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Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock: The Legacy of Victorianism

Paula Marantz Cohen
Copyright Date: 1995
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Alfred Hitchcock
    Book Description:

    This provocative study traces Alfred Hitchcock's long directorial career from Victorianism to postmodernism. Paula Cohen considers a sampling of Hitchcock's best films --Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho-- as well as some of his more uneven ones --Rope, The Wrong Man, Topaz-- and makes connections between his evolution as a filmmaker and trends in the larger society.

    Drawing on a number of methodologies including feminism, psychoanalysis, and family systems, the author provides an insightful look at the paradox of a Victorian-style gentleman who evolved into one of the leading masters of the modern medium of film. Cohen sees Hitchcock's films as developing, in part, as a masculine response to the domestic, psychological novels that had appealed primarily to women during the Victorian era. His career, she argues, can be seen as an attempt to balance "the two faces of Victorianism": the masculine legacy of law and hierarchy and the feminine legacy of feeling and imagination.

    Also central to her thesis is the Victorian model of the nuclear family and its permutations, especially the father-daughter dyad. She postulates a fundamental dynamic in Hitchcock's films, what she calls a "daughter's effect," and relates it to the social role of the family as an institution and to Hitchcock's own relationship with his daughter, Patricia, who appeared in three of his films.

    Cohen argues that Hitchcock's films reflect his Victorian legacy and serve as a map for ideological trends. She charts his development from his British period through his classic Hollywood years into his later phase, tracing a conceptual evolution that corresponds to an evolution in cultural identity -- one that builds on a Victorian inheritance and ultimately discards it.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5779-5
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    Alfred Hitchcock’s career spans the greater part of the twentieth century. He made his directorial debut in 1922, his last film in 1975, and he was still trying to shape a new project at his death in 1980. His work is a mirror of cinematic development: from silent to sound, from black and white to color, from the shoestring productions of his early London years to the expensive vehicles of his Hollywood period. In the process, he dabbled in technical innovations such as 3-D and Vista Vision, experimented in special effects and editing techniques, and developed an extensive repertoire of...

  5. 1 The Rise of Narrative Film
    (pp. 10-28)

    In 1975 Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” helped launch a new direction for film studies.¹ Mulvey argued that all classical narrative films (generally speaking, feature films of the Hollywood era) are tailored to the male point of view (in cinematic terms, the male “gaze”). Women, she maintained, are represented in these films either as passive appendages of men or as ideally desirable bodies (larger-than-life cultural icons, i.e., “stars”). In this dual function, they serve both as an image of the castration which the male viewer fears for himself and as a fetish to allay this same castration anxiety....

  6. 2 Novel into Film: Sabotage
    (pp. 29-49)

    Hitchcock’s British period dates from the mid-1920s when he made his directorial debut, until 1939 when, as England’s most acclaimed director, he left London for Hollywood. Serious critics initially saw his move to America as a sellout and insisted that his subsequent films were not up to the level of his best British pictures. This perspective began to change in the 1950s and 1960s, when Charles Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and other auteur critics championed the Hollywood films as the fullest expression of Hitchcock’s mature style. Yet even as the focus has shifted to the Hollywood period, the British films have...

  7. 3 Psychoanalysis versus Surrealism: Spellbound
    (pp. 50-66)

    By the late 1930s Hitchcock had reached a career pinnacle in England and, like so many European filmmakers of the period, looked to Hollywood for new opportunities. Yet, despite initial interest from a number of studios, only David O. Selznick seemed to have an idea of how to use Britain’s most acclaimed director.

    Selznick wanted to wed those elements of action, suspense, and humor that had made Hitchcock’s films appealing to a male audience to his own gift for “women’s pictures.”Rebecca,the film Selznick eventually assigned to Hitchcock for his Hollywood debut, had this kind of potential. Based on...

