(Authorship Note: We are pleased to publish this essay, written by Sarah Hunter, a fabulous writer and brilliant student of film. Formerly a student at Whatcom Community College, where she received the discipline award in film in 2016-17, Sarah will be entering the filmmaking program at New York Film Academy Los Angeles in 2018. ~MT)
To many, famed director Alfred Hitchcock is known fondly as the “Master of Suspense,” whose enduring films have terrified and delighted audiences for decades (and who irreparably tainted the act of showering for an entire generation.) To others still, he is the quintessential auteur, a forefather of modern cinema whose methods have had a lasting impact on the craft of filmmaking – his disciples include the likes of Martin Scorsese and David Fincher. There is, however, another understanding of Hitchcock that, while perhaps possessing less of our collective consciousness, is no less significant or worthy of study: that of the capacity within his oeuvre for provocative and profound feminist analysis. In the words of scholar Tania Modleski, “Feminists have found themselves compelled, intrigued, infuriated, and inspired by Hitchcock’s works.” To be sure, feminist opinion of Hitchcock is undeniably split; many consider his persistent depictions of victimized women to be indicative of blatant misogyny. Yet others persuasively advocate for a more nuanced and open-minded examination, one which potentially suggests a richer depth to his representations of both women and men. Feminists, critics, and cinephiles alike would be remiss to ignore the subversive, oftentimes even progressive, approach to gender evident throughout Hitchcock’s body of work.
As Modleski argues in her seminal 1988 anthology The Women Who Knew Too Much, a number of Hitchcock’s films “reveal some of the difficulties for women in becoming socialized in patriarchy,” and that “despite the often considerable violence with which women are treated in [his] films, they remain resistant to patriarchal assimilation.” This indomitable spirit is best exemplified by Notorious’s brave, brazen Alicia; Shadow of a Doubt’s freethinking young Charlie; Rear Window’s daring, multifaceted Lisa; and Marnie’s titular bandit, a survivor of sexual assault. Furthermore, Modleski illustrates Hitchcock’s pattern of “putting the blame on violence against women where it belongs,” that is to say, on the male abusers and, by extension, the patriarchal system which enables them. This sentiment is echoed by biographer Donald Spoto, who points out that Hitchcock “describes the devastating effect of crime on the victim; his real contempt is for the victimizer, in every case a man.” Moreover, the men in his films (Notorious’ Devlin and North by Northwest’s Thornhill, most pointedly) typically can only achieve resolution by identifying with their female peers and gaining a more compassionate understanding of their struggles. Ultimately, it is incumbent upon the men to change – first themselves, and then the system.
This dynamic – the persecuted woman who boldly resists the patriarchal structure, and the unenlightened man compelled, both by transparent self-interest and a larger sense of justice, to empathize with her – is at its most distilled in 1946’s surprisingly sincere romantic-thriller Notorious. Unconventional leading lady Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is a binge-drinking Miami playgirl and estranged daughter of a convicted Nazi spy. A covert American agency interrupts her decadent lifestyle to recruit her for a unique mission: infiltrate a Nazi cell by seducing its ringleader, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains.) Their established history – Alex had once been in love with Alicia, though his advances were spurned – coupled with Alicia’s promiscuous reputation makes her, in the eyes of the exclusively male agency, the ideal candidate for such an unsavory assignment. “She’s good at making friends with gentlemen,” one operative explains suggestively.
The organization dispatches T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) to persuade Alicia into accepting her supposed patriotic duty; he finds her entertaining drunken guests at a party, and the two soon abscond into the night for a “picnic.” (“Won’t you need a coat?” he asks. “You’ll do,” she replies.) They drive off in her car, and an inebriated Alicia begins to speed recklessly while Devlin sits idly by. His cool demeanor is betrayed only by a hand that flicks nervously toward the steering wheel – the first hint of his insecurity and need for control. As critic Robin Wood writes in his analysis of the film, Alicia immediately displays “energy, activeness, rebelliousness, [and] defiance of male control and authority,” as exhibited by her flagrant disregard for the motorcycle cop who forces her to pull over. Her boldness and unabashed sensuality intimidates Devlin, the embodiment of the emotionally repressed man, whose steely attitude disguises an inner fragility. When he begins to develop feelings for Alicia, so too develops “an anxiety aroused by the threat of an active female sexuality.” He whisks her off to Brazil, where the Nazi faction is situated, and in spite of his initial resistance, a whirlwind romance ensues.
