By John Billheimer
University Press of Kentucky
Hardcover, 384 pages,
Author John Billheimer’s Hitchcock and the Censors proves that there is always something new
to discover about “The Master of Suspense.”
The Alfred Hitchcock Wiki, https://the.hitchcock.zone/wiki/Hitchcock lists over 200 books on
Alfred Hitchcock and his films, the majority published within the past twenty years. This number
does not include thousands of articles, reviews, interviews, nor The Hitchcock Annual, an
intermittently printed journal. With these enormous repositories of information at hand one
might wonder what remains to be said, but Hitchcock and the Censors offers new insights.
It is informative even for post-production professionals who are familiar with Hitchcock’s
mastery of editing, creative use of sound, and memorable music. Most editors have likely
studied the shower scene in Psycho (1960) ad infinitum. For the list of The Motion Picture
Editors Guild 75 best edited films, including several directed by Hitchcock see the May/June
2012 issue of Cinemontage. While he may not have handed out compliments, Hitchcock needed
and admired editors-he married one. After hiring picture editor Alma Reville in 1923; they were
married in 1926. Her intense collaboration with him throughout their careers is a subject that
cries out for exploration, for Lady Alma Hitchcock, like many women in the film industry,
remains hidden in the large shadow of her husband.
The picture editor received more attention, at least from Hollywood’s watchdogs. Billheimer
notes that censor Joe Breen sent a letter to Jack Warner congratulating him on the “utterly
superb” work Mac MacCord did in editing Marlene Dietrich’s performance of “The Laziest Gal
in Town” in Stage Fright (1950). Although Billheimer, and presumably the reference source,
cite MacDonald as the editor, the film credits E.B. Jarvis, who was a Hollywood fixture from
1930 to 1963. Cutaways to the audience toned down Dietrich’s showcase number, which
Billheimer writes, “Involved some erotic gymnastics as Dietrich vamps her way between three
onstage lounges,” wearing a white Dior-designed nightgown topped by a flowing robe trimmed
The censors even took on Cole Porter, who was persuaded to rework the lyrics of his song,
changing “Lord knows I couldn’t” to “You know I couldn’t” and eliminating a “Let’s
misbehave.” Dietrich still sizzles, and it is clear that but for her “laziness” she is “More than
willing to learn – how these gals get money to burn.” Presumably the disrespectful reference to Christ
blinded Joe Breen to any intimation of sex for money.
Billheimer http://johnbillheimer.com, who holds an engineering Ph.D. from Stanford is best
known for two mystery novel series. His experience writing popular fiction, translates here into a
work that combines solid scholarship with entertaining prose. Putting these two components
together is no mean feat, one that more writers about film might well emulate.
Over 100 sources are cited in Hitchcock and the Censors. Importantly, Billheimer goes beyond
the obvious to conduct primary research. Such gems as a 1976 closed-circuit press conference
featuring Hitchcock, moderated by Richard Shickel https://filmmakeriq.com/2013/05/alfred-
hitchcock-press-conference-for-family-plot, the and files like “FCC vs. Fox Television Stations
Inc. Supreme Court Docket No. 07-582, April 28, 2009” give this book gravitas.
One of the most valuable resources plumbed by Billheimer is the “Motion Picture Association of
America. Production Code Administration Records” housed at the ever-invaluable Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Margaret Herrick Library. These 27 linear feet of paper are an
inestimable asset in tracking Hitchcock’s decades-long battles with British and US censors. For
those not familiar with the history of the Hollywood Production Code, widely known as the Hays
or Breen Code, this book also provides a good beginners account.
To explain how Hitchcock’s films were often damaged, but occasionally enhanced by code
restrictions, Billheimer begins with the pre-code era (1929-mid 1934), and the (clearly financial)
reasons Hollywood studio heads hired Will Hays to head an industry-funded organization to
clean up the movies’ wild and wicked image. Hays’ and his adjutants’, including Joe Breen’s
seal of approval was required before a studio would release any film.
Hitchcock and the Censors offers a succinct chapter on Hitchcock films. Each contains a synopsis,
followed by a few pages describing censorship problems and solutions, sometimes including photos.
