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Hitchcock’s Jews

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Nathan Abrams reviews a new biography of the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.

Alfred Hitchcock was not Jewish. Nor does the author of a new biography claim him to be. But as a colossus who bestrode the film industry between 1927 and 1976, spanning the silent era, the talkies, black and white, colour, 3D, expressionism, Weimar Germany, Hollywood’s golden age, film noir, social realism, the McCarthyite period, thrillers, screwball comedy, horror, and New Hollywood, he came into contact with many Jewish creatives who helped his career along the way. And in his book, Edward White turns up some interesting nuggets.

Advertisement in The Moving Picture World, July 1916. Photo: Wikipedia

Growing up not far from London’s East End, Hitchcock was surrounded by Jews. In 1921, he began his career in the movies working for the Jewish-owned American company Famous Players Lasky. He had read that it was looking to recruit designers of intertitles, the story and dialogue cards for silent films for its new branch at Islington Studios, North London. When Famous Players-Lasky folded, Hitchcock fell in with a group of young filmmakers at Islington, led by the producer Michael Balcon, the son of East European Jewish emigres. In 1924, Balcon recruited Hitchcock to work for his new production company, Gainsborough Pictures. 

In 1927, when his first movies were released, among them was The Lodger: The Story of the London Fog based on Jack the Ripper whose milieu, London’s East End, and even identity, some claim, was Jewish. Indeed, he is ‘a precursor to Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker’, who is Jewish as Sean Alexander has argued. He worked on the film alongside a 22-year-old, Ivor Montagu who was part of the London Film Society along with Sidney Bernstein.

Too fat to fight, and now living in the United States, Hitchcock lent his services to the war effort anyway. He helped to develop a propaganda film called Forever and a Day and re-edited two documentaries, Men of the Lightship and Target for Tonight which were both about the fight against the Nazis. At the war’s end, his friend, the British producer Sidney Bernstein asked him to shape the final reels of a film he was making for the British Ministry of Information about Nazi war crimes. It contained hours of raw footage from Dachau and Buchenwald. ‘Hitchcock was taken by the contrast of the horrifying footage from the camps and that of the tranquil, bucolic towns in the vicinity. He suggested that they used simple maps to illustrate how ordinary life ran along with human slaughter on its doorstep’, White writes.

It was shelved, unfinished, until 1985 when it was screened on US TV as Memory of the Camps and then finally completed, restored and screened at the Berlin Film Festival in 2014 as German Concentration Camps Factual Survey.

In 1965, critic Robin Wood wondered whether the experience of working on the documentary had affected Hitchcock. ‘One cannot contemplate the camps without confronting two aspects of their horror: the utter helplessness of innocence of the victims, and the fact that human beings, whose potentialities all of us in some measure share, were their tormentors and butchers.’ He concludes that Hitchcock’s most famous film, Psycho ‘is founded on, precisely, these twin horrors.’

Whether any of his subsequent images were influenced by the footage he spent days poring over, he never said. But, significantly, a scene in his Cold War thriller Torn Curtain in 1966 features the Jewish actor Paul Newman (who’d starred in Exodus six years earlier, precisely the same year that Psycho was released) helping an East German hausfrau to kill a Stasi secret agent by holding his head in a gas oven. Peter Bogdanovich says that some years later, Hitchcock ‘quite seriously and at some length explained the symbolism of this murder sequence and how it related to the German’s gassing of the Jews’.

On another note entirely, earlier in the film, Newman’s character is part of a boatload of physicists. There is a closeup on the badge of one of them. It reads Prof. Isaac Wiseman, Hebrew University.

After the war, he made Notorious whose plot revolved around Nazis, uranium and South America.

Rope in 1948 was produced by Transatlantic Pictures, a production company newly established by Hitchcock and Sidney Bernstein. It was loosely based on the real-life Jewish murderers, Leopold and Loeb whose victim was also Jewish.

In the forties, Hitchcock was represented by talent agent Myron Selznick and then Lew Wasserman, perhaps the most important commercial figure in the movies after World War II. Wasserman helped to craft the Hitchcock brand’ through the successful television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which was produced by Norman Lloyd who had appeared in Saboteur and Spellbound.

Hitchcock had worked very productively with screenwriter Ben Hecht, known as the ‘Shakespeare of Hollywood’, who had written Notorious and Spellbound among others. The latter film owed a large debt to psychoanalysis. The film’s producer, David O Selznick was also interested in that subject even hiring his own therapist to work as a consultant on the production.

He worked with screenwriter Ernest Lehman on North by Northwest. In his first screen role was Martin Landau as Leonard, the ‘dandyish sidekick’ of the film’s villain. The screenplay characterised him as having ‘a soft-baby-face, large eyes and hair that falls down over his forehead. His attitudes are unmistakably effeminate.’ Although the Production Code forbade any explicit reference to homosexuality, Landau intentionally played Leonard as if he were in love with the film’s antagonist and jealous of the woman with whom he is infatuated.

Other close and long-standing Jewish collaborators included legendary costume designer Edith Head who worked on eleven of his movies, beginning with Rear Window, composer Bernard Herrmann who created the unforgettable all-string score for Psycho and Saul Bass who provided the memorable title sequences for three of Hitchcock’s best films North by Northwest, Vertigo and Psycho.

Hitchcock was an auteur but, as Edward White shows, his most memorable movies owe something to the Jewish influences behind them.

The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspense by Edward White is published by WW Norton, priced at £22.99.

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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