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Hitchcon 2021 brought together twenty professors, scholars, authors and filmmakers from the United States, Canada and Britain for a celebratory weekend of all things Hitchcock. Though widely considered The Master of Suspense, what set this conference apart from many other Hitchcock deep dives was its focus on the director’s recurrent explorations of love and how this may be a stronger force in his works than many have given platform to. With lessons for the Twenty-First Century in mind, hosts Marc Strauss and Joel Gunz highlighted their specific focus on Hitchcock’s matters of the heart as they occur against a backdrop of social and political turmoil, where his protagonists search for love both inwardly and externally amongst the unfolding chaos around them. Through highlighting a quiet optimism and love’s triumphs (or misses) amongst the dangerous and the absurd, could we find some new found inspiration for ways to carry on and wade through the muddy water of the present? Co-hosts Strauss and Gunz would say so. This conference report was co-authored by Amelia Leonard and Jacob Agius. 

DAY 1:

Amelia Leonard

Midnight approaches as I brew a strong cup of coffee on my stovetop. Yes, I am indeed attempting to pull an all-nighter, for the love of cinema, and for the love of those who dedicate late nights and early mornings to watch, listen and speak of the silver screen. Though I will surely be donning some not so glamorous eye bags in the days to come, I am grateful to be reaching across the Pacific Ocean with relative ease as I join the proudly self proclaimed “Hitch-geeks” and aficionados of HitchCon 2021: What’s It All About Alfie? Hitchcock’s Lessons in Love. 

Many events of late, especially those that are an international affair, continue to take place on the small screen before us in domestic spaces whose cyclic familiarity makes us dream of grand theatres and sold out soirées of years prior. What was set to be a weekend conference on the serene shores of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, adapted to current restrictions, first as a hybrid of in-person and simultaneous live, virtual proceedings before taking caution and moving wholly online for its inaugural edition. 

The morning opened with Joel Gunz’s speculative presentation ‘Hitchcock’s Lessons in Love’, an apt way to commence the proceedings by traversing Hitchcock’s early days as a theatre lover and movie buff to a filmmaker firm in his particularities. Gunz inquired how Hitchcock might’ve approached such age-old philosophical questions as “how should one live?” and “how should one love?”, proposing these as a central theme in Hitchcock’s oeuvre and a frequent impetus in his storytelling. Three films were brought into focus, his early silent The Manxman (1929), The Birds (1963), and The Man Who Knew too Much (1956), all of which cement Hitchcock’s aversion to tidy, happy, Hollywood endings, prefacing his continuing fascination with the ambiguity of love, which for Hitchcock, may be too complicated for such finality.

Considering Hitchcock’s proclivity for mystery and crime, it should seem surprising that Dr. Marc Strauss focused on the director’s “propensity for positivity” in his presentation: ‘Right from the Start: Tests of Love in The Pleasure Garden’. Admittedly, I still feel somewhat skeptical whether the Master of Suspense had a natural inclination towards optimism. However, it is true that as much as we can expect to see our protagonists in extraordinary circumstances, fraught with danger and deception, we can equally expect to see the tropes of romantic fiction and a quest for love at the centre of the action. In some instances, this pushes its characters along a path of self-betterment and transformation in the wake of unfurling chaos. 

Leslie Brill surveyed a wide range of Hitchcock’s films in ‘A Basket of Deplorables: The Possessive Passions of Hitchcock’s Villains’, sticking close to the conference’s theme of lessons in love. Brill captured a very clear lesson here: possessiveness and ownership are the opposite to real love. They are harmful forces that threaten to sabotage many of Hitchcock’s romantic pairings, as well as the character’s themselves, perhaps most evident in Vertigo’s (1958) Scottie (James Stewart). Brill outlined the ways in which Hitchcock’s most charming protagonists are sullied by varying degrees of egotistical possessiveness that characterizes the films’ villains, rejecting a clear cut contrast between villain and hero. In order for these onscreen relationships to flourish, those who carry these undesirable traits must be willing to overcome and outgrow these impediments to finally arrive at love with a fighting chance. 

