Reviews 2016

Children in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock

Children in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock. Ed. Debbie Olson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 276 pages. $95.00 (hardback).

This is another edited collection in Palgrave’s series on childhood and children’s literature. It proposes to analyze the particular intersection of Hitchcock films with childhood studies. The editor, Debbie Olson, is motivated by what she perceives as a dearth of critical attention to children in Hitchcock films, noting that children and youth appear in "almost all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films" (3) (a claim refuted immediately by Noel Brown’s chapter "Alfred Hitchcock’s Missing Children," in which he notes that "children appear prominently in a mere six [out of 54] Hitchcock films" [11]). Olson’s goal is to "remedy" this "oversight" (3) and combine the "rich and varied tradition of Hitchcock scholarship" with "more recent scholarly focus on children and childhood" (3). It was Olson who previously asserted this connection between children and Hitchcock films in her article "The Hitchcock Imp" in Lost and Othered Children in Contemporary Cinema, a collection also edited by Olson. This assertion appears to be uncritically embraced by at least six of the twelve contributors to the present volume under review. There are obvious problems, therefore, not only in the potential for overreach (to go where no previous scholarship has gone before), but also in replicating assumptions which themselves need interrogating. To wit, that the presence of children in Hitchcock’s movies is a significant element worth investigating, and that this book actually incorporates any recent scholarship on childhood. In fact, this is primarily a films studies/lit. crit volume in which the analytic focus on children is usually filtered through a psychoanalytic and/or Lacanian sensibility – that is, on symbolic children, all of whom are utilized as proxies for adult concerns or to provide commentary on adult situations, anxieties, and dysfunction.

The twelve separate chapters are introduced by Olson, who, by way of apocryphal narratives of Hitchcock’s own childhood, attempts to infer his conceptualization of childhood (and thereby why they are featured in his films). Implicit in the presentation is the implication (and psychoanalytical logic) that because Hitchcock subjects his adult and child characters to terrors both imagined and real, his own "normal" childhood is something of a shock. Since the remaining chapters are mostly close readings of individual films (nine of the twelve, three of which are on The Birds alone), an introduction that contextualizes these films not only within Hitchcock’s long career, which spans from the silent era to 1976, but also within the social and political, and movie industry history across that time—contexts that inform the various films more significantly than early childhood anecdotes—would have been appropriate. In the absence of any significant contextualizing introduction, however, the collection seems ad hoc, organized only on the asserted and yet unconvincing notion that children in Hitchcock’s films represent an underexplored phenomenon. In fact, the paucity of material on this topic has not only resulted in those three separate chapters focusing on The Birds, but also in the inclusion of films such as Marnie (1964) and Psycho (1960), which generously extend the notion of the child to include adults whose childhood trauma is gradually revealed to explain their exaggerated states of arrested development.

This uninterrogated psychoanalytic influence, in keeping with the literary thrust of the analyses, pervades the volume. But to unpack Hitchcock’s films using psychoanalytic theory, especially those films made after 1940 when he moved to America, is to pick low hanging fruit. From the 1940s to the 1960s, Hitchcock’s most productive period, Hollywood was enthralled with psychoanalysis, with producers (including Selznick, with whom Hitchcock had his first seven-year contract), actors, directors, etc., all "on the couch." This pervasive cultural trend was translated into a kind of filmic rendition of psychoanalytically realized and understood story lines, which in effect popularized, vernacularized and naturalized a Freudian logic, albeit a de-complexified one. It is on the basis of these scripts in this context that subsequent analyses derive. This tautological pursuit is made all the more obvious in the subject matter of some of Hitchcock’s films of the period. For example, Spellbound (1945) informs audiences in the opening titles that "Our story deals with psychoanalysis"! Similarly, the repeated references to childhood innocence (the words "Innocent" or "Innocence" featuring in the titles of four different chapters) reassert rather than challenge the taken-for-granted connection between childhood and innocence. And yet none of the chapters asks what this emblematic child looks like, or how these representations systematically and categorically exclude children who are not white and/or middle class; although it could be argued that the films were of a certain era, reflecting contemporary practice, the analyses are from 2014, and do not need to replicate this convention.

In the end, the collection cannot fulfill its promise of integrating film and childhood studies. Although there are some good analyses, all of them are close readings, narrative-bound, of individual films, and do not tackle the overarching theme structurally or comprehensively. This is a problem that inheres in the material itself, which does not lend itself readily to an interpretive reading based on the representations of children. It is also due to the shallow attention paid by the majority of the chapters to childhood studies of recent years, focusing instead on the by-now almost formulaic Freudian approach to film analysis.

JoAnn Conrad
California State University, East Bay, USA

Works Cited

Olson, Debbie. "The Hitchcock Imp: Children and the Hyperreal in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963)" Lost and Othered Children in Contemporary Cinema. Ed. Debbie C. Olson and Andrew Scahill. Lanham: Lexington, 2012. 287-306.