While Alicia is quick to proclaim her love, Devlin hesitates. “Actions speak louder than words,” he insists after she presses him for reciprocation. His actions do indeed speak multitudes, as evidenced by his body language during the film’s iconic hotel room scene, a continuous tracking shot known at the time as the longest kiss in the history of movies. In actuality, the two-and-a-half-minute long take is comprised of many quick kisses punctuated by dialogue. The calculated choreography of the scene is not only Hitchcock’s way of finding a loophole in the strict Hays Code, which enforced a three-second limit on kisses, but also serves as a poignant illustration of Devlin’s stifled emotional state. He stands stiffly as Alicia drapes herself over him, casually checking his telephone messages with artificial detachment while she showers him with affection.
What passes for a honeymoon phase abruptly ends after Devlin meets with his superior officers and learns the precise nature of her assignment. “I don’t think she’s that type of woman,” he argues indignantly, to no avail. When he’s informed of Alex Sebastian’s infatuation with Alicia – both suggesting the possibility of a previous relationship and introducing a romantic rival – he relents, and returns to the hotel room to relay the news. At first, Alicia is hurt and offended by his apparent complicity in exploiting her. “Did you say anything?” she asks. “I mean, that maybe I wasn’t the girl for such shenanigans?” In truth, Devlin had defended her ardently, yet feigns total indifference in her company. This apathetic coldness functions as a defense mechanism, Wood theorizes. “He tries to force her back into precisely what he cannot bear – promiscuity, prostitution – so that he can feel morally justified in rejecting her.” As for Alicia, after once again failing to elicit a declaration of love from Devlin, she agrees to the unseemly enterprise and soon gets to work on charming Alex, eventually gaining access to his sprawling estate. This is less an act of docile submission, however, than it is an attempt at provocation. By parading her burgeoning affair in front of Devlin, whom she continues to meet with periodically to discuss her surveillance, she challenges him to mature and acknowledge his feelings, if only out of jealousy.
Consequently, envy strikes not just Devlin, who stews bitterly and stings Alicia with cruel jabs, but also Alex, who witnesses one of their rendezvous and begins to suspect (correctly) that Alicia is actually in love with Devlin. This is, according to Wood, “a characteristic Hitchcockian study in male anxiety, in which both men, knowing well that Alicia is no virgin, are absolutely terrified that they may not measure up (so to speak) to the competition, and therefore feel driven to torment, punish and destroy the woman who produces in them such terrible feelings of insecurity.” He elaborates on the broader implications of this, arguing that despite the frequent justification for the cultural fixation on women’s chastity being to ensure patriarchal lineage, there is perhaps a more credible explanation: “Given the enormous value placed upon potency and sexual prowess (even, at its crudest and ugliest, on cock size) as evidence of the ‘real man,’ [it is] the fear of competition, the fear that the woman may discover that another man is ‘better.’ This is surely the root of male possessiveness in our own culture; it explains Devlin’s and [Alex’s] mutual fear of each other as Alicia’s sexual partners. With [Alex] the drive takes a relatively straightforward form, the obsession with possessing Alicia exclusively.”
Alex’s covetous desires manifest in a marriage proposal, which the American agents wholeheartedly endorse – including Devlin, who continues to stoically withhold his true feelings. Alicia goes through with the nuptials, but Alex remains skeptical of her devotion, and his distrust subsequently leads to the discovery of her espionage. Knowing that his Nazi associates will dispose of him if they learn his wife is a spy, he begins to slowly poison Alicia until she finally collapses on the black-and-white tiles of his foyer. The image is reminiscent of a pawn toppling over on a chessboard – a fitting metaphor for her manipulation at the hands of both masculinized organizations. She proves disposable not only to the Nazis but also the Americans, who show little concern when she seemingly vanishes. Their callousness is a rather remarkable departure from the American exceptionalism depicted in most Code-era films. As Wood points out, “The parallel between Devlin and Sebastian is underlined by the wider parallel between the masculinist political organizations within which both function and within both are trapped.” This comparison is highlighted by mirror shots of the Nazis and Americans gathered around tables as they discuss their respective plots, as well as their mutual mistreatment of Alicia.
