Horror and Censorship Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Art of the Cinema’

By Daniel Mercieca, Gale Ambassador at Durham University

Since the March 2018 Facebook and Cambridge Analytica controversies, censorship and data protection have come under an intense spotlight in today’s digitised society. While we become increasingly sceptical of surveillance, and cautious of what we post online, it is important to appreciate those who have struggled to be fully seen and heard. The efforts of writers and filmmakers to overcome issues of (in)visibility have consistently featured in my study of literature at university; Elizabeth Gaskell’s serialisation in Charles Dickens’ Household Words magazine, 1850-51 (she was restricted from publishing independently because of her gender), the Brontë sisters’ use of male pseudonyms, and the 1918 posthumous publication of Gerard Manly Hopkins’s poetry due to his Jesuitical vow of obedience, are all examples of nineteenth-century censorship.

Yet it is interesting that, rather than simply being a limiting factor, censorship can also be an integral stylistic feature of literature and cinema which cultivates suspense, horror and manipulation; key components of Alfred Hitchcock’s films of the 1930-60s. By examining interviews and articles written by Hitchcock in The Listener Historical Archive 1929-1991, as well as MS Hollywood Production notes and film reviews from Archives Unbound, we can see how Hitchcock’s ‘art of cinema’ shapes – and is shaped by – an obsession with censorship.

‘The Most Valuable Thing in Creating a Film is Criticism at the Time’

Hitchcock’s 1938 article in The Listener sheds light on his attention to detail and stylistic precision in response to criticism from the media. Hitchcock internalises censorship via rapid assemblies of shots which manipulate the perspectives of the actors, camera and audience, concealing his plot motives to achieve suspense. In accordance with the article’s maxim, ‘the power of universal appeal has been the most retarding force of the motion-picture as an art,’ Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936)[i] employs close-ups and subjective camera angles to engineer ‘sympathy’ for Sylvia Sidney’s murder of her husband. By incorporating multiple perspectives and cultivating unexpected effects through ‘playing dramatic scenes against a familiar background’, the director’s innovative style is developed by subverting critical expectation of linear narratives and moral resolutions.

Hitchcock, Alfred. “Director’s Problems.” The Listener, 2 Feb. 1938, p. 241+. The Listener Historical Archive, 1929-1991, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6Evnm5#.WsMtcRcKJb8.link

Just as ‘people must act for the camera to get the best results rather than the camera try and grab what people are doing’, Hitchcock’s films surprise and test the boundaries of English film criticism. By incorporating the excitement of speed and violence from 1930s American culture, Hitchcock’s montaged stabbing scenes and shot-reverse-shot pursuits entice the ‘refined’ English sensibility. The director’s 1969 article in The Times details his use of special effects and editing including ‘back projection’ and ’telescoping certain aspects of storyline’, which attest to his stylistic manoeuvring around censorship laws against antisocial behaviour.

Hitchcock, Alfred. “HITCHCOCK: In the hall of mogul kings.” Times, 23 June 1969, p. I. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6EcGx3#.WsKPh5TLVbk.link

‘The Only Playground that Beats Las Vegas!’

Whilst rejected lines listed in the MS Hollywood Production Code such as ‘fantasy of love making’ and discussions of Transvestitism in Psycho (1960)[ii], limit the film’s direct address of wider socio-political concerns of the 1960s, Hollywood’s censorship codes help define Hitchcock’s subtlety for visual storytelling. The famous shower scene in which Janet Leigh is stabbed to death in seventy-eight setups and fifty-two cuts, is shocking not only because of its raw content but through the film’s aesthetics. Jolts of fear are triggered through sharp transitions between synecdochic close-ups of Leigh’s naked body, the monochrome colour contrast of black clouds of blood against the white enamel surfaces and piercing string sounds.

Luigi Luraschi’s 20th November 1963 letter on Psycho from Paramount Pictures.
Hitchcock, Alfred. Rear Window (Paramount Pictures, 1954). 1954. MS Hollywood, Censorship, and the Motion Picture Production Code, 1927-1968: History of Cinema, Series 1, Hollywood and Production Code Administration. Margaret Herrick Library. Archives Unbound, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6ELUV4#.WsKajkOVebU.link

Altering Hitchcock’s original title ‘From Among the Dead’ to Vertigo (1958)[iii] and cutting lines that refer to ‘Hell’, evidences censorship in Paramount Pictures’ Final White Script, ironically drawing attention to the film’s insidious macabre sensation of falling and of becoming physically and psychologically lost. A Dantean spiral of torment is created through the film’s visual motifs including Kim Novak’s hair style and the Portrait of Carlotta, as well as through parallel shot sequences of car journeys to the Tower. Hitchcock adopts the techniques of silent films in Vertigo through haunting musical scores and silhouetted profile shots of Novak against green neon lighting from a hotel sign, externalising her internally split identity as Julie and Madeleine, in a Surrealist fashion.

Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor’s 12th September 1957 Final White Script of Vertigo.
Hitchcock, Alfred. Vertigo (Paramount Pictures, 1958). August 1, 1957 – January 30, 1959. MS Hollywood, Censorship, and the Motion Picture Production Code, 1927-1968: History of Cinema, Series 1, Hollywood and Production Code Administration. Margaret Herrick Library. Archives Unbound, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5VSJT2#.WsKPhZf9JSw.link

‘The Medium of Pure Cinema’

Hitchcock’s 1939 BBC interview with Huw Wheldon after the release of Marnie (1964)[iv] illustrates his incorporation of censorship as a catalyst for terror in the artistry of his mise-en-scènes. The director’s claim that ‘the assembly of pieces of film to create fright is an essential part of my job, just as a painter would, by putting certain colours together, create evil on a canvas’, implies that fear is planted in the hidden relations between components of film. Tippi Hedren’s frozen body language and contorted facial expressions in Marnie are framed with the influence of 1920s German Expressionism to highlight the psychological scars of childhood trauma and sexual abuse. The film’s exaggerated blue flashes of lightning and red stains of blood form a poetic language of ekphrasis, rendering emotions of terror and wonder in the visualisation of filmic art.

When questioned on the difference between a Hitchcockian and a horror film, the director declares that he believed in ‘putting horror in the mind of the audience and not necessarily on the screen’, further revealing the potency of unseen editing and symbolic ecology. Marine’s fear of being touched by men is enacted through stagecraft and costumes. The heroine’s distanced positioning from others in locked bedrooms and in a ladies’ toilet cubicle in Rutland’s office, as well as her gloved hands, symbolically protect and repress her from the outside world. Repeated shots of Marnie horse-riding with her hair loose, timed with an orchestral score, is symbolic of her imagined freedom from a static, objectified position as a secretary in 1960s American patriarchal business spheres. Her straying from the hunt and failure of her horse to jump a wall is chillingly symbolic of self-destructive alienation affects and barriers to her social mobility as a working-class woman.

Huw Weldon’s 1964 BBC1 interview with Hitchcock on Marnie.
Wheldon, Huw. “Alfred Hitchcock on his films.” The Listener, 6 Aug. 1964, p. 189+. The Listener Historical Archive, 1929-1991, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6EyMt3#.WsNyGv3ERNo.link

Many of Hitchcock’s films incorporate censorship to diagnose societal ills and the problematic relationship between marginalised individuals and homogenous ideologies of ‘the promise of happiness’ and community[v]. Through subtle stylistic patterns of mirrored sequences, impressionistic montages and synthesised soundtracks Hitchcock traces societal patterns of subjugation and repression. The historic prohibition in film censorship of issues such as gender inequality, mental health and fear of difference establishes an undercurrent to the terror produced by Hitchcock’s cinema.

Using Gale Primary Sources to review the director’s reflections on his work, as well as material cut from original film scripts, opens avenues for further scholarly research into the effects of censorship on artistic production.

Blog post cover image citation: Photograph of Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren in The Times Literary Supplement. (French, Philip. “A single creative intelligence.” The Times Literary Supplement, 21 Sept. 2012, p. 17+. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6EN4d5#.WsNye0F9ITE.link.)

[i] Hitchcock, Alfred, Sabotage (Hollywood: Gaumont British Picture Corporation, 1939).
[ii] Hitchcock, Alfred, Psycho (Hollywood: Shamley Productions, 1960).
[iii] Hitchcock, Alfred, Vertigo (Hollywood: Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions, 1958).
[iv] Hitchcock, Alfred, Marnie (Hollywood: Universal Picture, 1964).
[v] Ahmed, Sarah, The Promise of Happiness (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

About the Author

Daniel Mercieca is an English Literature finalist, and President of both the English Literature Society and Bede Film Society at Durham University. His main research interests are Film Aesthetics and Screen Adaptation, with further interests in twentieth-century poetry and Romantic poetry. Dan enjoys the independence of thought, interdisciplinary and experimental aspects of studying English and aims to achieve a Master’s in Film and/or Literature. Dan enjoys lyricism and landscapes in the works of Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charlotte Smith and Toni Morrison. His favourite directors include Alfred Hitchcock, Darren Aronofsky, Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan for their suspense, soundtracks and cinematography. If he is not reading books or watching films then he is probably writing, running or trying something new.