Celebrating Ingrid Bergman in NOTORIOUS (1946)

“A man doesn’t tell a woman what to do. She tells herself.”

29th August marks the anniversary of Ingrid Bergman’s birth (and death, she died on her 67th birthday), and it seemed as good a time as any to reflect on one of her best screen roles.

There are many eras of Bergman’s career you could focus on – from her work with David O. Selznick to the cruelly banished years in Italy days, and of course her iconic role in Casablanca (1942), but her portrayal of Alicia Huberman in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), her third film with the director, has always been of fascination to me. A multilayered and contradicting depiction of a woman caught within a web of espionage, Bergman’s Alicia eventually uses her wiles AND her intelligence undercover in a cutthroat enemy territory cunningly disguised high society in post-World War II.

Notorious is essentially the story of one woman used as a political pawn to reveal the secrets of Nazi criminals for the American intelligence based in Brazil. Traces of feminine perception and intervention continually drive the plot as well as highlighting the masochistic tendencies of the male characters surrounding the female. Furthermore, it typifies a trend of emerging post-war cinema in which the female narrative helms the film and highlights male inadequacy. The schemes in Notorious heavily rely on Alicia’s compliance in the mission, and though from the outset we are aware that she is being used (and being asked to essentially ‘sleep with the enemy’), Alicia remains the active participant among passive men: Devlin (Cary Grant) and Sebastian (Claude Rains).

As Slavoj Zizek concluded, Hitchcock’s films in the 1940s are “thematically centered on the perspective of the female heroine, traumatized by an ambiguous (evil, impotent, obscene, broken…) paternal figure” with Notorious being the archetype of this. Devlin, unable to admit his love for Alicia, cruelly rebuffs her and encourages her mission to investigate Sebastian. Sebastian meanwhile appears to really love and care for Alicia but is unaware of her double-crossing until his manipulative mother influences him. Both men appear weak and emotionally volatile, while Alicia, though prone to excesses (alcohol and, shock horror…parties), is forced to put aside her emotions at every development of her mission. We as viewers are invited to side with Alicia and become frustrated at Devlin’s detached character.

A year earlier, Bergman had starred in Spellbound (1945), a film bursting with strange imagery and essentially works as the prototype gender swapped Vertigo (1958). A love story of two damaged, compromised people (Bergman and her on and off-screen lover, Gregory Peck), this description works to define Notorious too. Bergman enthralls her co-stars and viewers within intelligently realised female narratives. Spellbound is mostly Constance’s movie, just as Notorious is finally Alicia’s.

Hitchcock’s gaze lies firmly with Alicia during the film, it is through her binoculars we spy on the other players in the tense few movements at the race day,  and though we are witness to a female being influenced and cajoled into action, the camera sympathises with Bergman throughout. In the famous ball scene we see the camera in one smooth, descending close-up zoom into Alicia’s hand to show her holding the key which would open the wine cellar and reveal Sebastian’s criminal plot. We are left in no doubt that Alicia’s agency is being acutely emphasised and Alicia is a ‘heroine’ indeed.

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“I am Mrs De Winter now!” – Female Plight and the Patriarchy in Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA (1940)

In 1940 came a film which has generated much discussion, despite Hitchcock’s insistence “it’s not a Hitchcock picture” in his interviews with Truffaut.

Adapted from the Daphne du Maurier novel, Rebecca was Hitchcock’s first film in Hollywood, and his first in contract to David O. Selznick, the producer-tycoon behind such epics as Gone with the Wind (1939). Rebecca is a contentious film in that, it remains sceptical of male and female relationships and especially highlights the plight of a woman in an oppressive aristocratic setting. This is a common topic of many of Hitchcock’s earliest films and within Rebecca it meets its zenith. It also remains one of the more overt instances of queer storytelling. Though the iconic Mrs Danvers’ (Judith Anderson) predilection for Rebecca may have been missed by the audience at the time (though that is impossible to know for sure), the monstrous housekeeper has become something of a classic Hollywood touchstone for repressed female sensuality.

Women get a bit of a hard ride in this dreary but captivating tale. Joan Fontaine, playing the unnamed second Mrs De Winter is at once pitiful in her marriage to Maxim De Winter (Laurence Olivier) who seems intent on keeping her as his “little girl” whilst brooding over the titular Rebecca, his first wife.