There are also chapters outlining how television network censorship with its different set of standards and
advertiser control had an impact on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
Working in England prior to 1939, Hitchcock faced battles with the British Board of Censors, a
nominally independent agency that began with only two rules, “No materialization of Christ,”
and “No nudity.” This expanded to 98 rules, with several meant to preserve the status quo of
British life, including banning, “Anything which suggested conflict between employers and the
employed,” and content “calculated to wound the susceptibilities of foreign people.” Although
the first was particularly British and led to the banning of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin
(1925), the second also held sway in Hollywood until the US entered WWII. Before the official
declaration of war in 1942, the studios were determined to preserve worldwide box office,
especially the lucrative German market, which some thought would expand if the Nazis won the
war. Several Hitchcock pictures were constrained by this political censorship, notably Foreign
Correspondent (1940) and Saboteur (1942).
As early as 1927 with the silent The Lodger, Hitchcock faced a bugaboo that popped up
throughout his career; protagonists, especially if they were stars, could not be guilty of any
serious crime. In that film, popular romantic star Ivor Novello’s Lodger is found not to be a
serial killer, when he was the murderer in the source novel. Conversely, characters who
committed crimes were not allowed to go unpunished.
These story demands held sway throughout most of Hitchcock’s career, and were virtually
impossible to circumvent, since beginning with Secret Agent (1936) the Hays office reviewed his
scripts (including the 1930s English thrillers) before shooting began. This led to incongruous,
sometimes ludicrous endings in films like Rebecca (1940) in which Laurence Olivier’s “Maxim”
is found innocent of murdering his first wife, and when in Strangers on a Train (1951) it is
revealed that Guy (Farley Granger) did not carry out the murder as arranged. For Vertigo (1958),
considered by many to be the director’s masterpiece, Hitchcock was obliged to shoot a tacked-on
ending in which a radio broadcast announces that the murderous villain was captured. Hitchcock
was able to have this scene removed from prints screened in the US, but it remained intact in
most other countries.
Strangers on a Train allows Billheimer to parse Hitchcock’s several heavily veiled references to
homosexuality, a topic absolutely forbidden under the Hays Code. Homosexuality was so taboo
that it was not specified in the Code’s language. It was simply understood by everyone to fall
under the category of banned “sex perversions,” which also included miscegenation, white
slavery, and any sex outside of marriage that was presented as attractive or acceptable. Most
American audiences of the 1940s and 50s were likely oblivious to sly references to Bruno’s
(Robert Walker) obsession with Guy in this film. Billheimer provides a quote from Manny
Farber, who did notice, and commented in his contemporary review in The Nation that Strangers
on a Train, “Is built around the travestied homosexuality of the murderer,” and the movie was,
Having fun, as many recount it, was a constant in Hitchcock’s life. Quotes (from the book
Hitchcock and Selznick by Leonard Leff) Hitchcock explain how he escaped the eye of the head
of the British Board of Censors. Joseph Brooke Wilkinson, or Brooksie as he was known was in
charge of censorship, but his eyesight was failing. During review screenings whenever an,
“Offending piece of film approached, I said ‘Mr. Wilkinson-. He turned his head toward me and
the scene went by on the screen without him seeing it.” This did not work in Hollywood, but as
Billheimer’s demonstrates, Hitchcock deviously got the things he wanted on the screen by
shooting material that would obviously affront the censors, and then grudgingly giving in to their
demands on some issues to retain elements he cherished, thus creating his own real-life
This tiresome horse-trading strategy was a drain of time, energy and money, and the author
estimates that in aggregate Hitchcock spent the better part of three years engaged in such sparing.
For Hitchcock, the bits he was willing to lose were those that illuminated character and plot.
Continuity was frequently a secondary concern for the director. Visuals, the interplay of shots,
and a picture’s effect on the audience interested him far more than neatly resolved storylines.
Vertigo is based on the implausible idea that the hero, Jimmy Stewart would overcome the fear of heights
that once prevented him from climbing a bell tower to save his lover, to later race up its steps in the
finale. Even Truffaut, who arguably started the cult of Hitchcock as auteur, found the “extraordinary
coincidence” of I Confess (1953), in which the murderer “Should happen to confess his crime to the very
priest who is being blackmailed by the dead man,” off-putting.
Billheimer’s final chapter offers an excellent chart that details the cost, the box office, and the number of
Production Code notes in each Hitchcock film, along with data showing which were cited for violations
for sex, violence, and social issues.
Hitchcock and the Censors concludes with the fascinating rumination, “We will never know what other
movies he might have made if he hadn’t adjusted his own sights to fit within the censors’ limits. A great
director’s work might have been even greater.”