Alfred Hitchcock. Many associate the man with artistic brilliance, cinematic auteurism, and pop cultural iconography. Others have mixed reactions, cognizant of his indelible legacy while nonetheless grappling with feelings of uneasiness surrounding his infamous, boundary-pushing films. In recent years, he has joined the likes of Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and Harvey Weinstein as one of countless men in Hollywood guilty of abusing their power to support and engage in the systemic abuse of women.
It’s troubling that a person who did so much to revolutionize one of the most profound and empathetic art forms of the last century is also the corrupt mind behind real-life sexual predation. This unfortunate fact was not wholly confronted until October of 2012, when actress Tippi Hedren, then 82 years old, finally broke her silence and shared a host of horrific experiences with the director during the filming of one of his landmark motion pictures, 1963’s The Birds. Hedren’s testimony received press and solidarity, but still failed to shine light on a new and more authentic perspective of Hitchcock, with opposing viewpoints still totally isolated. This difficulty is found not only with Hitchcock, but to all appealing art forms and artists with problematic deadweights. In an article entitled “Bad Feminist”, author Roxane Gay writes:
I listen to thuggish rap at a very loud volume even though the lyrics are degrading to women and offend me to my core… I am as committed to fighting fiercely for equality as I am committed to disrupting the notion that there is an essential feminism.
Here, Gay ultimately conveys how her identity as a feminist does not prevent her from sometimes indulging in the “positives” of an otherwise problematic work, while her love for the “positives” of that problematic work still do not blind her from its ultimately problematic nature. Unfortunately, the awareness Gay possesses is not present in the current conversation surrounding how we view and handle Hitchcock. One must ask, what and why are there multiple, isolated “identities” that separately define Alfred Hitchcock? Further, in the current crusade against misogynistic abuse in the film industry and beyond, what do we do with these many isolated “faces” of Hitchcock to effectively grapple with his work going forward?
Hitchcock, the Genius
Nineteen years after his death, he remains as famous as any director in movie history—even Steven Spielberg. Other directors have had their films remade, but only Hitchcock made one so monumental that another director, a good one, actually tried to duplicate it, shot by shot. (Ebert)
The remake that esteemed film critic and historian Roger Ebert is referring to is Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, released in 1998. In many ways, that insignificant little remake totally encapsulates the legend and influence of Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a sentiment that reverberated through Ebert’s words and in the minds and hearts of millions of critics and audience members, so much so that Van Sant’s replication of the Hitchcock style was criticized. This creative love mixed with critical and audience backlash speaks to the metaphorical shrine that has been built around Hitchcock and his monumental legacy.
In the context of both global cinema and American pop culture, Hitchcock is a religion. With his career beginning in the infancy of the technological form itself, he has been credited as “acknowledged master of the thriller genre he virtually invented” and “a brilliant technician who deftly blended sex, suspense and humor” (Dwyer). Few would disagree with this statement, and for good reason. It is by no coincidence that his most immaculate work, 1958’s Vertigo, beat Citizen Kane in the recent 2012 Sight & Sound poll as the greatest motion picture of all time (“Critics’ top 100”). It is also by no coincidence that his television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, spawned nationwide adoration for the portly British grandpa that he was, inching his jolly silhouette across the small screen on a weekly basis to inject macabre fun into America’s living rooms; many often correlate the success of his show with his monumental films that emerged as both “beautiful works of art” and “devilish populist fun” (MeTV Staff). Without Hitchcock, we would not have Scorsese, Spielberg, De Palma, or any of the other profound artists of the modern crop who have left their own distinct imprint on American cinema, storytelling and culture at large. Quite simply, moviemaking does not exist without his innovative genius.
Hitchcock, the Enigma
Of course, it would be a perfect world if Hitchcock’s oeuvre and reputation were solely encapsulated by that very reputation of “genius”. Unfortunately his work is set apart by profound and puzzling misogyny that transcends the “damsel in distress” archetype. In some of Hitchcock’s most revered works, women are the sole targets of violence, a sense of degradation that pushes one too many buttons. An article in The Guardian entitled “What’s Wrong with Hitchcock’s Women” brings attention to said misogyny:
There are lots of reasons to love Hitchcock, of course: the style, the guile, the pace, the pitch… Hitch knows how to frame a shot. But when it comes to the ladies, it’s slim pickings. Indeed that is literally what his women do: pick their way slimly through a range of awful experiences and deceitful pathologies. (Bidisha)
The enigmatic and questionable ordeals women endure in Hitchcock’s films can be traced back to some of his earliest works. Bidisha notes how these distasteful qualities take on a more covert form in North by Northwest, his 1959 thriller starring Eva Marie Saint as a “malicious featherbrain” whose combination of stereotypes, specifically “stupid, cunning, soft-hearted, and traitorous,” make what “only in the mind of a true hater…[can] come together [to create] the nasty piece of work that is Woman” (Bidisha). Hitchcock’s penultimate film, 1972’s Frenzy, denotes the point in the director’s career where the abuse of women can no longer be (poorly) defended by the patriarchal norm of the time; it becomes something truly problematic.
