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Freedman, Jonathan, editor. The Cambridge Companion to Alfred Hitchcock

Melenia Arouh

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1Freedman, Jonathan, editor. The Cambridge Companion to Alfred Hitchcock

2Cambridge University Press, 2015, ISBN 978-1-107-51488-1

3Melenia Arouh

4It often seems that more words have been written about Alfred Hitchcock than any other film director. From François Truffaut’s interview to Laura Mulvey’s and Robin Wood’s analyses, film commentators have extensively investigated his life, work, brand, and legacy. An undergraduate student wishing to study cinema will ultimately have to watch Hitchcock’s films, read analyses of his films, and note their influence. In fact, in many cases, the student will be introduced to several film concepts through Hitchcock’s work: the auteur theory, the male gaze, voyeurism, fetishism, genre and ideology, narrative and suspense. Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960) will often become the film student’s building blocks.

5Given this level of attention (friendly and hostile), it is unsurprising that books and articles are still published every year about his work. On the surface then, it would appear that the recent Cambridge Companion is one more addition to an already long list of publications on the subject. But this is not the case. Jonathan Freedman has collected a remarkable group of articles that manages to accomplish two things at the same time: the articles offer insight to Hitchcock’s work, but they also provide an invaluable guide to the main theoretical schemata of film theory. The reader of this book is not simply introduced to Hitchcock the auteur, but to some of the most influential theoretical concepts of academic film study. Reading this book becomes an opportunity for education, of Hitchcock’s work and film discourse. As such this companion stands out, as a comprehensive guide for film students and fans alike.

6It is clear from Freedman’s introduction that he sees Hitchcock as a unique filmmaker whose films transcend the specificity of their creation. For Freedman Hitchcock’s films, “offer not simply a portrait of his own times but also an astonishingly prescient account of ours. It is why we turn again and again to his films, to learn not only about where we have come from, or even where we are now, but how to confront with grimness, asperity, and humor where we may be going” (17). To this end, he divides the Companion into four parts, each part dealing with a different aspect of Hitchcock’s art and legacy.

7The first part, and the largest in this anthology, traces Hitchcock’s connection to America. The first two articles map out Hitchcock’s work and brand. Thomas Schatz first introduces Hitchcock as a studio filmmaker and notes a pattern of periods and cycles in his work: the spy cycle, the Selznick period, the Paramount period, and the Universal period. For each period Schatz pays good attention to the kind of work that Hitchcock crafted under the different studio arrangements, “the notion of a Hitchcock film meant something quite different in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, due to his dynamic interaction with a system that, when the necessary elements were in play – and in equilibrium- enabled his singular genius to find its full expression” (39). In the spy cycle his early films are discussed, such as Blackmail (1929), which is Britain’s first sound film, and his move to Gaumont British where he would make some of his earliest hits: The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), and The Lady Vanishes (1938). In these early years several prominent Hitchcock traits are established, such as his attention to detail in preproduction, and his intense relationship with the press (Hitchcock was notorious for claiming sole credit for the success of his movies, to the frustration of his collaborators). In the second period Hitchcock moves to the US during Hollywood’s golden era to collaborate with David O. Selznick, the infamous producer, on Rebecca (1940). In the third period Hitchcock achieves an unprecedented deal with Paramount Pictures, as he is given complete creative control and ownership of many of his films after their initial release. There he directs and produces Rear Window, To Catch a Thief (1955) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), building along the way a crew of incredible talent and his own personal brand. In the fourth period, Schatz notes the surprising success of Psycho, and how Hitchcock settled in Universal Pictures, the studio that would release all his subsequent films. Despite his success and creative authority, this would not be a fruitful period. His productivity and genius would go in decline, and Schatz identifies two reasons for this: that he did not have any more a manager to guide his talent, and that his stellar crew was disbanded, and never as successfully replaced. Throughout this discussion Schatz’s article proves to be an excellent introduction to Hitchcock’s work but also to the structures of the film industry during its most celebrated period.