Rebecca is a film which, in its critique of male and female relationships under the patriarchy, tests the second Mrs De Winter’s endurance of her flawed marriage and sets Rebecca free from the constraints of Maxim’s intense expectations. It resists painting Maxim as the cold-blooded murderer of Rebecca (as in the novel),  she is simply instead a victim of his inability to love anything other than a wife over whom he can exert total control, but we are under no illusion by the end of the film that Maxim and the second Mrs De Winter’s marriage is near to irreparable in the aftermath of the film’s events. As a modern viewer, it is irksome to see the film tiptoe around making Olivier be completely villainous (Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) paid similar caution with Cary Grant), but with news of a new adaptation on the way (as ever), perhaps we will see more careful consideration for how men often feel emasculated, resulting in tragic consequences.

Returning to Mrs Danvers, you can imagine that at the time, her devotion to Rebecca could be happily be dismissed as servile devotion to the lady of the house, but upon the spine-tingling reveal that she keeps Rebecca’s undergarments and expensive clothes enshrined in the house for her to fondle and touch, we are under no illusions of her feelings for the late Mrs De Winter. Indeed, in the TV mini-series of the story in 1997, Dame Diana Rigg as Mrs Danvers really drives home her desirous intentions, perhaps in view of a potentially more receptive contemporary audience.

The pleasure in viewing Rebecca from Mrs Danvers’ perspective is that of a woman’s film or melodrama through a queer lens, even if Hitchcock would never admit it or even consciously know of it.  When the film is viewed from her perspective, we can understand and sympathise with her pain, even if her cruel reception to The Second Mrs De Winter is uncalled for. Maxim suffers in his marriage to Rebecca and thus finds another woman, less powerful than his femme fatale wife and eventually moves on. He remains a well-off man within a patriarchal society while Mrs Danvers’ loses everything to a relationship that was fraught with the difficulties of class hierarchy and ambiguous sexuality.

Through Hitchcock’s disregard for Rebecca later in his career and his preference for the unsentimental and humour in his original adaptation (an early draft had Maxim and his anonymous wife meeting on a channel steamer, with Maxim bringing on her seasickness by blowing smoke in her face) Selznick’s instance on being faithful to the original text eventually won out. Selznick, it appears had some understanding of the psychology of the women in the novel, resulting in a natural sympathy for the second Mrs De Winter for an audience. In a note sent to Hitchcock, he explained the importance of maintaining the ‘feminine’ voice in Rebecca:

“…her nervousness and her self-consciousness and her gaucheries are all so brilliant in the book that every woman who has read it has adored the girl and has understood her psychology has cringed with embarrassment for her, yet has understood exactly what was going through her mind…just how bad a picture it would be without the little feminine things are so recognizable and which make every woman say. “I know just how she feels…I know just what she’s going through…”

The making of Rebecca could be regarded as a ‘trial by fire’ for Hitchcock as he began to learn how female audiences in America dictated box office success. In his long interview with Truffaut he addressed this: “…it’s generally women who has the final say on which picture a couple is going to see. In fact it is generally the woman who will decide, later on, whether it was a good picture.” And though Hitchcock may have been reluctant to indulge in “feminine literature”, it seems he did have aptitude for creating empathy within female subjectivity.

 

“A beautiful mysterious woman pursued by gunmen…it sounds like a spy story” – Women in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock’s British Era

From the 1920s to the late 1930s, Alfred Hitchcock was establishing himself as a film director in London and working from a mixture of original scripts and adapted works.

Hitchcock revelled in the genres of melodrama and thriller and would begin to explore the themes which would prove to be dynamically synonymous with the Hitchcock name. Hitchcock’s formative years in Britain, as well as his time spent in post-World War I Germany, was the period in which he developed his unique filmmaking style as well as cultivating a reputation which would precede him in America. Filmmaking in Britain was still relatively unsophisticated when Hitchcock began to work as an art director under the formidable Graham Cutts (a hostile collaboration according to Donald Spoto in Spellbound by Beauty,  2009) and Michael Balcon of Gainsborough pictures with whom he made The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927). Generally regarded as the first picture which included the themes that would make Hitchcock famous and loosely based on Jack the Ripper, the treatment of women in his film was of great fascination. Film historian Philip Kemp notes:

“Like Hitchcock himself, the serial killer in The Lodger seems to have it in for blondes…[and] Hitchcock’s mischievous, semi-sadistic treatment of blondes hit its stride in Hollywood, perhaps provoked by the flawless glamour of its screen goddesses.” (The Alfred Hitchcock Story, 1999).

