Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic heroines still haunt our perceptions of modern female fear and desire.
“You respect him because he shoots scenes of love as if they were scenes of murder. We respect him because he shoots scenes of murder like scenes of love,” François Truffaut once famously remarked on Alfred Hitchcock. Nearly four decades after his death, the English director remains legendary for his stunningly evocative visual storytelling — he’s remembered for his ability to stage scenes that still shock and thrill by transgressing the traditional boundaries of discretion and even implicating viewers themselves as voyeurs. His momentous work is also shadowed by claims that he abused his frequent leading lady Tippi Hedren, an allegation that feels newly resonant in the wake of the #MeToo movement sweeping Hollywood.
A video by Emma Hampsten of Middlebury College captures the uncanny nature and depth of Hitchcock’s female characters by juxtaposing their scenes of intimacy and romance with acts of violence, set to Doris Day’s lilting rendition of “Que Sera, Sera” in 1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. The video opens with a quote from the academic John Fawell: “Hitchcock’s works are characterized by a fascination with women, with their charm, their sophistication, their maturity, their wisdom … His greatest films are those that explore a woman’s sorrow, her suffering at the hands of men who underestimate them and treat them cruelly.”
It’s true that Hitchcock’s women are often his most fascinating characters, and that his narratives often make the audience identify most closely with their fear and alienation — both of which are often due to the actions of men. Many of his best romantic dramas, such as 1940’s Rebecca, 1941’s Suspicion, and 1946’s Notorious, assume the point of view of sensible yet vulnerable heroines kept at arm’s length within their own homes by enigmatic husbands who may or may not want to kill them. And arguably his most famous scene, the murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in 1960’s Psycho, derives its terror from the feeling that the audience, too, is somehow being intruded upon within a private space where they’re supposed to be safe. After all, the entire first third of the film is from the point of view of Crane, a restless woman on the run who steals $40,000 from her company but is empathetic enough to be moved by Norman Bates’ (Anthony Perkins) supposed care for his mother — when he finally attacks her in that fateful shower sequence, we see him only as a menacing shadow rather than another human being.
Hitchcock’s understanding of his heroines also reveals an arguably troubling fascination with seeing the female body wronged, demeaned, and sexually violated. One of his most controversial films, 1964’s Marnie, casts Hedren as the titular character, a nervous, claustrophobic woman suffering from some unseen trauma who is raped on her honeymoon by her imperious husband Mark (Sean Connery), whom she nevertheless professes her devotion to in the film’s presumably happy ending. Even the thrills and terror of Psycho’s iconic shower scene also seem to rely on imagining the violation of Leigh’s immaculate naked body alongside her hysterical screams; it’s hard to think of an equally iconic scene in cinematic history that captures the murder of a handsome man rendered similarly bare and helpless. It’s clear that the camera revels in watching beautiful women’s pain in a way it never does to Hitchcock’s invariably serious and dignified leading men.
Watch Hampsten’s video below for a thought-provoking portrait of Hitchcock’s depictions of women and violence.