8Janet Staiger follows this introduction with an examination of the creation of the Hitchcock brand from his early career to the 1940s when he arrives to America. According to Staiger, Hitchcock was aware that his image was key to the success of his career, a kind of thinking that was shaped by his early employment in sales and advertising. Her discussion is well framed by an understanding of the conditions of film production within a capitalist market, and the urge, evident even from the 19th century, for individuals to display their image so as to make themselves known and recognizable. Staiger proceeds to identify four phases in the development of the Hitchcock brand, from the 1920s to the 1940s. In the first phase she notes his directorial triumph (‘The Best British Director’) of The Lodger (1927), and how both his personal life and technical ability were often highlighted. In the second phase Staiger argues that Hitchcock planted the image of the innovator, balancing between realism and more experimental elements. At the time Hitchcock also hired a publicist to assist him in the promotion of his work. In the third phase Hitchcock is established as a director of suspense and comedy, while he pens a number of articles explaining his methods. These texts vary from autobiography, to genre analysis, to his conception of ‘pure cinema’, and his attitude towards women. In the fourth phase Staiger notes how Hitchcock became physically recognisable – his cameos spotted and acknowledged. Of course no such discussion is complete without reference to how Hitchcock used his weight to promote his own brand in entertaining ways. Staiger concludes that, “by 1940, authoring behaviors in the films directed by Hitchcock, publicity activities, and celebrity journalism have established the brand of “Hitchcock” so that cineastes could speculate on and evaluate sources and results of authorship. “He” existed.” (52). This is an essential discussion in trying to understand not only Hitchcock’s work, but also his success in establishing himself as the premier auteur: the filmmaker who would shape, in many ways, both cinema and film study.

9In the next three articles Hitchcock’s identity as an American artist is investigated in reference to location and genre. Specifically, Sara Blair investigates the role of cinematic space and location in his films, since, as she argues, “Hitchcock was keenly attuned both to actual space as sources of cinematic suggestion and to film as a site of entry into their cultural, psychic resonances” (57). Even in his early work, Hitchcock seemed interested in using familiar sites as narrative devices, “a resource for enhancing affective logic as well as the reality effect” (59). In his Hollywood films, however, the use of space becomes intriguing as he blends nostalgia, routine, and a new way of seeing 20th century America. In Shadow of a Doubt Hitchcock uses the idyllic location of Santa Rosa in a perverse and calculated manner, allowing him to depict ordinary life and myths of the American national identity. In Saboteur (1942) there is constant movement between actual locations, and studio sets, documentary and reconstruction, as Hitchcock “finds the rhythm that would come to characterize his distinctive mode of cinematic ‘illusion’” (65). In North by Northwest (or as it working title was The Man in Lincoln’s Nose), Mt. Rushmore becomes the perfect set for his narrative of suspense. In this film there is artful confusion over what is real and what recreated, and Blair notes that it is not just the narrative’s protagonist (Thornhill) who interacts with the iconic monument, but also the star performing the role, Cary Grant, the great Hollywood star, the fantasy object of American audiences of the time, who climbed his way to success and crafted a persona that would transcend and enhance his performances.

10Homer B. Pettey’s article follows by noting Hitchcock’s contributions to the noir genre. In films such as Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound (1945), Strangers on a Train (1951), and The Wrong Man (1956) we see heroes that are modern, with an inner sense of personal justice, fighting to prove their innocence. Their stories are told through the use of chiaroscuro, claustrophobic framings, high places and lethal drops, and sets filled with mirrors and stairs – all typical of the noir genre: “Hitchcock’s true noirs…are American in plot, theme, and setting, precisely because the director sought to explore and to expose social-class problems with an American sensibility for his new American audience” (77-8). For instance, The Wrong Man opens with the hero riding the subway, reading a newspaper filled with ads of things he cannot afford.

11In these discussions Hitchcock is considered as an artist working within the framework of his time, a time when the film industry was welcoming incredible artists from around the world, artists that would shape the industry and film aesthetics. Hitchcock himself of course had immigrated twice in his life, as a young man to Germany to work at UFA, and in the 40s to direct in Hollywood. His first move would turn him towards expressionism in both themes and visuals. Specifically from F.W. Murnau he could copy the different types of subjective shots: the static shot from the subject’s point of view, the mobile tracking shot, the pan that reveals the subject’s gaze, and the distorted shot that reveals the inner self. For Pettey, Hitchcock’s effort to develop a name for himself was shaped by the way in which the Expressionist directors were treated as auteurs, their films marketed on the merits and popularity of their names as guarantors of artistic quality. All these influences are evident in his American work, with an added emphasis on social class dynamics, where the distances and divisions are highlighted, attacked and transformed, “class despotism is vanquished by means of a pseudo-deus ex machina, whereby the anti democratic false idols descend to their necessary and deserved ends” (84). His noir films for Pettey poke “darkly satiric fun at American class values” (90), as such marking him as a distinctly American filmmaker.

