Examining the intertextual reverberations between canonical Hitchcock films and the New Hollywood of the 1970s, this revisionist reading challenges the received opinion of misogyny, racism, and homophobia presented in male desire featured in works by Hitchcock, De Palma, Scorsese, and Friedkin.
Bridging landmark territory in film studies, Psycho-Sexual is the first book to apply Alfred Hitchcock’s legacy to three key directors of 1970s Hollywood—Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, and William Friedkin—whose work suggests the pornographic male gaze that emerged in Hitchcock’s depiction of the voyeuristic, homoerotically inclined American man. Combining queer theory with a psychoanalytic perspective, David Greven begins with a reconsideration of Psycho and the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much to introduce the filmmaker’s evolutionary development of American masculinity.
Psycho-Sexual probes De Palma’s early Vietnam War draft-dodger comedies as well as his film Dressed to Kill, along with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Friedkin’s Cruising as reactions to and inventive elaborations upon Hitchcock’s gendered themes and aesthetic approaches. Greven demonstrates how the significant political achievement of these films arises from a deeply disturbing, violent, even sorrowful psychological and social context. Engaging with contemporary theories of pornography while establishing pornography’s emergence during the classical Hollywood era, Greven argues that New Hollywood filmmakers seized upon Hitchcock’s radical decentering of heterosexual male dominance. The resulting images of heterosexual male ambivalence allowed for an investment in same-sex desire; an aura of homophobia became informed by a fascination with the homoerotic. Psycho-Sexual also explores the broader gender crisis and disorganization that permeated the Cold War and New Hollywood eras, reimagining the defining premises of Hitchcock criticism.
- Introduction. Hitchcock, Gender, and the New Hollywood
- Chapter One. Cruising, Hysteria, Knowledge: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
- Chapter Two. "You Are Alone Here, Aren't You?": Psycho's Doubles
- Chapter Three. Blank Screens: Psycho and the Pornographic Gaze
- Chapter Four. Misfortune and Men's Eyes: Three Early De Palma Comedies
- Chapter Five. A Sense of Vertigo: Taxi Driver
- Chapter Six. Mirror Shades: Cruising
- Chapter Seven. The Gender Museum: Dressed to Kill
- Coda: Ideology at an Impasse
Hitchcock, Gender, and the New Hollywood
In the opening moments of Alfred Hitchcock's cold, cunning 1954 masterpiece Rear Window, the camera, mobile with a pure cinema life of its own, roams about the apartment of L.B. Jeffries—"Jeff"—played by James Stewart. It's a hot summer day, and the jazzy music in the background adds to the sultriness. An action photographer for magazines, Jeff, his leg in a cast from a work-related injury, is asleep in his wheelchair as the camera examines some of his possessions for clues to his identity, pausing deliberately to focus on various objects, especially some framed photographs. As if crawling into Jeff's apartment from the outside, the camera scales the building, comes in through the window, stares at the perspiring Jeff, then scans the length of his seated body, particularly the extended cast in which one of his legs is simultaneously immobilized and erect, an apt metaphor for his version of masculinity. The movie camera then looks at the photographer's crumpled camera on a desk, presumably destroyed in the accident in which Jeff broke his leg. Deepening the import of the images of broken-legged Jeff and the broken camera, we see a framed photograph of a car as it flips over in an auto race; unmistakably, the image of the cylindrical car with two large wheels along either side recalls a penis and testicles. But, given that this is an image of the accident in which Jeff broke his leg, and that one of the wheels is coming loose from the car, the photograph evokes castration as much as it reassures the spectator with the presence of the phallus. In one of the other photographs, a mushroom cloud climbs out of the frame; if we see a continuation of phallic/sexual imagery here, we might read this as a sign of orgasm, but also as a statement that male orgasm is apocalyptic. Next, we turn to a framed photograph of a smiling blond woman, her hair cut appealingly short. But the framed photograph is in negative film. This negative image in a frame is then juxtaposed against the actual image of the woman, on the cover of a magazine. That we see the negative image of the woman first seems to me significant. That the image is framed is also significant. Jeff can only see "negative" images of women, which does a lot already to explain his mysteriously contemptuous disposition towards his girlfriend, the beautiful, witty fashion model Lisa Carol Fremont, played magically by Grace Kelly. Moreover, Jeff frames his negative image of a woman, proudly displaying his own caustic, acidic take on sexual difference and perhaps sex itself. That the "normal" image of Woman appears on a magazine, and that this magazine is the top one on a stack of what are presumably more copies of the same magazine, signifies the mass production and circulation of normative images of gendered subjectivity. That this image is of a woman emphasizes difference, emphasizes the gendered distinction between the male subject and the female photographic object. Gender is the work of the age of mechanical reproduction.
Of particular interest to me is the allegorical value of the distinction between the framed negative and that stack of magazines with the normal, real-life image. If we take the frame as an allegorical representation of the cinematic image—the frame within the frame—and the magazines, with their innumerable identical images, as the social order's normative image of gendered identity, a model of sameness and normality endlessly reproduced and mass circulated, we can understand that Hitchcock is setting up a decisive, illuminating contrast between his own framing of women, and, for that matter, men, and the mass production of women and men as first and foremost visual personages, images of gendered selves. Subjectivity is created entirely from the outside in and is indistinguishable from the visual representation of it.
Hitchcock's negative images of women—and of queer subjects—have preoccupied a great deal of critical treatments since the 1980s. Though she frequently qualifies, amends, and problematizes her views of Hitchcock, Tania Modleski finds Hitchcock's films rife with "lethal misogyny." This seems to me a powerful and apt phrase even though I disagree with her about its presence, or the meaning of its presence, in Hitchcock. Misogyny is lethal: it promotes the devaluation of women, leads to the permissiveness of violence against women, and generally has inescapably dire consequences. Yet in Hitchcock, misogyny, while at times the director's own, much more frequently emanates from the characters and the situations. Further, directorial and audience identification is generally with the female protagonist. Indeed, I would argue that the female protagonist in Hitchcock is consistently viewed from a sympathetic perspective, though also, to be sure, an ambivalent one. Let me add also that I believe Hitchcock treats his queer characters with sympathy, and with an even greater curiosity.
