Book Review: Hitchcock and the Censors by John Billheimer

Alfred Hitchcock was a weird guy. That’s not a slur on his character, but a statement of fact. He was obsessive. He was neurotic. He had odd ideas, and a grim, sometimes nasty sense of humor. He was happy to push things too far, and the things that he was concerned with were not necessarily the concerns of the Middle American. How he became one of the most successful filmmakers in America during the height of the studio system is the story of a subversive in the house of conformity.

This being the case, Hitchcock regularly came into contact with the MPPC, the Motion Picture Production Code office, which was the industry censor board established in America. Motion Pictures were a regular scapegoat for the prospective degradation of American morals, from the time they became commercially viable. As they gained in popularity, they gained in notoriety, and ultimately every state (and many major cities) developed their own review boards to make sure films presented in their territories were fit for the morals of the impressionable public.

Hollywood rightfully feared that this would eventually lead to some official Federal board of censorship, and so they established their own pre-emptive body. The MPPC would be involved with film production from the initial treatment phase to the screenplays and ultimately production, making sure that no American motion picture went and corrupted a single American moral. The effect may have staved off official government censorship, but it was a constant stifling force on creativity in the studio film production system. Writers and directors had to tailor their output to a stringent, and sometimes peculiar set of restrictions and codes, overseen by a body of rather stiff-necked men.

Hitchcock and the Censors by John Billheimer details one particular director’s dealings with this censorship board in very specific detail. This book, which is both general interest tome and a reference work, goes film by film through Hitchcock’s oeuvre to spell out each specific battle the master of suspense had with the office of censorship, and how his films were particularly affected by their suggestions and demands.

Hitchcock’s obsessions and perversities meant that his films would often be at odds with the strictures of the code. In particular, the blanket regulation that no murderer could get away with his crime meant Rebecca and Suspicion (two genuinely fine films) had to convolute their stories into senseless jumbles without much concern for logic to work at all. Ironically, the logical incongruences weren’t a big deal for Hitchcock. He was much more concerned with images and sequences than dialog and story logic. After all, Vertigo which is often considered his best film, lacks anything like a logical plot. But it looks good.

Hitchcock was a clever director, and he understood how the censors worked: if they thought they were being listened to, they could be appeased. So he would regularly shoot footage he knew could not be used by the censors’ rules, in order to slip in things that they would have otherwise disapproved of, if they didn’t have the worse example to go by.

Hollywood when the studio system was at its height made some of the best films in history. And some would argue that the strictures of the production code were partly responsible for this. That, indeed, movies were better when freedom was restricted and producers, writers and directors were forced to convey their messages indirectly. That required cleverness and intelligence that blunt vulgarity wouldn’t have facilitated.

And Billheimer concedes that one of Hitchcock’s greatest films, Notorious (in fact, I would say it’s one of the greatest films ever made) bears this out. Starring Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, Notorious would have been about a prostitute who whores herself out to Nazis for the government so she can spy on them. This is a tawdry story, and the kind the code wouldn’t allow. Suggestions from the office, including the chief censor Joseph Breen, would soften the image of the girl, and create a previous relationship with the prospective Nazi. The love triangle that these suggested ideas produced creates much of the emotional power of the film.

But Billheimer argues that this sort of censorial benefit was rare. A much more common outcome was that the price of doing business with the censorious meddlers was compromised stories, lost scenes, and even self-censorship. Creative energy shifted away from free expression towards pleasing a censor’s code.

Much of the censorship involve our beloved sex and violence, but that was not always the only consideration. Politics was a major source of contention, particularly before World War II, when films did not want to be seen as anti-German propaganda. Then immediately after the U.S. became involved in the war, nothing could be seen as potentially pro-German propaganda. Hitchcock was accused of both with various films.

The code was done away with eventually, replaced by the rating system we all know and endure to this day. But that doesn’t mean official censorship has ever gone away, or that we have somehow advanced beyond political considerations in film context. Films are still altered for political sensibilities, foreign and domestic.

Hitchcock was a man who made popular films but was no kind of everyman: he was a weird guy. His weirdness and neuroticism made his film’s occasionally perverse. But it also gave him the wherewithal to protect him against the worst excesses of the censors who would have tried to pare them down into bland normality. Hitchcock and the Censors is a thoroughly researched and (not always the case with this kind of book) fun read about the master director’s dealing with production codes. Each film is well summarized, and the individual articles detail not only the dealings with the board, but also contain an overview of the film and its success, both commercial and critical. Interspersed with these articles are chapters briefly detailing the various boards of censorship Hitchcock had to deal with. It’s a rare bit of film writing that’s thorough enough for the scholar but also interesting enough for a lay reader who just loves the films, and wants more insight into their production.

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Kent Conrad

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