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Hitchcock Annual (2004) - Deserter or Honored Exile?: Views of Hitchcock from Wartime Britain





There is a formula used by old-fashioned schoolteachers, in Britain at least, when rebuking children for bad behavior: "You've let the school down, you've let your friends down, and worst of all, you've let yourself down." A comparable kind of public criticism was levelled at Alfred Hitchcock following his move from Britain to Hollywood at the end of the 1930s, by some of his fellow-countrymen — a minority, but an articulate and influential one. This aspect of his career is, I think, worth closer study than it has received hitherto.

Hitchcock was nearly forty, and had directed more than twenty British films, when he moved to America in March 1939 to take up a contract with David O. Selznick. When war broke out in Europe six months later, on September 3, he was on the point of shooting his first Hollywood film, Rebecca, and he remained from then on a Hollywood director. Since the United States did not join the war until December 1941, he was based for more than two years in a neutral country while his own was at war. Although he subsequently came back to visit Britain from time to time, he never again made his home there, and when, occasionally, he filmed there, it was as a visitor from Hollywood who stayed in luxury London hotels.

There were those who saw his move out of Britain, at that particular time, or at least his failure to return home after the war started, as a form of betrayal, and between them they echoed the schoolteacher's threefold rebuke. He had let his country down, by leaving it at a time when it was clearly moving towards war. The most pointed attack on him in these terms came from the veteran actor Sir Seymour Hicks, who in 1922 had given Hitchcock his very first commission as a director.1 He had let his friends down: his colleagues in the British film industry which had nurtured him, and which needed him at this time of extreme crisis and challenge. The man who articulated this attack most persistently was Michael Balcon, now head of Haling Studios, who had produced many of Hitchcock's best British films.2 And, not least, he had let himself down: cut himself off from his cultural roots, betrayed his distinctive talents, sold out to the sheltered opulence of America. The classic statement of this view came at the end of the decade from the critic, later filmmaker, Lindsay Anderson, in an article that made a lasting impact.3

When starting to look at this topic of British responses to Hitchcock's move to Hollywood, I was surprised to find how little it had been investigated. One reason for the gap is surely the fact that the bulk of the serious biographical and historical research on Hitchcock's career has been done by scholars based in America. I'm referring to books like the two major biographies by Donald Spoto and Patrick McGilligan; the massive annotated bibliography by Jane Sloan; Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation, by Robert Kapsis; and the study of Hitchcock's first decade in Hollywood by Leonard Leff, entitled Hitchcock and Selznick.4 The Kapsis book, for instance, even though it traces the graph of Hitchcock's reputation across his whole career, has little to say about the key transitional decade of the 1940s, and ignores altogether the British perspective on it; he doesn't even mention Lindsay Anderson, whose article undeniably helped to fix a view of Hitchcock's decline that was dominant for at least a decade in English-language criticism.5 The two major biographies don't ignore the British angle, but they tend to take an oversimple and second-hand line. I say this not to put down any of these writers, whose scholarly ambition in so many ways puts their British colleagues to shame, but their American...

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Charles Barr teaches at the University of East Anglia in England, and is director of the Masters programs there in Film Studies and in Film Archiving. His books include English Hitchcock, the BFI Film Classics volume on Vertigo, and The Film at War: Bntish Cinema 1939—1945 (forthcoming in 2006). He has published two articles related to the 2005 centenary of Michael Powell's birth: on The Spy in Black for The Cinema of Michael Powell (BFI), and on Hitchcock and Powell for the special issue of Screen magazine on Powell (volume 46, number 1).