As I discuss in Chapter 1, a tension exists in Hitchcock's representation of femininity and queerness that the films actively thematize. A pattern exists in Hitchcock films that I call "the feminine versus the queer." This contest almost always ends up ruling in favor of the feminine. If considered in relation to the representation of queerness, the feminine in Hitchcock comes to seem especially validated and supported. But then again, in comparison to his treatment of heterosexuality—which is to say, the normative gendered and sexual standard—Hitchcock's treatment of queerness comes to seem more radical. Queerness in his films constantly challenges the presumptions, strictures, and moral enforcements of the hetero-normal world.
Hitchcock's films share with Freud a resistance to the view of heterosexuality as "natural," as the self-evident basis of normal human life. That, as Robin Wood would point out, is their value. In a startling statement on the subject of homosexuality in a footnote in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud notes that "the exclusive sexual interest felt by men" for women is, from a psychoanalytic perspective, "also a problem that needs elucidating and is not a self-evident fact based upon an attraction that is ultimately of a chemical nature." Freud debunks the mythic naturalness of heterosexuality here, asking us to see it as no less strange and mystifying than homosexuality. "All human beings are capable of making a homosexual object-choice and have in fact made one in their unconscious." One of Freud's signal contributions to a queer understanding of human culture and sexuality is that desire has no one true object and no aim. Despite the binding strictures of heteronormativity, no less restrictive a regime for those who desire the opposite sex than for those who desire the same sex, sexual desire is neither authentically, naturally, or originally heterosexual, nor is it inauthentic, unnatural, or a poor imitation of an original sexual design when it is homosexual. Freud and Hitchcock challenge heterosexual presumption in their refusal to treat sexuality as a place of reassuring refuge. Throughout his films, Hitchcock makes male-female sexual relations pointedly confused, tortured, exhausting, contentious, a sadistically erotic struggle. He refuses to allow us to experience man-woman sexual relations as anything but a befuddling problem that needs serious explication.
Negative Images: Frenzy
As I will demonstrate, my major focus in this book is, first, on the representation of masculinity in Hitchcock's films and, second, on the influence of this representation on several important filmmakers of the 1970s, specifically Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, and William Friedkin. I argue that in Hitchcock, American masculinity, especially from the late 1940s forward, is founded on predilections for voyeurism, anxieties over homosexuality, and a growing fascination with pornography. In turns, these predilections, anxieties, and fascinations inform the films of the 1970s, especially where masculinity is concerned.
A metacritical vein runs throughout this book, a concern over certain directions that film studies has taken since the 1980s. In its current state, film studies can be summarized as following two directions: ideology without beauty, and beauty without ideology. As I will explain, this impasse in critical practice is organized around the crisis over "negative images" within the culture wars that date back to the 1980s. As part of my effort to reorient discussions in film studies related to issues of gender, sexuality, race, and the ethics of representation on the one hand and aesthetics on the other hand, I will also be addressing the "negative images" controversy. I can think of no better example to begin with than Frenzy (1972).
Frenzy marked Hitchcock's cinematic return to English shores after several decades of Hollywood filmmaking. While there is much to discuss in this comparatively overlooked and highly important film, for our purposes the sequence in which a woman, Brenda Blaney (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), is raped and murdered is the most significant in the film. It is, arguably, the most harrowing sequence in Hitchcock's oeuvre and contains what is, undoubtedly, the most painful, horrifying image in it: the medium close-up of Brenda Blaney after she has been murdered by the ginger-haired, dandyish serial killer Robert Rusk (Barry Foster). Only Psycho's shower-murder sequence contains images of sexualized violence of comparable difficulty and disturbance, and I would argue that Frenzy goes even further in this regard.
Brenda is the ex-wife of Richard Blaney (Jon Finch). Yet another of Hitchcock's wrongly accused male protagonists, Blaney will be accused of her murder as well as those of the other women killed by Rusk. Rusk will also kill the lively, loyal Babs Milligan (Anna Massey, who also portrayed the one victim to survive Michael Powell's 1960 film Peeping Tom), who stands by Blaney once he is accused. Blaney is, without question, one of the least attractive and sympathetic of Hitchcock's male protagonists. While Brenda has pity for Blaney, taking him out to her club for dinner, she astutely realizes that, in emotional terms, he's bad news. A former RAF pilot, Blaney now works at a lower-class pub, from which he gets fired as soon as he appears in the film. On a perpetually short fuse, he blames his woes on everyone else, including his now much more successful ex-wife, who runs her own business, a dating service. Unbeknownst to Blaney, Brenda slips him money to live on, which he discovers when a man in a homeless shelter tries to steal it during the night. Meanwhile, Rusk gambols about, the merry, loquacious owner of a fruit and vegetable store (eerily reminiscent of Hitchcock's father, a greengrocer), cheerfully clapping his friend Blaney's shoulder while offering him fresh fruit, advice, and money to help him out. That Blaney and Rusk share a deep-seated rage, which they reveal and act out in distinct ways, is part of the film's message; Hitchcock's doubling of them draws attention to their differences but more saliently to their similarities. Blaney directs his rage outwardly, fulminating at everyone; Rusk keeps his murderous rage private, unleashing it only with the women whom he rapes and then kills, choking them with a piece of his apparel that earns him the title "the Necktie Killer." While Blaney is not a murderer, his unpleasantness stands out in the Hitchcock canon, notable for its skeptical disposition toward straight screen masculinity. Clearly, Rusk unleashes at least some of the rage that Blaney feels as well, just as the psychotic Bruno Anthony does for the apparently normal, all-American tennis player Guy Haines in Strangers on a Train (1951). "I'd like to wring her neck," Guy says of his troublesome wife; Bruno wrings her neck. Male doubling in Hitchcock collapses the desires of each male into one, which has important implications not only for murderous, misogynistic violence but for homoerotic desire as well.