Throughout Hitchcock’s early career, he would continue to direct stories which would reinforce the motif of the ‘blonde woman’ that would develop further prominence in his later films. Madeline Carroll as Pamela in The 39 Steps (1935) for instance typified this notion. Stuart Y. McDougal in Mirth, Sexuality and Suspense: Alfred Hitchcock’s Adaptation of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1975) describes how the film’s source literary material was transformed “into a quickly paced work of suspense, greatly simplified the plot…” which altered the structure, used the settings functionally and made the work an exploration of the nature of male-female relationships.

Richard Hannay’s (Robert Donat) interactions with Pamela and initially Annabelle (Lucie Mannheim), the mysterious woman pursued by gunmen who seeks refuge with Hannay, offer a dynamic opportunity to portray two different kinds of women in one quick-moving narrative. Annabelle (or “Miss Smith” as she calls herself) exudes sexuality and danger, and as Hannay remarks: “A beautiful mysterious woman pursued by gunmen…It sounds like a spy story.” Annabelle soon meets a bitter end, but her few minutes on screen are indelible. Annabelle is “the archetypal femme fatale: dark, beautiful, mysterious and foreign” McDougal explains, and is the complete opposite of the crofter’s wife (Peggy Ashcroft) or indeed Pamela. Her active role in the plot of the film (the firing of the shots in the theatre in the opening scene and her shocking death) is the first of the three women in The 39 Steps who propel the story along to its dramatic conclusion- she after all, is the one who ‘picks up’ Hannay and invites herself to his flat. The narrative progress which Annabelle initiates, may involve her own death, but also vitally, persuades the protagonist out of a malaise.  The crofter’s wife for example, strikes out on her own against her god-fearing highlander husband and secures Hannay’s escape whilst Pamela’s initial distrust of Hannay results in one the most satisfying character transformations of the film. As Saptarshi Ray of The Guardian concluded in his appraisal of the film, “[though] this was an era of rampant male chauvinism…pretty much all the women are strong and smart.”

In Hitchcock’s first sound picture, Blackmail (1929), the subject matter within the film also indicate themes which have been noted as significant throughout Hitchcock’s filmography. Indeed as Tania Modleski in The Women Who Knew Too Much, 1988 claims, “Some critics have even argued that Hitchcock’s work is prototypical of the extremely violent assaults on women that make up much of our entertainment today.” Blackmail then, deals with an especially difficult subject matter in which a young woman, Alice (Anny Odra), defends herself against a rapist, resulting in his death and the subsequent investigation by her detective boyfriend. It is a dark subject for a commercial hit which took advantage of new technology, but is another example of Hitchcock’s early style permeating through a still youthful medium. The film also launches a debate about the “episode in the artist’s studio”. In The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 2000 by Donald Spoto, he shockingly describes it as “violent love” whereas Hitchcock, refreshingly frank for the time, simply called it as it appears to a modern viewer when interviewed by Francois Truffaut, as an attempt at “rape”. The film is rather uncompromising in its ability to demonstrate Alice’s immediate guilt, take for instance, the famous scene in which she listens to a gossiping neighbour discussing the knife as a murder weapon. The camera moves to Ondra’s traumatised face, and Hitchcock imaginatively distorts sound. The audience hears only the subjective impression of what the girl hears, as the neighbour’s words blur together until only word “knife” stabs out at her and at the audience from the soundtrack.

The film’s sympathy in dealing with the reaction of female guilt after experiencing the trauma of sexual violence also emphasises the female position in the patriarchy, especially in regards to the law, the accountability of crime and for the creation of identification with the female outlaw. The film does this at various moments in the film, in particular with the point-of-view shots which implicate the spectator in Alice’s guilt. The depiction of Alice is “hardly the one-dimensional vamp of so many films of the period”, as Modleski points out, making it impossible for the viewer to condemn Alice for her predicament. Indeed, Alice must exist at the mercy of the law-abiding (her detective boyfriend, Frank) and a blackmailer (Tracy), inciting a lack of resolution in the conclusion of the film, and as Modleski concludes, is a theme which we will see repeated again and again in Hitchcock’s work, attributing not a “sadistic delight in seeing his leading ladies suffer” but an obsession which takes “the form of a particularly lucid expose of the predicaments of and contradictions of women’s existence under patriarchy.”