Vertigo

After a break for lunch we jumped back in with Steven DeRosa’s paper ‘“Marriage of True Minds”: Redemption and Romance in the Hitchcock/Hayes Films’. Covering Hitchcock’s work with screenwriter John Michael Hayes, DeRosa found it quite staggering that little scholarly attention had been given to Hitchcock’s collaborators, especially since the director had flagged this as a favourite part of the production process. The pairing marked the beginning of Hitchcock’s time at Paramount which resulted in four feature films, Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). De Rosa highlighted a similar framework among the films, each foregrounding a romantic relationship where an at first emotionally absent male protagonist is thrust on a journey towards redemption “through acknowledging the need for and acceptance of a romantic relationship with a strong willed, independent woman”. This pattern suggests that, for Hitchcock, the love story is central rather than secondary to the action.  

Rachel Asghar employed psychoanalytic film theory to uncover Freudian motifs and Oedipal complexes in her paper ‘Vertigo, Psycho and Marnie: You Freud, Me Jane?’, which was quite befitting considering these films are abound with sexual fantasy and obssession. Asghar outlined unhealthy complexes relating to a mother figure in the three aforementioned films, in particular, Scottie’s maternal view of Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) in Vertigo, Marnie (Tippi Hedren) whose fear of intimacy and distrust of men is triggered by past traumas related to her mother in Marnie (1964), and Norman (Anthony Perkins), who kills his mother and her fiance in a jealous rage in Psycho (1960). With all this in mind, I found it quite humorous, as Asghar remarked, that Hitchcock was rather skeptical of psychoanalysis – who’d have thought?    

Psycho 

We arrived at a short break which my bluelight burdened eyes were grateful for before returning for the final panel of the day. Making a case against short-sighted assessments that Hitchcock’s films are tinged with misogyny, I have to say I am mostly in agreement with Elisabeth Carlin’s approach in her paper ‘The Lady Vanquishes: The Dynamic Heroines of Hitchcock’. Of course it can’t be denied that there are certainly elements within his works that are dated and patriarchal, but I can’t help but feel, as Carlin so eloquently put, that Hitchcock continuously gave his leading ladies the opportunity to actually lead. And many of his female characters certainly are leaders in their own right. Illustrating their adventurous and determined spirits, Carlin focused on such heroines as Charlie (Teresa Wright) from Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Josephine (Doris Day) of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), both of whom turn to their own devices to uncover truths and deliver justice whilst pushing against the grain of convention in an era that hadn’t yet caught up with the multifaceted nature of its women. Carlin noted that more often than not Hitchcock’s women have an aversion to romance and marriage, but where romance does blossom, it does so as a result of “mutual trust that comes from working together on a common goal”, rather than being the main driver. As is the case in The Man Who Knew Too Much, male characters are often blinded by their own assumptions, egos, or achievements and take time to realise the acute perception of the women in their lives.

The lengthy post-panel discussions, held prior to the night’s screening of Marnie, managed to mirror the enthusiasm and interrogation of quintessential post screening debates and group drinks a social aspect that I’m sure all festival goers deem of equal importance to the event itself giving attendees and panelists alike the opportunity to hash out burning questions and personal theories. This flowed on from the day’s events rather seamlessly with the help of a monitored Q & A and even an informal Discord group which will continue to run after the conference closes. 

DAY 2: 

Jacob Agius

The lectures throughout the day (or night, as I dialed in from Melbourne, Australia) were very illuminating in their discussions of Hitchcock’s consistent use of love and romantic comedy throughout his entire filmography. The ways in which they transformed his protagonists, subverted patriarchal gender roles and ideologies surrounding love. Many of the lecturers noted that these notions became more prominent in Hitchcock’s work once he moved to America where, as an outsider looking in, Hitchcock became somewhat of a social anthropologist. Developing a penchant for analysing and deconstructing romantic love in American society and culture.

In the days first lecture:‘Playing the field: Marital Gamesmanship in Mr. and Mrs. Smith’, Elizabeth Bullock discussed Hitchcock’s only screwball comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941). A seeming anomaly in his filmography and essentially rejected by Hitchcock himself, Bullock notes that from the outset this film may not seem to lend too much insight on the Master of Suspense’s lessons in love. However, as Bullock affectively contextualises, the very core of the early screwball comedy genre was to subvert the heteronormative, patriarchal representation of love, gender roles and marriage. Bullock notes that although these early screwball comedies may, on a superficial level, seem to conform to these patriarchal representations of love, their female protagonists often exhibit a true sense of agency over their romantic lives equalled to their male counterparts. 

