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.

Drawing back the shower curtain: Voyeurism in Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (1960)

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“I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look; no one turns away and says, “It’s none of my business.” They could pull down their blinds, but they never do; they stand there and look out.” (Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock, 1985)

At the time of making and releasing Psycho, the restrictive codes of Hollywood cinema were beginning to dissipate, and the move from an age of ‘cinema-goers’ to ‘television-viewers’ was starting to worry the establishment of ‘Old Hollywood’. In Raymond Durgnat’s book ‘A Long Hard Look at Psycho’ (2002) Durgnat describes how Psycho and its characters were intended to appeal to the evermore powerful teenage market and the more mature audience who were used to his previous successes:

“Norman…geared to the increasing interest in psychology. Though pushing 30, he’s an arrested teenager; still mother-bound and Anthony Perkins was popular with teenage girls. As for Marion and Sam, they are too socially unsettled, lonely, and to that extent psychologically ‘marginal’, and so have strong appeal for niche-market teenagers, but still interest without alienating mature spectators.”

This increased “interest in psychology” also gives much credence to the film’s critical psychoanalysis which has surrounded the film since its release. It’s almost as if the film intended to strike up debate as much as it intended to shock. Of course, the subject matter of the film itself was not entirely new to the American public. Adapted from Robert Bloch’s novel by Joseph Stefano, Psycho was inspired by the serial killer Ed Gein (1904-84) whose capture and discovery of his horrific crimes began a media frenzy. The story is recognisable and influenced such other films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  Bloch explained the creation of the killer Norman Bates in David Thomson’s book ‘The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder’ (2009) saying:

“…the character would be equivalent of a Rod Steiger type at the time, who lived alone- a recluse more or less, who didn’t have a lot of friends. How would he select his victims? I came up with his being a motel-keeper because of easy access to strangers.”

This decision to switch from the forty-something, ogre-like Bates to the obvious good looks of Anthony Perkins’ Bates appears to be a conscious effort to take into the account the viewer’s expectation (or lack of, as the case seems to be) of the characters deeper mental state by being portrayed with someone who can ‘appear’ likeable and trustworthy and unlikely to be a serial killer. By doing this, the film can explore how a killer can exist within the unlikeliest of people and how mental illness is a universal concern.

The film begins with the opening credits created by Saul Bass, a graphic designer who worked with Hitchcock on a number of films, such as Vertigo (1958) (another film which deals heavily with voyeurism). Combined with Bernard Hermann’s staccato violin score, the titles immediately place the viewer on edge and consist of moving lines which move along the screen to reveal names of cast and production members. This linear effect perhaps alludes to window blinds, rather fitting since immediately after, the camera zooms to a seedy hotel room window partially covered by a Venetian blind- a blind which hides from the outside world Marion Crane and her boyfriend Sam Loomis engaging in a lunchtime affair. Known for being a particularly difficult sequence to shoot, according to Durgnat in ‘A Long Hard Look at Psycho’ (2002) it would “bid for the longest continuous distance travelled by a camera” and was another example of Hitchcock striking out to challenge normal shooting practice, just as he did in Rope (1941) eleven years earlier.

Throughout the first half of the narrative, Marion Crane is the subject of a number of gazes, from the leering Mr Cassidy in the office, to the suspicious Police Officer and ultimately by Norman Bates. These gazes are represented both technically (camera angles, point of shot) and by the script and the representation of the characters. In the office scene, Mr Cassidy sits on Marion Crane’s desk placing the camera to view her from a slightly senior position of the client. Furthermore, the lifting of her head at his words “My sweet little girl” and his response: “Not you- my daughter!” also suggests that Marion is aware of male attention or is often flattered by clients with whom she encounters. Her understanding of her position in the male gaze is possibly what made her good at her job in the first place and appears to coolly deal with Mr Cassidy’s attentions. In contrast, upon encountering the Police Officer on the highway and again at the used car garage, Marion is viewed as a potential deviant from the law. Marion’s unease at being questioned shows how easily guilt has manifested itself in the way she relates to others. Perhaps the officer was showing natural concern and vigilance for a woman parked on a quiet freeway? But as a viewer who knows of Marion’s activities, we too feel he is being overly invasive and therefore implicates us in the crime also. The dark, opaque sunglasses the officer wears seem intrusive, aggressive and block the viewer (and Marion) a chance to interpret his character via his eyes.