That indelible, terrible image in Frenzy of the dead Brenda, raped and murdered by Rusk, continues to demand analysis. In one of the most incisive of her readings of Hitchcock films—which, as noted, are complex in their understanding of his ambivalence towards femininity—Modleski challenges the criticisms of Hitchcock's depiction of the rape and murder here as too graphic, lacking his former discretion:
Of course, one might ask why, if a sordid crime like rape/murder is to be depicted at all, it should not be shown "in all its horror." In fact, it could be argued that the stylization and allusiveness of the shower scene in Psycho have provided critics with the rationale for lovingly and endlessly recounting all the details of its signification in the very process of self-righteously deploring its signified, the rape/murder.
Astutely, in my view, Modleski, who doesn't flinch from calling Hitchcock misogynistic when she feels it is warranted, points out that it is the very graphicness of this rape/murder that reveals and critiques its barbarism.
Far from a discrete or "suggestive" depiction of sexual violence, the representation of the rape-murder is, however, deeply stylized, in no way offering "documentary realism." Rather, it offers and mixes a number of realistic and stylized maneuvers. The way the scene is cut; the manner in which its temporal duration is alternately extended and compressed; the deeply odd behavior of Rusk, alternately moaning, "Lovely," and shrieking, "Bitch!"; the close-ups on Brenda's face during the rape, as well as her heartbreaking gestures, such as trying to pull up her bra when Rusk yanks it down; and that final, horrific, simultaneously realistic and deeply stylized image of her in death all add to a curiously dreamlike atmosphere during the murder, a mixture, as we find in dreams, of the lifelike and specific and the singularly bizarre.
Of the many ways that Hitchcock could have shown us the aftermath of the murder in Frenzy—such as the austere overhead shot he gives us of the murdered Marion Crane, slumped over the bathtub, in Psycho (1960)—he chooses to give us a shockingly gross, unseemly, and, I argue, pornographic shot of the dead woman. She stares right out at the viewer, wide-eyed, as if made to look on the spectacle of her inexpressible violation forever. Grotesquely, her tongue lolls out of the corner of her mouth. An image redolent of the Surrealist canon, it seems to suggest the opposite meanings from its content. Her expression makes her look coarse and weirdly bawdy, as if she were enjoying this pornographic spectacle with lowbrow humor.
This image is the ultimate violation imaginable to a person after death: it mockingly distorts the horrific nature of what she has suffered into a comedic, crudely sexualized image of her in death. Laura Kipnis argues in Bound and Gagged—a study that is notably sympathetic to the often maligned genre and its viewers—that the lure of pornography is its central fantasy that women enjoy sex with the same impersonal crudeness that men do. Within this grotesque image in all of its horror, Frenzy critiques the analogous fantasy that women actually "want" to be raped.
What I want to suggest about this image is that, while it may actually reveal something about the director's personal perversities, to use that term with pointed looseness, it more acutely conveys something about his films generally, Hitchcock's public, celebrity persona, and their shared cultural status. Throughout his films, Hitchcock makes a game of murder. It is the inspiration for the most cunningly storyboarded and shot sequences in film history; it is the darkly humorous subject matter of his direct address to the audience on a weekly basis at the start, end, and in-between moments of his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents; it is the darkly humorous subject matter of Hitchcock's mordant, joke-filled speeches at public events, usually award ceremonies ("As you can see, scissors are really the best way," said after a clip from 1954's Dial M for Murder is shown in which Grace Kelly stabs her would-be killer with these typically feminine, sewing-kit implements).
Pauline Kael, no supporter of the Andrew Sarris–Cahiers du Cinéma auteur theory that was enshrining Hitchcock in the 1960s as a great director and one of the many critics who revolted against the revolting Frenzy, once wrote of the film as "rancid." I find this description especially apt, though not in the way that Kael uses the term, for a movie that shows us both the rotten core of the Hitchcock film and thematizes food and its nauseating aspects as metaphors for sex, lust, and sexualized violence. For what Frenzy does is rip off the veil of politesse that shrouds the Hitchcock film.
The hideous shot of the murdered, tongue-lolling Brenda is the ultimate negative image, fusing horror, exploitation, and pornographic film—lowbrow art par excellence—representations of femininity in its graphic display of a gruesomely killed woman character. Yet this negative image—precisely for the ways "it looks at you," in the words of Wheeler Winston Dixon, for the way the image returns the gaze, and so assaultively—also conveys the horrific nature not only of this especially traumatic moment but of all such moments in Hitchcock's films, even those generally considered light entertainments. Dixon discusses those moments when a film "acts upon us, addressing us, viewing us as we view it, until the film itself becomes a gaze, rather than an object to be gazed upon." The returned gaze can produce moments in which "film structure watches us," when we "feel the look of the image being turned against us, surveilling us, subjecting us to the 'look back' of the screen." Though Dixon does not discuss Hitchcock in this study, focusing instead on artists such as Andy Warhol, surely this moment in Frenzy in which Brenda stares at us so assaultively is one of the most significant moments of the returned gaze in the cinema.
A woman in death haunts Hitchcock's cinema, as it will that of his most ardent and imaginative screen disciple, Brian De Palma. In much the same way that the murdered Brenda is violated anew by having her expression in death so distorted, the murdered Sally in De Palma's Blow Out (1981) will be violated after death, her wrenching screams used to plug up an auditory hole in a cheapjack porny horror film named, tellingly, Co-Ed Frenzy. Watching Hitchcock's Frenzy, one gets the impression that he, in his old age, had grown tired of camouflaging his subject. Here, Hitchcock breaks through decades of studio- and self-imposed repression, going further even than he did in the revolutionary Psycho, the film that created the genre of modern horror, in exposing the utter grimness of the human potentiality for violence and the ways in which this potentiality so often takes the form of violence against women.
