Alfred Hitchcock vs. Dr. Fredric Wertham

24 05 2010

No, your eyes are not deceiving you! This is not a dream! Not a hoax! Not an imaginary story! Alfred Hitchcock really did square off against Dr. Fredric Wertham, scourge of the comic book biz, in one of the strangest mixed-up matchups ever!

I learned of this unlikely intersection of two of my greatest interests, comics and movies, when my daughter gave me the book “Hitchcock on Hitchcock” for my birthday (you can buy it here). It’s a collection of essays written by Hitchcock, as well as quite a few interviews with Hitchcock, ranging from 1927 to 1977.

Hitch covers a variety of topics all relating to film, from anecdotes to highly technical discussions of lighting. There’s a lengthy, very broad essay he wrote for the Encyclopedia Brittanica on “Film Production,” his impressions of Hollywood just after his arrival there in 1939, the function of music (don’t use it during dialogue!) and color (according to Hitch, until it’s possible to distort it to his ends, he prefers to keep it as far in the background as he can). He even repeats his old maxim “Actors are cattle” in a late interview, although he sort of explains that he means actors don’t have to worry about the story or technical problems the way a director does. There’s also a transcript of a story conference for the movie “Marnie” with Evan Hunter.

While Hitchcock’s insights are fascinating, there is a significant amount of repetition along the way, so ultimately “Hitchcock on Hitchcock” is probably best left to the die-hard fan.

So… in 1963, Dr. Fredric Wertham interviewed Hitchcock for Redbook Magazine. For those who are not among the comics cognoscenti, Wertham was a psychiatrist and crusading writer whose works, especially the book “Seduction of the Innocent,” helped pave the way for a witchhunt in the comic book industry in the 1950s (yes, there were other factors) that resulted in many companies shutting down and artists and writers being thrown out of work.

Wertham’s methodology is notoriously shoddy, however; while I’ve never read “Seduction,” as it’s long out of print, it’s known far and wide for its reliance on anecdotal information and a lack of citations. For example, Wertham concluded that so many juvenile delinquents admitted to reading comic books that there had to be a link between them, when in fact the 1950s were the peak for comics reading among children. At the time it would have been hard to find a child who did not read comics. He also asked gay men if they thought Batman and Robin were a couple, and used their answers as evidence that the Dynamic Duo were setting a bad example for impressionable youth.

(You can read more about Wertham’s impact on comics and the Senate hearings that followed in David Hadju’s terrific book “The 10-Cent Plague.”)

Wertham walks into the interview with Hitchcock ready to accuse the director of pandering to his audience with violence – yet Wertham gets off on a ridiculous note by opening his line of questioning with “I didn’t see ‘Psycho,’ I’m sorry to say, but many people have commented on the act of violence in that movie.” Amazingly, Hitchcock takes this in stride rather than pointing out that Wertham should ask him about things he has seen himself, rather than those he heard about second hand.

Hitchcock defers to Wertham throughout the interview, though, as least as far as allowing wrong-headed questions goes. Hitch does not let Wertham get away with much else, however. When Wertham suggests that the violence in “Psycho” is Hitch’s response to societal changes, Hitch insists that it is not; the violence has a purpose in the story and is kept to a minimum. Ironically, Hitch does say that he increased the sex content of the movie to accommodate audience expectations, but has no particular compunctions about that.

Hitchock is smart enough, and self-aware enough, to make points against Wertham, such as when he explains that even children understand the difference between stylized, fictional violence and the real thing – and that they are prepared to discern these differences when they are introduced to fairy tales. When Wertham insists that “You show killing, that means killing to any child,” Hitch counters by saying “Don’t forget little children themselves play at being dead.”

The conversation turns to the British love of crime; while Wertham tries to make the point that this interest in crime indicates a troubled community, Hitch disagrees, saying that Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, writer of “The Lodger,” was the antithesis of the horrific novels she wrote. (Wertham glibly sets himself up as a crime expert by when he says “It is true that if a crime is studied properly — which is rarely is…”)

Wertham also tries to insinuate that while fairy tales are “creations of art,” movies are not, but again, Hitchcock ignores the jab and makes his own counter argument. Toward the end of the interview, Wertham insists that “Americans, unlike the English, have made a cult of violence,” putting the blame for increased violence on films like “Psycho,” Hitchcock says that he’d read about a man on death row who claimed to have watched “Psycho” among other movies before he committed murder – but that no one has bothered asking about the other films he’d seen, or what else he had done before his crime.

Wertham closes the interview with another ridiculous argument when he talks about a four year old boy who loaded a rifle and killed a girl with it; he asks the rhetorical question, “How does a boy of four learn to load and handle a rifle?” Uh, from his father, maybe? Wertham’s point is so far out of context as to be fairly meaningless.

So, in the great Hitchcock Vs. Wertham debate of 1963, it looks like Hitchcock comes out ahead on reasoning, not to mention sense of humor, with Wertham costing himself several points for pomposity and specious reasoning.


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