The most significant character in terms of the male gaze towards Marion is of course Norman Bates. As a repressed, insular man with little interaction with the outside world and other people, the arrival of Marion at the Bates Motel is a significant moment in the film and also in Norman’s life. It is clear he desires her; he is nervous around her and noticeably excitable. The overheard conversation with Norman’s mother (“I won’t have you bringing strange young girls in for supper. By candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap erotic fashion of young men with cheap erotic minds,”) is an example of Marion’s own temptation to listen in and look where she shouldn’t and is just one of the first instances where Marion appears to step over the line into Norman’s private affairs. The parlour room in which they have lunch is filled with Norman’s stuffed birds, many frozen in full flight indicating perhaps the action of capture and the bird’s all-seeing point of view on its prey. Norman’s declaration to Marion: “You, you eat like a bird” reinforces the interpretation that Norman has an ‘eagle-eye’ view of Marion. In the next scene, Norman spies on Marion through a peep-hole hidden behind a painting. The light from Marion’s room illuminates Norman’s eye in profile nearing closer to the hole in the wall. The camera shifts to Norman’s point of view and instantly implicates the viewer in the voyeurism. We are both shocked at his invasion of her privacy and yet cannot turn away. Spying on Marion getting undressed invites us to witness the cause of Norman’s arousal and the manifestation of his desire from behind a wall- forever kept apart from any possible sexual gratification. Moments later, the famous shower scene occurs.

In ‘The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory’ by Tania Modleski (1988), Modleski outlines how “In Film Studies, Hitchcock is often viewed as the archetypal misogynist, who invites his audience to indulge their most sadistic fantasies against the female.” In this way, the shower scene is perhaps an opportunity for the presumed male audience to see their deep-set sadistic desires played out on screen. This idea is emphasised in Laura Mulvey’s famous article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975). If this scene was in reverse (as in, the camera viewpoint was from Marion’s perspective) the effectiveness of the scene would be lost, as Modleski (in ‘The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory’) concludes that though, “Psycho [is] a film which punishes audiences for their illicit voyeuristic desires…they ignore the fact that within the film not only are women objects of the male gaze, they are also recipients of most of the punishment.”

Many aspects in the shower scene hint at the theme of voyeurism and looking. When Marion enters the shower, she is visibly delighted in its baptismal qualities, relieved in her decision to return the money. The shower head could resemble an eye, looking down, offering her a chance for redemption. After her shocking murder, her blood is left to run down the plughole, the water still running. This then turns into a shot of Marion’s eye (an eye which saw her killer and faced up to her ‘punishment’) with a look of terror still on her face, and the water still running in the background. Hitchcock always drew storyboards before every scene he ever filmed, and so it is not entirely impertinent to presume that all of these allusions to the voyeuristic eye were purposely included. The book-ending of Marion’s lifeless eye and Norman’s peeping Tom eye, and the counter-clockwise flushing toilet (almost) ridding Marion of her sin with the water running counter-clockwise down the plughole, all highlight Hitchcock’s continued focus on the conduct and aspects of a voyeur.

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Furthermore in Laura Mulvey’s article, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, she argued  how the conditions of the cinema theatre practically invite people to objectify women in the anonymity of darkness. Hitchcock understood the workings of the cinema environment and even manipulated them by adopting a famous campaign to prevent cinema-goers from walking into Psycho mid-way through the film (a practice unheard of at this time). In his interviews with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock emphasised how much he worked to manipulate the viewer and see only what he allowed them to: “…the game with the audience is fascinating. I was directing the viewers. You might say I was manipulating them like an organ.” (Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Hitchcock, 269) For example, Hitchcock knew that many people would be expecting to see a star like Janet Leigh to be present for much of the film. He played on the enticing images of Leigh in a brassiere on the movie posters and punished the viewer by killing her character in the first 47 minutes of the movie.

