The first shot of the opening credits of Vertigo features a non-diegetic composition of woman’s face. Hitchcock’s camera zooms into her lips as the name “James Stewart” appears on top of her mouth. Then, the camera moves up to her eyes, which are darting left and right frantically as if someone is watching her, and the name “Kim Novak” appears on the screen. Lastly, the camera zooms into the woman’s right eye and the words “In Alfred Hitchcock’s” appear under it, with “Vertigo” appearing only a few seconds later on her pupil.
This scene is particularly important it establishes woman as an object to be molded. Hitchcock demonstrates that he cuts woman into parts when he only shows us the woman piece by piece. This is acceptable because the woman is not important to us—we do not know who she is. However, even if we did, it doesn’t matter. The woman doesn’t need to be a specific woman to get Hitchcock’s point across that women in society are nothing more than a sexual object to be molded however men see fit. This random woman is victim to the condition of being woman.
Hitchcock’s fixation on the physical beautiful of the woman, specifically focusing on her lips and nose objectifies her and implies that romance and sex will be present in the film, gives viewers a hint that the movie will revolve around obsession with woman. The woman here is presented as fearful as she darts her eyes across the screen and is seemingly trembling. This alludes to the idea that the obsession with woman will also allow men to possess that obsession.
Hitchcock’s recreation of The Man Who Knew Too Much emphasizes the fatal doctrine of “Que sera, sera” (let it be) about women. Upon first glance, Ben McKenna and his family seem like a typical nuclear family. Ben is married to a famous singer named Jo Conway McKenna, and they have a son named Hank. Since marrying Ben, however, Jo has sacrificed much of her identity. She now goes by Jo McKenna instead of her acclaimed stage name, Jo Conway. Ben effectively stifles her voice when she becomes a wife and forces her to get rid of “Conway.” Ben’s insistence on this is a way of reclaiming his masculinity and asserting power over someone who is seemingly more powerful than him.
Although their marriage forces Jo to lose some of her true identity, her voice is still commanding. Her voice demands attention. Hitchcock shows us her power in a few scenes: one when she sings the song “Que sera” with Hank, and another time her scream brings Hank back to her. However, the importance of her voice is especially prominent in the Royal Albert Hall sequence. This lengthy and silent sequence is effectively a story by itself. Hitchcock emphasizes the theme of voices, specifically women’s voices, as a way to prevent murder and evil. Although we, as the audience, are anxiously waiting to see whether Ben reaches the Prime Minister in time, Jo ultimately saves the Prime Minister with her voice. Her well-timed scream deflects attention from the assassination plot, which castrates Ben, taking away his power. Although he has taken her last name and identity from her, he cannot take away her voice, which she uses to her advantage.
Hitchcock gives his audience no choice but to be accomplices to criminal acts in Rear Window. This type of criminalization is not a new technique for him; he did the same in Rope when viewers were privy to Brandon and Phillip’s murder. Though we, as viewers, are not necessarily witnessing Anna Thorwald’s murder from the murderer’s perspective in Rear Window like we see David’s, we are still guilty.
Uncle Charlie’s comment to Young Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt, “do you know if you’d rip the fronts off houses, you’d find swine?” becomes a reality in Rear Window. Hitchcock does not only force us to witness a murder but also criminalizes our gaze. He has ripped the fronts off houses and used the excuse of a New York City heatwave to justify it. Thus, the other crime, besides murder, is that Jeffries looks through people’s windows uninvited and takes us along for the ride.
In many ways, what Uncle Charlie says proves to be true. We see almost everything that Jeffrie’s neighbors are doing, and as a result, we are exposed to the “swine” that Uncle Charlie mentions. Hitchcock most explicitly shows us this swine through the revolting actions of Lars Thorwald, who kills his wife. Still, it is present elsewhere because we are privy to every intimate detail—both good and bad—of the lives of Miss Lonelyhearts, the newlywed couple, the pianist, Miss Torso, and the middle-aged couple who owns the small dog. When houses’ front doors, or rear windows, are shut, Hitchcock spares us from knowing about the swine, engulfing us in ignorance. But would that really be a Hitchcockian thing to do?