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Bullock posits that the rise in popularity of screwball comedies in the 1930’s and 40’s was a reflection of the times, noting that the advent of first wave feminism and the rise in divorce had many people yearning for stories and characters that could reflect their own lives. As Bullock expresses, this was no different with Hitchcock. Recently emigrating to the USA from the UK, this was one of Hitchcock’s first American films and is an early example of his explorative, outsider’s gaze looking into American life and culture, paired with his drive to subvert the overbearing conventions of the Hays Code. Bullock posits that one of the ways Hitchcock has achieved this subversion is through his consistent use of pure cinema, stemming from his early years making silent films. Bullock particularly highlights the ways in which Hitchcock utilised crossfades in this film, to give us a deeper insight into not only the internal world of his characters, but to the parody of cinematic romance that Hitchcock was attempting to explore and subvert. Bullock indicates that by applying Sergei Eisenstein’s theories on editing to Hitchcock, his particular use of editing and more precisely crossfades, often create brief third images, for the audience to glimpse the frictions and mechanics of cinema and love embroiled into one. It seems that, for Hitchcock, love (like suspense) is often born and flourishes from friction which as both Bullock and I agree, is best portrayed through cinema. 

Thomas Leitch’s Hitchcock’s Dreams of Love / Hitchcock’s Nightmares of Love was one of the more theatrical lectures of the weekend, where Leitch not only gave one of the most unique renditions of Que Será I have ever heard, but also used the lyrics of the song to discuss the complex representations of love, dreams and nightmares within Hitchcock’s filmography, where love is often presented as a dreamlike parody of romance, or as obsessively manipulative nightmares.

After a short break, Steven DeRosa took to the virtual stage once again to present ‘Greater Love Hath No Man: Devotion and Self-Sacrifice in Hitchcock’s Unrealized No Bail for the Judge’ discussing one of Hitchcock’s most well-known unfinished projects, No Bail for the Judge (c.1959). As DeRosa summarised, the film would have been an adaption of the Henry Cecil novel of the same name, following a London barrister played by Audrey Hepburn, who enlists the assistance of a thief (Laurence Harvey) to defend her father who is on trial for murder. As DeRosa continued I became quite taken with how he contextualised the film within Hitchcock’s entire oeuvre, expressing that it would have not only played on Hitchcock’s wrong man and father-daughter centric narratives but would borrow more from his films which explored the depths of self sacrifice. Think of Madeline (Kim Novak) in Vertigo who sacrifices herself first for her lover Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to murder his wife and then again for Scottie to enact his obsessive unfulfilled necromancy. DeRosa explains that Hepburn’s character would have followed a similar arc, sacrificing herself to discover who the true culprit is to free her father.

Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville

As DeRosa continued, thoughts about lessons in love began to formulate in my mind and I couldn’t help but think, is this Hitchcock’s perspective on love? That one must completely sacrifice themselves for the people that they love, even though it may result in exile or even death? Or is this depiction a mere parody of the hyper romanticised portrayals of love that have inundated cinema since its infancy and certainly at the time Hitchcock was formulating this film? I’d say that it may be the latter, in this case. DeRosa relates that this film would have been a self reflexive summation of Hitchcock’s work up until that point, similar to how the previous nights film Marnie significantly borrows from earlier, more lauded Hitchcock films. DeRosa states that if this film were made, it would show Hitchcock “maneuvering similar situations” from his previous works. I believe, like DeRosa, for filmmakers like Hitchcock who have been extensively researched, their unfinished films (which are often rarely studied) can hold some truly interesting insights to their work.

Following this, Walter Raubicheck delivered one of the most intriguing lectures of the weekend ‘From R.O.T. to Redemption: Personal Transformation Through Love in The 39 Steps and North By Northwest’. Raubicheck essentially deconstructed Hitchcock’s archetypal male protagonists and their propensity for personal transformation through love, following on from similar notions expressed by Leslie Brill the day before. He also drew attention to Hitchcock’s predilection for infusing romantic comedy elements within suspenseful thrillers and how the varying marriage of these two genres or the lack thereof may influence our reading of Hitchcock’s male protagonists. 