  8. 4 The Father-Daughter Plot: Shadow of a Doubt, Stage Fright, Strangers on a Train
    (pp. 67-85)

    Critics have long noted contrary and self-contradicting impulses in Hitchcock’s films. Lesley Brill explains these impulses in archetypal terms, as the result of the interpellation of mythic motifs. William Rothman sees a drive to both reveal and hide the fact of authorship. Feminist psychoanalytic critics focus on what they see as Hitchcock’s ambivalence toward women. What all these approaches share is a basically static understanding of conflict as an oscillation between extremes which seek continually to counter each other.¹ Far from discerning such oscillation, I see a systemic progression in Hitchcock’s work. Conflict and contradiction arise not out of a...

  9. 5 Digression: Rope, I Confess
    (pp. 86-98)

    It is a commonplace in film theory that the woman in classical narrative film performs the role of the object of the male gaze, “the ground of representation, the looking glass held up to men.”¹ Hitchcock’s films of the Hollywood period are primary examples referred to by the pioneers of this theory. They point to his preference for the chiseled blond, a cultural stereotype of female desirability, and to the manner in which he filmed women during his Hollywood period: a fetishistic concentration on parts of the female body and on female accessories, and prolonged close-ups of the female face....

  10. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  11. 6 The Daughter’s Effect: Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much
    (pp. 99-123)

    In trying to position Hitchcock with respect to his time, one is drawn in two directions. He was at once a latter-day “eminent Victorian,” the stereotype of bourgeois caution and conventionality that Lytton Strachey and fellow modernists satirized and relegated to the dust-heap of culture. By the same token, in choosing film, the medium that “had superseded the novel in line with historical necessity,”¹ Hitchcock was more modern than Strachey and his circle, who remained attached to the written word.

    The difficulty of locating Hitchcock is compounded further by the way in which he conceived of the cinematic with respect...

  12. 7 Transition: The Wrong Man, Vertigo
    (pp. 124-141)

    The Wrong Man and Vertigo,released in 1956 and 1958 respectively, are important transitional works in Hitchcock’s repertory. Both show the filmmaker cutting loose from the novelistic and familial influences that informed his earlier films and that were the legacy of Victorian culture. Hitchcock’s move to Hollywood in 1939 and the influence of David O. Selznick initially gave new form and vigor to this legacy. But Hitchcock was also an observer of the American scene, and he found in the images and social conventions of mid-twentieth-century America a means of representing changes in himself. By the early 1960s, the conditions...

  13. 8 The Emergence of Mother: Psycho
    (pp. 142-150)

    During the 1950s, Hitchcock cast Cary Grant and James Stewart in parts ostensibly designed for younger men. (InNorth by Northwest,for example, Grant is actually older than the actress who plays his mother.) The disparity in age between the male lead and the female in the 1950s was the logical extrapolation of the father-daughter dynamic. And Hitchcock’s personal relationships to the actresses Vera Miles and Tippi Hedren in the late 1950s and early 1960s reflect a similar extrapolation: these women were the age of his daughter and were chosen as protégées to be molded by him into leading ladies,...

  14. 9 Beyond the Family Nexus: Topaz, Frenzy, Family Plot
    (pp. 151-164)

    Hitchcock’s last three films—Topaz, Frenzy,andFamily Plot,—can be read as a return to the kind of flat characterizations and technical gimmickry that characterized his early films and prompted Selznick’s comments about the need to curtail his “gags and bits.” For many critics, this apparent slighting of character in favor of technique merely signaled the falling off of age, as if to say that, in his decline, Hitchcock took refuge in what he knew best. This seems to me both correct and incorrect. Insofar as a return to one’s roots may well be a hallmark of age (suggesting...

  15. 10 After Hitchcock
    (pp. 165-168)

    Hitchcock’s foray into television in 1955 withAlfred Hitchcock Presentswas a step as important in its way as any in his cinematic development. Its importance had little to do with his involvement in production. He actually directed only a small fraction of the programs in the series, and the time constraints placed severe limitations on what could be done creatively. Instead, what seems to have distinguished the series in the public imagination were Hitchcock’s brief appearances on it, particularly his materialization out of line and shadow during the opening credits. Robert Kapsis has noted that the appearance evoked “the...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 169-188)
  17. Index
    (pp. 189-200)