While many critics have found the violence against women in Hitchcock's films to be expressions of Hitchcock's own violent attitudes towards women, to be acts of violence against women, I would argue here against simplistically reading the films biographically to begin with, but more importantly against drawing an equivalence between what is represented and what is being expressed by a film, a simple point, perhaps, but at the same time a controversial one in the quarters of identity politics.
Identity Politics, Ideology, and Critical Practice
The "positive images" argument—the belief that representations of oppressed groups such as women, queers, and those of nonwhite races and ethnicities should cast these identities in an affirming light—wielded for the last three decades in academic cultural discourse has disturbingly blunted and distorted not only many works of art but a great deal of critical thinking. In challenging the "positive images" argument, my work intersects with that of critics such as Judith Halberstam, Richard Dyer, Ellis Hanson, and Sabrina Barton, who have all made similar and persuasive cases.
One of the difficulties of challenging the "positive images" argument is that many of the concerns undergirding it are quite legitimate ones. Matters of feminism and queer/transgendered rights are of no less pressing importance now than they were in previous decades, and race representation has lost none of its urgency as a concern, to say the least. One part of the turn against the "positive images" debate, in terms of film theory, has been challenging the stronghold of Laura Mulvey's theory of the male gaze, articulated most clearly and forcefully in two articles of boundless influence: "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" from 1975 and its sequel, "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' inspired by King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946)." Feminist as well as queer critics have challenged the Mulvey model of an unchanging, essentialist cinematic representation of "Woman" as well as any stable, coherent understandings of the gaze—the screen protagonist's, the spectator's, and both at once—as white, male, and heterosexual. While I have often chafed against Mulvey's constrictive paradigms, there is still much that is useful in these two essays, to say nothing of her considerable body of later work, which remains, along with the shifts in her critical positions since the early 1980s, comparatively unexplored.
In large part, however, the necessary challenge to Mulvey that has been conducted in the past two decades has taken the form of an opposition to the theoretical framework through which Mulvey articulated her theories of femininity, masculinity, and the gaze. As exemplified by Post-Theory, the reader that they edited, David Bordwell and Noël Carroll have led a movement toward the appreciation of film aesthetics that directly opposes the psychoanalytic methodologies so central to film theory in the 1970s and 1980s.
In many respects, the stronghold of psychoanalytic/semiotic approaches in film studies did indeed demand a revision and a resistance, especially the centrality of the concept of the phallus in Lacanian theory. Yet instead of revising and reimagining the uses of psychoanalytic theory—despite its limitations, an insightful methodology for the study of gendered identity, desire, and the emotional experiences of sexual subjectivity—the post-theory camp has dispensed with it altogether. With this dismissal of psychoanalysis has come a de-emphasization of issues of gender and sexuality in film studies within the approach embodied by critics such as Bordwell and Carroll.
The case I make for difficult artists like Hitchcock and De Palma and against the "positive images" argument is also quite distinct from the kind of work José Esteban Muñoz does in his important study Disidentifications. Whereas his focus is on the ways that queer artists of color have simultaneously worked within and critiqued the dominant culture, I argue for the importance of dominant culture to the ways that cultural, sexual, and raced subjects make sense of our lives. Those who occupy subjectivities relegated to the margins of culture—women, queers, the nonwhite, the economically disenfranchised—at times also seek out and locate representations of resonant and meaningful importance within dominant culture, in this case popular culture/Hollywood, rather than in alternative forms of creative expression. Speaking as a multiracial gay man from an immigrant, working-class background, I know that I have spent a lot of joyously frustrated time sifting through the endlessly accumulating evidence of how the dominant culture sees me to make sense of how I see myself. I humbly offer as evidence of the unpredictability of art and representation and reception the fact that I, as someone with a Haitian mother and a Hispanic father, neither of whom were born in the United States, find Hitchcock films indispensable to my understanding of the world and to my love of popular culture.
In my case, Hitchcock films, as well as the others discussed in this book, are especially significant in terms of understanding how gender and sexuality shape both American constructions of subjectivity and the experience of subjectivity in gendered and sexual terms. Moreover, Hitchcock's skeptical disposition towards normative sexuality, embodied by heterosexual romance and marriage, makes his work consistently interesting to me as a queer, multiracial male who, while fascinated by the iconic, mythological images and narratives of normative sexuality (I couldn't be as passionate a fan of Hollywood otherwise), sees them always as iconic and mythological rather than, as they are so often purported to be, the essential, unchanging truths of human existence.
Hitchcock, Classical Hollywood, Homosexuality, Genre Film
To return to the central issue at hand, Hitchcock and his influence over the New Hollywood, this book takes the conflictual relationship between heterosexual and homosexual masculinities that Hitchcock stages in several works, but most definitively in his 1960 film Psycho, as a template for the exploration of masculinity in the films of the 1970s. Much of the homosexual content in Hollywood film, at least until the twenty-first century, has remained allegorical, suggested rather than explicit, a vexing, indistinct presence rather than a directly stated threat. Nevertheless, we can track the historical emergence of an explicitly represented homosexuality in Hollywood film. It was in the Cold War 1950s that the gay rights movement first gained prominence in the United States, through groups such as the Mattachine Society. It was also a decade in which homosexuals were persecuted in a newly organized and public way as a national threat linked to Communism, the decline in public morals, and a crisis in American masculinity. Hollywood responded in kind with increasingly more obvious, though still resolutely coded, representations of homosexuality.
