Monday, 31 October 2011

The Romantic Fate of Authority Figures in the films of Alfred Hitchcock

Grant, Bergman and that kiss from 'Notorious'
Men, more often than not,  are normally cast as authority figures in Hitchcock movies. (The glaring exception to this ‘rule’ could certainly be ‘Strangers on a Train’ where no authority figure actually exists within the story. There are two dim possibilities: Bruno’s father is plotted against by his son,  as a way of punishing him for his inadequacy as a reliable authority figure. Hitch perennial Leo G Carroll as Ruth Roman’s father is an authority figure, but elderly, and a totally unthreatening one.)  Usually, but not always, the male authority figures in  Hitchcock films are  police officers or government agents finding themselves in an emotional conundrum, or rather a state of emotional ambiguity, in that they tend to fall in love with women who may be either perpetrators of a crime, or conversely, the victims of wrongdoing. 

The mens’ dilemma takes up a large part of the sub-text of a number of Hitchcock films. These sub-texts  unfold  as the plot reveals the leading (or supporting character’s) feelings of guilt  toward the female object(s) of their desire. The male characters are left with no other choice  than  to take responsibility for their own neuroses, ascertaining (for example), the harshness to which they have exposed the woman to danger, when they originally wanted to protect her from such. Equilibrium between the sexes is eventually restored by the end, with the woman taming the man and the man accepting with resignation,  that  his single status has been curtailed by the woman. Often,  the struggle between the sexes is solved by the woman dying, rarely the man,  or sometimes but rarely, both.

Grant and Saint. The audience excused Cary lots of things
SABOTAGE (1936):  How Sylvia Sidney and her police officer friend/lover  escape  justice by a hairsbreadth, because he interprets her plight as circumstantial, and not of her own making
NOTORIOUS (1945): How agent Cary Grant is at first solicitious toward Ingrid Bergman, then becomes hostile towards her as she accepts an offer to spy on her father’s friends who are Nazis, whom she hates for being un-American
VERTIGO (1958): How ex-policeman James Stewart falls in love with the mysterious Kim Novak, with no knowledge of her true identity or the extent to which he is hurting his loyal girlfriend Midge
NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1958): How advertising executive Cary Grant is mistaken for a secret agent and is helped by Eva Marie Saint, who is actually attempting to get him to help her out of a sticky situation with the sinister James Mason. He does not realise this and consequently is always (inadvertently) placing her in danger when in fact he is falling in love with her and wants to help her.
PSYCHO (1969): Where the audience is led to believe that there is the possibility of Arbogast the private detective falling in love with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) before he even finds out that she’s been killed
MARNIE (1964): How Sean Connery is wise to the ways of Tippy Hedren who is a thief and a liar, but falls madly in love with her anyway

I would argue that as far as Hitchcock is concerned, the guys appear to be losers, at least when it comes to romance. The least of these is Cary Grant. Grant  avoids  being arrested for murder in ‘Suspicion’; escapes to the hospital and presumably lives  happily ever after with Ingrid Bergman at the end of ‘Notorious’ and then travels happily into the tunnel of love with Eva Marie Saint in his arms at the conclusion of ‘North by Northwest’. But as far as romance is concerned, most of Hitchcock’s male characters are living in chumpsville.

How  James Stewart is an authority figure in ‘Rope’, but  doesn’t have a love interest at all,  and he loses the love of his life when Kim Novak falls out of a church window at the conclusion of ‘Vertigo’.
How Laurence Olivier spends an inordinate amount of time wringing his hands and feeling guilty and miserable in ‘Rebecca’, concerning a woman who doesn’t even appear on-screen, when he is married to the young, attractive and willing Joan Fontaine.
Milland, Kelly and Cummings in 'Dial M'
In ‘Dial M for Murder’  how Ray Milland botches murdering his wife, (Grace Kelly) and ends up being found out, even when the audience is given every indication that he’s going to get away with it
How Robert Donat supposedly hates being literally manacled to  Madeleine Carroll in ‘The 39 Steps’, when she is gorgeous, classy, intelligent and single
How Margaret Lockwood brushes off Michael Redgrave constantly in ‘the Lady Vanishes’ when he refuses to believe her preposterous stories
The Freudian manner in which Jessica Tandy punishes Rod Taylor for being her son instead of her husband in ‘The Birds’ and his cavalier treatment  of  love interests Tippy Hedren and Suzanne Pleshette as a result

None of these guys have what you would call a satisfying love life. So, how do Hitchcock’s characters rate (both male and female) when it comes to marriage and family? Hitchcock condescends to  look the happy American family up-and-down like a frustrated  monk as it turns out to be distinctly wanting. He is more interested in the neuroses and dysfunction within the family unit but appears totally  disinterested glorifying the concept of ‘the family’  for any kind of ideological purpose.