12Carl Freedman follows this line of thinking by offering an analysis of Shadow of a Doubt, a film he believes is “a crucial moment in the process of Hitchcock’s Americanization” (92) since it exemplifies his interest in the nature of evil in American culture and society. Freedman notes, however, the Victorian influences in the film, and how binary oppositions of good and evil are treated as moral dichotomies that can never really be independent of one another. For Freedman the Victorian themes are here Americanized, “if the auteur of the film is still British he is also, and even more deeply, already American” (96). The most overt moment of this is when the two police detectives investigate what is considered in the story the ‘typical American family’: that lives in the suburbs, and the father words at the bank, while the mother stays at home to raise the three children. These traits of Americana are evident throughout the film, from the actors casted, to the girl-next-door character, to the sets and spaces the story occupies. And all these are illuminated under the all-encompassing theme of evil. It is a theme that Hitchcock will revisit in Rear Window, Psycho, and The Birds (1963). Freedman concludes that with this film Hitchcock enters a tradition of American storytellers who are preoccupied with the same theme: “Poe would have instantly recognized a mild-mannered motel clerk who turns out to be a matricide and serial killer, and Miller would have perfectly understood how America’s much praised justice system imprisons those innocent of any crime. Hawthorne would not have been the least bit surprised by an apparently normal American husband who, observed closely from one’s rear window, is seen to have murdered his wife. The greatest American storytellers have generally been most American in their radical discontent with American civilization” (103).

13The second part of the anthology dives deep into feminist and queer study in order to elaborate on issues of gender, sexuality and identity, all sprinkled with psychoanalytic film theory. Susan White in her article “Alfred Hitchcock and Feminist Film Theory (Yet Again)” presents us with an excellent introduction to the topic, as she outlines the feminist criticism of Hitchcock’s films, “with respect to the intellectual traditions which it springs as an attempt to see where it might lead all of us – teachers, students, readers, and writers - in the future” (110). This is a noble endeavour as historically feminist film theory and the critical examination of Hitchcock’s work developed at the same time, both elevating cinema to a position that would welcome social, political, and cultural analysis. It is without hesitation that her examination begins with Laura Mulvey’s work on the male gaze, a concept that would define much of film theory as a central point of direction. The key assumption here was that the visual power of the patriarchy would be established through film, as the male spectator “would presumably be able to identify with the masterful gaze of his onscreen surrogate, while women could only find themselves and their own interests by reading through and around the phallocentric style and contents of film” (112). This line of thinking that would later be picked up in the writings of Mary Ann Doane would describe the female spectator as having either a masochistic or transvestite identification with the male protagonist. Hitchcock’s work would serve in all these as the perfect example for discourse. A polemic tone of analysis would examine films such as Rear Window and Vertigo pointing at the representation of femininity, masculine insecurity, fetish objects, and voyeuristic tendencies. Later on, in the late 1980s, Tania Modleski would analyse Hitchcock’s films by expositing the vulnerabilities and ambivalences of the Hitchcock male, and all these inner contradictions that mark male and female sexuality. For example she deconstructed the character of Scottie in Vertigo, analysing his power and freedom, fear and fascination, while commenting on Hitchcock’s possible misogyny and understanding of the patriarchy.

14White’s article is in many ways exemplary since it clearly and coherently outlines the main theoretical claims, while explaining their place and resonance within film theory. She also takes the time to question the role of the Academy in ignoring racist or xenophobic undertones in Hitchcock’s films. Towards the end of her essay her tone becomes rather reflective as she assesses her own role as an academic: “despite our own blindness, the competitiveness of our job markets, our differences and similarities, most of us want to learn more about not only how to think about Hitchcock’s film but how Hitchcock’s films, sometimes despite themselves, help us think differently” (125). White’s essay stands out in this stellar anthology as the perfect example of the significance of Hitchcock’s work, not only because of his masterful skill, but also because these analyses of his movies have defined film theory and film study. Reading her essay is in many ways the perfect introduction to how influential his work is, and how film theory has often relied on it to define concepts and explain the cinematic experience.