The narrative that Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train tells indicates that Bruno Antony and Guy Haines, the main characters, are the antithesis of each other. A closer look at the film and what it attempts to portray shows that this reading of the film is not entirely accurate. As viewers, Hitchcock leads us to believe that Bruno and Guy are different from the second the movie begins. Hitchcock intentionally contrasts both of their shoes, luggage, and general entrance into Union Station. The stark differences in the two’s overall presence translate to the viewer having more sympathy for Guy than Bruno throughout the film. It doesn’t help that Guy also paints himself as morally superior to Bruno—to Anne, her father, the police, and anyone who questions him about Miriam’s murder.
However, upon closer look, there is a level of irony in Guy’s actions that are similar to Rupert’s in Hitchcock’s Rope. At dinner, Rupert is adamant in his discussion with Mr. Kentley that murder is an art for those who are superior individuals. When Mr. Kentley pushes back on this “morbid humor,” Rupert contends that he is serious. However, when Brandon and Philip look to Rupert’s praise for their murderous actions, Rupert is shocked they took his advice seriously. He tries to take back his words, disavowing and distancing himself from his previous advice. It is ironic that he, at one point, says, “you’ve given my words a meaning I never dreamt of,” an action almost laughable considering how adamant he was in making Mr. Kentley take him seriously.
Similarly, after a disagreement with Miriam, Guy calls Anne, saying he wants to strangle Miriam. When Bruno eventually strangles Miriam, Anne questions Guy, remembering the comment he made. Guy acts surprised that Anne would believe he had anything to do with Miriam’s murder, an action almost ironic considering he had previously verbally indicated his desire to strangle Miriam himself. For him to then act like Bruno’s action was criminal and inhumane is frighteningly ironic. Furthermore, Guy never explicitly tells Bruno off in the train when he is discussing their murderous exchange. He goes along with it, laughing. For Bruno, this acts as an “OK” for him to proceed with the murder. When Bruno goes through on this promise, once again, Guy seems surprised even though he contributed to Bruno’s actions. Guy’s moral superiority, paired with his contradictory actions, contributes to the idea that Bruno and Guy are more similar than we may think.
Hitchcock’s Rope emphasizes queerness, not only in the relationship between Brandon and Philip but also in the character of Janet. Janet describes her past self as a “gay girl” to Kenneth, ‘outing’ herself in a way because this description of her past self also means that she only “came out” as a heterosexual woman and redeemed her sexuality when she began dating David. This idea was striking because there were multiple instances in which I noticed Janet playing an essential role in queer stereotypes. This technique is common in Hitchcock films—women play an indispensable role in male queerness, complexities, and insecurities about their own identities. Women, such as Janet, are passed from man to man to help him overcome these anxieties and ensure that a woman cannot castrate him. Considering Janet is ‘passed’ from Brandon to Kenneth to David, this is very prevalent. In the first two instances, she helped them figure out their sexuality or another concern. She was only able to get out of this cycle with David. Furthermore, she was ’a beard’ for Brandon, which plays on the idea of “experimentation,” an act in which some homosexual individuals engage to fulfill societal expectations before they come to terms with their true sexuality. As a whole, Hitchcock uses women to further his ideas about the castration of men.
Going into class on Monday after having watched this film, I was excited to find out what we were going to discuss. I wasn’t able to put together so many thoughts about this film like I had done previously because the film problematized genre and I was confused on what I should be looking for. After having discussed half the film, one scene that really sticks out to me is the scene where Alicia is drunk driving next to Devlin and a cop pulls them over. The cop only goes away once Devlin shows him his own badge, which strikes me as absurd. If the cop really cared about safety, if that was the reason that he pulled Alicia over, he would have scolded Devlin for letting her drive. However, there is a power dynamic here in which he allows Devlin to gain power — not only because of his status as a cop, but also allows him to gain power over a drunk woman because of his status as a man. Throughout the film, Devlin continues to say he is ‘protecting’ her but his protection is solely based on what is best for him. Is it really protecting her to let her drive while drunk, and even more, get into the car with her?
Out of the three films we have seen so far, I think Shadow of a Doubt is by far my favorite. Though Alfred Hitchcock himself is seemingly a misogynist, he provides subtle hints of feminism in this film through the character of Young Charlie. Though we know Young Charlie is inevitably doomed from the beginning, solely because of her identity as a woman in a male-dominated world, she does not give up and eventually assumes a role as the patriarchal figure when she kills Uncle Charlie. Young Charlie is intelligent—she does not blindly follow what her Uncle, or even her parents believe. She individually figures out the truth and puts the pieces together by going to the library, sneaking into her uncle’s room, finding the crumbled newspaper, and eventually taking the ring back. Through these actions, she asserts power as a patriarchal figure in the film. Instead of the instances of castration in Rebecca and the 39 Steps where man is castrated by woman, but eventually regains his phallic features, Uncle Charlie is castrated by Young Charlie and does not come out on top. That in of itself is a subtle way in which women in this film refuse to be victims of patriarchal power.
