In an early scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the panning camera reveals a framed photograph of a young, smiling blond woman—except, the image is on negative film, which serves as a presumable correlation for disabled protagonist Jeff’s (Jimmy Stewart) outlook on women, which is tested in his gaze and projected desire from a lofty apartment window throughout the film. The well-known premise of Rear Window serves as a basis for David Greven’s Psycho-Sexual: Male Desire in Hitchcock, De Palma, Scorsese, and Friedkin, a provocative monograph that examines often casually dismissed “negative” images of non-normative sexuality, while offering serious reconsideration of not just Hitchcock’s critical legacy as a misogynist filmmaker, but key works within the oeuvres of New Hollywood directors like Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, and Brian De Palma, the latter of whom receives considerable analysis and discussion in relation to his intertextual engagement with Hitchcock, but also his treatment of women and use of melodrama. Primarily, however, Greven details how these New Hollywood filmmakers “seized upon Hitchcock’s radical decentering of heterosexual male dominance, devising contemporary narratives of heterosexual male ambivalence that allowed for, at time depended on, an investment in same-sex desire as well as an awareness of its dangerous, pernicious seductions.” The end result is a rigorously researched, personal, and passionate work, worthy in style and content of the frenzied films and filmmakers being engaged.
Greven raises a key question about Hitchcock in the first few pages: Is Hitchcock a misogynist filmmaker or is he critiquing misogyny through characters that exhibit misogynistic traits? It seems a key question in examining any of these directors, particularly in grappling with the numerous critics who have been so damning in their criticisms for these very reasons. Greven primarily takes the latter approach, demonstrating how each filmmaker presentation of masculinity conducts itself through a critical lens of normative homosocial bonds that facilitate an investment in “voyeurism, anxieties over homosexuality, and a growing fascination with pornography.” As such, Hitchcock often uses dopplegangers to stage conflicts between straight and queer masculinity (think of the exchange and struggle between Sam and Norman late in Psycho), while linking pornography to a consumerist culture, which yields misogynistic ends. In a fascinating close-reading of 1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, Greven convincingly demonstrates how the film “can be read as allegory for national homosexual panic that circulates the public linkages among homosexuality, espionage, and a fearful foreignness.” Greven links the film to Psycho for both its continuation of Hitchcock’s interest in “American Mommyism” (Greven maintains a witty edge throughout) and queer male sexuality (and cinematic masculinity in general), which serves as primary impetus for the New Hollywood filmmakers further discussed.
Greven structures his monograph around close readings of singular films, with discussions of other, relevant films peppered in throughout. The decision appears disjointed at first, since the leap from Hitchcock to three filmmakers (rather than one) necessarily invites gloss, brevity, and omission. Yet, Greven’s analysis is remarkably fluid and detailed, while excavating exhilarating thematic linkages between all filmmakers. The chapter on Taxi Driver, one of the most written about American films of the last 30 years, reads urgent and fresh; by focusing on Hitchcock’s influence rather than John Ford (the most labored intertextual tie), Greven convincingly links Scorsese’s masculine themes to Rear Window (the scene with Scorsese in the back of Travis’s cab being most emblematic), while linking Scorsese with De Palma’s early comedies and their investment in the individual with relation to homosocial bonds. Moreover, Taxi Driver is discussed primarily for its use of pornography. Greven deems it, and the New Hollywood’s interest in it, the “pornographication” of the American male, who defines his own sexuality through pornographic means and desires. Hitchcock intimates these themes with Vertigo, Marnie, and Frenzy, while these subsequent directors have made these intentions more explicit. Ultimately, Travis decides sees no option other than to substitute violence for sex; suffering from a “hallucination of masculinity,” Scorsese’s film reveals its gendered themes—most notably the performance of masculinity.
While a chapter on William Friedkin’s Cruising is insightful, it lacks the intensity of detail brought in other chapters. Perhaps this stems from Greven’s clear trepidation in praising Friedkin’s most controversial work, though he states that “at times the works or instances of representation which seem most offensive are actually those which are most acutely attempting to get at the heart of desire, identity prejudice, and homophobia.” Indeed, as the final chapter on Dressed to Kill wonderfully illuminates, these filmmakers have complex views on sexuality, which cannot be singularly characterized by their phobic or philic tendencies. Since few academic texts have addressed De Palma in the last decade (Eyal Peretz’s Becoming Visionary being the primary exception), Greven’s lengthy, serious discussion of Dressed to Kill deserves to be embraced as a triumph in appropriately appreciating the director’s work; Greven even goes so far as to call De Palma “the most important of the New Hollywood directors.” Much of this stems, it seems, from De Palma’s “red period,” unparalleled in its quest to “so nakedly expose the inherently imitative and dependent process of art-making.” Therefore, De Palma utilizes metatextual interests to explore his heavily social and political interests. In Dressed to Kill, the normative white-male gaze, earlier assumed by theorist Laura Mulvey, is challenged throughout, and “invites the gay male gaze, the transgender gaze, and even the lesbian gaze.” In illuminating the complex nature of De Palma’s gender politics via a revisionist narrative that is, essentially, about “the experience of the cinema,” Greven enables further examination of De Palma’s often elusive and unfairly maligned filmography.
Psycho-Sexual achieves a challenging feat; it wants to offer a critical, revisionist take on one of the most written about directors in film studies with Hitchcock, while recasting and reinstating the importance of subsequent well-known directors. Greven achieves this through his engagement with Freudian and Lacanian theories, while addressing the well-known criticism Robin Wood and Pauline Kael, along with trail-blazing theorists like Lee Edelman, Bruno Bettelheim, Linda Williams, and Judith Butler, but his vision remains clear and focused on going to the films themselves for the final word. 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.
David Greven’s Psycho-Sexual: Male Desire in Hitchcock, De Palma, Scorsese, and Friedkin was released on January 2 by University of Texas Press. To purchase it, click here.