As well as Psycho, films such as Vertigo (1958), Rear Window (1954) and Notorious (1946) all deal with the notion of looking, both in their plots and in the artistry of the film-making. Since so much of Hitchcock’s films are based in psychoanalysis, one cannot underplay the importance of the human psyche when judging what we can and cannot see in films such as these. So much of what we have since learned from Freud deal with the conscious eye and the subconscious reaction (Norman’s attraction to Marion (conscious) plus ‘mother’s’ violent reaction to his sexual desire (subconscious)).

In The Times article celebrating the 50th anniversary of Psycho, directors were asked to recall their experience and interpretation of the film. Wes Craven the director of Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream movies explained how Psycho was “almost pornographic in the way it impacted on people at the time.” This statement is still true today. More than any one scene in the picture, the film as a whole was an overwhelming visceral experience aimed at alerting the senses, especially sight. Whether you want to or not, you just can’t stop looking:  and as Thelma Ritter concludes in Rear Window (1954), “We’ve become a race of peeping Toms.”

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‘Hitchcock’ starring Anthony Hopkins as Hitch, Helen Mirren as Alma Reville and concerning the making of Psycho is in UK cinemas on 8th February 2013. Watch the trailer.

‘The Girl’ (2012): The Birds, the blonde and Mr Hitchcock.

I don’t know about you, but I rather am intrigued to watch ‘The Girl’ on Boxing Day which is based on a book I read recently, 2009’s ‘Spellbound by Beauty’ by the controversial Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto.

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Advertised as an insight into a genius’ troubled psyche and it’s dangerous manifestations, I am most eager to seeing how the testimonies of Tippi Hedren are used. Testimonies, which have already caused much heated discussion and derision over the years.

The source material, ‘Spellbound by Beauty’ runs an introduction which tantalisingly declares how the book was only given permission to be published once the eye-witnesses and key sources were deceased and could no longer be party to the speculation which would subsequently arise. It is telling then, that ‘The Girl’ focuses on the now famous ordeal between Alfred Hitchcock and his leading lady, Tippi Hedren, whilst Tippi is very much still alive to reinforce her view of events.

No one doubts (even the most ardent of Hitchcock fans) that Hitch struggled with personal issues which both informed and affected the work we have eventually come to love. Hitchcock’s work breathed life into psychological problems and perversions, both the utterly fascinating and terrifying, and it would be naive of ourselves to assume Hitchcock was over and above these human urges, no matter how repulsive they may seem.

Toby Jones is twinned once again, not with Phillip Seymour Hoffman this time, but with Sir Anthony Hopkins in also playing the Master of Suspense in the big-screen adaptation of the mythologised shooting of Psycho due to be released in the UK in early 2013. We shall wait and see if Toby Jones will trump Sir Anthony’s performance as he did with Mr Hoffman’s own Truman Capote (but with much less fanfare for ‘Infamous’ in 2006).

Together, the two films should make a fantastic double-bill for film fans who wish to see a snapshot of a director’s most daring creative period.

Prosthetics-wars aside, for the ‘The Girl’ at least, it will be great to see Alfred Hitchcock on the small screen once more, a place he made his home just as much as the silver screen.

‘The Girl’ will be shown on Boxing Day on BBC Two at 9pm. A host of Hitchcock classics are also doing the telly rounds during the Christmas period, check TV listings for more details. 

Review: Rear Window (1954)

After another long break (blame university) Girl on Film is back with the movie that graces the header of our beloved site…Rear Window (1954).

It tells the story of a magazine photographer, L.B. Jeffries (played by James Stewart) whom after breaking his leg in a reckless and dangerous photographing accident, is bound to a wheelchair in his two-room apartment in New York for several weeks. Whilst confined for this period of time, his boredom leads to a peculiar interest in his neighbours who occupy the courtyard of city apartments which can all be seen from his window. In particular, he becomes intrigued by the suspicious behaviour of the occupants of the apartment directly opposite, whose mysterious activities lead Jeffries to believe that a husband has brutally murdered his wife. Along with his beautiful socialite girlfriend, Lisa (played by the stunning Grace Kelly), his wise visiting insurance company nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter) and his cynical ex-army friend now police investigator, Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey) they begin to investigate what really happened. Through this we delve into the private lives of the strangers who live alongside him, inviting us to question the legitimacy of being a voyeur and the enduring fascination with other people’s business.

