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Literature Film Quarterly (2000) - Hitchcock's terrible mothers




The recurring figure of the terrible mother in Alfred Hitchcock's work always represents a conflicted personality. Norman Bates' Mother's double life was discovered when her son walked in on her, and Lydia Brenner's husband's death left her petrified of being abandoned.


Hitchcock's terrible mothers

In November 1961, George Weltner, then Paramount's president of distribution, was traveling in Italy, where he learned that Alfred Hitchcock was dissatisfied with the way he was being treated by the studio. Hitchcock came to Paramount in 1953; by 1960, he had given the studio six films, the last of which was Psycho (1960). However, until Psycho, Hitchcock felt he was "nothing but a salaried employee [who] never had the opportunity to make the real money his talents deserved," as Weltner wrote to his boss, Barney Balaban, in a letter that ended up at Laramie, Wyoming's American Heritage Center, where Weltner's son deposited his father's fascinating collection in 1987. Fascinating, certainly, but frustrating when it comes to Hitchcock. Only two pieces of correspondence involve Hitchcock, both dealing with money and the director's next two projects. As for money, Hitchcock insisted he never received his share of the gross from Rear Window and To Catch a Thief. Even Welter had no idea what that should have been, except that in the case of Rear Window, the percentage deal only netted Hitchcock $37,798, although the director seems to have done slightly better with To Catch a Thief ($86,240). But, as we know, no one in Hollywood ever took Accounting 101; they took Creative Accounting instead.

The more important letter in the collection is the one of 9 November 1961; the other, dated 16 November, is Weltner's estimate of the profits Hitchcock should have made on the two films. The 9 November letter proves conclusively that Hitchcock knew exactly what his next two films would be: The Birds and Marnie, in that order: "With regard to THE BIRDS and MARNEY (sic) we know we will be presented with a pretty tough deal." The "deal" was an ultimatum: Either Paramount agrees to reissue Rear Window and To Catch a Thief, and offer Hitchcock a better percentage arrangement; or Hitchcock will emulate Coriolanus and say, "There is a world elsewhere." That world, it turned out, was Universal, whose logo was, appropriately enough, a revolving globe. And perhaps it was just as well. Psycho wasn't even filmed at Paramount's Marathon Street lot; Paramount threw up so many obstacles that Hitchcock had no other choice but to shoot Psycho at Universal in the San Fernando Valley, where Hitchcock's television show was filmed. In fact, he used the same crew from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Inevitably, it was at Universal where Hitchcock ended his career.

What is intriguing about the letter is the lineup: The Birds and Marnie were to follow Psycho. A trilogy? Hitchcock probably never thought in such terms any more than did John Ford about his cavalry films-Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950), which, to some, constitute a trilogy. More likely, for reasons that will always elude us, Hitchcock wanted to explore the mother-child relationship: mothers and sons, and the women in their sons' lives, in Psycho and The Birds; mother and daughter, and the man in the daughter's life (as well as the men in the mother's life), in Marnie. But we are not in I Remember Mama territory; these mothers represent the dark side of the anima-- "terrible mothers," in the Jungian sense, who generate life and then attempt to draw it back inside themselves" (Newman 149).

Hitchcock had been dealing with mothers, matriarchs, and maternal figures ever since he began directing. The crofter's wife in The 39 Steps (1935) is probably not a mother (there are no children around), but she shows a maternal interest in Hannay (Robert Donat), even helping him escape when she realizes her husband has figured out he's a wanted man. There are also such characters as the secret agent, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) in The Lady Vanishes (1938), who strikes Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) as so motherly that, when she disappears on board a train bound for London, Iris enlists the aid of another passenger (Michael Redgrave) in a rescue operation; and Sylvia Verloc (Sylvia Sidney) in Sabotage (1936), who is more mother than sister to her baby brother, whose death was indirectly caused by her anarchist husband. In Hitchcock's American films, only a few mothers are unthreatening, in the sense of being neither neurotic nor destructive. The maternal paradigm is Mrs. Mason (Dorothy Peterson) in Saboteur (1942), who has no reason to distrust the report that her son's death in an aircraft factory fire was caused by a Nazi saboteur, believed to be his friend, Barry Kane (Robert Cummings). Distraught as she is, Mrs. Mason cannot believe that anyone as ingenuous as Kane (and Cummings's guileless face helped) could possibly be an enemy agent and thus does not turn him over to the police. Emma Newton (Patricia Collinge) in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) may not be the mother from hell, but she has potential. She is so enamored of her brother Charlie (Joseph Cotten), who is really a serial killer, that she names h...

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  • The George Weltner Collection at the University of Wyoming's American Heritage Center consists of five boxes of correspondence, legal materials, newsletters, and clippings from 1929 to 1972. Weltner's two letters to Balaban about Hitchcock are in Box 1 in the "Correspondence between Weltner and Colleagues (1964-1967)" file, even though they are dated 9 and 16 November 1961.
  • Camille Paglia, The Birds (London: British Film Institute, 1998), 10, errs in claiming that Hitchcock intended to make Marnie after Psycho. Winston Graham's Marnie was not published until 1961.