Before we began our discussion of the film Rebecca, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After the discussion of The 39 Steps — which I did not expect to relate to phallus pleasures at all — I knew there would be a few things that I had not picked up on for this film, too. During class, I was interested by the idea that the film Rebecca paints women’s beauty itself as a fetish. All of the actors and actresses in the film are struck by Rebecca’s beauty and note it as her defining feature. Even before they get married, it seems as if Rebecca is known as one of the most beautiful women they know. She has impeccable fashion taste and is one of those “smart” women—one that has brains, beauty, and breathing. Thus, this description of Rebecca means that one’s beauty becomes a phallus, which men use to show they are not castrated. When Rebecca had more than beauty itself—when she also had brains and breathing—Maxim was castrated by her.
The second Mrs. De Winter buys the same dress as the magazine, gets her hair done, and wears the same gown as Rebecca to the costume party. She thinks by doing this she will become the phallus and make Maxim whole. However, she does not realize that Rebecca was a phallic woman. She did not subordinate herself like most other women did during this time. Thus, by trying to mimic her beauty and actions, and the more the second Mrs. De Winter reminds him of Rebecca, the more castrated he feels. The more that the second Mrs. De Winter becomes a phallus woman, the more Maxim is put off by her; the final straw is when she basically begs Maxim to tell her what happened between them. Once he does, he says, “we no longer have a chance, Rebecca has won,” and this does not only hurt Maxim, who does not want to be castrated, but it also takes away any power the second Mrs. De Winter had over herself. She allows herself to be the phallus and allows herself to be fetishized. Now that she has the truth, and has acquired “brain and breathing,” she is no longer worthy of Maxim’s attention. He only wanted to marry someone who was innocent, dependent, and defiant.
Although she also wanted to be similar to Rebecca for herself and not only Maxim, she now lost both Maxim and herself. Maxim does not want her because she is no longer pure, and she lost herself because 1) she can no longer be the woman a man wants—one that can make a man whole, and 2) because she does not have the capacity to be as phallic as Rebecca was. As the viewer, we are rooting for her but know she is doomed.
Hitchcock’s film 39 Steps does a thorough job of highlighting the concept of Hitchcockian Suspense, which Pascal Bonitzer explains. Hitchcockian Suspense is the idea that the audience can no longer cling to the apparent reality of the current image in the film and loses their innocence by being exposed to the truth. Bonitzer combines this theory with the idea of the stain, the perversion of the natural order of things. In class, I found it interesting that the ideas of Hitchcockian Suspense and this perversion of the natural order work in conjunction in Hitchcock films to emphasize that the world the viewer thought they knew is no longer the same. Everything has a hidden and scary undertone.
This concept emerges numerous times throughout the film, but one scene where I found it prevalent was when Hannay visits Professor Jordan. For example, from the viewers’ perspective, Jordan will be an ally of Hannay’s in the scene. This point is further reinforced when Jordan successfully convinces the police to leave, ‘saving’ Hannay from them. When Hannay and Jordan are alone, Hannay explains that Annabelle Smith warned Hannay about a man with a missing joint on a finger on his left hand. The director chooses at that moment to change the vantage point, zooming in on Jordan’s right hand, which is missing that same joint. As viewers, we find out at the same time as Hannay that Jordan is the person Smith was warning Hannay about. This change of vantage point makes viewers suffer a loss of innocence.
Had our vantage point been closer to Jordan before, we would have seen the finger and realized that Jordan was evil, but it was on purpose that we found out when Hannay did. The vantage point we are watching from introduces the stain. It reveals there is never such a shot that is objective. Even when trying to be objective, cinema and its varying vantage point make us ask: why this angle? Why this person? Why did the camera never zoom in on Jordan before throughout the dinner party? When he spoke to his wife? This intentional filmmaking and varying vantage point inherently incriminate the viewer if Jordan were to get away with any crimes since the finger makes us aware of his role.
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