Though bowdlerized, film adaptations of stage plays with homosexual content—Tea and Sympathy (Vincente Minnelli, 1957) and numerous adaptations of Tennessee Williams, especially Suddenly, Last Summer (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959)—heralded the advent of a self-consciously queer cinema. Moreover, numerous films from the period functioned as queer allegories—Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948), Fear Strikes Out (Robert Mulligan, 1957), The Strange One (Jack Garfein, 1957)—while other films evoked homosexuality by drawing on real-life controversies involving it (Richard Fleischer's 1959 film Compulsion, based on the Leopold and Loeb case, as was Hitchcock's Rope before it and, after it, Todd Kalin's Swoon ).
By the time we get to the 1960s, these suggestively queer films gave way to a veritable explosion of films with explicitly gay content: Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961), The Children's Hour (William Wyler, 1961), Advise & Consent (Otto Preminger, 1962), The Sergeant (John Flynn, 1968), The Detective (Gordon Douglas, 1968), The Boys in the Band (William Friedkin, 1970). They formed a pattern that continued unabated throughout the seventies, in significant films such as Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975), in which Al Pacino's hapless bank robber tries to get the money for his boyfriend Leon's sex-change operation, and another Pacino homo-vehicle, Cruising (William Friedkin, 1980), to which we turn in Chapter 6.
While many classical Hollywood films demand analysis from a queer perspective, I focus on Hitchcock as the representative of a welter of issues related to sexuality because of his undeniable influence on later filmmakers, particularly in the New Hollywood era. While Hitchcock's homophobia has been amply discussed by many, his homophilia has been considerably less discussed, a lapse I attempt to redress. In addition, I challenge the view of Hitchcock as misogynistic while also arguing that any discussion of queer sexuality in his work must also consider the representation of femininity.
Far from being the exclusive intertextual domain of Brian De Palma, Hitchcock's films were central to the aesthetic and cultural poetics of the New Hollywood cinema of the 1970s. This claim is a point of departure for a larger one. Many critics have noted the fixation with American masculinity in the period's filmmaking; I argue that what undergirded this fixation was a preoccupation with homosexuality. Further, I argue that it was through a larger agon (or conflict) with Hitchcock's cinema that filmmakers conducted their investigation of American masculinity, one that focused on its fissures and failures. Homosexuality emerged as representative of these and also as a potential new direction for American masculinity to take, not without serious risk but also treated with surprising, fascinated interest.
While homosexuality informs several important New Hollywood films, it is only intermittently treated in explicit fashion by them, though when it is, as in William Friedkin's Cruising, it is subjected to documentary-like "realism." Diegetically, homosexuality is relegated to the margins, yet shown to be a pervasive, implicit threat registered within the larger crisis in masculinity at the center of so many 1970s films. Not just registering this crisis, New Hollywood films strove to make sense of the shifting, unstable state of masculinity in the decade, and, I argue, used Hitchcock's anxious representation of masculinity in the Cold War era as a template for their own investigations.
Establishing that issues of intertextuality are fundamental to an understanding of New Hollywood film, I claim that the triumvirate of male sexual anxieties—voyeurism, pornography, and homosexuality—at the center of several significant Hitchcock films became newly relevant in 1970s filmmaking. Comparing Hitchcock's Rope, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, and Psycho to important 1970s-era films, I argue that New Hollywood filmmakers seized upon Hitchcock's radical decentering of heterosexual male dominance, devising contemporary narratives of heterosexual male ambivalence that allowed for, at times depended on, an investment in same-sex desire as well as an awareness of its dangerous, pernicious seductions.14 Homophobia in both Hitchcock and the New Hollywood is informed by an attendant fascination with the homoerotic that emerges from scenes of gender crisis and disorganization that are rife in both the Cold War and New Hollywood eras. The question of Hitchcock's intertextual relationship to the New Hollywood is intricately large—an entire book could be written on the formal transmission, uses, innovations, and developments of Hitchcock's aesthetics and techniques in 1970s filmmaking practice. And, to be sure, the question of the representation of gender, sexuality, and also race and class in Hitchcock's films and those of the New Hollywood will continue to demand a great deal more attention and expansion than I can provide here. By considering some very specific issues—namely voyeurism, homosexuality, and pornography—as overlapping concerns in Hitchcock and the New Hollywood, and how these relate to masculinity, I believe that I am opening up a discussion that will continue in myriad ways, not just in my own work but in that which will follow it.
The genre film emerges as a particularly interesting and useful form of queer address. While genre per se, treated by many critics over the years, is not my chief focus here, it is important to note that it is in the genre film—horror, suspense, comedy, the western—that a queer presence exerts a particularly insistent while almost always allegorical power. What unites the majority of the films that I discuss in this book is that they are works within a genre Hitchcock innovated: the psychosexual thriller. (I also discuss De Palma's early comedies.) This queer presence emanates from the points at which normative masculinity breaks down, falters in its own performance. What I call elsewhere "gender protest"—a resistance to or a collapse in gendered identity—opens up possibilities for non-normative desire as well. Scenes of gender and sexual crisis—and American masculinity just about always seems to be in crisis—open up possibilities for queer desire, but the crisis itself often seems to emerge out of a conflict over sexuality.
Inordinately and provocatively concerned with gender—its boundaries, its performance, its pressures, its development, its impact, its endurance—genre makes up its own rules, often existing outside of and venturing to places untraveled by realistic modes of narrative production. The special nature of the genre world, the ways in which it structures reality as an emanation of a particular sensibility unique to itself, allows for an unusual range of desires and anxieties to be suggested and suggestively present. Freed from the strictures of realism, genre allows for the testing of social and logical limits in ways that enable queer potentialities.
Be it the shape-shifting capacities of a sci-fi alien, the undead regenerative power of the horror monster, or the propriety-blasting excessiveness of gross-out comedy, the propensities of genre film for the defiance of social and natural laws make it a fertile, perhaps ideal place for transgressions against the cultural codes that regulate both gender and sexual identity, as well as sites for the exploration of anxieties over these codes.
Moreover, I argue here that it is often the films deemed most problematic, even offensive; the representations that trigger the most controversy and condemnation; the directors whose offscreen reputations get read into their work in ways that make their work indefensible to many, that on occasion make the boldest and most challenging statements about gendered identity, in particular about hegemonic masculinity, which they very often undermine if not altogether topple. The negative images—of women, queers, and other races—that have been the preoccupation of identity politics and other forms of activism have very often been more revealing, urgent, poignant, and exciting than the concomitantly bland, anodyne, safe, "progressive" image of oppressed identities. This book challenges the "positive images" argument—the insistence that images of underrepresented and oppressed minorities must be positive—that has blocked understanding and appreciation of all of the works under discussion here.
That startling, framed negative image of the woman in Jeff's apartment is so much more arresting, bewildering, and provocative than that stack of magazines with her normal, sunny, "positive" image on them. Taking this pointed contrast as a defining allegory, this study explores a variety of negative portrayals. Hitchcock's representation of women and queer subjects; De Palma films and their representation of women; Taxi Driver and its purported misogyny and racism; William Friedkin's apparently deeply homophobic Cruising—negative images all—are reconsidered for their political value and aesthetic importance. While Hitchcock is solidly still established as "the Master," and in some ways needs very little critical help to be taken seriously, I will establish here that his representation of femininity and queerness still needs more illumination. While Taxi Driver is certainly a famous, iconic film, it has been faulted for its representation of femininity and racial difference. De Palma's films, though given very serious treatment by Eyal Peretz in 2008 and the subject of a major retrospective at BAM (the Brooklyn Academy of Music) overseen by the film director Noah Baumbach in April of 2011, continue to need critical reevaluation, now more than ever. Peretz, despite the strengths of his study, runs the risk of seriously distorting De Palma's work, particularly in that he overlooks almost entirely the psychosexual themes at their center. And though Friedkin's Cruising is no longer the reviled work it once was, I believe that careful reexamination of it reveals not only a less homophobic film than it was once perceived to be, but also a resonant exploration of the psychosexual foundations of homophobia.
Defining the New Hollywood and Redefining Film Authorship
Before proceeding to the book proper, it is necessary to define my use of the term "the New Hollywood," a controversial concept within studies of Hollywood film of the 1960s and 1970s. As Derek Nystrom helpfully lays these controversies out,
The mid-1970s … gave birth to the New Hollywood, which established what Thomas Schatz calls "the blockbuster syndrome," in which high-budget, high-concept, saturation-booked, multimedia-marketed, spectacle-oriented films (such as Jaws  and Star Wars ) provided, as they continue to provide, the U.S. film industry with at least some of the economic stability it lost after the end of the old studio system. Other critics, of course, emphasize an earlier, different New Hollywood, the so-called Hollywood Renaissance of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Altman, and others. For these critics, the years between 1967 and 1976 marked a brief but glorious time during which Hollywood produced a body of work as narratively, visually, and politically adventurous as that of the European art cinema—an aesthetic flowering that was cut down to the industry's shift to blockbuster filmmaking.
Nystrom goes on to discuss the confluence of national and class politics in the United States as reflected by these films, an important and often overlooked aspect of their cultural work.
As Robert Kolker puts it, Bonnie and Clyde "opened the bloodgates" to a new era of graphic cinematic realism.16 For my purposes, the New Hollywood signifies the period of Hollywood filmmaking from Arthur Penn's controversial breakthrough hit Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to the commercial and critical failure of De Palma's Blow Out (1981), which signaled the demise of publically championed personal filmmaking as resonantly as Penn's film did a new public appreciation for such personal visions and for new cinematic truths.
I think it's misleading to cut off the period of the New Hollywood at the point where the blockbuster began to appear. Spielberg's Jaws, for example, is a spiky and arresting work, and his even more spectacularly blockbuster-ish Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) is as mesmerizingly "personal" as key works of the early 1970s. As the example of Coppola's first two Godfather (1972, 1974) films enduringly confirms, blockbusters were capable of being expressively idiosyncratic. More importantly, the New Hollywood period signifies an era in which self-consciously quirky, singular, vexing movies were sought out and commercially supported by the public. Often times, the films that excited audiences did so, in their eyes, strictly as commercial entertainments—I doubt that most people going to see Carrie (1976) or Saturday Night Fever (1977) believed they were in for serious works of art. Nevertheless, the New Hollywood period reflects an openness to the personal vision that was never seen before and has not quite been seen since.
The failure of De Palma's deeply personal Blow Out—the ur-example of the potentialities of the thriller form—seems to me particularly evocative. The film teems with many preoccupations of the films of the 1970s—paranoia, conspiracy, political scandals, and graphic sexual images. And like many 1970s films, it is a downbeat film with a sad (deeply sad, to be sure) ending. I am fairly convinced that if Blow Out had come out in the 1970s, it would have been more successful. By the 1980s, family entertainment, goofy comedy, and cartoonishly hypermasculine stars and action films were beginning to rule the day, a reign that endures. This is not to suggest that plenty of good-to-great films were not released in the 1980s, and, of course, after this decade, only to suggest that the 1970s were a far more sustained period of urgent cinematic work.
In many ways, the chief legacy of Hitchcock in the New Hollywood is his trick of combining idiosyncratic and artistic filmmaking with commercial savvy. Some of the films of the 1970s, distinctively made by creative and singular personalities, also managed to be wildly entertaining. I would argue that this is Hollywood's most distinctive contribution to world cinema—the work of serious and demanding art that is also a work of pleasurable and heady entertainment. Unabashedly I remain in the mode of critics who see the New Hollywood as an aesthetic Renaissance, as my readings will, I have no doubt, evince.
