Hitchcock and Stem Cell Research

January 14, 2007 at 4:15 am 9 comments

Part of Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliance was his ability to work around, and even work with, the censors of his day.  The Production Code which guided the U.S. film industry was particularly strict — it kept toilets off-screen for nearly three decades!  Using his creativity, Hitchcock was able to find ways to work with the restrictions and continue to tell the stories he wanted to tell.   Leonard J. Leff provides numerous antedotes and examples in his article “Hitchcock and the Censors” for the August 1999 issue of World and I.  I’m just sharing a few.

The Production Code prohibited prolonged kisses.  A kiss could not extend for more than three seconds.  In Notorious, Hitchcock got around that by having Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman do a series of short kisses.  In between, the characters spoke softly, they caressed, they embraced.  To the audience, the scene was intimate.  The scene was moving.  At three minutes long, they were watching what was “the longest kiss in the history of the movies.”  But in actuality, no single kiss extended past the three second limitation.  The scene complied with the set rules.

In Rear Window, the censors would not allow the ballet dancer, Miss Torso, to appear topless.  So Hitchcock showed her doing the opposite of undressing.  He showed her trying to clasp her bra on.  The clasp fails, the brassiere falls to the ground and the character quickly bends to retrieve it.  All the audience sees is her bare back, but the nudity is assumed.

In Rebecca, the censors barred Hitchcock from showing an unnatural attachment (aka lesbian attachment) of the housekeeper to her mistress.  Hitchcock complied.  Instead he had the housekeeper show an unnatural attachment to her mistress’s undergarments.   From that gesture, the housekeeper’s affection for her employer was successfully communicated to the audience.

Finally, the famous shower scene in Psycho.  To the viewers, this was a brutal and horrifying scene.  My own mother struggled with showers after seeing the film.  But the scene wasn’t graphic at all.  In fact, there is not a single shot of the knife puncturing the skin.  There are three quick shots of the knife touching the stomach, but that’s it.  The vicious violence of the scene comes from Hitchcock’s editing and his anticipation of what he could get by the censors.

This week, news on stem cell research has reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock.  Like the Production Code did for Hitchcock, the Bush Administration’s restrictions on new federally-funded embryo stem cell lines provide a limitation, an obstacle, to the researchers.  Just or unjust, that was the hand dealt to Hitchcock and the hand dealt to the researchers.  Just or unjust, both Hitchcock and the stem cell researchers used creativity to work around the restrictions they faced.


Discover Magazine’s #15 on their Top 100 Science Stories in 2006 was aptly titled “Stem Cell Setbacks Inspire New Methods“.  It summarized a number of the recent “workarounds” in the field:

In the face of these setbacks, many scientists have focused on new methods of creating stem cell lines without destroying embryos. Traditionally, the process involves plucking the inner cell mass […] which destroys the embryo. In March however, German researchers—working in a political landscape even more restrictive than our own—reported turning sperm-producing cells from adult mouse testes into something very much like embryonic stem cells. A week later, U.S. scientists claimed to have done the same with human cells. In June Italian scientists announced the first human embryonic stem cells derived from parthenotes—embryo-like structures formed when an egg starts to divide on its own, with no sperm involved.  […] In August Japanese scientists reported yet another method for making “personalized” cells without cloning: They treated mouse skin cells with four gene products active in embryonic stem cells and got the skin cells to revert to something much like the stem cells. In September a European team reported coaxing human embryonic stem cells from an “arrested” IVF embryo—one that had stopped dividing before it reached the blastocyst stage and thus died a natural death.

Then this week, an additional announcement revealed Wake Forest researchers had found stem cells in amniotic fluid:

[Researchers at Wake Forest University and Harvard University] reported they were able to extract the stem cells from the fluid, which cushions babies in the womb, without harm to mother or fetus and turn their discovery into several different tissue cell types, including brain, liver and bone.

There are those who cite the censors as unknowing collaborators to Hitchcock’s films, encouraging the director to exercise the subtly he mastered so well, encouraging him to add more mystery and suspense to his tales.  There are those who believe film making lost something once filmmakers could show more.  Hitchcock himself once asked, “Are we missing some other stimulus that went with those earlier [, more restrictive] days?

I suppose, as expertise grows, we’ll be able to tell if the “Less is More” concept applies to stem cell research.  Could the restrictions one day actually be cited as an inadvertent collaborator to the science?!? Time will tell.  And time will tell if these new approaches will be considered brilliant “classics” that are studied and mimicked for generations to come…. or just a costly detour.

Spite would have me root for detour.  But hope, hope has me pulling for Hitchcock.

Entry filed under: Alfred Hitchcock, embryonic stem cell, Notorious, Psycho, Rear Window, stem cell, stem cell research, toilet.

Hospitals, Aquariums and Pollination Thank Goodness I’m with the Puparazzi

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. tgaw  |  January 14, 2007 at 4:17 am

    P.S. Know when a toilet returned to the big screen? In 1960 during the film Psycho. 🙂

  • 2. Ryan Somma  |  January 23, 2007 at 9:40 pm

    Cool article! I was just reading in Lawrence Lessig’s “Free Culture” that independent filmakers started Hollywood on the West Coast because that was the only place in America they could get away from Thomas Edison, who was known to send his goons over to smash the equipment of anyone using his patented technologies.

    I also found this Make article today for another way to get stem cells, but it’s kinda gross:

    HOW TO –

    Isolate amniotic stem cells from a placenta, at home

  • 3. Clint  |  January 24, 2007 at 10:51 am

    at home!?!?? I read somewhere that removing amniotic fluid actually poses a great risk to the mother and child and is not something to be taken as lightly as stem-cell-advocating articles say. (I do not claim to actually know the truth on the matter.)

    But yea.. Hollywood is FOUNDED on piracy. Ironic that they now sue pirates. Fuck the MPAA.

  • 4. tgaw  |  January 24, 2007 at 11:08 am

    @Ryan- Very interesting– I did not know that about Hollywood and Edison. I visited his modest home in Louisville Kentucky (where he lived when he got fired for tinkering all the time). He went from humble beginnings to having goons.

    @Clint– that fact surprised me as they use amniocentesis for a variety of prenatal tests. That said, there may be a reason doctors only recommend amniocentesis if they suspect there’s going to complications or that the fetus is at risk for genetic ailments. One day, I’ll have to learn more.

  • 5. Clint  |  January 24, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    Me too, haha. I don’t actually know and suspect I will never be in a situation where it directly affects me! 🙂

  • 6. Per-Erik Skramstad  |  September 1, 2007 at 4:05 am

    The Grant/Bergman kiss(es) in Notorius is a wonderful workaround. Another wonderful kiss is the opening doors sequence in Spellbound. Here the kiss is interrrupted by a shot showing doors opening. It’ s really beautiful.

  • 7. COUNTDOWN TO GOGOL BORDELLO! « TGAW  |  October 14, 2007 at 8:46 pm

    […] It makes me think of Alfred Hitchcock and the stem cell researchers. […]

  • 8. 3 Year Blogiversary « TGAW  |  March 3, 2009 at 1:04 am

    […] Hitchcock and Stem Cell Research […]

  • 9. Journal Excerpt: Bottom Creek Gorge « TGAW  |  September 2, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    […] old wire fence which left its mark on surrounding trees.  Last week on my blog I talked about the stem cell researchers and Alfred Hitchcock working around their obstacles.  Leith and I saw trees that took an entirely different approach.  When impeded by the wire […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

Flickr Photos

3D Printed Products


%d bloggers like this: