A Book Review Essay by Matthew Sorrento.
Some criticisms noted, John Billheimer’s book is still very helpful for teaching history of regulation/censorship and their effects on authorship….”
Hitchcock continues to compete with Welles as the “Shakespeare” of film studies in the sense that he’s the most analyzed in the medium, with new studies about him always on the horizon. Some recent ones are essential, like the work of David Greven and Hitchcock at the Source: The Auteur as Adapter, or intriguing new approaches (Violence in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock: A Study in Mimesis). Others leave us thinking why not (The Psycho Records) and, even with good intentions, why? (The Camera Lies: Acting for Hitchcock).
John Billheimer’s Hitchcock and the Censors, from the invaluable Screen Classics series at University Press of Kentucky (currently available in hardback; softcover coming October 2021), works as a solid overview of censorship in Hitchcock’s 50-plus-year career. In a rewarding move, the book introduces movie censorship, with an historical overview. Billheimer (a mystery novelist and occasional professor of noir and mystery, on the page and screen) naturally introduces the greater history as required context for the remaining text. Censorship studies, like Jeremy Geltzer’s Dirty Words and Filthy Pictures: Film and the First Amendment, come off as weighty and a bit intimidating to newcomers. Billheimer offers appealing packaging for those seeking a brief introduction who may wish to read of how it related to one filmmaker (or continue to a book-length introductory text like Film Censorship: Regulating America’s Screen by Sheri Chinen Biesen). After recounting the growing influence of Will Hays and the Breen Office of the Production Code Administration, the opening chapters cover the influence of the Legion of Decency, which spawned from Monsignor Amleto Giovanni Cicognani’s (rather fascist) call for Catholic bishops to “puri[fy] the cinema” (16). Addressing important developments in the US and Britain, with attention to lesser-known influences, like the Payne Fund for research on children (17), sets a tone for strong research incorporated into the later text. Billheimer’s attention to censorship in UK of Hitchcock, and in general, is especially rewarding and will be valuable for teaching his early career. While relevant to film history and censorship to this day, early regulation offers needed context in discussions of studio mediation and even film authorship. With historicism a mainstay in film studies, the creation of film texts resulted from studios working with the PCA in a more complicated, if unfortunate, process than we see in the common “artists-stifled” narratives.
When reading about Hitchcock’s experience, readers will brace for a series of instances where the artist was stifled and shaped against his will. The text, however, soon reveals the issue to be a more complex one for the filmmaker, who naturally was irritated by the censors but found regulation even diverting at times, like horse trading (70). Ever the businessman when he needed to be, Hitch strategically planted racy bits in his scripts, ones that, after getting the censors’ attention, could be offered for removal to keep more important scenes. One obvious example cited by the book was when Hitch shot alternative takes of the elderly ex-sea captain ogling at and reaching toward the “buxom ship’s figurehead in his dining room” (207). Not all of Hitch’s “baiting” to the censors was so obviously throwaway, though even this example shows how the artist could pull a ruse to distract censors and retain desired material: in this case, screenwriter John Michael Hayes’ suggestive dialog.
Censorship has been the focus of biographical treatments and in monographs dedicated to one film, as the author notes (6). Billheimer uses a film-by-film structure, each getting its own chapter. It’s valuable to have a reference like this (since many academics will use the book thus), even if it reads like an introductory guide with the requisite plot summaries and relatively short chapters. Billheimer details what he can from Hitchcock’s early productions in Britain, like how the front office demanded that star Ivor Novello be cleared of wrongdoing by the end of the The Lodger (1927) (39). The book eventually brings the early tenure in the US into sharper focus (with Rebecca  handled especially well, as a good lead-off to the section), when Billheimer begins to step through the career film-by-film. Thus, the book recalls, to its credit or detriment, the Hitchcock text with which many began their study, Donald Spoto’s The Art of Alfred Hitchcock (1976). Helpful as Billheimer’s may be, we can imagine the information woven into a unified narrative of Hitchcock working through film censorship, perhaps with more attention to transitions between films.
The format is more of a strategic decision than just an author’s quirk, though Billheimer has some of these. The book notes that Hitch spent the few years in between Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) (at the start of the latter chapter) by focusing on his television work. Though some attention to how censors shaped this TV work would be a rewarding surprise at this point in the text. Yet, this discussion does not appear until in Part VII (nearly 30 pages later), on TV censorship, which comes after a discussion of the end of the production code’s control (just after Torn Curtain, 1966). While offering important context, the section on TV would appear more organically if in a streamlined narrative.
Some information that Hitchcock experts will find repetitive from other studies is passable, since Billheimer has his eye on newcomers, along with experts. But the repetition can grow tiresome, like when the chapter on The Birds recounts several details of the production’ use and treatment of Tippi Hedren. Also, Billheimer regularly wedges in his assessments of the films. It’s understandable that, as a Hitch enthusiast, he wants to bring his own voice into this historical survey. But the regular habit is at odds with the factual focus of the text, especially when he tries to settle a long-standing critical debate, like the one regarding the false flashback in 1950’s Stage Fright (164). Similarly, the contemporary critics’ responses he includes are better suited for a general biography, at times feeling like padding and attempts to steer the chapters toward a close.
These issues aside, BIllheimer has a sharp eye for historical commentary. He especially handles an important moment in the filmmaker’s career, when regulation relaxed more and more through the 1960s, until the abandonment of the PCA for the ratings system (1968). The new era for cinema in the US was one where Hitch was less comfortable, as evidenced by this work (as a near-universal assessment of the dated flourishes in Frenzy , the film’s effective suspense notwithstanding).
Billheimer recounts how, in the early 1960s, Hitch negotiated to break barriers. With Marnie, a careful rewrite (and possibly the replacement of Evan Hunter [aka Ed McBain], also screenwriter of The Birds, by woman writer Jay Presson Allen) allowed the censors to approve what was clearly a honeymoon rape scene. Years later, in 2000, Allen noted that she saw the scene as “just a trying marital situation” (quoted on 267). Her comment, and the fact that her presence may have excused such content, will surely cause a stir today, as many wrongheaded “commentators” on cinema now call for the removal of what they describe as “problematic” titles. We educators hope to use the example as a teaching tool, with Hitchcock and collaborator Allen serving as examples of artists who pushed for realism regarding deviancy, to comment on oppressive masculinity and hegemony.
Chapters covering the director’s late “golden age” underscore a minor drawback that runs throughout the text, the reason why the chapters have varying length and that little attention is paid to some films. Not that Billheimer can’t manage a swift overview: to cite an earlier example, in just eight pages his discussion of 1951’s Strangers on a Train covers a fascinating series of negotiations, in which straying husband Guy (Farley Granger) was mandated by the Code to be honorable to the detriment of his wife, whom the censors ordered to have been impregnated by another man (171). Though readers will wonder about unevenness elsewhere, like why two more pages were allotted for The Birds than Vertigo (1958). In the latter film, issues of crime, sexuality, and abuse (in response to both) and how the film handles them directly inspired the works of De Palma, Scorsese, and several others of the New American Cinema. Thus, Vertigo requires more attention than a discussion the Code’s containing of avian violence. To his credit, Billheimer includes important details of animal control in The Birds chapter. This issue astutely leads right to censorship concerning the film’s original ending, in which imagery of widespread carnage by the aerial attackers and numerous dead birds, as written by Evan Hunter, was checked by the Humane Association during filming for Hitchcock to choose the more reserved ending in the final cut. (The author’s opinion of this ending as a letdown, echoing the critical responses at the time, also works against the main focus of the book.) While having its strengths, this chapter could have cut out the star context for a more even delivery. The goals of the book are hefty, for sure. But moments like these are hard to shake.
Some criticisms noted, the book is still very helpful for teaching history of regulation/censorship and their effects on authorship, issues that will help to continue a new dawn in film studies for auteurism while many historical readings aim to phase it out.
Matthew Sorrento is co-editor of Film International and teaches film and media studies at Rutgers University in Camden. He’s the editor-in-chief of Retreats from Oblivion: the Journal of NoirCon, where he contributes verse and book reviews.