15David Greven in his article ‘Hitchcock and Queer Sexuality’ notes that Hitchcock’s films have often been accused of homophobia, often presenting a rather negative image of queer sexual identity. The issue of homosexual representation in Hitchcock’s film has long been a part of the analysis of his work, and often a topic of contention between feminist and queer critics. Greven mentions that Hitchcock was not homophobic in life, and seemed fascinated and curious about differences in behaviour and lifestyle. Despite that, his films have often been read as homophobic, possibly influenced by the identity of the critics rather than anything else. It is suggested here that the critics’ biases often do not let them appreciate the transgressiveness and charm of the Hitchcock queer characters. For instance in Psycho the villain is male, attractive, and queer. Perkins’ performance suggests a good boy, who is sensitive, charming and all-American, “slightly feminized, troubled” (134); a persona that will be deconstructed to reveal a monster. The lonely queer male will befriend the lonely, desiring woman, during a dinner of sandwiches and intimacy. Of course he will then betray and murder her, violently breaking the bond between queer men and heterosexual women.

16The analysis of Psycho continues in Stephen Tifft’s article, this time from a psychoanalytic point of view. He argues in his essay that the film seems to rest on the assumption that Norman has a disturbed Oedipal attachment to this mother, which leads to matricide and the formation of an alternative identity. According to Tifft although Psycho seems like a classical narrative for 45 minutes, it then breaks in half as the protagonist enters the shower, for what feels like a moral cleanse, only to meet a brutal ending. The camera stays there after her murder, looking for something but all seem to have become meaningless. Several psychoanalytic interpretations point to the Freudian elements that become evident then in the story: the darker instincts of death and destruction, the shifting perspective of the audience from victim to victimizer, the terror of eroticized violence, and of course the personality of Norman as this is unveiled. Tifft argues that because Norman suffers from a troubling identification with his father he embarks on this violent vengeance on his mother and her lover. A type of aberrant and psychotic melancholia, that leads to self-destruction. In a sense Norman obliterates the threat of castration by killing his mother while keeping her to himself in what seems to be a hallucinatory state. Tifft notes an interesting compositional element: at the scene at the cellar where Marion’s sister meets first the corpse of Mrs. Bates and then Norman as Mother, Hitchcock has dubbed into the soundtrack of screams and violins a woman crying “I am Norman Bates” – a line not spoken by Norman since we can see his mouth in the scene. It seems then, that Norman’s encrypted subject breaks free, as the two become unsynced further confusing identity and subjectivity in the narrative. Psycho is certainly a film that benefits from such readings, and this article is rich in useful explanations and intriguing suggestions. Although psychoanalysis as a branch of psychology is not without its disputes and limitations, it has always found a welcoming home in film studies. If one wishes to understand several fundamental concepts in film theory as these have been developed through the decades, understanding such psychodynamic interpretations becomes a priority.

17The third part of the anthology turns to Hitchcock’s American films, and offers four analyses that excel in interpreting both the form and content of his films. In the first article Alan Nadel wishes to interpret North by Northwest as a farce about the Cold War that “functions like the Derridian pharmakon, its own internal logic mandating supplemental toxins as the only remedy for a toxified reality” (161-2). For Nadel “by putting farce and espionage in conflict, Hitchcock forces us to view the same characters through opposite ends of a telescope, rendering them alternatively too distant and too intimate” (174). Following Nadel’s intriguing discussion, Murray Pomerance offers an analysis of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) as a film best exemplifying the social realities of the US society of the time. The film, released by Paramount, was a remake of Hitchcock’s own film of the same name, made in 1934 in the UK. Hitchcock chose to remake this film as he became fascinated with the class dynamics he observed in the US. Written by J. M. Hayes the skeleton of the story remains the same but the differences demonstrate Hitchcock’s own sociological perspective as this developed. Although the UK audience was thought of as fluent in class distinctions and marks, the US audience needed a new treatment that allowed for a different understanding of class divisions and optimism regarding upward social mobility. As such events and situations change to abide by the principles of meritocracy “that we are all in essence the same, that hard work is required and requited in film, with those who work the hardest meriting and receiving the greatest rewards” (188). Both articles do a very good job of outlining the socio-political reality of the time and marking how Hitchcock perceived and interpreted this. By paying good attention to the formal choices made, the filmmaker’s identity as an artist working in a specific time and place becomes evident and fascinating.

