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Hitchcock Annual (1999) - "See It from the Beginning": Hitchcock's Reconstruction of Film History





Surprisingly little U.S. film history has been written about the gradual disciplining of film audiences during the post-World War II era. While books like Douglas Gomery's excellent Shared Pleasures and Richard Maltby's more recent Hollywood Cinema chronicle everything from the rise and demise of the movie palace to the introduction of airconditioning in neighborhood theaters, they say relatively little about the gradual introduction of a "come on time" policy for all films (not just blockbusters) and about the gradual training of the audience to see films from the beginning.1 Indeed, as Linda Williams implies in her article on Psycho, the lack of hard historical data (or discussion) on the gradual disciplining of the audience has encouraged the growth of certain popular cinematic legends;2 thus, when I first studied film history, I learned that the dominant mode of film spectatorship changed in 1960, thanks to the forceful vision of one man working in the American film system, Alfred Hitchcock.3 Prior to that time, I was told, unless the feature was a "special" presentation like Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948) or a blockbuster like Gone with the Wind (1939), movie audiences could walk into a movie theater more or less whenever they felt like it. This was the day of double and sometimes triple features, so viewers could come in during the middle of one show, watch the next show in its entirety, and then, usually, stay to see the beginning of the film whose end they'd already seen. (The phrase "this is where we came in" dates from this era).

Hitchcock's film Psycho changed that.4 Nobody would be admitted to Psycho, Hitchcock decreed, once the film had started. And Hitchcock went to great lengths to ensure that what might seem like a showbiz gimmick to some theater owners was enforced at the local cinemas. As Williams documents, a whole series of promotional trailers designed to teach audiences how to watch Psycho were used to build up a certain viewer expectation about the kind of new cinema-going experience which the film seemed to promise. As Williams points out, "each trailer stresses the importance of special discipline: either 'please don't tell the ending, it's the only one we have,' or the need to arrive on time."5 Some trailers had very little information about the movie itself, but only showed baffled patrons being instructed to come back at the beginning of the next screening, as if the important thing about Psycho was not the story, but the event — the experience of buying a ticket and waiting in line to be admitted.

In addition, a special theater manager training film, "The Care and ...

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Joan Hawkins is an Assistant Professor in the Dept of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, Bloomington. She is the author of Cutting Edge: Art‑Horror and the Horrific Avant‑Garde (University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming in 2000).


A much shorter version of this paper was presented at the European Cinemas, European Societies 1895‑1995 Conference, held at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, Sept. 28‑Oct 1, 1995. I am indebted to Barbara Minger, who read the first draft of the expanded paper and made suggestions for its revision into an article; to Jim Naremore, who urged me to submit it; and to Skip Hawkins, Gary Kellard, Oscar Kenshur, and the editors of the Hitchcock Annual for their help and suggestions.

