Dial H For Hebrew

Guilt Was Constant Theme in Alfred Hitchcock's Work

Guilty Non-Jew: Alfred Hitchcock showed little interest in Jewish matters. But guilt and blame certainly play major roles in his work.
Getty Images
Guilty Non-Jew: Alfred Hitchcock showed little interest in Jewish matters. But guilt and blame certainly play major roles in his work.

By Seth Rogovoy

Published November 15, 2012, issue of November 23, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Alfred Hitchcock’s reputation as one of the greatest film directors of all time is safely in the can, so all that’s left to deal with is the man himself. Two new films — “Hitchcock,” a biopic starring Anthony Hopkins, and the HBO film “The Girl,” about Hitch’s troubled relationship with actress Tippi Hedren — have attempted to do just that. These films attempt to humanize — or dehumanize or demonize — Hitchcock, depending on your point of view.

What neither of these films mentions, however, and what you probably won’t hear much about in the renewed discussion of Hitchcock, is the chapter of his career in which he lent his formidable directorial skills to the British army for what eventually became “Memory of the Camps,” a documentary consisting exclusively of footage of concentration camps in the days after their liberation by Allied forces.

Although Hitchcock, who at the time was living and working in Hollywood, didn’t travel to Europe for filming at such locations as Dachau, Belsen and Buchenwald, he did instruct the camera crews accompanying liberation armies to take as many uninterrupted long shots and unbroken panoramas as possible, knowing that these would serve best to contextualize and capture the horrible truth about what took place at the prison, labor and death camps. At the behest of his friend and sometime collaborator Sidney Bernstein, who produced the film for the British army, Hitchcock, who was credited as “treatment advisor” on the film, traveled to England and helped organize the footage post-production. This master of staging horror and suspense utilized his talents to make a film that captured real-life horror without staging or artifice.

Aside from that episode, however, Hitchcock showed little if any interest in Jewish matters before or after the making of the death-camp doc. About as close as he came to being influenced by Jewish culture was allowing unspecified guilt and blame to play the central role in his work — but that was largely a result of his strict Catholic upbringing.

Hitchcock did, however, have several close and long-standing Jewish collaborators, including costume designer Edith Head, screenwriter Ben Hecht — who worked on the scripts for “Spellbound” and “Notorious,” among others — and composer Bernard Herrmann, as well as close business relationships with Jewish Hollywood producer David O. Selznick and talent agent Lew Wasserman, who helped create the Hitchcock “brand” through the successful TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” In fact, Hitchcock got his start in film in 1920 in London as a title designer for Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, the Jewish-owned studio that was one of the largest of the silent film era, and which later became Paramount Pictures

When Hitchcock’s films did contain material that could be considered culturally Jewish, it mostly came in the form of his well-known “MacGuffins” — superficial window dressing, the better to serve the plot. “Spellbound” centered on psychoanalysis; “Notorious” featured a plot about Nazis, uranium and South America but had little to say about culture or politics. Hitchcock, after all, was purely a formalist, and his films mostly dealt with conflicts on a psychological, as opposed to a societal, level. In the world according to Alfred Hitchcock, guilt was the great equalizer, regardless of race, color or creed.

Seth Rogovoy is a cultural critic whose recent contributions to the Forward have included investigations of the Jewish aspects of Bob Dylan and James Bond.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.