The Genius of Hitchcock: Celebrating Cinema's Master of Suspense

A season dedicated to the UK’s greatest film-maker shows that there is more to his sensibility than misogyny, Davina Quinlivan argues

August 2, 2012

Source: Kobal

Alfred Hitchcock with Kim Novak

The Genius of Hitchcock: Celebrating Cinema’s Master of Suspense

British Film Institute

Until October 2012

Without question, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) contains one of the most haunting cinematic moments of all time. A finely detailed sequence of images focuses on the physical transformation of Judy (Kim Novak), who is sculpted, refashioned, into the form of Scottie’s (James Stewart) lost love, the recently deceased Madeleine (also played by Novak). Judy’s soft, brunette hair is dyed blonde, her choice of make-up is refined and her clothing meticulously assembled so that she can evoke the spectral presence of a most preciously desired object of love.

The revelation of Judy’s metamorphosis is carefully constructed by Hitchcock, realised through gauzy textures of light and shadow. While Scottie looks on, lush emerald back-lighting frames Judy’s delicate silhouette and something magical happens: Madeleine is tantalisingly resurrected, not only for Scottie but for the audience, too. In this beautifully measured sequence, Hitchcock lays bare his fascination with the female image, its visual pleasure and scopophilic allure, as well as, crucially, its inherently symbolic intertwinement with death, loss, the uncanny and the abject. As ever, the unconscious is marked out as a zone of uncertain pleasures and repressed emotion - and women, at least for Hitchcock, are the gatekeepers of such hidden worlds, the signifiers that must be acknowledged or bitterly disavowed and destroyed.

For Hitchcock, blondes made the best victims because “they are like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints”. Indeed, blonde women come to fulfil the role of victims in Hitchcock’s cinema, while the male characters are caught up in their irresistible aura of beauty.

Collectively, Hitchcock’s films are best known for their thrilling dimensions. The protagonists are invariably police detectives or men in pursuit of the “truth”. For example, while Vertigo’s Scottie is a detective fatally drawn into Madeleine’s mysterious world, Rear Window (1954) features an incapacitated photojournalist (also played by Stewart) whose camera lens becomes trained on the private lives of his neighbours.

For many, Hitchcock’s cinema represents a catalogue of misogyny, a fetishised and nightmarish distillation of repressed male anxiety. For the film theorist Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Hitchcock’s films perfectly illustrate Sigmund Freud’s analysis of the male unconscious and the symbolic threat of castration primarily evoked by the female sex. Hitchcock’s horror films in particular, such as Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), neatly convey Mulvey’s claims that the castrating threat of female sexuality must be violently - and sadistically - disavowed for the male subject’s ego to be fully restored.

We are now a third of the way through the Hitchcock retrospective at the British Film Institute and its thorough investigation of his most iconic work. But in addition to a comprehensive programme of events and a mezzanine exhibition of production papers and stills exploring Hitchcock’s relationship with the UK, June and July’s events have included screenings of rarely seen earlier films such as Hitchcock’s first talkie Blackmail (1929) at the British Museum, with a score by Neil Brand; The Ring (19) at the Hackney Empire; and The Pleasure Garden (1925) at Wilton’s Music Hall.

The collective experience of Hitchcock’s first few films, in particular, raises fresh questions about the role of women in his cinema and their shaping of his aesthetic sensibility long before Kim Novak, Tippi Hedren or Grace Kelly gave their career-defining, almost supernatural performances in Vertigo, The Birds and Rear Window respectively (Hedren will appear in conversation at the BFI in August).

For example, Anny Ondra’s luminous performance in Hitchcock’s landmark Blackmail cannot simply be described as an example of a prototype femme fatale, since her screen presence conjures up a macabre intensity of beauty and otherness more vulnerable and delicate than Louise Brooks in G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929). Similarly, Virginia Valli and Carmelita Geraghty’s chorus girls in Hitchcock’s debut feature The Pleasure Garden, based on Oliver Sandys’ novel exploring the tumultuous life of music hall performers, are unique and challenging subjects, morally complex and provocative for their time. The Ring’s Lillian Hall-Davis not only fulfils the role of object of desire for two rival boxers, fleshing out a love triangle fantasy, she is also a soothing screen presence, the emotional core of a film that acutely contrasts the grotesque and often inhuman battles fought in the ring.

Essentially, Hitchcock’s earlier women share the same lifeblood as his later femmes fatales, but their value is much more than this: Mulvey’s focus on the misogyny of his films cannot entirely sum up the specificity of his women, their unique truthfulness, their depth and emotional potency, the visual alchemy they create. The BFI retrospective invites a reinvestigation of the links that bind Hitchcock’s attitudes to more intricate questions of truth, the richness of his cinematic worlds and the pivotal role of the women at the heart of such intense viewing experiences.

While Hitchcock’s narratives and his remarkable aesthetic style have indelibly shaped cinematic convention, his legacy is most interestingly felt in the work of contemporary directors whose films offer dramatically different explorations of female sexuality and voyeurism.

Although entirely separate from Hitchcock in her approach to narrative and form, the New Zealand film-maker Jane Campion has shown us the other side of the mirror, as it were - the dreams and desires of the desired object. In Campion’s films, women actively (and ambivalently) explore their own fluid and shifting subjectivity as well as their status as objects of male visual pleasure: The Piano (1993) and In The Cut (2003) both tell us much about female desire and the pleasure of “looking”, opening complex questions about female voyeurism, power relations and sexual difference.

Similarly, the British film-maker Andrea Arnold has made an entire film of the relations between scopophilia and female sexuality, in which the female voyeur tracks and locates her “victim”. Red Road (2006) subverts the idea of the male voyeur, focusing on the story of a female security guard as she follows via a huge network of surveillance cameras the movements of the man responsible for the death of her son.

The francophone art cinema of Belgian film-maker Chantal Akerman also offers nuanced reinterpretations of Hitchcock’s cinematic tropes, especially in her adaptation of Marcel Proust’s La Prisonnière, called La Captive (2000), which deliberately evokes the enchanted and ghostly filmic world synonymous with Vertigo’s dreamlike yet darkly obsessive imagery.

Also of note is the work of Spain’s Pedro Almodovar and his highly creative exploration of gender and identity, which precisely channels Hitchcock’s dark unfurling of human desire. Films such as Bad Education (2004) and Broken Embraces (2009) not only enrich our understanding of women as ciphers, signs and icons of desire but also dramatically alter our notions of gender and fixed, heteronormative conceptions of sexed identity. Almodovar’s “women” are in constant transformation, mirroring their ever-shifting emotional interiority, changing their appearance with wigs and other prosthetics, sometimes even changing gender entirely: femininity and masculinity are as interchangeable as the masks of make-up adorning their faces. Indeed, one might argue that Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), the mother-obsessed protagonist of Psycho with a tendency to wear her clothes, represents a kind of blueprint or, rather, point of departure for all of Almodovar’s more positive, contextual interest in sexuality and identity, beautifully explored in films such as High Heels (1991) and All About My Mother (1999).

As Judy’s metamorphosis in Vertigo shows us, Hitchcock’s images of women are deeply embedded in cinematic history; they uncannily unearth our unconscious fears and desires, are impossibly powerful and entrancing beyond all comprehension. The BFI retrospective affords us the opportunity to embrace Hitchcock’s femmes fatales and virginal blondes, not merely as victims of his fantasies but as the legacy of cinema itself and its greatest truths.

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