Hitchcock, Bidisha, Women and Me

I love Guardian Film & Music on a Friday, and this weekend I particularly enjoyed getting all riled up by Bidisha’s article about Alfred Hitchcock’s attitude to women.

There are always magazine and newspaper articles about Hitchcock, and I always enjoy them, but perhaps their ubiquity inspired Bidisha’s extreme position; an attempt to say something new. But I think that in an attempt to say something new, she said something crass.

Now I’m a feminist – I am! – but I’m not fool enough to sit here and tell you that Hitchcock was. His attitude to women was complicated at best, misogynist at worst, for sure. But Bidisha’s reading of the films she discussed – all from just one decade of his long career, 1954-64 – bore no relation to what I see on screen.

First off, Marnie. A Hitchcock misfire, with a dodgy abusive Sean Connery toying with flaky, abused Tippi Hedren. Bidisha was on solid ground here as far as evidence against Hitch goes. Nevertheless, she started to irk me when she described Marnie as ‘a daft little sausage’. Is that really how she was portrayed? I’m pretty sure the film wasn’t as Wallace And Gromit as that. More importantly, Marnie is complicated drama – specifically, Sean Connery’s character Isn’t Very Nice. He’s not the hero, and it would be very simplistic to think of him as Hitchcock projecting himself on screen. Marnie, if anyone, is the character you root for, feel sympathy for. And here’s the crux: Bidisha thinks that Hitchcock hated women, and I just don’t get that – I think he had trouble seeing them as well-rounded, on a level with men. He saw them as goddesses or victims. Marnie’s a victim – not a baddie.

If you want to tie Sean Connery to Misogyny, well, that’s another story. Watching Dr. No again this weekend I was very uncomfortable with Honey Ryder, the Ursula Andress role – she’s incredibly, voluptuously sexy, she’s partially naked at all times, and she talks like a child; ‘I’ve got an Encyclopaedia, I know it all the way up to T’. Woman as infantilised sex object, right from the James Bond off – Dr No is about as feminist as reading FHM round James Corden’s house. Later Connery would leave the role under a cloud after comments he made during the filming of You Only Live Twice that were racist and sexist all at once. James Bond! Racist and sexist! Who knew?

But the Bond archetype always runs the risk of defining women as useless rescue fodder, Liam Neeson’s Taken being the worst, but by no means only, offender. Thank goodness for stronger characters like Franka Potente’s Marie in the Bourne films, or Karen Allen’s Marion in Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

Or Eva Marie Saint’s Eve Kendall in North By North West, an ancestor of the James Bond film if ever there was one. And this is where Bidisha began to really get my goat. Before she even got to North By North West’s social politics she described the film as ‘a seemingly never-ending adventure farce’. Who, anywhere, thinks this? What film did she watch? Is she just trying to make me cross?

Oh. She is.

Apparently Marie Saint’s character – ‘lying, duplicitous, butter-wouldn’t-melt, undercover agent Eve’ – is ‘just another malicious featherbrain who got into the agenting business because she was flattered to be asked to betray a secretive ex-lover.’

There are no ‘malicious, featherbrained’ women in North By North West. ‘Lying, duplicitous, butter-wouldn’t melt’ is fairer comment, though it’s strange that Bidisha seems to think these are negative qualities in an undercover agent; she’d be a pretty useless spy otherwise. So not so much misogynist perspective as necessary job description.

This is North by North West’s back story: Eve Kendall was going out with James Mason’s Vandamm – who in the film is attractive, charming, plausible; the classic evil mirror image of Cary Grant’s hero, and certainly someone an intelligent, well-rounded woman could consider going out with. She didn’t realise at first that he was an international baddie. Leo G Carroll, whose character is known only as the Professor then recruits – perhaps blackmails – her to spy on Vandamm. The professor is the bastard here. Then Roger O Thornhill – Cary Grant – nearly blows her cover when he assumes she’s horrible because he doesn’t have all the facts. Unwittingly, he’s the bastard now. In all of this Eve Kendall’s behaviour is moral, reasonable. She’s the victim of callous, scheming men on both sides of the Cold War. Plus she comports herself wittily, intelligently, sexily, and in an emotionally literate way. She’s the grown-up version of another strong Hitchcock heroine Madelwine Carroll in The 39 Steps – but we won’t talk about that because Bidisha didn’t bother watching it.

So, to summarize, ‘just another malicious featherbrain who got into the agenting business because she was flattered to be asked to betray a secretive ex-lover.’ Who’s negatitvity has been laid over the plot of this film here – Hitchcock’s or Bidisha’s? ‘I love that combination of stereotypes: we’re stupid, cunning, soft-hearted and traitorous, all at the same time’ she continues. Who said you were? Eve Kendall’s not ‘stupid’. She is ‘cunning’, but that’s not a bad quality, particularly in a spy. She’s loving, not ‘soft-hearted’, and she betrays one man – a cold international murdering superspy – for the sake of world peace. What a cow.

If you come after North By North West, be ready to answer to me.

