Monday, January 26, 2009

Unhitching Hitchcock

Greetings again. In a desperate attempt to redeem this blog from its tawdry turn of late into being merely TV (and worse, reality TV) centric, I shall wrestle it from its purgatory depths with something just a smidge more highbrow. I shall in fact endeavor to reign this blog back toward its titular roots by discussing my undying and largely platonic love of – you guessed it – film. The natal purpose of this blog was – if you can believe it – to provide you, my breathless readers, with my quasi-sage advice on what films to see or skip. What it has mutated into is neither regrettable nor laudable, but I would like to return at least fleetingly to my primary purpose by filling y’all in on a few films that I truly think should be added to one’s “bucket list” of things to see before dying. Besides, I staunchly refuse – much to the chagrin of Zander over at Zandervision – to publish a list of my favorite films on Facebook as I refuse to take Facebook seriously. But perhaps here on Film Noix – which I take deathly seriously – I can at last open the floodgates of filmic reverie and let my favorite films pour forth onto your computer screens. (Also, I have no cable and because my Internet barely works I can’t stream shows online, so posting about current TV is next to impossible, so I’ll have to look elsewhere for literary fodder.)

With these thoughts in mind, I shall share just a few of my favorite films from one of the all time greats, Alfred Hitchcock. I’ve seen almost every non-silent Hitchcock film, and while many have blurred together into my head, some stand out against the test of time and a few of these I will relate to you momentarily. Though it is questionable if any of Hitch’s films would scratch my Top 10 list of all time best films, I feel that as a director, his body of work is unparalleled. Also, though I love his films because of their implicit suspense, what I find most fascinating about Hitchcock is the complex and troubling way in which he addresses gender roles. So without further ado, here is a sampling of Hitchcock films that I urge you to sink your teeth into, and after that I’ll provide a few that I advise saying “nicht-nicht” to in the inimitable words of Bruno.

Notorious – This is a brilliant espionage thriller made all the better through Hitchcock’s characteristically spot-on casting. And though my bosom friend Nora thinks it’s sexist, I actually feel the opposite. I grappled for years with how I feel about Hitchcock’s often problematic portrayals of women, and have finally come to the perhaps incorrect conclusion that – though he may consciously choose to depict women in compromising, misogynistic roles – he has a deep respect for the fairer sex and does not condone sexism or intend to promote it. So while many of his female characters may seem relegated to positions of inferiority, Hitchcock does so knowingly and without the intent of proclaiming such statuses acceptable. In the case of Notorious, the unbearably gorgeous Ingrid Bergman is unwieldy, brave, and flawed and though her lover tells her she lacks the qualities of a chaste “lady”, she is an entirely relatable heroine who proves that courage and intelligence outweigh 1945’s concept of what a woman should be.

Vertigo – Brilliant, beautiful and sad, this is one of Hitchcock’s most romantic and also most complicated films. The first half is a thrilling ghost tale, the second a tragic love story. Here Hitchcock goes against viewers’ expectations by casting the effortlessly adorable Jimmy Stewart in a role that is deplorable and almost completely devoid of sympathy. Hitchcock’s recurrent mother issues come to light here as Stewart’s immature, limited character can only assimilate women into one of two harmless prototypes: mother or victim. The two women in the movie – who both desperately love him – fail to please him as he in incapable of seeing them as anything other than one or the other of these two roles – roles that they cannot possibly live up to. Here again Hitch lands himself into hot water as both women must conform to these roles so as to remain a part of his life. The beautiful Kim Novak completely changes and resultantly loses her identity in an effort to appear a victim, while his devoted and supportive friend tries to get him to see her sexually, and when this fails, Stewart has no place for her in his life. But again, I argue that rather than proclaiming Stewart’s treatment of women acceptable, the film instead empathizes with Novak by depicting the fragile and impossible roles women feel obligated to adopt in order to conform to society’s image of an ideal woman.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith
– No, this isn’t connected to that Brangelina thing. This is a completely unconventional Hitchcock in that it is not a suspense. It’s a screwball comedy featuring the queen of screwballs and one of my most beloved actresses, Carole Lombard. It is fabled that Hitch wanted so badly to make a movie with her that he completely departed from his go-to genre just to better suit her amazing comedic strengths. It’s by no means his best, but I was pleasantly surprised when I saw it and found that it warmed my heart – something I didn’t know Hitch could do. As Annette Insdorf pointed out in one of her classes, many screwballs perhaps negatively depict women as being scatterbrained, impulsive, silly and unreasonable. While Mr. and Mrs. Smith is not any different from this stereotype, I am again going to argue that Lombard’s character – like her character in so many other screwballs – is in fact an empowering representation of femininity. Firstly, she is of equal if not greater importance than her male counterpart. Secondly, her deftly brilliant comic timing elevates her to a status of comic genius shared by few other women. Thirdly, she is headstrong, uncompromising and has self-respect. Regardless, this is a very funny movie that I think anyone would enjoy so long as you check your Hitchcock expectations at the door.

– Ok you’ve probably already seen this one. But if you haven’t, I’ll try not to ruin the ending. This is definitely one of Hitch’s most successful efforts and is still one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen. This is also the film – along with the masterful Strangers on a Train – that most directly confronts Hitchcock’s mother issue. Of all the films I am choosing to review, this one has the weakest female lead, namely because a third of the way through the film, our protagonist (Janet Leigh) dies. By replacing the lead with two relative throwaways after Leigh’s death, Psycho becomes one of Hitchcock’s more perplexing stories, as it is hard to truly empathize with any of the characters. It also raises the question of if Hitchcock is punishing Leigh – a sexually liberated, thieving woman – by killing her off. I don’t personally think so, as before she dies she intends to return her stolen money and it is the fault of a guiltily sexually repressed male loner with mother issues that she meets her end.

Rear Window
– This isn’t my favorite Hitchcock, it isn’t even in my top 10. I don’t really like it, to be honest. I do appreciate it, however, because it’s pretty fascinating in its own right, which is why I am reviewing it here, and recommending it to those of you who don’t find long movies with little action incredibly boring. What I did respect about this movie was again the way that Hitch uses harmless, loveable Stewart to play a sexually stunted character who finds women utterly terrifying. Stewart’s fiancĂ©, played by Grace Kelly, represents both mother and victim as he – a peeping tom and an invalid – acts simultaneously as a child who she must care for, and as her savior who rescues her in a crucial moment. The fact that she wishes to get married proves threatening to Stewart who is stuck at a juvenile stage of development (reiterated by the phallic long-lensed camera that is ever present on his lap) and can only assimilate her as either mother or victim. She is repeatedly shown in eerie shots in which she looms over him as he awakens like something from a nightmare. Again, though Hitch depicts Kelly as a threat to her lover, he makes it clear that it is the immature Stewart – who cannot accept her for who she really is – who is at fault, not the blameless, almost saintly Kelly.

Whew, that was a lot of typing. I’ll just end this post by listing a few other extremely “bucket list” worthy Hitch flicks that I don’t have the strength to review:
The Lady Vanishes
Stage Fright
Strangers on a Train

And here are some that I think are pretty overrated. Nicht-nicht!:
39 Steps
Life Boat

Shadow of a Doubt

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