The film was generally very well-received by critics and Hitchcock fans, and is often regarded as the perfect example of Hitchcock’s technical genius and ability to craft an effective suspense thriller. However, after attending the premiere in August 1954, The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther noted: “Mr. Hitchcock’s film is not “significant.” What it has to say about people and human nature is superficial and glib. But it does expose many facets of the loneliness of city life and it tacitly demonstrates the impulse of morbid curiosity. The purpose of it is sensation, and that it generally provides in the colorfulness of its detail and in the flood of menace toward the end.” In the end, Crowther still gave it a 4 out of 5 rating and the film continued to impress critics even thirty years later. Roger Ebert reviewed the film after its re-issue in 1983 and said that the film:  “develops such a clean, uncluttered line from beginning to end that we’re drawn through it (and into it) effortlessly. The experience is not so much like watching a movie, as like… well, like spying on your neighbours. Hitchcock traps us right from the first… And because Hitchcock makes us accomplices in Stewart’s voyeurism, we’re along for the ride. When an enraged man comes bursting through the door to kill Stewart, we can’t detach ourselves, because we looked too, and so we share the guilt and in a way we deserve what’s coming to him.”

It is this instant affinity with the characters of Jeffries, Lisa and even the killer Thorwald which makes Rear Window one of the more perfectly realised of Hitchcock’s films. The film features a cast that share just as much screen time as the main speaking cast and prove integral to the film’s atmospheric, even claustrophobic feeling which the audience experiences just as much as the wheelchair-bound Jeffries. The sophisticated screenplay by John Michael Hayes (a young writer who wrote four of some of Hitchcock’s most celebrated and distinctive films) is a huge part of this; a true team effort in terms of real technical ingenuity and artistic creativity. As Steven DeRosa describes in his book “Writing with Hitchcock: The Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes” (2001): “Hayes loaded the script with crisp, witty dialogue that included some typically Hitchcockian black humour during a meal. As Stella serves Jeff breakfast, she thinks aloud: ‘Now just where do you suppose he cut her up? Oh- of course, in the bathtub. That’s the only place he could wash away the blood.’”.This is a great example of how Hayes completely understood Hitchcock’s quirky sense of style and sense of dark, macabre humour from their very first collaboration. Hitchcock himself was known for his interest in real-life English crime, and it is believed that the famous case of Dr Crippen especially inspired Hitchcock with DeRosa adding: “Hitchcock was always fond of the Crippen case and enjoyed constructing Rear Window so that the chief piece of evidence incriminating Thorwald was the jewelry left behind by his wife, particularly her wedding ring.”.

Visually, Rear Window is a stunning film to watch. To be able to produce a film which is set entirely within the confines of a small apartment and yet still manage to convey the vast possibilities of the outer world from a window was an impressive feat. As a viewer we too feel imprisoned like Jeffries in his “plaster cocoon” and the sophisticated camera work manages to allow us to travel down the lens of his camera and explore the world just beyond him which at first seemed morally out of bounds. The sets were all constructed at Paramount Studios, with the entire courtyard and all the apartments fully furnished and built to the exact measurements of real apartment buildings. This attention to detail pays off as the real claustrophobia of city living is inextricably felt by everyone who encounters the film, and even more so when experienced in a darkened cinema theatre. Hitchcock’s understanding of an audience’s cinematic experience played a part in his camera shots and angles: we see ‘Miss Torso’ from Jeffries point of view which instantly implicates us in the voyeurism of the lewd and to the dangerous (‘Lars Thorwald’). As Stella explains to Jeffries, “We’ve becoming a race of peeping toms”. Writer Robin Wood in the documentary Rear Window Ethics: Remembering & Restoring a Hitchcock Classic- Making Of, explores this idea further, saying “Jeffries, and at times, other characters, use the apartment as a kind of cinema screen. And they do what I think most of us do when we watch movies, they partly identify with other people, they partly compare their lives to the other people’s lives. They use these lives to talk about their own lives in various ways.”