It’s important to recognize that while Hitchcock degrades women in his films, he also paints men in an unsavory fashion. This makes the argument that Hitchcock “hates women” hard to pin down, lending to the enigmatic reputation of his work. Film scholar Jeanne Thomas Allen notes that with these Hitchcock films, and the creation of ill and unsavory villains like Frenzy‘s Bob Rusk, “misogyny is replaced by misanthropy in the critics’ eye” and “the victimization of women becomes a metaphor for the despairing entrapment of humanity” (31). This does not legitimately justify the misogynistic gaze placed upon women in these films, but it is indicative of the way in which this filmmaker has been able to distract the viewer by distilling his misogyny across all of his characters, including men. He then uses his command of craft (i.e., the manipulative powers of cinematography and montage) to “hide” the blatant mistreatment and mis-portrayal of women in his work.
This is what makes the issue of Hitchcock so complicated. Without question, he is a cinematic visionary. He pushed narrative, thematic, and aesthetic boundaries, shattered the rigid limitations placed on him by censorship boards, made way for the Hollywood Renaissance, and ultimately changed the way we see movies. He, unlike any other director, made movies feel unsafe, and that in and of itself provides a certain primal thrill. This is what the critics and the masses became (and still are) enamored by. But with this distraction comes blindness placed on the crucial role, and portrayal of, women in his work. Women emerge as an afterthought in contemporaneous reviews of Frenzy, which exalt the undeniable brilliance in Hitchcock’s use of the cinematic apparatus to craft effective artistic synergy—specifically in the film’s infamous rape scene (described by one critic as “razzle-dazzle”)—seemingly without being conscious of the fact that they are reviewing rape (Allen 30). Allen notes that, throughout, Hitchcock uses an optimistic synthesis of image and sound to prime us for “a morbid-comic tone”, and conditioning within the audience a “detached but curious gaze”, so that we become totally desensitized, even finding enjoyment in a joke that is made at the expense of a mutilated female corpse (32).
In turn, Hitchcock’s skills as a manipulator of the cinematic medium are irrevocably revolutionary, but this very brilliance acts as an “illusion” that allows the viewer to embrace the abuse of women while somehow remaining unaware of the horror and reality of this mistreatment. Extending misogyny beyond the confines of the screen, Bidisha parallels Hitchcock’s own sensibilities with those of his nasty leading men, writing, “Norman Bates is Hitchcock himself, kidding himself that women are scheming devils and men are just innocent folk, acting up because they got caught in a tricky situation.” Unsavory male leads become Hitchcock’s projection of his own self; we are no longer bystanders to fictional abuse, but actual abuse.
Hitchcock, the Predator
But how do we know this for sure, and how does this correlate with Hitchcock’s work? Looking to the essay “Must We Burn Hitchcock? (Re)Viewing Trauma and Effecting Solidarity with The Birds“, film and feminist scholar Joy C. Schaefer explores the on-screen violence against actress Tippi Hedren and connects this violence with the alleged sexual harassment Hedren experienced in real life at the hands of the director. In many ways, Schaefer’s article validates and confirms the theory of misogyny in Allen’s critique of Frenzy. Unlike Frenzy, The Birds is not an inherently sexual film, which makes an analysis challenging. Still, while The Birds does not contain a graphic scene of rape like Frenzy, it does contain what Schaefer describes as “metaphorized rape”, when Hedren’s character is attacked into unconsciousness by a flock of crows while trapped in an attic (334). What distinguishes this film is that Hedren was actually being attacked by real crows on set; Hitchcock blatantly lied to Hedren, assuring her she would be safely assailed by prop birds. This deception was made easier for Hitchcock because of Hedren’s status as a previously unknown model brought into the limelight by him (for whom she made her film debut in The Birds), without the stability of an established reputation or career to defend herself. In many ways, this allowed Hitchcock to view her as solely his property:
We [Hedren and her co-stars] didn’t socialize together off camera… because, unbeknownst to me, Hitchcock was too proprietary of ‘The Girl,’ as he referred to me behind my back, to allow it… as I eventually found out, he’d given an actual order… a threat, to Rod Taylor, and later to Sean Connery during Marnie: ‘Do not touch the Girl!’ (Hedren 47)
Hedren’s testimony can vouch for Schaefer summation that the authentic on-screen attack in The Birds is a result of the actress’ spurning of Hitchcock’s increasingly aggressive sexual advances, and as a result, the predominant scene of violence against a woman in this particular film is actually a mirror of real-life personal violation, and the conduit through which Hitchcock could exact revenge on Hedren’s resistance to acquiesce. Rightfully, Schaefer calls for an added realm of feminist sensibility in regards to how we exalt his filmography, specifically The Birds, in order to give new and more essential meaning where the evidence of real-life sexual abuse is undoubted. But how do we attain this, and how do we grapple with this new meaning?
Where We Go from Here: Hitchcock, the “Problematic Fave”
It’s clear that Hitchcock’s predation can no longer come as an afterthought. Sadly, we find ourselves steeped in a culture not willing to accept such a hard truth. A Time magazine article as recent as 2012 inhabits said unwillingness: “His strategies on the set matter much less than the mordant glories he put on film. And that should be all we care about… Did these little on-the-set atrocities actually occur?… Does it matter?” (Corliss). The answer: it absolutely does.
While one cannot devalue the man’s innovative artistic sway on the cinematic medium and cultural fabric, his transgressions are inerasable. In fact, to ignore Hitchcock’s transgressions would be to not fully understand the true scope of his work, as the artist is simply inseparable from the human being. When one understands that these influential works are imbued with these flaws, and crafted from the mind of a man both exceptionally talented as well as deeply corrupt, it makes Hitchcock’s canon all the more worthy of critical examination. This leaves the question: what should we ultimately do with his body of work? Should we embrace it? Should we ignore it? Should we destroy it completely?
With each piece of research addressed, it seems that there’s a disconnect among them all, gaps between them that separate their very different perspectives on Hitchcock: Richard Corliss and Roger Ebert exalt the man’s genius, Jeanne Thomas Allen remains disturbed by his misogyny, and Joy C. Schaefer exposes him for the sexual predator he was, with little fusion or explanation in between. It is as if, until now, we have been unproductively discussing three completely different human beings. Mounting feminist film theory and Hedren’s personal testimony has rightfully pervaded our decades-deep, rose-colored perception of Hitchcock, but in turn the culture has shattered his legacy into separate identities instead of welcoming the truth with a levelheaded sense of grace.
Going forward with such an issue, we must be cognizant of its many silos, understanding the ecstasy in conjunction with the agony to erase a sense of “essentialism” from each “face” of Hitchcock and finally view him as the brilliant, horrifying, innovative, monstrous composite he authentically was. Returning to Schaefer’s essay, we must look at her important suggestion about viewing Hitchcock’s work going forward, in regards to these isolated identities:
I call on the pedagogical responsibility of teachers and film programmers who choose to show The Birds to expose students and audiences to critical supplements to the film… this praxis will create productive feminist anger and knowledge, thus opening up potential sites for affective solidarity. (340)
One cannot completely do away with Hitchcock’s body of work, of course, but it’s imperative that it come with a “post-it” of knowledge and solidarity denoting the difficult truth behind it, to remove from it the overblown sense of divinity and essentialism that has defined its legacy. In a world obsessed with resolution, loving and hating Hitchcock simultaneously might not seem like the most satisfying solution. But by recognizing the man beyond one of the three isolated faces of his image, and synthesizing the established genius, the puzzling enigma, and the undeniable maniac into a complete whole, we can begin to authentically grapple with his ever-influential yet ever-problematic cinematic resume in revolutionary ways.
Bidisha. “What’s Wrong with Hitchcock’s Women” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media Limited, 21 Oct. 2010,
Corliss, Richard. “Was Hitchcock Psycho?” Time, Time Inc., 25 Nov. 2012,
“Critics’ top 100” Sight & Sound, British Film Institute, 2012,
Dwyer, Shawn. “Alfred Hitchcock” Turner Classic Movies, Turner Classic Movies,
Ebert, Roger. “Hitchcock Is Still on Top of Film World” RogerEbert.com, Ebert Digital LLC, 13 Aug. 1999,
Gay, Roxane. “Bad Feminist” VQR Online, The Virginia Quarterly Review, 22 Sept. 2012
Hedren, Tippi. Tippi: A Memoir. Paperback ed., HarperCollins Publishers, 2016.
Schaefer, Joy C. “Must We Burn Hitchcock? (Re)Viewing Trauma and Effecting Solidarity with The Birds (1963)” Quarterly Review of Film & Video, vol. 32, no. 4, May 2015, pp. 329-343. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/10509208.2015.999220.