When the National Film Theatre wanted to pay tribute to Alfred Hitchcock in 1969 by screening a number of his films, the event’s organizers made a curious discovery: Vertigo, his 1958 thriller starring Jimmy Stewart, was owned outright by Hitchcock himself. To show the film, they would need permission from the director.
Hitchcock was willing to grant their request on one condition: That they disclose where they had found a print of the movie. He wanted to destroy it.
From 1961 until 1983, five of Hitchcock’s most well-known films—Vertigo, Rear Window, Rope, The Trouble with Harry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much—were almost never seen by the general public. In an unusual deal for a filmmaker, Hitchcock had secured full ownership of the works. But rather than attempt to profit from their distribution, he banned them from being exhibited. In London, fans took to “secret” underground screenings to avoid his legal wrath. It would take Hitchcock's death in 1980 for audiences to rediscover a large portion of his filmography. And only two men knew why.
When Hitchcock signed a five-picture deal with Paramount Pictures in 1953, his agent at the time, Lew Wasserman, was able to secure a nearly unprecedented contingency. Exactly eight years following the initial release of each picture he directed, all ownership would be stripped from the studio and transfer to the director.
From Paramount’s perspective, not much was being left on the table. In the days before home video, movies typically had a window of profitability that would span a few re-releases or a series of international sales before drying up. By the time Hitchcock acquired them, their ability to generate revenue would be exhausted.
Under those terms, Hitchcock made 1954’s Rear Window, 1955’s The Trouble with Harry, 1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1958's Vertigo, and 1960’s Psycho. In 1963, Hitchcock sold the Psycho rights to Universal in exchange for a sizable portion of company stock; the other four joined 1948’s Rope—produced by Hitchcock’s own Transatlantic Pictures—in a library that critics would later dub the “forbidden five.”
It was not immediately apparent that Hitchcock had designs on keeping the movies from being screened. It was only when theaters would approach the director that they found him completely uninterested in cooperating. Herman Citron, the agent who succeeded Wasserman, fielded hundreds of offers each year from film festivals, television networks, college campuses, and small art-house institutions looking to revive Hitchcock’s films for contemporary audiences. They were either denied outright, or were allowed to make a financial offer that Citron would inevitably declare underwhelming.
While some of the films saw sporadic releases depending on their age or the rare thaw in Citron’s icy disposition, the highest-profile title in Hitchcock’s collection—Rear Window—remained off-limits for almost a quarter-century. Re-released in 1962 at the conclusion of Paramount’s eight-year ownership, it sat dormant for the next 21 years. Some theaters in London were known to screen illicit prints and advertise them in roundabout language: With no mention of the title, patrons would come to see the “Hitchcock movie that will have you looking behind your back.”
By 1973, all of the “forbidden five” had been taken completely out of circulation. Hitchcock’s resolve was such that not even Jimmy Stewart—who starred in four of the withheld films—could persuade him to loosen his grip. When Stewart was being honored at a film festival and asked the Hitchcock estate for a clip from Vertigo, he was turned down.
When Hitchcock died at the age of 80 in 1980, he was said to be reconsidering the prohibition on his own movies. Reporting on the rumor, The New York Times asked Citron why the director had been so adamant about keeping them from view. “Private reasons” is all Citron would say.
Citron’s negotiation skills were so hard-nosed that it would be another three years before the “missing” Hitchcocks returned to circulation. Universal acquired all five for a rumored $6 million. By 1984, it had proven to be a wise investment: Rear Window had reappeared in theaters and grossed an impressive $9.1 million. (It was accompanied in some markets by an appearance from Jimmy Stewart, who didn’t appear to hold a grudge.) Vertigo made $4.5 million. With cable and home video sales, the films netted Universal upwards of $50 million in revenue.
Neither Hitchcock nor Citron ever disclosed the reasoning for delaying the releases. While some speculated Hitchcock would have gotten bogged down in a lopsided British tax system (which took as much as 91 percent of income) by distributing them himself, it’s more likely that he saw the films as a kind of trust fund for his heirs. By preventing them from being circulated on television, interest would only increase. Like the implied violence of Psycho, it’s what Hitchcock didn’t show that left the audience wanting more.