In a wonderful assessment of the significance of Tom Gunning's work on Fritz Lang, Adam Lowenstein writes, during the course of a reading of Hitchcock's Frenzy, that the significance of film authorship lies in
interpretive practice for the audience, and for the critic. The author exists as "an invitation to reading … precisely poised on the threshold of the work, evident in the film itself, but also standing outside it, absent except in the imprint left behind." What anchors Gunning's study is the firm belief that reading this imprint constitutes a valuable act of scholarship, one that allows audiences and critics to engage authorship by detecting interwoven patterns across a director's oeuvre—an encounter not with the biographical author, but with the "language of cinema" as negotiated between viewer and director. In other words, the author's revenge is not reasserting absolute mastery over the meaning of his or her films, but suggesting a set of terms, a number of possible identifications, with which audiences make meaning from those films. To take these identifications seriously as a critic does not automatically denote ideological irresponsibility, where cinema's inscription in larger discourses is simply ignored—instead, it attends to the complexity of acts of reading within such discourses, where cinema's coming-into-being between director and viewer is a living negotiation rather than a predetermined certainty.
This passage seems to me so poignantly apt and so incisively true that I offer it as a description of the spirit in which the present book was written.
As I discuss at greater length in Chapter 3, film studies has largely moved away from the aesthetic and from the model of evaluative criticism—the writings of Robin Wood being the pinnacle of this critical model. Film studies has instead embraced the non-aesthetic, pursuing a cultural studies model in which either the modes of film production or the implications these modes have for viewing practices become the central focus. In terms of the latter, these questions are often embedded not only in ideological concerns but also assumptions about the ideological dispositions of the reader—which is to say, properly leftist ideological dispositions. Or, as in the case of the post-theory school, the question of aesthetics assumes a new and binding importance, but at the cost of resolutely eschewing ideological concerns.
In my view, these two main directions in film studies are both frustrating and worrisome. In many ways the present book is an attempt at an intervention. While I do not agree with all of his positions—I am particularly opposed to his restrictive "therapeutic" model of film, which leads him to undervalue films such as Hitchcock's masterpiece The Birds (1963)—Robin Wood remains, for me, the gold standard of film criticism. He was a critic who was able to bring ideological concerns to bear on his analyses of film while also being critical and evaluative and, perhaps most resonantly, deeply personal.
At the same time, the writing of Pauline Kael remains a touchstone. As will become quite clear, I very frequently disagree with Kael's positions. I even disagree with her specific defenses of Brian De Palma, a foundation that few of us who write appreciatively about De Palma would be able to do without. I find her dismissal of Hitchcock's importance as a serious filmmaker—as opposed to being an expert entertainer, which Kael did celebrate him as—frustrating. Most of all, I find that Kael was at times perversely indifferent to the political ramifications of works (except when she wasn't, which could lead to penetrating political analysis, as in the case of her review of the 1971 Don Siegel film Dirty Harry).
Kael is influential to me because of her openness to art and the experiences of moviegoing. Academia remains, dare I say it, a bastion of the middlebrow elitism that Kael challenged throughout her career. To my mind, the "positive images" argument stems, though complexly and not in clear-cut ways, from this middlebrow stance, though in a much more evolved form. Wood and Kael are an emboldening yin and yang, he providing the seriousness and the scrupulousness, she the charm, sexiness, and play that I believe are also endemic to the moviegoing experience. (Of course, his wit and her seriousness have been undervalued.) Throughout this book, as I attempt to navigate controversies in critical practice, these critics will be my guiding stars.
While many Hitchcock films lend themselves to my thesis, in Chapter 1 I begin with a discussion of a film that has not been commonly read as significant to Hitchcock's queer themes: Hitchcock's 1956 remake of his original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). I discuss two major aspects of the film: the allegorical depiction of homoerotic encounters—in a word, cruising—through espionage; and the woman's position, figured as both paranoid and astute, within frameworks of simultaneously explicit and disavowed knowledge of homosexuality. The film submits the normative model of the heterosexual couple to a rigorous analysis that entails explorations of each member of the couple's respective struggles with gender and sexual expectations. The film allegorizes homosexuality as both a threat to and a potential freedom from the strictures of normative gender identity against which both of the protagonists chafe.
I then turn, in the next two chapters, to Psycho. My reading of Psycho is central to the claims I make about the relationship between Hitchcock and the New Hollywood. I argue that Psycho brings into much clearer articulation the themes of voyeurism, homosexuality, and pornographic viewing that had been developing in Hitchcock since at least Rear Window. It is precisely this welter of psychosexual disturbances that informs the representation of masculinity in films by De Palma, Scorsese, Friedkin, and others.
In Chapter 2, I discuss Hitchcock's characteristic use of the double and how he deploys this Expressionist figure in his depiction of the confrontation between Norman Bates and Sam Loomis. In contrasting these male characters, one representative of sexually suspect psychosis, the other of gendered and sexual normalcy, Hitchcock blurs the lines between them, creating effects that will inform future depictions of American masculinity. I also discuss the effects created by crosscutting the men's encounter with Lila Crane's exploration of the Bates house. While Lila Crane has been read positively as lesbian character, and also as Carol Clover's prototype for the "Final Girl," I demonstrate here that Lila is a more ambiguous figure, tied to social repression and the law.
In Chapter 3, I discuss Psycho as a key text in the development of mainstream pornography. Here, my focus is on Norman's voyeuristic staring at the undressing Marion Crane. Just as the book without a title on its spine that Lila Crane examines in Norman Bates's bedroom evokes pornographic viewing, so too does Norman's spying on Marion before she takes her infamous shower. Infusing these pornographic motifs with additional levels of intensity and dread was the increasingly public threat of homosexuality within the Cold War context in which Hitchcock's related themes gained a new, ominous visibility. What emerges in Psycho is a tripartite monster—voyeurism-homosexuality-pornography, a cluster of psychosexual anxieties that would prove to be of enduring influence precisely as this cluster. Hitchcock's film is crucial in linking an emergent homosexual identity to a new kind of pornographic masculinity enabled by the increasing prominence of pornography in American life.
