Wertham interviews Hitchcock: the Redbook Conversation

30 Oct

In the April 1963 issue of the magazine Redbook, the celebrated film-maker Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) sat down for an interview with the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham (1895-1981). Hitchcock was famous for his crime movies; Wertham was well-known for decrying crime in the media, most famously comic books, but equally film and television. Below is a complete transcript of their conversation.

Dr Wertham: I didn’t see Psycho, I’m sorry to say, but many people have commented on the act of violence in that movie. Was it a little stronger than you would have put in formerly — say, ten or fifteen years ago?

Alfred Hitchcock: Well, I don’t know. I have always felt that you should do the minimum on screen to get the maximum audience effect. I believe the audience should work. Sometimes it is necessary to go into some element of violence, but I only do it if I have a strong reason. For example, in Psycho there was this very violent impressionistic murder in a bathroom, you see, and it was montaged by little pieces of film giving the impression of a knife stabbing a victim, and so on and so forth.

Now, once I had completed that piece of film, I had instilled in the minds of the audience enough apprehension about the existence of a murderer so that as the movie went on, I was able to reduce and eventually practically eliminate all further violence because I wanted only the threat left. Once I had given the audience violence, you see,  I did not have to show it. Violence for the sake of violence I don’t think has any effect. I don’t think the audience is moved by it. It’s so obvious.

Dr Wertham: But wasn’t this violence stronger than your usual dose?

Alfred Hitchcock: It was.

Dr Wertham: More?

Alfred Hitchcock: More.

Dr Wertham: Then am I fair in thinking that some of the atmosphere of needing and wanting violence which exists in our society at present has rubbed off on you? Is it possible? In other words, Hitchcock would not volunteer it, but the audience demands it because they are accustomed to it and they would not settle for less?

Alfred Hitchcock:  I didn’t do it for that purpose.

Dr Wertham: Well, perhaps unconsciously?

Alfred Hitchcock: Well, no. Actually, I would say that as far as  violence goes, no; the lovemaking, yes. I felt that in the portrayal of lovemaking, the ordinary embrace and the kissing on the cheek or what-have-you — I feel that young people today would laugh at that.

Dr Wertham: That’s right.

Alfred Hitchcock: They would yawn. And I was conscious of making the lovemaking scenes a little more risque than I normally would, because I felt that modern manners had changed, to some extent.

Dr Wertham: I wonder whether an audience that would laugh or yawn at — shall we call it old-fashoned? — lovemaking  isn’t the same audience that would yawn at  scenes of violence that didn’t measure up to what they expected. But let me present the problem in  another way. From the scientific point of view there is still a great question about the effect any kind of entertainment has on people psychologically.  One way of trying to learn more about it — about the effect, for example, of scenes of violence on television — is to ask someone about what they saw and what they thought about it. This sort of survey is supposed to be a scientific way — I don’t happen to think it is. With questionnaires, you get answers you can count and use to give percentage of yeses and noes, but you mustn’t look too closely to see if the answers mean anything. In this so-called scientific study I’m thinking of, they asked; “Do you or do you not believe in God?” One young boy answered, “Sometimes”.  And this is the kind of questionnaire they used to find out about the effects of violence in Western movies on children who watched television — the cowboys being shot and falling from their horses and nobody even stopping to look at them and so forth. And this scientific study reports that shootings and killings on TV movies don’t do any harm because they are stylised. Stylised! I’m not sure what that word means. You show killing, that means killing to any child.

Alfred Hitchcock: Well, that is true to a point. But on the other hand, don’t forget little children themselves play at being dead. A little boy holds his hand up with three fingers and one finger pointed out and he says “Bang — you’re dead.” And the other little boy falls down. A minute later he’s up and the two are running araound again. They know what make-believe dead is. Not long ago when I was in Los Angeles a boy came up to me — he was about nine years old –and he said, “Oh, Mr Hitchcock, in the murder scene in Psycho, what did you use for blood! Chicken blood?” I said, “No, chocolate sauce.” He said “Oh…okay, thank you,” and went on his way.

Dr Wertham: But of course there is another side to that, you see. This is what concerns me: not that violence scares children — or adults, for that matter — but precisely the fact that it doesn’t. If people see too much violence on movie or television screens, why shouldn’t we expect them to get used to violence? The child isn’t scared any more by one person getting murdered.  If five get killed, or fifty, it can’t make much difference.

