Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Hitchcock, Notorious and misogyny

Watched Hitchcock’s Notorious last night at the India Habitat Centre. It’s one of my all-time favourites, though the last time I saw it was around six or seven years ago. But I’ve read so much about the film since then and it was interesting to see to what extent my own experience of it would chime with that of others.

Initially I felt the discomfort that comes from protectiveness for a beloved old movie -- will an impatient modern audience be able to open themselves to it, or will they disparage it as quaint and creaky? In this case, I needn’t have worried much since most of the audience present were film buffs and Hitchcock lovers, not multiplex-goers who had accidentally drifted into the screening.

What I wasn’t prepared for was how they reacted to the suspenseful scenes. With all the overanalysis Hitchcock has latterly been subjected to, one often loses sight of his original metier, and it’s always a pleasant surprise to discover that his movies, even the really old ones, still do have the power to move and excite modern-day audiences. Some first-time viewers at yesterday’s screening reacted in exactly the same way to key scenes as the original 1946 audience would have (leaning forward in their seats, clutching the armrests, hissing things like "get out before it’s too late!" to the characters onscreen). I had a similar experience when I showed Psycho to a friend a few years ago. Had never expected her to react viscerally, given all that we’re told about today’s audiences being innured (thanks to the much-increased blood-and-gore that films like Psycho paved the way for).

In Notorious and Vertigo, Hitchcock made two of the most unabashedly romantic movies in film history, though neither is a conventional love story. The strange love triangle in Notorious is far more important to the film than the silly plot-pushing device (the Macguffin) of the uranium-filled bottles and the Nazi conspirators. Watching the film, I was struck yet again by the ridiculousness of the charge that the director was a misogynist. One of my favourite rebuttals to this charge comes from Camille Paglia, who was delightfully voluble about the topic in an interview she gave to Karl French for a book on screen violence in 1996.

French: I agree he was a great director, but he was nakedly misogynistic...

Paglia: I don’t accept this. That is an absurd argument. We’re talking about a man who made films in which are some of the most beautiful and magnetic images of women that have ever been created. I mean, for heaven’s sake, to call that misogynistic, when we think of Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief, when we think how fabulous Janet Leigh is in that shower scene, we think of Kim Novak in Vertigo...what I’m saying about all of the great artists from Michelangelo to Botticelli to everyone else is that in the fascination with these goddess-like figures of women there is an ambivalence, a push-pull in it, a complexity of response, but to stress the negative in Hitchcock...? I think you need far more complex terminology to deal with people who achieve at the level Hitchcock did. The women he created, for heaven’s sake, have absolutely dominated the imagination of late twentieth-century cinema. Everyone’s imitating it, everywhere, to this day."

(Here’s a little more on the subject from Paglia.)

Now Ingrid Bergman looks breathtaking in Notorious -- and for my money it’s her definitive role -- but I should think it’s also self-evident to anyone who watches the film that her character gets far more sympathy from the director than either of the two male protagonists. One man (Cary Grant) can’t bring himself to admit he loves her until it’s almost too late; takes advantage of her love for him, using her to infiltrate a spy ring; and then mopes around sullenly until good sense finally prevails. The other man (Claude Rains) does genuinely care for her, we feel, but uhh...he’s also the Nazi villain. Major roadblock to sympathy, that. To appreciate Notorious fully, it’s imperative to be able to empathise with the Bergman character -- to see her as she really is, not as the manipulative men in her life depict her.

Notorious now joins the painfully short list of Hitchcock movies I’ve seen on the big screen -- the others being Vertigo (terrible print, dating from before the film’s restoration), Psycho and Strangers on a Train. Hope I don’t have to wait too long for the next one.

1 comment:

  1. I'm happy you got to enjoy NOTORIOUS on a big screen. It's been quite some time since I have seen it on the big screen myself. I am also glad you join Paglia in arguing against the notion that Hitch was misoginistic. One thing worth adding is that the women he cast in his films seldom (if ever) gave better performances. Look at Janet Leight's work in PSYCHO, then look at any of her other performances. Her Oscar nomination for PSYCHO was well-deserved. Even Eva Marie Saint, who won an Oscar for ON THE WATERFRONT, was in top-form in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. A book could be written about Kim Novak's performance in VERTIGO. And I don't need to mention Tippi Hedren, do I?