Here arises the predominant grievance aired by feminist critics of Notorious, and, arguably, of Hitchcock’s works in general: the abundant suffering inflicted upon women. “One often hears that Hitchcock was the most misogynistic of filmmakers,” writes Spoto, “a view apparently derived from the observation that often terrible things happen to women in his films.” However, he reasons, “this is a bit like saying that a Holocaust story has contempt for its victims because they’re shown to be so badly treated.” Such an extreme analogy feels somewhat hyperbolic, but Spoto’s description of Alicia’s predicament is quite apt: she is essentially “sold into sexual enslavement.” She is told that ceding ownership of her body is her patriotic duty, one which assuredly would not be expected from a male citizen – her gender is therefore intrinsically linked to her suffering. Yet the depiction of this suffering is wholly devoid of misogynistic sadism or disrespect; rather, it is a compassionate portrayal that engenders sympathy, particularly through the use of subjective POV. From the opening shots, in which we see Alicia standing before the judge at her father’s trial (foreshadowing the judgment passed upon her by men throughout the film, culminating in Alex’s delivery of a death sentence), Hitchcock compels the audience to empathize with his heroine. “Hitchcock privileges the woman’s consciousness,” Modleski observes, “so that all spectators are encouraged to identify with her in her plight.” Indeed, Wood concurs, “Alicia is [the film’s] emotional center, the magnet that draws our sympathies the most powerfully.”
Audience identification is quite a complex subject, one which provokes a great deal of discourse amongst critics, particularly feminists. In her pivotal 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” – the bedrock upon which much of feminist film theory has been built – Laura Mulvey contends that cinematic identification has been split between “active/male” and “passive/female.” While the “determining male gaze” of the men in the film commands the narrative (as well as the viewer’s empathy), the women are relegated to “their traditional exhibitionist role.” This dynamic, Mulvey posits, results in the objectification and abuse of the submissive female characters, implying that the experience of women filmgoers is inherently masochistic. But this is perhaps an oversimplification, suggests Modleski, who writes that “far from being simply masochistic, the female spectator is always caught up in a double desire, identifying at one and the same time not only with the passive (female) object, but with the active (usually male) subject.”
This “double desire” is subverted in Notorious, which strives to align the male spectator not just with Devlin and Alex but with the active female subject, Alicia, whose experience of the narrative is prioritized. “This form of identification works, overall, to involve us with Alicia,” Wood posits, “both Devlin and [Alex] being, for certain crucial stretches of the film, ignorant of information that she possesses. The sequence of the first dinner party in the Sebastians’ home, for example, is constructed rigorously on the principle of our sharing Alicia’s perceptions.” In fact, during Alicia’s introduction to the various Nazis at said party, a lengthy, continuous POV shot of Alicia’s extended hand being kissed by the German spies positions spectators squarely in her singular perspective. She (and by extension, the audience) is subjected to the leering stares of the Nazis, who are clearly smitten with her considerable beauty. Surely this projection of the male gaze onto the viewers results in the discomfort of male spectators – the same unease so often foisted upon female filmgoers. This POV technique is utilized effectively elsewhere: Alicia’s dangerous drunken drive, during which her whipping hair obscures the road; the subsequent hangover scene, its Dutch angles and rotating camera communicating her disorientation; and the moment when Alicia first realizes she’s being poisoned, the distorted shots allowing the audience to share in her panic.
In light of this, Wood concludes that Notorious “is not a film that reinforces patterns of male aggression, but a film that identifies us, and finally Devlin, with the woman’s experience of that aggression.” Devlin’s introspective emotional arc is gratifying to witness, as he gradually comes to terms with his feelings for Alicia. When his colleagues make demeaning remarks about her ill repute – an insufferable hypocrisy, considering the lewd job they enlisted her for – Devlin vehemently defends her, revealing the affection he is unable to express in her presence. “Miss Huberman is first, last, and always not a lady,” he says, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “She may be risking her life, but when it comes to being a lady, she doesn’t hold a candle to your wife, sir, sitting in Washington playing bridge with three other ladies of great honor and virtue.”