Raubicheck concocted this analysis predominantly through a close reading of the similarities and differences between The 39 Steps (1935) and North By Northwest (1959), stating that the former film established the paradigm for romantic comedy infused espionage thrillers that would mark the rest of Hitchcock’s career and would creatively culminate in North By Northwest. However, the most insightful part of Raubicheck’s lecture was when he began to discuss the significance of Hitchcock’s use of romantic comedy when analysing the male protagonists in his other notable works. Raubicheck explained that almost all of these men share similarities, often begining as self centred workaholics with inept social or sexual relationships. Take for example Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) in North By Northwest or Scottie in Vertigo, who both become forever transformed, for better or worse, by love. Raubicheck notes that in Hitchcock’s comedic films, the male protagonists are often successful in their quest for love, echoing what Elizabeth Bullock touched on in her previous lecture, “the couples that stay together play together”. Yet Raubicheck explores this further, noting that the leading men in the film’s void of comedy aren’t as lucky and are often left worse off than they began, falling deeper into the pit of their obsessive psychosexual turmoil. 

North By Northwest

Joel Gunz then treated us to a lecture and screening of his very personal short film on the obsessiveness of love, drawing on incidental similarities between his life and Spellbound (1945), arguing that the true surrealist element in Spellbound is not in the Salvador Dali dream sequences within, but is instead in Hitchcock’s portrayal of a romantic love between the two lead characters that is obsessive, fervent and almost unbelievable. 

Saturday came to an end with a special screening of The Trouble With Harry. The film is a black comedy set in a small picturesque American town, where a number of townspeople come across the deceased body of out-of-towner Harry (Philip Truex) and attempt to hide it from the police. It was a fitting close for the day, showing a more light hearted side of Hitchcock, drawing strongly from slapstick and romantic comedy generic conventions. After a full day of questioning and discussing Hitchcock’s penchant for comedy, it made my tired brain rethink what I once thought about the Master of Suspense. Maybe Hitchcock’s penchant for comedy and romance outweighs the reliance on horror that he’s become famous for. I will say that almost all of his films do share darker elements, but as all of the lectures have articulated throughout the day, all of his films rely on love as the motor that drives the films forward. Maybe “Master of Suspense” isn’t reflective of his legacy, maybe it’s more apt to see Hitchcock as he truly was: a conservative British romantic. Keen on exploring the depths of romance and love in the only way he knew how, through cinema. 

The Trouble With Harry

DAY 3: 

Amelia Leonard

The final day of HitchCon had a shorter program and a highlight was Norman Buckley’s ‘Love is a Repeating Pattern: A Comparison of Vertigo and Birth.’ The two films harbour a mythological quality which Buckley likens to the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice, positioning them as a “warning about the danger of holding onto something that is irrevocably gone”. Vertigo and Birth (Jonathan Glazer, 2004) revolve around grief, obsession, repetition and the ways in which people try to find comfort in recreating the past. Buckley, through his own personal losses, highlighted how the power of love does indeed propel people to believe the illogical and irrational. It is why Scottie recreates Madeline through Judy, and it is why Anna (Nicole Kidman) can believe a ten year old boy might very well be the reincarnation of her late husband. His paper stirred the question: is anyone really who we think they are? Or, are we merely projecting that which we wish to see? A necessary wake up call for many. 

Hosts Marc Strauss and Joel Gunz with Panelist Sidney Gottlieb

Closing off, co-hosts Strauss and Gunz brought together the bevy of presenters and behind the scenes crew for a virtual bow and congratulations. After a tribute to the recently passed Patricia Hitchcock, the only child of Alfred and Alma Hitchcock, panelists and attendees were prompted to consider what they gained over the weekend. The key takeaway for Jacob and I seemed to lie in the grounding of analysis and theory through a humanistic lens, allowing audiences to consider Hitchcock’s thematic, stylistic and emotive choices in a new light, where an evaluation of his characters’ flaws and merits can’t help but promote a reassessment of our own ways. Regardless of the approach, as we advance forty years after the director’s passing, I have no doubt that generations to come will continue to wrestle with the messages and allusions that Hitchcock’s works spark.

HitchCon
1 – 3 October 2021
Festival website: 
https://www.hitchcon.org/

About The Author

Amelia Leonard is a writer and filmmaker from Melbourne, Australia, currently residing in the Sunshine Coast. Jacob Agius is a film composer and sound designer. They are a co-programmer and committee member for the Melbourne Cinémathèque and the Czech & Slovak Film Festival of Australia.

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