How Vera Miles goes quietly insane by the  mere suspicion of whether  husband Henry Fonda is guilty (or not) of armed robbery in ‘The Wrong Man’. The family here is portrayed as positive and nurturing, but extremely vulnerable to circumstances outside its control.
Handcuffed to the girl who double crossed him!
In ‘Marnie’, Marnie’s problematic relationship with her mother is explained as a difficulty in being brought up within a one parent family. Her relationship with male authority figure Sean Connery is difficult and painful. Her fear of the colour red; her inability to have a connected relationship with a man; her inability to lead an ‘honest’ life. All of this is blamed upon her dysfunctional relationship with her mother and her inability to find the ideal man. Sean Connery has a difficult part to play. He is portrayed as the bad guy who wants to constrain Marnie for no discernible reason. He says he loves her but constantly violates  her freedom and her person in contradiction to his pronouncements.
John Gavin’s difficult private life in ‘Psycho’, as well as Janet Leigh’s unspoken dissatisfaction with her sister and other unnamed family members. Gavin and Leigh’s relationship is largely explained by the similarity of their emotional backgrounds.
The parents of Joan Fontaine in ‘Suspicion’ are portrayed in such a way that they are to blame for her not being married and for her being supposedly ‘unattractive’. Fontaine’s parents  are cold, aloof and remote without the slightest concern for her well-being as she falls into the arms of Cary Grant and an uncertain future.

Turbulent relationship
Hitchcock’s ultimate blonde, Grace Kelly appeared in three of his movies. In ‘Rear Window’ and ‘Dial M for Murder’ her parents are never mentioned. In ‘To Catch a Thief’ she has a mother. Perhaps  portraying a glamour girl with parents was not thought of as good box office, and  even off-putting to male members of the audience.  Kelly is redeemed as being too good to be a murderess in ‘Dial M for Murder;  and then rewarded for being a good sport  by nabbing James Stewart for a husband in ‘Rear Window’.  She is punished for having a boyfriend whilst married in ‘Dial M’ and lectured by James Stewart for being too bossy and possessive in ‘Rear Window’. But she remains an unimpeachable object of unreachable desire throughout her Hitchcock period, whether married or single and is never held responsible for any of the mishaps of her male co-stars in any of the films mentioned.

Sylvia Sidney worked for Lang as well. What a woman
In many of Hitchcock’s films, family members are either remote or completely absent. Cary Grant has a mother in ‘North by Northwest’ but no parents in ‘Suspicion’ and ‘Notorious’. In a number of Hitchcock’s early British films, such as ‘Blackmail’, ‘Sabotage’ and ‘Secret Agent’, family life is portrayed in a somewhat positive light, but emotional support is bound to be withdrawn from a family member who may do the wrong thing, or get into some kind of trouble. Sylvia Sidney in ‘Sabotage’ is placed in an untenable position after losing her younger brother and wreaking revenge on her husband. She has no one else to turn to except a police officer who is sympathetic to her plight. In ‘Blackmail’, a young woman defends herself from being raped but does not begin to imagine that the authorities or her family will help her; in ‘Secret Agent’ the concept of the family unit is gently satirised, as John Gielgud poses as Madeleine Carroll’s husband when they are actually not connected in any way at all.

Despite acknowledging that women can have difficult and compromised lives, it would appear that if you’re as beautiful and glamorous as Grace Kelly or Madeleine Carroll, this can tide you over the other gigantic waves of a demanding life. Today, such an attitude may seem a tad, well... ludicrous, but it could be argued, what else is there? A woman should have her family to fall back on, whilst men only have women, whilst both men and women  seem to do nothing but misunderstand, and mistreat each other.  Thus men's fate is the struggle in attempting to ascertain the woman's veracity, and being routed in the attempt. Thus is the sad  lot of of male authority figures in the films of Alfred Hitchcock. 

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