  1. As writer/star of the two-reel comedy Always Tell Your Wife (1922), Hicks had invited Hitchcock, then a junior studio employee, to complete it after the departure of the original director, Hugh Croise.
  2. Balcon had employed Hitchcock at Gainsborough, promoted him to director in 1925, and — after his departure in 1927 to BDP for a higher salary-welcomed him back to Gaumont-British in 1934 to make The Man Who Knew Too Much and its four successors, the series of thrillers which decisively established his international reputation.
  3. Lindsay Anderson, "Alfred Hitchcock," Sequence 9 (autumn 1949); reprinted in Alfred LaValley, ed., Focus on Hitchcock (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1972).
  4. Donald Spoto, The Life of Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius (London: Collins, 1983), published in the U.S. in the same year as The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock; Patrick McGilligan, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (Chichester: John Wiley, 2003); Jane Sloan, Alfred Hitchcock: A Filmography and Bibliography (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995); Robert Kapsis, Hitchcock: the Making of Reputation (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992); Leonard Leff, Hitchcock and Selznick (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988). The earlier book by the British critic John Russell Taylor, Hitch: The Life and Work of Alfred Hitchcock (London: Faber and Faber, 1978), is a relaxed authorized biography whose value comes from its direct access to Hitchcock more than from historical research.
  5. See Sloan, Alfred Hitchcock: A Filmography and Bibliography, 18.
  6. McGilligan, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 326 and 327.
  7. See the Epilogue chapter in Charles Barr, English Hitchcock (Moffat: Cameron and Hollis, 1999), 207-10, for some discussion of the first of the two issues.
  8. My book on The Film at War: British Cinema 1939-1945 is due for publication by the British Film Institute in 2006.
  9. The Hicks article is referred to by several writers, without any source or precise date being given. No doubt an initial citation was unreferenced, and a succession of later writers have taken it over without trying, or managing, to track it down directly — nor have I yet succeeded in doing so. From the start of the war in 1939 Hicks had a leading role in organizing the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), which put on live shows for the troops.
  10. This is £4.52p in decimal coinage, or around $18 at 1940 rates of exchange. The director Ken Annakin recalls, in an interview, his work on a recruiting film in 1942, "with important actresses like Flora Robson working for £5 a day" — a precise index of the financial sacrifice they were ready to make for the war effort. See Ken Annakin, in Brian McFarlane, ed., Sixty Voices (London: BFI Publishing, 1992), 5.
  11. Howard had starred with Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo and played Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind; these were his last two Hollywood films, both released in 1939. His first and best British war film, as star and director, was Pimpernel Smith (1941), released in the U.S. as Mister V. Howard died in a plane crash in 1943.
  12. New York World-Telegram, August 27,1940, quoted by Spoto, The Life of Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius, 235-36.
  13. Documentary News Letter was the successor to two earlier voices of the minority film culture centered on the documentary movement founded by John Grierson: Cinema Quarterly (1932-35) and World Film News (1936-38). It published 60 issues between January 1940 and December 1947, and continued for a time as Documentary Film News before ending in 1949.
  14. Documentary News Letter, November 1940. The review is, following the magazine's normal practice, unsigned, but its closeness to the argument and phraseology of Wright's signed review of the same film in the political weekly, The Spectator (October 18, 1940), establishes its authorship beyond any doubt. Wright was a long-term member of the Documentary News Letter editorial board.
  15. Rotha was well known as the author of a wide-ranging history of the medium, The Film Till Now (London: Jonathan Cape, 1930), reissued with updates several times in the following decades. He had since published Documentary Film (London: Faber, 1936), and had begun a career as a documentary producer and director, which he continued throughout the war.
  16. The other five are Dilys Powell, film critic of the Sunday Times; Aubrey Flanagan, of the Motion Picture Herald; and three prominent journalists who were not film specialists, Ritchie Calder, Michael Foot, and Alexander Werth.
  17. Neither of these two GPO films carry individual credits for anyone except Reynolds, but Harry Watt evidently worked on both, and Humphrey Jennings and Pat Jackson were among the other prominent members of the unit who shot material for London Can Take It. See Watt's autobiography, Don't Look at the Camera (London: Paul Elek, 1974), 138-45. Details of the quick U.S. distribution of London Can Take It are given in, for instance, Kevin Jackson's critical biography of Humphrey Jennings (London: Picador, 2004), 231-34; it also had rapid and wide exposure in countries as distant as New Zealand. In Britain, the two films had at least as extensive a showing as Foreign Correspondent. The Ministry of Information had by then set up a system whereby a single official short film was released each week, free of charge, to all cinemas: London Can Take It was the weekly release on October 21, 1940 — using, for home consumption, the rather more tactful title of Britain Can Take It — and Christmas Under Fire was the weekly release on January 6, 1941.
