the bone, we are offered this incredibly enlightening effort. Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr have given fans and scholars an incredible gift. Their original research and lucid writing makes for an enjoyable reading experience. Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films is extremely easy to recommend without any qualifiers.

Review by: Devon Powell

Book Review: Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense: The Life of Screenwriter Charles Bennett

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Publisher: The University Press of Kentucky
Release Date: Mar 24, 2014

It would be rather short sighted to assume that Alfred Hitchcock’s creative evolution wasn’t altered by the various individuals that collaborated with him. Out of all the screenwriters that Hitchcock worked with, Charles Bennett likely had the most impact upon the director’s cinematic approach to suspense. When one looks at the director’s filmography, it becomes immediately clear that the director’s talents matured during his association with Bennett. After adapting Bennett’s play, Blackmail (1929) into Britain’s first feature length ‘talkie’ (an incredible artistic and commercial success), he went on to make a string of mostly forgettable films. The quality of his films improved exponentially once he teamed up with Bennett to create the screenplay for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Hitchcock certainly realized this since he continued to work with Bennett on The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), and Young and Innocent (1937). The fact that Hitchcock continued to make masterful film’s after his association with Bennett simply suggests that the writer’s skill had rubbed off on the director. (However, it is also important to note that much of Bennett’s best work was done with Alfred Hitchcock. Obviously, both had much to contribute.) One imagines that the pair would have continued their collaboration had Bennett not moved to Hollywood in 1937. [They would collaborate again on Foreign Correspondent (1940).]

This autobiography by Charles Bennett (with occasional commentary by his son, John Charles Bennett) offers readers the rare opportunity to read what the screenwriting process was like while working with Alfred Hitchcock from a writer’s perspective. The astute reader will recognize immediately that the text is colored by a desire to illustrate (and sometimes over-emphasize) Bennett’s own importance. This is one of those human qualities that everyone seems to possess. Some of the stories told in the book differ greatly from accounts of the same events by other parties. The truth is that nothing in an autobiography is ever an objective account of events. This is what makes them so interesting. The fact that Bennett worked with Alfred Hitchcock during his British period adds an incredible amount of value to the book. This is a period of the director’s career that is rarely explored.

That said; this isn’t a book about Alfred Hitchcock. As John Charles Bennett relates in his preface to his father’s text, Bennett’s title for this memoir was “Life Is a Four-Letter Word.” Obviously, a title mentioning Hitchcock is bound to grab more attention. However, one wonders if it does not do Bennett a discredit. After all, his work with Hitchcock is only one of many topics covered here. The book is an enjoyable account of an extraordinary life, and much of this life had little to do with Alfred Hitchcock.

Lovers of film history would be wise to add this title to their summer reading lists.

Review by: Devon Powell