Hail Hitchcock: Two views of the Master
HITCHCOCK AND THE CENSORS by John Billheimer. Published by University Press of Kentucky, 384 pages, $50 retail.
HITCHCOCK AND HUMOR by Wes D.Gehring. Published by McFarland, 290 pages, $39.95 retail.
Nearly 40 years after his death, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) remains one of the most discussed, debated and celebrated filmmakers ever. Such enduring adulation is well deserved, as he remains perhaps the best-known director who ever lived, one whose name and image are still immediately recognized the world over – to say nothing of his body of work.
Two new books, John Billheimer’s “Hitchcock and the Censors” and Wes D. Gehring’s “Hitchcock and Humor,” are worthy additions to the already voluminous number of books that have explored the life and career of the filmmaker still referred to as “the Master.”
Each book is essentially self-explanatory; Billheimer’s examines Hitchcock’s mostly successful dealings with the Production Code, Gehring’s looks at the use of humor in Hitchcock’s films. Hitchcock may have been the “Master” of suspense, but there’s no denying a (dark) sense of humor at work in much of his work. There’s a fine line between scaring an audience and making them laugh, and Hitchcock was truly a master at doing both – often simultaneously.
In “Hitchcock and the Censors,” Billheimer goes on a film-by-film basis, giving an overview on the story and themes, the complaints by the Production Code, and what, if anything, Hitchcock was willing to concede in compliance.
Some of these guidelines seem quaint and trivial in retrospect but were taken very seriously in their day. Excessive violence, nudity, sexuality and profanity were understandably verboten, but so were sympathy to criminals and/or glorifying crime, the use of the flag, romance between different races and sexual aberration (including homosexuality). Not only were some of these guidelines absurd, to say nothing of antiquated – even for their time – but some were insulting, and in these more enlightened times, intolerant.
Written in a nimble, even jaunty fashion, “Hitchcock and the Censors” highlights, in an entertaining fashion, those instances where Hitchcock out-foxed or out-maneuvered the censors. The methods he employed did not go unnoticed by other filmmakers. When Martin Scorsese made Taxi Driver (1976), he made the final bloodbath so violent and gory knowing full well it would be cut, but not to the extent that it would compromise his vision.
It could be said that by the time the Motion Picture Association of America established its rating system in 1968, which is still in use today, the industry had (finally) caught up to Hitchcock. Indeed, on his last three films – the disappointing Topaz (1969), 1972’s Frenzy (Hitchcock’s only R-rated film), and the 1976 romp Family Plot – he was unimpeded by censorship, and wasn’t immune to one last blast of controversy with Frenzy, which its detractors said was Hitchcock taking the R-rating to extremes. Maybe, but who better to do so? (Incidentally, Frenzy is my “dark-horse” favorite in the Hitchcock oeuvre. I don’t think it’s his best film, but it may be my favorite.)
Especially enjoyable is the segment on Hitchcock’s television series’, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which collectively ran on CBS from 1955-’65. Hitchcock’s experiences with the Code served him well when dealing with the Federal Communications Commission, affiliates and sponsors.
Hitchcock’s success grew considerably from his television exposure, making him one of the very first “celebrity directors.” With that success came great power, and he wielded it to preserve his vision and intent, even on the small screen.
Gehring’s book is subtitled “Modes of Comedy in Twelve Defining Films,” and, for the record, that delicious dozen consists of Blackmail (1929), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), The Trouble With Harry (1955), and North by Northwest (1959). For good measure, Gehring adds an epilogue “and thoughts” on Psycho (1960).
The prolific Gehring, who has written nearly 40 books, delves into each film with assiduous detail, as is his custom. One hardly needs to rewatch these films to confirm the author’s opinions, as he specifically notes scenes or dialogue taken verbatim from them. He’s clearly done his homework.
Oddly, he doesn’t include Hitchcock’s final film, the aforementioned Family Plot, but perhaps he didn’t want to tempt fate or superstition by emphasizing 13 films.
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