I also love Rear Window, which Bidisha moves on to next. She thinks – or says she thinks – it’s a ‘strange, cowardly, mean film’. I can’t spell the incredulous, sarcy questioning noise I want to make at this point, but it’s something like ‘heiunnghh?!’ You might just as well describe it as a giant, yellow, equestrian film for all the relevance the three adjectives have. In it a ‘nagging wife… gets a shrews comeuppance’. This time it’s not one of Hitch’s complex male leads being credited as directly representing his worldview, it’s the villain. Films need villains, and in this domestic, urban setting a nagging, bedbound wife is a great way to make a workaday schlub reveal his inner psychopath – but he’s still the villain. The film doesn’t suggest for a moment that the woman deserved to die; she’s a victim, like her neighbours miss lonely hearts, the dancer and the pianist – who’s a man by the way. All deftly sketched, sympathetically portrayed people who get satisfying happy endings in three of the subplots in this masterful film. Oh no – wait: ‘the subplot is about gratuitously bringing the loving, sincere and helpful Lisa down a peg or two – and then showing how untrustworthy she is.’

Is it now.

Grace Kelly’s Lisa Fremont – patronisingly, Bidisha doesn’t quote her second name – is an incredible heroine. Here at last I think we really do see Hitchcock grappling with his attitude to women; he needed a muse, and in Kelly he found one – like Ingrid Bergman in some more of those earlier, black and white films Bidisha didn’t bother with. Lisa is a woman who appears as a goddess, then spends the film trying to convince her partner that she’s human, normal, and wants to share real life with him – sex, death and everything. James Stewart’s L B Jeffries takes some convincing, but no one with any sense watching would see it his way; he’s John Cusack in High Fidelity, the archetypal-now, ground-breaking-then commitment-phobic man. Their story arc can be summed up as ‘he gets over himself’; she’s the beautiful, beating heart of the film, a proto-feminist princess who does Hitchcock credit.

But if you’re not convinced of Princess Grace’s feminist credentials in Rear Window – and I hear you – check out Thelma Ritter. Bidisha credits her authority figure as a ‘mother’, but she’s the ‘doctor’ – LB Jeffries therapist. She’s a straight-talking, intelligent, witty, working class adult professional, a voice of reason who commands respect, the kind of character female actors wait around for decades for Hollywood to provide, as Anne Billson wrote in another article from Friday’s F & M.

An article I enjoyed.

OK, my point-by-point rebuttal may be trying your patience, so let’s dispense with The Birds quickly. Bidisha says that birds – what, all male birds? – are taking revenge on women. You know, like in noted misogynist Daphne Du Maurier’s source novel.

They aren’t.

They do seem to have it in for Tippi Hedren mind; and here’s where the waters get a bit muddy, because I think Hitchcock did gratuitiously abuse Hedren in The Birds and Marnie – and Kim Novak in Vertigo. I don’t think he was giving them a hard time for being women though; he was giving them a hard time for not being Grace Kelly.

I agree with Bidisha about one thing – Hitchcock has more fun with Freudian psychological stuff than Jungian; kleptomania is dull, mother figures are good value. She says ‘little Alfred had mummy issues’; good point, tiresomely made. But again she simplifies. ‘In North by North West the entire drama kicks off as the protagonist is on his way to send his mother a telegraph’; well, yes – but that’s just tight plotting. He manages to meet his mother, and she’s a sharp-witted woman-about-town, barely older than him both as an actress and in terms of on-screen attitude. She goes on to successfully poke fun at him and the whole super-serious, masculine world he’s wandered into; she’s another positively portrayed, middle-aged gem the like of which we never see now. See any of that stuff Bidisha?

Apparently not.

Finally we get to Psycho – although I think his later films are nastier to women, Frenzy, in particular. The piece finishes with Psycho though – hey, no-one wants to watch more than six films for an article, particularly when they’re planning to dislike them so much. Bidisha describes Psycho as the one with ‘the shower scene that everyone remembers – the one with the cheap plastic curtain’. This is my favourite/most-despised of Bidisha’s infantile cheap shots, like calling The Searchers ‘the film with the ridiculous orange mountains’; I’ll write this as calmly as I can:

It’s a cheap shower curtain, because the (widely lauded, iconic) scene takes place… in a motel.

Anyway, apparently ‘Norman Bates is Hitchcock himself’. No, he isn’t. He’s a terrifying psycho you thought was the boy next door – a fascinating archetype that defines the paranoia of red-menace era America as clearly as Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, or In Cold Blood. He’s his actual, real life inspiration Ed Gein. He’s not Hitchcock, and it’s lazy to say that he is. Writing this has made me realise what victims Hitchcock made of all these women – but then this is America in the fifties; was he just shooting what he felt, or was he holding up a mirror to society? He certainly loved all of them; if he’d made Mad Men, Betty Draper would be the sympathetic heroine, Don Draper the untrustworthy authority figure.

Interesting stuff. Hey, Bidisha, why not calm down, watch the films properly, stop showing off, and write about something like that?