  18. See McGilligan, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light 280-81, for Hitchcock's involvement, at his own expense, in the revision of two films produced by the GPO Film Unit, which had by now been taken over by the Ministry of Information: Men of the Lightship (1940) and Target for Tonight (1941). Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache were made in French in early 1944, at Welwyn Studios, for distribution after the Liberation, but in the event they were hardly shown. Hitchcock came to London again in 1945 to supervise the production of a film based on concentration camp newsreels, but the changing political context caused the project to be aborted.
  19. He was made Sir Alfred on New Year's Day 1980, four months before his death.
  20. For a summary of the range of Balcon's campaigning activities, of which the pressure on Hitchcock was only a small part, see the chapter "Retrospect 1993" in the updated edition of Charles Barr, Ealing Studios (Moffat: Cameron and Hollis, 1999).
  21. Michael Balcon, A Lifetime of Films (London: Hutchinson, 1969), 93-94.
  22. For the range of his contacts with Churchill, see Charles Drazin, Korda (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 2002). The Churchill Archive in Cambridge, England, contains many exchanges between the two men, including several cables about Lady Hamilton (CHAR 2/419) and a warm handwritten letter of thanks from Korda in Hollywood, dated July 19, 1942, following his knighthood (CHAR 2/443).
  23. See D.J. Wenden and K.R.M. Short, "Winston S. Churchill: Film Fan," in Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television 11, no. 3 (1991): 197-214. Despite extensive research, the authors did not claim to have established anything like a complete record of Churchill's extensive viewing even during the war years, for which sources are abundant. Since then, new documents have come to light, including lists of recommended films supplied to Churchill by the film critic of the Observer, C.A. (Caroline) Lejeune. One list of twenty-eight films supplied in 1942 includes both Foreign Correspondent and Suspicion; some titles are annotated by his secretary as "seen already," but they don't include either of these, and I have found no evidence that he ever did see them (Churchill Archive, CHAR 2/444).
  24. John Houseman, Run-Through (London: Alien Lane, 1973), 479.
  25. For full and judicious coverage of this episode, see Robert McCrum, Wodehouse: A Life (London: Viking, 2004). The Wodehouse scandal overlapped with the last phase of the attacks on Hitchcock, in mid-1941, and there are some suggestive similarities, pointed out to me by Victor Perkins.
  26. I am indebted, again, to Victor Perkins for this information, drawn from a conversation he had with Dickinson in 1975. During the war, Dickinson directed both propaganda shorts and feature films, the best-known being the original Gaslight (1940), and was founding director of the Army Kinematograph Service, set up to produce high-quality training films.
  27. This statement by Hitchcock is quoted in Picturegoer, August 10, 1940.
  28. For Alma Reville's influence at this time, see Taylor, Hitch: The Life and Work of Alfred Hitchcock, 164.
  29. Sunday Times, March 28,1943, reprinted in Dilys Powell, The Golden Screen: Fifty Years of Films, ed. George Perry (London: Pavilion Books, 1989), 36-37.
  30. Sunday Chronicle, February 13, 1944.
  31. News Chronicle, March 19, 1944.
  32. News Chronicle, May 18, 1946.
  33. News Chronicle, December 29, 1945.
  34. News Chronicle, February 15, 1947.
  35. Tribune, undated cutting from early 1947, included on the microfiche on Notorious held by the British Film Insitute's library.
  36. Philip French, review of the collection edited by Paul Rotha (see next note), The Observer, January 23,1976. French has been film critic of The Observer since 1978.
  37. Richard Winnington, Film Criticism and Caricatures, 1943-53, ed. Paul Rotha (London: Paul Elek, 1975). The Richard Winnington Award, given to "the film which best reflected his ideals of artistic and social integrity," lapsed in the early 1960s.
  38. Paul Rotha, The Film Till Now (London: Vision Press, 1963), 557.
  39. See the chapter on Hitchcock, "The Benefits of Shock," in Lambert's The Dangerous Edge (London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1975).
  40. Sunday Chronicle, February 16, 1947.
  41. Dehn began to write for the cinema alongside his reviewing, with original scripts for two British films in Seven Days to Noon (John Boulting, 1950) and Orders to Kill (Anthony Asquith, 1958), before becoming a full-time screenwriter in the early 1960s. He contributed to the James Bond and Planet of the Apes series, and adapted Murder on the Orient Express for Sidney Lumet (1974).
  42. William Rothman, in Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), calls Notorious "the first Hitchcock film in which every shot is not only meaningful but beautiful" (246). See also François Truffaut, Hitchcock (London: Seeker and Warburg, 1968), 139.
  43. Bernstein was an adviser to the Films Division of the Ministry of Information for most of the war, and commissioned the films Hitchcock made for them in 1944. The two men then formed Transatlantic Pictures, whose first production was Rope (1948).
  44. Statistics from Guy Morgan, Red Roses Every Night (London: Quality Press, 1948), 100.