  1. Douglas Gomery, Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992). Richard Maltby, Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995).
  2. Linda Williams, "Learning to Scream," Sight and Sound 4, No. 12 (Dec 1994): 14‑17. An expanded version of this essay appears as Linda Williams, "Discipline and Distraction: Psycho, Visual Culture and Postmodern Cinema" in "Culture" and the Problem of Disciplines, John Carlos Rowe, ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 87‑120.
  3. The origins of this particular legend seem to come from two sources: a slightly overdetermined reading of Peter Bogdanovich's The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock (New York: Museum of Modern Art Film Library/Doubleday, 1963), which doesn't really cover the role Diaboliques played in inspiring Psycho's screening strategy, and the personal experience of my professors, who remembered Psycho as the first popular American film they'd seen from the beginning.
    To some degree, Williams repeats the legend giving Hitchcock credit for single‑handedly disciplining the audience when she writes in "Learning to Scream" that "In the larger sense, however, his [Hitchcock's] demand that the audience arrive on time would eventually lead to the set show times, closely spaced screenings, elimination of cartoon and short subjects and patient waits in line that are now standard procedure" (14).
  4. I don't mean to suggest that no films prior to Psycho required audiences to come on time. As I mentioned earlier, exhibitors of Gone with the Wind (1939) were reminded to stress starting and intermission times "to ensure that audiences missed no part of the movie" (Maltby 37). And in some parts of the country Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948) was managed as though it were a stage play. In Twin Falls, Idaho, for example, the film was shown twice daily and patrons bought their tickets in advance. But Psycho is often credited for taking a practice that had applied only to special, "spectacular" films and extending it to popular features. I am indebted to Gary Kellard for the information about Hamlet.
  5. Williams, "Learning to Scream," 16.
  6. Killing off the main star before the picture was half over was just one of the Hollywood conventions which Psycho broke.
  7. Hitchcock's relationship to his own auteur status is a curious one. On the one hand, as Robin Wood notes, Hitchcock was extremely "modest and unassuming" about his work, and made "no claim for his art outside the evidence of the films." On the other hand, as Wood also notes, Hitchcock was well aware of the auteur status which Truffaut, Chabrol, and other writers at Cahiers had given him. See Robin Wood, Hitchcock's Films Revisited (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 61. And at times, as Anton Kaes pointed out to me, Hitchcock's public statements about his role in shaping his art and his stars seem wittingly or unwittingly designed to link him directly to an auteurist tradition. As I later argue, Hitchcock's claim that the decision to show Psycho from start to finish came to him while editing can be seen in this context. As Kaes reads them, Hitchcock's statements about discovering Tippi Hedren and turning her into a star, can be seen as expressions of the director's wish to link himself to a European auteurist tradition. Kaes compares Hitchcock's claims about "making" Hedren to Von Sternberg's claims that he "made Marlene."
  8. See James Naremore, Filmguide to Psycho (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973). The film's look also derives in part from the low‑budget horror films Hitchcock was studying at the time. As Stephen Rebello points out, Hitchcock had been tracking the box office figures of low‑budget horror pictures, such as William Castle's Macabre (1958) and Albert Band's I Bury the Living (1958), turned out by Universal‑International, American International, Allied Artists, Hammer Film Productions, and others. At the same time he began to "quiz his associates" as to "how profitable they thought a first‑class, low‑budget shocker might be." Associates dismissed these questions as more evidence of what Rebello calls Hitchcock's "puckish" side, but when the director began referring to his recent James Stewart and Cary Grant movies as "technicolor baubles," they knew something was up. See Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (New York: Dembner Books, 1990), 22. Psycho's own low budget, as well as its gory murder sequence also played a role (as they did in the low‑budget horror films he'd been tracking). Hitchcock was worried about censorship: the shower murder could not have been shown, he felt, if he had shot the film in color.
  9. Williams, "Learning to Scream," 15
  10. Alfred Hitchcock, "A Lesson in PSYCHO‑ology," Motion Picture Herald, August 6, 1960, 17‑18. Also quoted in Williams, "Learning to Scream," 15.
  11. "Claude Chabrol and Louis Malle were also periodically called "the French Hitchcock."
  12. Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius (New York: Ballantine, 1983), 355. The film, starring Yves Montand, was released in 1952.
  13. See Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (New York: Dembner Books, 1990). Subsequent references to this work will be given in the text.
  14. In fact, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' treatment of Hitchcock during this period often amounted to what might be considered a slap in the director's face. To Catch a Thief (1955), Vertigo and North by Northwest (1959) were nominated for best art direction, not for best direction or for best picture.
  15. Quoted in José‑Louis Bocquet, en collaboration avec Marc Godin, Henri‑Georges Clouzot Cineaste (Sèvres: La Sirène, 1993), 95.
  16. Vanel also had a role in Wages of Fear.
  17. "Ne soyez pas les diaboliques. Ne détruisez pas l'intérêt qui pouraient prendre vos amis à ce film. Ne leur racontez pas ce que vas avez vu" (Bocquet, 94; my translation). Asking the audience not to divulge the ending showed up in other pre‑Psycho films as well: Billy Wilder's 1957 film, Witness for the Prosecution, also asks the audience not to give away the ending.
  18. Variety 202 (April 4, 1956): 7.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Franco said this by way of explaining why his film Gritos en la noche (The Awful Or. Orlof, 1962) was so remarkably similar to Georges Franju's Les yeux sans visage. Denying that his film was a remake, he said, "so these things are around, in the air, you know. I remember when I made The Awful Or. Orlof, at about the same time Georges Franju made Les yeux sans visage. There was no connection between us. It was impossible that he could know my story or for me to know Franju's story. And then the two films were very similar. So these things are in the air. I think the ideas are there you know. So, suddenly, you start to make the film, the connection with these ideas comes suddenly and you start to make the film even if you don't want to." Harvey Fenton and William Lustig, "A Different Point of View: The Jess Franco Interview," Flesh and Blood (London) 9 (1997): 35.
  21. Variety 204 (Sept. 5, 1956): 8‑9.
  22. Ibid., 9
  23. Reprinted in Michael Weldon, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (New York: Ballantine Books, 1983), 541.
  24. Reprinted in Weldon, 661.
  25. Gomery, 189.
  26. See my Cutting Edge: Art‑Horror and the Horrific Avant‑garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming 2000), and "Sleaze‑Mania, Euro‑trash, and High Art: The Place of European Art Films in American Low Culture," Film Quarterly (forthcoming, January, 2000).
  27. See Eric Schaefer, "Resisting Refinement: The Exploitation Film and Self‑Censorship," Film History 6 (1994): 293‑313.
  28. Carlos Clarens, An Illustrated History of the Horror Film (New York: Capricorn Books, 1967).
  29. Pauline Kael, "Zeitgeist and Poltergeist; or Are Movies Going to Pieces," in I Lost It at the Movies, Third Edition (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1965), 3‑27.
  30. Donald Spoto, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures (New York: Doubleday, 1976), 355.
  31. See David Bordwell, "The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice," Film Quarterly 4, No. 1 (Fall 1979): 56‑64. In Clouzot and Powell's case, the directors were working in both the horror thriller genre and art cinema mode simultaneously.
  32. Bloomington Voice, 5, No. 13 (March 28‑April 4, 1996): 11.