Alfred Hitchcock: Well, let’s look at the fairy stories. Let’s look at their violence and — shall we coin a word? — at their Grimm-ness.

Dr Wertham: (smiling) With two ‘m’s.

Alfred Hitchcock: Yes, two ‘m’s. Now, Red Riding Hood, you see– ‘What big teeth you have, Grandma.” “All the better to eat you with, my dear.” These stories, remember, are read to little tots; they grow up on them.  Hansel and Gretel, for example; the old woman is pushed into the oven! And think how early this starts.

Dr Wertham: Fairy tales, of course, are creations of art. But you see, there’s a difference. Movies take real life as it is in the street and the house and the drawing room. Now, that’s totally different from a fairy tale. I mean, who has a grandmother who’s eaten by a wolf? That doesn’t mean anything to a boy. That’s a totally different thing than if he sees on the screen a gangster on the street who shoots from an ordinary car right there and then, you know, or in a bathroom or whatever. That is much closer to something he knows.

Alfred Hitchcock: Well, I’m only going back to the fairy story to show that this thing is part of a child’s education and they get educated to — shall we call it awfulness! — that they don’t really believe in.

Dr Wertham: I want to defend fairy stories. There are many fairy stories that are not violent at all.

Alfred Hitchcock: But the children do not know they’re fairy tales. This little boy, sitting on his mother’s knee, wide-eyed, listens with awe, and he believes. All this, mind you, starts at such an early age. Somebody once asked me: “When did you first learn about creating fear in people?” As you know, when you tell a movie story as I do, you trade on the fear which is within everyone. When did I learn this? When I was six months old. I was in my mother’s arms, and she went “Boo!” and scared the hell out of me and gave me the  hiccups. And then I giggled, and she was so pleased.  Now, what makes a mother take a child six months old and go “Boo!” and the child gets the hiccups?  This could be the beginning of parental irresponsibility.

Dr Wertham: May I take up the subject of parental responsibility in perhaps a more serious way? In my own experience — from seeing people and examining them and trying to find out what influences them for good or bad — I am certain that we must make an absolute distinction between children and adults.  It doesn’t do any harm for a forty-year-old man to watch anything; his life is crystallised. But what a child watches must affect him, and particularly violence. Television, after all, sits in his living room, and it wouldn’t be there if his parents didn’t approve of it. That gives the programs he watches just so much more power over him.

Alfred Hitchcock: Well, naturally it boils down to parents and their control over their children looking at the set. But I think we can say this much about television as a kind of gleam of hope — I don’t believe every child is corrupted by it.

Dr Wertham: Of course, “corrupted” isn’t the word for it, is it? The reason people aren’t doing much to see to it that television improves is just this: Here, they are told, are abnormal children — these are the ones who are affected; and here are normal children who are completely immune. I have been trying to combat this notion for a long time because I don’t think you can divide children like this. I believe that all children, including those from the best families and with the best education, can be influenced in the areas of sex, of violence, of dishonesty, of prejudice.

But I don’t think parents can just sit around waiting for things to happen by themselves. Not too long ago, as you may know, I was involved in protesting the horror comic books that were flooding the country. What you may not know is that many parents in many communities joined the protest, and did what they could to prevent these things from coming into their children’s hands, and within a few years twenty-four out of twenty-nine publishers stopped putting out these comics.

I think today parents have a new level of responsibility. All the answers aren’t available as to how society can protect children, and parents can’t afford to wait. They have to, at the very least, let their children know how they themselves feel about violence, and they have to express their criticism of what they think are really harmful programs to the sponsors of such programs.

Alfred Hitchcock: One point I would like to make here is that you can always create suspense without resorting to violence. The fact that a man dies, we only have to say, Well, the man died,  drank a glass of milk or whatever it was — off screen, anyway you like, you see. You can get an audience worried terribly without any violence. It’s not necessary.

Dr Wertham: I have always referred to your film Rebecca as a movie about violence without violence,  which I think is a marvelous acheivement.

Alfred Hitchcock: But in producing the movies that I do, I find it would be impossible without a sense of humour. I play with people’s emotions, it’s true. I know how to prepare them, how to give them a laugh at the right moment, and I know how to make them react by clutching their seats with fear, almost screaming — because I know they will go out giggling. These are the same people who scream on the roller-coaster when it goes off on the deep dive, you see, and then when it levels off at the end, they’re laughing.

