Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Hitchcock and Adult Sexuality

Kate Marie over at What's the Rumpus? has a post building on my comments regarding the lack of adult romance in contemporary films. In an aside she notes:

Though I think Nokes is dead on about Notorious, I might quibble with his characterization of Hitchcock in general. Yes, the characters in Hitchcock's films -- as opposed to characters played by DiCaprio -- act like adults, but often the relationships they form are stunted in some way.

I'll have to partially disagree with that. Yes, I think the characters very often have deep flaws in their sexual relationships, but these flaws are not merelystunted childishnessless; they are the kind of difficulties adolenscents are only beginning to grasp. Let me run through just a few of my favorites:

Shadow of a Doubt -- An interesting tale of a vampire doppleganger, with almost no supernatural element. More to the point, the incestuous sexual tension between Young Charlie and Uncle Charlie is far more palpable than that between Young Charlie and her FBI boyfriend. Hitchcock wonderfully opens with shots of Young Charlie and Uncle Charlie in beds in separate cities, simultaneously suggesting the psychic connection between them and the sexual attraction Young Charlie has for him -- after all, they are "in bed" together. Very few filmmakers can deal with the Electral attraction adolescent girls feel for older males in a way that is as tasteful as this film, yet still communicate the threat such attraction poses. Hitchcock gazes with an adult eye at adolescent infatuation.

Notorious -- I mentioned this one in the previous post, so in brief -- Cary Grant has utter contempt for Ingrid Bergman's character, and visa-versa, yet they cannot help falling in love. Even when hearing others refer to Bergman's reputation, Grant can only respond bitterly; he can't muster a defense of her. We also see the familiar Oedipal theme here with Claude Rains (as the Nazi) and his mother. And, I might note, Hitchcock actually manages to make us feel bad for the Nazi in the end.

Rear Window -- The voyeurism, of course. Throw in a little kinky bondage (the result of Jimmy Stewart's condition), a highly sexualized unmarried adult relationship (in 1954), AND they way that voyeurism distracts Stewart totally from his sexy girlfriend -- like football widows.

Psycho -- Oedipal threat, duh. The phallic knife in the shower, etc. Actually, I always find the sexuality in this one a little TOO over-obvious, and of course it gave us a whole genre of facile teen sex slasher films.

The Birds -- Of course, the Oedipal relationship between Rod Taylor and Jessica Tandy. Suzanne Pleshette has this interesting (non-sexual) relationship with Tandy that can only arise when she is no longer a romantic possibility for Taylor. The semi-obsession of Pleshette's character is fascinating too -- obsessed enough to move out to the boonies chasing this guy, but not enough to do more than still carry a torch for him. Tippi Hedren plays the lead as a rich girl completely infantilized -- so we again look at her childish behavior with adult eyes. I think there is an argument to be made the the film is more about the women clustered around Rod Taylor (including his sister) and they ways in which they negotiate their relationships than anything about birds.

...etc. These are just a sampling, and I haven't included such obvious ones as To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, and so forth. The only reason Hitchcock would have included someone like Meg Ryan in a film would have been to render her ridiculous. Yes, there is plenty of "stunted" characters (like Tippi Hedren in The Birds), but Hitchcock uses an adult eye to gaze at them.

You know, perhaps the whole "male gaze" buzzphrase in feminist film studies years ago would have been more interesting if it had been about the "child's gaze" or the "adult's gaze."


  1. This reminds me of an interesting passage from Ch. 12 of Donald Spoto's The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. (Which, if you haven't read, you ought to.) Italics are Spoto's.

    "With Vertigo and North by Northwest, Hitchcock concluded two quartets of films – four with James Stewart, four with Cary Grant. From Rope to Vertigo, Stewart was closer to a representation of Hitchcock himself than any presence until Sean Connery's in Marnie. Elsewhere one of Hollywood's clearest exponents of the ordinary man as hero, Stewart's image was reshaped by Hitchcock to conform to much in his own psyche. He is in important ways what Alfred Hitchcock considered himself: the theorist of murder (in Rope); the chair-bound voyeur (in Rear Window); the protective but decidedly manipulative husband and father (in The Man Who Knew Too Much); the obsessed, guilt-ridden romantic pursuer (in Vertigo). These four roles provided James Stewart with the most substantial roles of his career and Hitchcock with an alter ego attractive enough to engage the sympathies of his audience.

    Cary Grant, on the other hand, represents what Hitchcock would like to have been: the suave, irresponsible playboy (in Suspicion); the ultimate savior of a blond he nearly destroys (in Notorious); the wrongly accused hero who wins the glamorous Grace Kelly (in To Catch a Thief); and finally (in North by Northwest) the theatergoing executive whose frantic, perilous journey ends with the blond lifted up from espionage to bed."

    (This is verbatim from my paperback copy of Spoto's book. I choose not to read anything into the fact that he used the word "blond" (twice!) rather than "blonde."

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