18The last two articles point to other formal and compositional patterns in Hitchcock’s filmography. Brigitte Peucker examines the use of color in his films, especially the ways he blended realism and modernist abstraction in his aesthetics. For instance, in Torn Curtain (1966), the colors depict the Cold War (gray and green) while red (the color of communism) features throughout. For Peucker “red in this film oscillates between signifying and non-signifying functions. Red promotes affect, yes, but sometimes it is simply like a spot of paint on cameras. In such instances, its function is aesthetic” (197). In Vertigo green is associated with the spectral, the macabre and the metaphysical (as opposed to the more usual meaning of health and vitality). While in Marnie (1964) she notes an increased use of red “the color of affect…the color of blood, the substance for which the red in this film so obviously substitutes” (200). Her analysis excels in observing the general aesthetic framework of Hitchcock’s work, and synthesising between individual uses of color and their possible symbolic presence in the film. Mark Goble in what follows turns his attention to Hitchcock’s fascination with nude bodies and how these are used in his later films. He notes from the beginning how the conclusion of Hitchcock’s career was met with a decline in popularity and status. Nothing new or exciting seemed to enter his work, but instead tropes and compositions were just being recycled. However, Goble finds it interesting that amidst this decline Hitchcock finally acquired the opportunity to use nude bodies in his films: “after a lifetime pushing at the limits of convention, Hitchcock finally gets to put a naked woman’s body on the screen” (209). Up until that time Hitchcock working within the moral confines of the Motion Picture Production Code and the BBFC was denied this option – even in Psycho he treads at the very edge of the code, shocking the viewer but never showing Marion’s naked body. Famously when Psycho was screened for censors, three of them reported that they saw nudity, and two did not. Hitchcock pretended to re-cut the film, but sent back to them the exact same copy. The second time the three censors where happy with the changes, but this time the two other insisted there was nudity. At the end the infamous shower scene remained as initially conceived. Of course as time went by more movies were released that challenged the established mores and featured more and more nudity: The Pawnbroker (1964), Blow-Up (1966), Easy Rider (1969), and Midnight Cowboy (1969). In comparison Psycho, Topaz (1969), and Torn Curtain seem mild and old-fashioned. So Hitchcock finally got his wish in Frenzy (1972), where a total of four naked bodies are shown on screen – a film that should rightly be considered part of the New American Cinema of the time. For Goble Hitchcock’s use of nudes in his last films “reveal, if noting else, that Hitchcock’s most primal drives and cinematic fantasies…belatedly had their moment in a period when it was difficult to tell the difference between gratuitous displays of naked women and stylized affronts to convention that made new intensities of expression visible in a body of work whose time was quickly passing” (227).

19The anthology receives the most fitting conclusion in Jonathan Freedman’s essay on the school of Hitchcock, where “some students may have dropped out, others graduated with honors, but directors, producers, and stars all keep on attending – and so do audiences” (231). The span and influence of Hitchcock’s work is immense, and attention has to be given to the ways in which his work has affected our thinking about film. Freedman chooses three filmmakers to focus on, and he notes the influences but also the transformation of Hitchcock’s legacy through this new work. First he considers Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986) and notes the North by Northwest influences in the film, like the comical tones and goofy and disconnected protagonist. He then studies Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994) in a similar manner, noting the themes of the wrongfully accused man, scopophilia, and the use of doubles. He observes how the gaze becomes central in the film (very much like Rear Window) but how this convention is turned on its head, as the plot twists and turns to restage traumatic events and offer healing. It is a complication (not a negation) of the main tenants of feminist film theory, adding an optimistic twist through aesthetic resolution. Last, he examines Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006), which he describes as a surveillance film clearly influenced by Rear Window. Hitchcock’s influence here is important because according to Freedman what he has contributed “to the genre is a dynamic by which the psychology of the surveillant is as much a subject of the film as that of those observed” (243). But again the film twists the plot by adding an external observer, who is observing the observer, thus transforming the Hitchcockian element.

20These directors enter into dialogue with Hitchcock in the process of transfiguring his work. It seems to Freedman that “Hitchcocks vision might offer us opportunities for critical dialogue…these filmmakers all propose not a passive but a creative response of the world…these directors suggest that the Hitchcockian thematics, of voyeurism, suspicion, doubling, and death can be engaged with to yield a different outcome: that in brining us into close contact with our nightmares, his films can also inspire us to dream otherwise” (249). In many ways this concluding sentence summarises the essence of this anthology. All contributors engage with both Hitchcock’s films and the surrounding film theory to revisit concepts and ideas and re-deliver them in new and exciting ways. I find that the optimism Freedman notes in Exotica is also present in his anthology: the opportunity to revisit the past, of cinema and of theory, review their nature and significance, and offer creative conclusions to what has already been said and what remains to be explored.

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Melenia Arouh, « Freedman, Jonathan, editor. The Cambridge Companion to Alfred Hitchcock », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2017-3, Online since 29 November 2017, connection on 07 June 2020. URL :

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