For some reason they enjoy this fear. As I’ve said before, they love to put their toe into the cold water of fear to find out what it feels like. If you take the average fairground midway, you will find people paying money to be frightened — the haunted house, for example, where the floorboards move up and down, skeletons pop out, spiders drop down — and it’s all done on a basis of humour.

Dr Wertham: This is part of the science of psychoanalysis. To fight the biggest fears, people try a sample of their little fears. A little at a time.

Alfred Hitchcock: Little children go on a swing. They go higher and higher — and then they scare themselves and stop at the crucial point. And after they get off the swing, they’re laughing.

Dr Wertham: Humour, yes. But you know, movies have one thing in common, most of them –they have no sense of humour at all. They don’t have the safety valve of humour. But a question I want to ask you now is totally different. It’s this: I have been preoccupied for quite some time now, and so have many other people, with the fact that we are technologically so advanced that we don’t make old-fashioned wars any more, with guns and so on, but it’s perfected now like — well, like agriculture. We can simply exterminate.

Alfred Hitchcock: Yes.

Dr Wertham: We can exterminate people the way we exterminate pests. And I am preoccupied with the fact that psychologically people are getting more and more ready to accept this. Now the question is this: Can the mass media, can they do something to bring home to people that something quite serious could happen, and if it happens, it’s their own fault, not the fault of  two or three people sitting pressing buttons? Can you do something about this threat of violence?

Alfred Hitchcock: I don’t think they’d accept it.

Dr Wertham: I’m afraid I agree with you.

Alfred Hitchcock: No, they wouldn’t believe it. The concept is so vast, you see, and after all, they’ve seen so many times the mushroom cloud.  They’ve seen it in newsreels, and they haven’t any conception still as to what it means. And then I think it’s so far beyond their imagination, the average person’s imagination.  Of course, they see Hiroshima, pictures of that, you know, and so forth, but that’s very remote from them.

Dr Wertham: But shouldn’t it be possible for people like you who are interested in communication and are masters of entertainment to see if you can reach them about that too?

Alfred Hitchcock: I don’t think so, because I belong to fictions. It would be like science fiction. They wouldn’t believe it anyway. I still prefer to play on their emotions my way.

Dr Wertham: Aren’t they also being shaped and educated and conditioned?

Alfred Hitchcock: No, because I’m not conditioning them. I’m using their natural instincts to help them enjoy fear. That’s what I trade on. I know these people can all be scared. I play them like an organ. I know exactly when to stop, to relieve them at the right moment, otherwise they’ll laugh in the wrong places.

Dr Wertham: I have admired very much a number of movies you have made– Rear Window, for example. And I have wondered: Quite apart from your professional plans and your professional abilities, how do you become interested in the themes that recur in your movies? To be blunt, can it have any connection with your own life?

Alfred Hitchcock: No. Strangely enough, Doctor, my life is a very simple one. It’s the direct antithesis of what I do on the screen. Women often regard me as an ogre or a monster until they get to know me, and then they find out I’m just the opposite. My wife and i have been married for thirty-six years, and — but you know, Dr. Wertham, in a way,  one could almost say you would be the best person to answer this. How can a simple fellow like me get involved in all these crime and murder complications which come up on that screen? Because they do not reflect in any way whatsoever my own private life or my own  private mind.

Dr Wertham: Part of the answer lies in the word you have given me. You say your movies are the antithesis of your life. In my experience it is often true that an artist does not live the kind of life he describes best.  But we psychiatrists (smiling) are annoying people. We assume and generally can demonstrate that some submerged connection does link the creator to what he creates. So I expect there must be some little connection between the psychology of these movies and your own feelings about them.

Alfred Hitchcock: (slowly) Well, let’s examine the — I’m English by birth, you see, and the fact happens to be that many great English literary figures have always interested themselves in crime. Condider, for example, a trial at the Old Bailey, which as you must know  know is England’s chief criminal court. Behind the bewiigged counsel are long leather seats for privileged guests, and you’ll find the people who go there when an important trial is on include the most important writers of the day. The whole thing is examined on a very high plane. Now, this is indiginous, it seems to me, to the English.

