“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.

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