Over just one hour and fifty minutes, we are witness to all walks of life. ‘Miss Lonely-hearts’ is a lonely, unmarried woman prone to drinking and taking pills, the songwriter and composer struggles to make ends meet or find inspiration, the married couple who sleep on their fire-escape during heat waves and whose dog meets a fateful end and the newly married couple who spend most of their time with the blinds drawn and seemingly in bed, amongst others. Much can be said in comparison between Jeffries and his relationship with Lisa and the lives of his neighbours whom he sees daily from his window. It is clear that Jeffries is frightened of the commitment and compromise that comes with marriage, and the horrors he imagines of married life is laid out right in front of him. Of course during 1950s America in which the film was set and made, marriage was seen as the bedrock of society and an institution that all respectable people should enter at some point of their lives. But also during this time, new ideas about the right reason for marriage and true compatibility were beginning to emerge, and Jeffries’ conversation with his editor at the very beginning of the film is rather telling of the conflicting attitudes of the time.

Jeffries does not want to be tied down to the mundane of married life and can only imagine himself as the adventurer that his job has required him to become. Even his serious injury has not persuaded him to reassess his life and consider settling down. Lisa has a more traditional ideal of 1950’s marriage and respectability, saying: “I could see you looking very handsome and successful in a dark blue flannel suit.” It is clear that Lisa loves him very much, and we expect he returns this love, but is unwilling to give up a lifestyle for one that would be more conducive to married life. He views Lisa’s work as frivolous and excessive, and their inability to see eye to eye is a strain on their relationship:

Lisa: Well, if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to wear the proper clothes.
Jeff: Yeah, yeah. Well try and find a raincoat in Brazil, even when it isn’t raining. Lisa. In this job, you carry one suitcase; your home is the available transportation. You don’t sleep very much, you bathe less, and sometimes the food that you eat is made from things that you couldn’t even look at when they’re alive.
Lisa: Jeff, you don’t have to be deliberately repulsive just to impress me I’m wrong.
Jeff: Deliberately repulsive! I’m just trying to make it sound good. You just have to face it, Lisa, you’re not meant for that kind of a life. Few people are.
Lisa: You’re too stubborn to argue with.
Jeff: I’m not stubborn – I’m just truthful.
Lisa: I know, a lesser man would have told me it was one long holiday – and I would have been awakened to a rude disillusionment.
Jeff: Oh, well now, wait a minute. Now wait a minute. If you want to get vicious on this, I’ll be very happy to accommodate you.
Lisa: No, I don’t particularly want that. (She rises and moves away.) So that’s it. You won’t stay here and I can’t go with you.
Jeff: It would be the wrong thing.
Lisa: You don’t think either one of us could ever change?
Jeff: Right now, it doesn’t seem so.

At this point in the film, Jeffries and Lisa seem incompatible, but during the events of the film, we see them become a formidable team, with Lisa revealing a more adventurous and valiant side, and Jeffries realising just how much Lisa means to him just as Thorwald puts her in gravest danger. Robin Wood believes that the conflict between men and women “seems to be one of the absolutely central themes of Hitchcock’s work….the terrible incompatibility of male and female positions as they’ve been defined and have evolved within our culture….I think Hitchcock’s view of romantic love is sceptical to say the least.”

As mentioned earlier, Rear Window is a crime and suspense thriller at its best which includes some of Hitchcock brilliant and best-loved actors and is truly a film that proudly belongs as part of his golden age in Hollywood. It is a perfect example of Hitchcock’s artistic ability to manipulative and thrill visually. ” This respect for true craftsmanship has continued right up to the film’s recent restoration which has seen the film being restored faithfully to the original film-maker’s wishes over 50 years later. Rear Window is a film of rare perfection, class and sophistication that many regard as a yardstick against which films of a similar genre should be measured against. It is still an exceptional film made by some of Hollywood’s greatest directors, actors and film crews. Such great talent has produced a film dealing with the terrible flaws of humanity and yet continues to conjure up such a warm fondness years later. Rear Window succeeds in this time and time again.