In Richard Allen’s Hitchcock’s Romantic Irony, 2007, Allen discusses the most successful of Hitchcock’s British films, The Lady Vanishes (1938) which uses the “joint quest narrative”, whereby “masculine reason and female intuition combine to yield knowledge of the criminal” and results in these cases, the wronged man/woman’s exoneration. Allen’s analysis of these narratives highlight a largely forgotten aspect of the feminine voice in many of Hitchcock’s films, saying how in Hitchcock’s “‘wrong man’ thrillers the hero is often much weaker: the wronged man needs the heroine’s help and her active agency, in order to clear his name and restore his identity…” for instance, in The 39 Steps.

Though the female character is often transformed into the male character’s romantic conquest by the end of the film, it is not without the female character first demonstrating some detective agency and intuition, a characteristic which Allen believes to be one of the distinguishing factors of Hitchcock’s British films. The female protagonist of The Lady Vanishes, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is alone in her insistence that an older woman, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) has disappeared from the train in which they were both travelling independently. Iris is met with disbelief at nearly every turn, even initially from Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), Iris’ eventual love interest and partner in her investigation. The equalling of gender in Iris and Gilbert’s ability to solve an inexplicable mystery may even, as Allen deduces, “involve the realignment of traditional gendered epistemologies, and sometimes issues in an ambiguous stance toward the romantic resolution…”

The emergence of the feisty and determined female hero of films such as The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes it seems therefore, were the forerunners to the ‘guilty women’ film viewers would become accustomed to in the Hitchcock oeuvre from the 1950s and beyond.

Review: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT (2018)

I broke the code to tell my cinema companion that the colon was in the wrong place on the BBFC titlecard, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying this action ‘six-quel’ (which no one is calling it), Mission: Impossible – Fallout.

My relationship with the M:I series has been a rocky one. The first film was first viewed on VHS, thanks to a friend’s enviable video collection, while the second film lasted only in my memory thanks to it’s nu-metal soundtrack and for first making me aware of Thandie Newton. The Gillette advert opener with Tom Cruise scaling a cliff was not enough to save the rest of it. Fast-forward to the third installment, I eventually caught it on TV after an alarming number of people had claimed “it’s actually good, I’m promise!”

My personal favourite was actually Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, probably thanks to going into the film with zero expectations, other than vaguely hoping to see Tom Cruise once again scaling a building, a plane or some other death-defying stunt. The story was spy-lit lite but easy to follow, the villain (Sean Harris) was genuinely creepy at times, and most surprisingly of all, we had an interesting female character to encounter – Ilsa Faust played by Rebecca Ferguson. I could watch the scene in the Vienna opera house over and over again.

I was pleased then that this latest film, Fallout, continued the winning formula of the fifth, with Christopher McQuarrie remaining as writer and director (for the first time in the series) and hurrah, Ilsa Faust returning!

I’d recommend seeing Rogue Nation before tackling Fallout, but Fallout most definitely covers new ground, creating a whole new narrative despite picking up on tensions and emotional ties from previous outings.

The IMF spring into action again when nuclear weapons are stolen by a shady syndicate (of course) called the Apostles, hell-bent on chaos throughout the world in order to create a new world order. Ethan (Tom Cruise), Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) are tasked with reclaiming the bombs, taking them across Europe in quick lightning speed, and encountering a CIA operative (Henry Cavill) and a black market arms dealer (Vanessa Kirby) along the way.

Everyone in the cast gets their share of scenery to chomp and the action sequences were relentless but ingenious. Wringing my sweating hands as I watched Cruise race to the Tate Modern or motorbike through famous Parisian traffic, I gave myself over to the mindless thrill of seeing accomplished action scenes click effortlessly into place as if operated by clockwork. So many action/thriller films rely on fast cuts and shaky camera work to obscure the action and disorientate viewers, but the fight scenes, particularly the one in the silent club bathroom, was like a ballet of sinew and white-tiled fury.

Six films in and the series is now attempting to reflect on the destruction the Impossible Mission Force (IMF), namely Ethan Hunt, has created in the name of keeping the world and the people closest to them, save. When so many of the installments in the series have been individual ventures – thanks to idiosyncratic directors like Brian De Palma and John Woo picking up the gauntlet – the era of ‘cinematic universes’ has forced the producers to attempt to weave these wildly varying films together to create a narrative arc for Ethan Hunt. I appreciate the effort… just maybe for the next one they could resurrect Kristin Scott Thomas and complete the circle?!

M:I works best when it acts as an heist movie in the spy genre. Seeing a dastardly plan be thwarted or Ethan Hunt attempt another daring escape has always been where M:I excelled, even if the characterisation and plot was lacking. Ethan Hunt, in my mind, is just a cipher for a more palatable Tom Cruise. Less jumping on sofas more running across the roofs of London please.