Dr Wertham: It is true that if a crime is studied properly — which it rarely is — but if it is examined thoroughly it can suddenly illuminate a whole community — even, perhaps, a whole nation. When ti comes to revealing reality, I don’t think there is anything that is more revealing than a crime, particularly a murder. We can pretend a lot about how we feel in our social lives, but once a murder has been committed, we are forced to look reality in the face. The pretending is over. This man may have said he loved his wife, but all that is certain is that he murdered her.  Why? What really was in his heart and mind? And in hers? I was in England shortly after the Crippen case, and there is a murder case that tells you as much about England at the time than any history book.

Alfred Hitchcock: Well, therefore — you see there is a connection between me and this whole approach to crime.  The English have always been interested in crime. Now, I had a friend who was Mrs Belloc Lowndes — her brother was the well-known English writer Hilaire Belloc, you know. Well, now, Mrs Lowndes, God rest her soul,  was like a little housewife. But she used to write these more or less horrific novels. I made a movie — it was one of my first exercises in this genre — based on a novel by Mrs Lownde. We called it The Lodger.

Dr Wertham: Oh, yes, that’s a famous one. It was based on a real case, wasn’t it?

Alfred Hitchcock: Yes, Jack the Ripper. That was the third picture I directed but my first in England — I had made two earlier ones in Germany. Now, The Lodger was full of suspenseful devices which, in those days,  the silent picture days, we had to show visually. I remember the opening of the picture — ten minues on a London afternoon, with the news of the latest Ripper murder, and I showed how the news was spread through all media.  I showed all the details of newspaper production, but each time I gave away some more information about Jack the Ripper– that he only did it on Tuesdays; he only did it to blonde girls — murdered them — what he looked like, and so forth. I waited a whole reel before I introduced him. I followed one girl home to her mother and father at night, and  while they’re talking about the Ripper, the lights go down slowly — gas lamps, you know —  and as it gets dark the mother says: ” Dad, put a shilling in the gas meter; the gas is going down.” So the father goes off to the meter with a shilling. Mother gets up to answer a knock at the door, and as she opens it, by quick cross-cutting, you see the shilling put into the meter , and then Mother opens the door, the lights go up, and there is Jack the Ripper, with a black coat, a black hat and a black bag, standing there, you see.

Dr Wertham: The trouble with so much of the crime writing in this country is that — well, first of all it isn’t so carefully done. Much of it is pretty shabbily written. Then what happens here is that it gets mixed up with what I shall call social reform. Now, that would be very good — there is always the example of Dickens, you know — but this isn’t always aimed at opening people’s eyes to the reality around them. It’s halfhearted. If it touches the Puerto Rican problem in New York, for example, it touches it gingerly and then pulls back. Social reform is just another ingredient to throw into the murder-story stew.

Another trouble is that crime writers here are mixed up with some kind of Viennese jargon of psychoanalysis. And I feel obliged to say that they often misuse psychiatry and psychoanalysis. It’s not to difficult to write about sex and sadism and violence in nice sensational detail as long as you pretend that you’re really proceeding on safe psychiatric ground — which generally isn’t the case.

Finally there is the fact that Americans, unlike the English, have made a cult of violence. Take a Los Angeles television station that I know about. In one week’s time, on programs appearing before 9 p.m., they showed three hundred and thirty-four completed or attempted killings. And all that violence was displayed for children to see. This is a dangerous and vicious circle because a child’s mind is like a bank — whatever you put in, you get back in ten years, with interest.

Alfred Hitchcock: Yes, but what about the so-called influences that are just afterthoughts? For example, there was a case in Los Angeles. I don’t know whether the man is still in Death Row or not, but he committed — killed a woman and he said he did it after seeing Psycho. He had killed two other women before, so when the press called and asked if I had any comment, I said “Yes. I want to know the names of the movies he saw before he killed the other two, or did he kill the first one after drinking a glass of milk?”

Dr Wertham: Well of course there are all kinds of theories to explain such killings. But I have one question. The other day a boy of four killed a girl of five with a 22-caliber rifle. He had loaded it himself. How does a boy of four learn to load and handle a rifle?

Violence, guns, killings, they are all around us. And you know, Mr Hitchcock, this affects your audience. All this exposure to violence desensitises them. They want stronger and stronger stuff. The Lodger, I think, wouldn’t be enough for them today.

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