Whenever anyone asks Sidney Gottlieb, media studies professor, how he would like to be introduced to a crowd before one of his scholarly lectures, he has a ready response: “You know when you’re walking in the mall and you see somebody with a sweatshirt that says, ‘Ask me about my grandkids’? Well, I suppose the sweatshirt I would wear would say, ‘Ask me about Alfred Hitchcock.’”
Gottlieb is an expert on the late, great, 20th-century filmmaker, who directed influential and powerful films such as The Birds, Vertigo, Psycho and North by Northwest. The 40-year veteran of SHU owns copies of all the 50 some-odd movies Hitchcock directed, has a very full library of the many books published on the director and gets calls regularly from major media outlets seeking interviews and Hitchcock advice, yet he tries not to force his “love and obsession” for Hitchcock onto other people. “But you know what? If you ask me …” laughs Gottlieb, sitting behind his desk in the Frank and Marissa Martire Business & Communications Center, with legs crossed and long hair tied back in a low ponytail.
When prompted, he has no problem discussing Hitchcock at length. Whether it be about his movies, his style or his personal life, talking about Hitchcock is something Gottlieb truly enjoys. “I’m asked to give talks on Hitchcock fairly regularly,” says Gottlieb, who is still enthusiastic about his work and students even at what he insists is the still-young age of 67. “I find a lot of people love Hitchcock, want to know about Hitchcock—they don’t necessarily want to read about it or take a class, but they want to talk about him and his films.
“I’m a real film fan,” Gottlieb admits. “And from the very beginning, I was and continue to be a real fan of Hitchcock’s films. They’re entertaining, they’re insightful and provocative, and they resonate for me. They’re films I enjoy and appreciate and get a lot out of going back to again and again. If you take film seriously, Hitchcock is unavoidable.”
Film and literature fascinated Gottlieb before he became a professor and a scholar. He recalls that when he was growing up in Hamden, his parents and siblings encouraged him to pursue his passions. His parents embraced all aspects of the arts: books, museums, music and more. Schools he attended followed this sentiment and emphasized the ability to express oneself.
“I know that’s part of why I always wanted to be a teacher. I loved being in school,” says Gottlieb. “When you’re a teacher, you’re a continual learner. I feel like I’ve never left school. And I never want to!”
When not at school, or participating in the audio-visual club, or making movies, young Gottlieb worked part-time jobs that related to media. His first job, delivering newspapers, had him tossing copies of the New Haven Register, the Hamden Chronicle and the Journal Courier onto people’s front steps.
“I was rich beyond my years back then; at the peak, I sometimes made as much as $20 a week!” Gottlieb says. “That was big bucks back then. Add a job at the movie theater, and I had it all covered.”
For years, Gottlieb worked at the now long-gone Strand Theater in Hamden, basically doing everything. “Much of my heart is still there,” he says. “I sold popcorn, cleaned up popcorn afterward, put the titles on the marque…I could go to the movies anytime I wanted and could go upstairs to the projectionist and watch how things happen.”
Gottlieb doesn’t have many memories of seeing Hitchcock films at that time. He says he caught up with those flicks later when he began to study them seriously. “I can’t even say how or why it happened, but I started doing more work on Hitchcock. This was maybe around the time I started teaching at Sacred Heart, or shortly after, because up until then my primary interest had been literature,” Gottlieb remarks.
He studied literature at Bates College and in graduate school at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He was working as an adjunct instructor when he saw a classified ad in The New York Times: SHU was looking for an English professor. Gottlieb applied, was interviewed and hired by Ralph Corrigan, former chair of the English department.
“I still have that newspaper clipping,” says Gottlieb, who started his career at SHU in January, 1976. He taught English classes and, later on, became a full time media studies professor when the demand for those courses grew. That’s when Hitchcock began to intrigue him, and he launched his serious study and research of the man and his work.
“I found things I was particularly interested in, including investigating not only films, but interviews he gave on films and writings he did on films…He was such a fascinating personality,” Gottlieb explains. “It became a passion for me to find as many things as I could and transcribe them and see if I could find ways of publishing them.”
Eventually Gottlieb did get a publisher interested: the University of California Press published his book, Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Volume 1: Selected Writings and Interviews, in 1995. He followed up with a second volume last year.
Finding content worthy of transcribing and publishing required a lot of “old-school research” that took Gottlieb to many libraries and archives. He researched materials at nearby resources, such as Yale and the University of Bridgeport, and at Rutgers. He also traveled to libraries in Los Angeles and in England, Hitchcock’s birthplace.
He is confident more materials exist—Hitchcock was always being interviewed and regularly wrote about film-related subjects. Gottlieb hopes to fill a third volume with noteworthy writings someday.
“I still, more than occasionally, come across new things, and other people frequently call my attention to pieces they discover. I’m quite sure there are lots of good things still out there,” he says.
Because of Gottlieb’s books, his co-editing of a Hitchcock journal and dedication and passion for Hitchcock’s work, Gottlieb is considered a reliable authority on “The Master of Suspense.” He is often called upon to give lectures and talk to reporters and documentarians. Miramax entertainment company flew him to California to assist when it was planning some Hitchcock-related projects, and he’s consulted with a director working on a film about Hitchcock’s early career. While Gottlieb enjoys all this, he doesn’t consider himself any sort of celebrity.
“Being interviewed myself and asked for advice is a nice side-benefit, but it’s not what I’m in it for,” Gottlieb says, noting that most of the calls are out of the blue. “What’s really important is doing the research and writing and especially teaching. All that is very satisfying to me personally, and I think I’m doing something useful. That’s what keeps me going, for sure.”
While Gottlieb sees Hitchcock’s genius and talent, getting his students to understand the director’s greatness is not easy. After all, it is the 21st century. Hitchcock made his last film in the 1970s and died in 1980, so he may not be the first person that pops into students’ heads when they think of a great filmmaker.
“I think Hitchcock is still taken seriously by the teachers of film, and we try to pitch the reasons for that to the newer generations. But I think it’s sometimes a hard sell—there are newer models of filmmaking,” Gottlieb explains. “We can’t take for granted that Hitchcock has the relevance to newer generations of film students that he used to have.”
Nevertheless, Hitchcock was a master of film, and Gottlieb thinks today’s film students must see his movies, learn from them and remake them, and apply his techniques in new ways. Gottlieb makes sure the students in his film studies course watch at least one of Hitchcock’s 50-plus films. He doesn’t think there’s a “stinker” among them, but he typically chooses Rear Window for students to watch.
“I hope their interests will be roused,” Gottlieb says. “There’s a lot you can do in the classrooms, but there’s a limit to what you can do, too. And a lot of what you can do is really help students for their ongoing education in what happens outside of the classroom. I can’t teach people everything there is to be known about Hitchcock in any one class or any one course, but I hope I can expose people to Hitchcock and other subjects they might not otherwise be exposed to and hope that helps them as they follow up on their own.”
And every once in a while, Gottlieb gets a sign — an e-mail or letter or phone call or chance meeting with someone — giving him a sense that he accomplished his mission and somehow helped a student to appreciate and find something of value in Hitchcock. “I always feel there’s more I could’ve done, but I at least occasionally am reminded that what I do has not been a complete failure, not been a waste of time,” he says. “It’s nice to be treated sometimes as a well-known authority — that’s wonderful — but what’s really nice is to be treated as a teacher who matters, a teacher who makes a difference, a teacher who is remembered in a positive way. That’s what is really important for me.”