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Hitchcock and the Censors

by John Billheimer

Availablecloth$50.00s 978-0-8131-7742-7
Screen Classics
384 pages  Pubdate: 06/14/2019  6 x 9  42 b&w photos, 1 table

Throughout his career, Alfred Hitchcock had to deal with a wide variety of censors attuned to the slightest suggestion of sexual innuendo, undue violence, toilet humor, religious disrespect, and all forms of indecency, real or imagined. From 1934 to 1968, the Motion Picture Production Code Office controlled the content and final cut on all films made and distributed in the United States. Code officials protected sensitive ears from standard four-letter words, as well as a few five-letter words like tramp and six-letter words like cripes. They also scrubbed “excessively lustful” kissing from the screen and ensured that no criminal went unpunished.

During their review of Hitchcock’s films, the censors demanded an average of 22.5 changes, ranging from the mundane to the mind-boggling, on each of his American films. Code reviewers dictated the ending of Rebecca (1940), absolved Cary Grant of guilt in Suspicion (1941), edited Cole Porter’s lyrics in Stage Fright (1950), decided which shades should be drawn in Rear Window (1954), and shortened the shower scene in Psycho (1960).

In Hitchcock and the Censors, author John Billheimer traces the forces that led to the Production Code and describes Hitchcock’s interactions with code officials on a film-by-film basis as he fought to protect his creations, bargaining with code reviewers and sidestepping censorship to produce a lifetime of memorable films. Despite the often-arbitrary decisions of the code board, Hitchcock still managed to push the boundaries of sex and violence permitted in films by charming—and occasionally tricking—the censors and by swapping off bits of dialogue, plot points, and individual shots (some of which had been deliberately inserted as trading chips) to protect cherished scenes and images. By examining Hitchcock’s priorities in dealing with the censors, this work highlights the director’s theories of suspense as well as his magician-like touch when negotiating with code officials.

John Billheimer is the author of two mystery series; one with West Virginia failure analyst Owen Allison, and the other featuring Ohio sportswriter Lloyd Keaton. He has taught courses in film noir, hard-boiled fiction on film, and the modern mystery in film and print at Stanford and Santa Clara Universities. 

Here is a book that should have (and could have) been written years ago. Kudos, then, to Billheimer for slogging through the paper trail of correspondence between the British Board of Film Censors and Motion Picture Production Code Office (better known as the Breen Office) and Alfred Hitchcock regarding the content of his many provocative films. Each movie has a history all its own, and while passing reference has been made to censorship in other studies of Hitchcock, this is the first comprehensive book on the subject. No more be said: this is by definition an important piece of work. -- Leonard Maltin

Alfred Hitchcock pushed the boundaries of onscreen permissiveness as much as any artist/entertainer of the twentieth century. John Billheimer meticulously catalogs the filmmaker’s battles with the censors, both mischievous and profound, in fantastically readable fashion. A vital and fun addition to Hitchcock scholarship. -- Eddie Muller, author, Film Noir Foundation founder, and Turner Classic Movies Host

Many Hitchcock books and articles include accounts of censorship, and many books and articles on censorship include material on Hitchcock films. I don’t know of any other work that brings the man and the topic together in as businesslike a way as is done in Hitchcock and the Censors. It is an attractive study that offers a valuable, fresh angle on Hitchcock’s career. -- Charles Barr, coauthor of Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films

A meticulous deep dive into the sweaty tango between Hitchcock and the Code. Amazing to witness how arbitrary and stringent the rules were and the resulting sacrifices movies had to make. Hitchcock rose to the challenge and made the debates part of his expression—but what a bloody tiresome waste of his time. -- Darren Aronofsky