In Chapter 4, my focus is on Brian De Palma, his significance as a director who very self-consciously reworks Hitchcock's films, the critical reception of De Palma's work, and, most centrally, on three early De Palma films—Greetings (1968), Hi, Mom! (1970), and Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972). I read these films in light of De Palma's interest in the dynamics of the homosocial, an interest that permeates his body of work. While this critical perspective does not settle the question of De Palma's purported misogyny, it does contextualize it. De Palma's overarching interest in male relations is a key aspect of the political critique of patriarchal masculinism in his films. Though made before his Hitchcockian phase, in these comedies De Palma already begins working through the concerns that define the later films: voyeurism, sadism, betrayal, misogyny, and the role played by pornography in the shaping and the experience of male subjectivity. Revisiting the early work of Judith Butler, I argue that De Palma presages Butler's key paradigms: that gender is a performance that functions through reiteration and citation, and that homosexuality plays a key cultural role as an imitative copy to a straight original. By examining the relationship an embattled and ostensibly straight masculinity has to the larger culture in De Palma's draft-dodger Vietnam War–era comedies, I make the case that De Palma's films illuminate the precarious psychic structures of white straight manhood, which can only be maintained as an intelligible identity through homosocialized rituals in which homosexuals, women, and nonwhites are rendered perpetual threats to white-male group identity. De Palma's treatment of women, I argue, must be understood within these larger schemas of male gendered and sexual anxiety and social conflict.
Chapter 5 offers a critical analysis of, arguably, the greatest film of the 1970s, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976). While the film has repeatedly attracted critical commentary, I explore some less well-charted aspects of it, in particular its intertextual engagement with Hitchcock, specifically the films Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho. Taxi Driver rearticulates Hitchcock's themes of a male subjectivity that is indistinguishable from homosexual anxiety and pornographic visual desire. I address the issues of misogyny and racism in the film, challenging the view that the film expresses these attitudes and arguing that, instead, it confronts and grapples with them. I also explore the film's well-known thematization of paranoia while revisiting Freud's tripartite schema of jealousy, homosexuality, and paranoia. I argue that Taxi Driver reworks Freud's theory, locating paranoia within anxieties over gender performance and sexuality, not only that of its protagonist but also of the other characters, and a prolonged state of grief that is steeped in gender nonconformity.
Two of the most controversial films to emerge at the end of the New Hollywood era are the focus of the final two chapters. In Chapter 6, I reexamine William Friedkin's film Cruising (1980), a film about an undercover New York City detective who investigates a string of murders in the gay sadomasochistic-leather community. Long denounced as a deeply homophobic film, Cruising has not been given its critical due until very recently, other than Robin Wood's early defense of it. I argue that, far from being a homophobic work, the film critiques homophobia by pursuing the Hitchcockian play of male doubles in its representation of straight and queer masculinities. The film's constant play between the symbolic and literal is a crucial one. Though its documentary value has been newly appreciated, the film is as determinedly non-mimetic—nonrealistic—as it is self-consciously realistic. To take it as an attempt at a realistic representation of gay life is to ignore the film's much broader exploration of the psychosexual dimensions and foundations of American masculinity. None of this is to say that Cruising presents an attractive or nuanced vision of gay life. But within its often-negative portrayal lies something more challenging: a provocation to contemplate queer male desire in unfettered forms within a larger homophobic culture.
In Chapter 7, we return to the cinema of Brian De Palma. De Palma takes the relay between terror and humor in Hitchcock to a new level of postmodern play. But he does more than that—whereas in Hitchcock the humor very strategically alleviates the terror, in De Palma it is the very relationship between terror and humor that becomes the drama. The tension between the two modes is never more fully sustained or thematized than in Dressed to Kill (1980), a film that self-consciously reworks Psycho by drawing out its pornographic themes. Revisiting the film, often denounced as misogynistic, I discover a playful, moving, and feminist reinterpretation of Psycho that focuses on female pleasure, frustration, and sexual independence. In Psycho, women are forced to submit to the dictates of capitalism in order to procure marriage (or such is their fantasy), but in Dressed to Kill the question of marriage no longer holds sway, and women can act on their desires for sex and money—sometimes with disastrous consequences, but also in ways that defy constrictive cultural constructions of femininity and female sexuality. I address as well issues of De Palma's intertextual cinematic aesthetics and his own version of the feminine versus the queer, a pattern that I argue can be found throughout Hitchcock's work. In De Palma, the feminine versus the queer emerges as a contest between sexually and economically enterprising women and men who are either murderously conflicted by their gender identity or more comfortably defy conventional gender typings. In the Coda, I return to the question of negative images and critical practice.
“By placing text before theory, Greven's labored, good-faith book stands higher than merely auteur appreciation: It demands serious consideration across many disciplinary planes, both historic and theoretical, as an exemplary, immanently readable call for serious, revisionist film-studies texts, while serving as one itself.”
“Greven takes a sustained look at the psychosexual dynamics of masculine desire found in two generations of American filmmakers...The author's nuanced readings suggest how profoundly Hitchcock influenced his successors...Summing Up: Recommended.”
“Like the best critical studies, Greven incisively cuts (or, with these particular films, slashes) in multiple directions at once: gender studies (masculinity as well as feminism); queer studies; (adeptly revised) psychoanalytic film theories; and historical context, all supported by close readings that deftly defamiliarize much discussed work (like Psycho, Taxi Driver, and Cruising) while also satisfyingly exhuming neglected others (e.g., De Palma's early comedies.”
“Anyone interested in intelligent, insightful film criticism will find much to admire in the close analysis on display here.”
“Innovative and sophisticated. A very well-written and sophisticated contribution to both film studies and queer scholarship. . . . The best work of scholarship I’ve read this year in terms of its critical approach.”
Tony Williams, Professor of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
“A great contribution to the scholarship on all the films it considers.”
Susan M. White, Associate Professor of Film and Comparative Literature, University of Arizona