After several days of Alicia’s absence, a concerned Devlin defies his superiors by visiting Alex’s manor. He discovers Alicia confined to her bed, groggy and weak, and faced with the risk of losing her, he’s finally able to profess his love. The scene recalls a fairy tale; as Spoto puts it, “Prince Not-So-Charming Awakens Snow-Beige.” Demonstrative and tender, Devlin pulls her limp body close – a role reversal of their initial embrace in the hotel room, when Alicia nestled eagerly against his largely unresponsive frame. “I couldn’t see straight or think straight,” he apologizes emphatically. “I was a fat-headed guy, full of pain. It tore me up not having you.” His bottled emotions finally uncorked, he confesses to loving her “all the time, since the beginning.” He helps her down the stairs and past the Nazis, under the pretense of her simply being ill and in need of a hospital, and Alex is forced to go along with the charade so as not to expose the truth. While Devlin risks both his career and life by rebelling against his patriarchal system, resulting in victory, Alex refuses to challenge his own, resulting in his demise. He tries desperately to leave with Devlin and Alicia to maintain the ruse, but is refused, and has no choice but to return to his suspicious comrades – and certain death.
It is imperative to make note of the fact that it is Devlin, not Alicia, who is ultimately responsible for throwing Alex to the wolves. Some critics take issue with her perceived betrayal, including Michael Renov, who asserts that the film performs “a negotiation of two apparently opposed and irreconcilable patriarchal myths of Woman, fusing them within a single character: woman as the ‘good object’ (tamed, domesticated, subordinated, submissive, the future wife) and woman as betrayer/deceiver. Alicia becomes, in the progress of the narrative… Devlin’s good object, but by simultaneously betraying [Alex] confirms her identity as the ‘bad woman.’” However, Alicia was domesticated, submissive, and a wife – the “good object” – with Alex, not Devlin. Devlin, by his own admission, had loved Alicia “since the beginning,” knowing full well of her infamy as a supposed “bad woman” (a man-eater, drinker, and deceiver, as evidenced by her agreement to engage in the agency’s subterfuge.) Hitchcock does not present Alicia’s personality as a dichotomy, as Renov perceives; rather, he reconciles the “good” and “bad” into one, depicting Alicia as a complex character still worthy of love despite any perceived “badness.” She does not need to purify herself to earn Devlin’s affection – he is the one who must improve.
Furthermore, it is Devlin – not Alicia – who locks the car door and seals Alex’s grim fate. “Central to Hitchcock’s work,” muses Wood, “is the culture’s investment in masculinity, potency, the phallus, and the dread that actual men may not be able to fulfill the demands that masculinist ideology makes on them. Also central is… the revenge of men on women for arousing these fears, and the monstrous irrationality of that revenge.” By finally turning his ire from Alicia to Alex, Devlin instead exacts revenge on an appropriate culprit. It’s a fitting conclusion for what is, fundamentally, an indictment of individual men’s complicity in the patriarchal systems that oppress women (and repress men.)
A recurring motif in the Hitchcockian canon is the unearthly woman whose spectral presence haunts the film – Psycho’s Mrs. Bates, Carlotta and Madeleine from Vertigo, and the eponymous phantom of Rebecca, most notably. “His films are always in danger of being subverted by females whose power is both fascinating and seemingly limitless,” claims Modleski. Feminist film theorists continue to be captivated by his motion pictures and their heroines, finding new depths of meaning upon each successive viewing. Although feminists will likely never agree unanimously on the merits of his work, even those who denounce the director as unforgivably misogynistic can surely derive some satisfaction from the fact that, like the formidable wraiths on his screen, women have reclaimed Hitchcock’s films for themselves.
Notorious is currently playing at Central Cinema in Seattle, Oct. 20-Oct. 23.