Friday, February 25, 2011

Alfred Hitchcock's Sex and Sensibility

I can't think of a single measure by which Alfred Hitchcock could be described as “average.” A man of huge appetites for food, wine, humor and art, he seemed repressed in only one way: sexually. Even that was inordinate. A self-proclaimed celibate, he insisted that he'd had sex exactly once. Given such monk-like sexual proclivities, how was he able to direct some of classic Hollywood's hottest sex scenes?

Most theories suggest that he simply acted out his sexual fantasies on the set. No doubt there's a lot of truth in that. But I think that conclusion greatly oversimplifies the impulses behind Hitchcock's genius. Say whatever you want about Hitchcock, there is no question that few people understood human nature like Hitch. He knew what makes us tick—and his sex scenes, often among the most carefully planned parts of his films—delivered on that.

As I've shown elsewhere, Hitch drew heavily on fine art when designing his films. When developing his love scenes, he looked to romantic and erotic art to deliver an especially charged sexual wallop.

Hitch was a big fan of Auguste Rodin— and his sculpture The Kiss , based on Dante's story of Paolo and Francesca, likely influenced his love scenes. Other Rodin sculptures might also have wormed their way into Hitch's psyche too.

Fugit Amor (Fugitive Love) a part of Rodin's The Gates of Hell, which can be seen at Stanford Universitya two-hour drive from Hitch's Santa Cruz home. The director surely would have visited it.

Like The Kiss, Fugit Amor depicts the tragic affair of Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini that led to their murder and damnation to the second level of hell. Fugit Amor shows us their fate in hell, eternally tossed about by a fiery whirlwind that keeps them forever out of each other's grasp.

Their story was a popular theme in the 18th and 19th centuries, inspiring countless paintings and sculptures.

The Ghosts of Paolo and Francesca Appear to Dante and Virgil by Ary Scheffer (1835). The whirlwind that whips them about expresses their unfulfilled desire and emotional turmoil. Hitchcock furthered the tradition, modernizing it and incorporating it into his films.

In Torn Curtain (1966), Hitchcock recreated Tchaikovsky's ballet Francesca da Rimini. This wasn't a random or gratuitous use of the well-known ballet. From its opening credits to Gromek's murder in a gas oven to Paul Newman's crying "Fire!" in the middle of the ballet in order to escape his enemies, the film is filled with images of fire and hell. The implication is that even Cold Wars are hell. The turmoil that the protagonist and his wife (Paul Newman and Julie Andrews) are caught up in bears comparison to Dante's poem. (I'm going to save that bit for another post.)

Hitchcock's Notorious replays the story to the letter—with the uplifting difference that Alicia and Devlin get a happy ending. But I imagine that Hitch's penchant for staging his love scenes at windswept beaches also hearkens back to the story of Dante's lovers. Such placement speaks to the elusiveness of love, that it is both a consummation and a complication. Hitch's sex scenes are often undercut by a foreboding mood, perhaps fear, that the lovers will be caught; or of a desperate sense that the spell of their romance hangs by a mere thread. Dante-esque stuff.

Scottie and Madeleine (James Stewart and Kim Novak) desperately embrace in Vertigo.

The troubled marriage of Maxim and Mrs. DeWinter (Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine) boils over at a cliff overlooking the beach in Rebecca.

In one of that film's most poignant scenes, Mr. and Mrs. DeWinter have a testy exchange while watching home movies. It is just as Francesca speaking from the maelstrom, told Dante in his poem: “There is no greater sorrow than thinking back upon a happy time in misery.”

In Hitchcock's films, turbulent scenes often take place on windy hilltops, as this scene between Paul Newman and Julie Andrews in Torn Curtain.

For Hitchcock, who received a proper Jesuit education and would have been familiar with Dante's Inferno, translating these stories to the screen wasn't just an episode of Schoolhouse Rock. Their themes have stuck around through the centuries because they speak to universal human feelings. They spoke to Hitch himself, who so often fell for his leading ladies, only to realize that his love would go unrequited.

But the erotic power of Hitch's love scenes go way beyond their narrative content.

From his 1926 directorial debut, The Pleasure Garden, a backstage drama about the lives of a pair of showgirls, Hitch showed a fondness for spicing up his films with a little titillation.
The Pleasure Garden abounds with sexy showgirls...

...and the men who watch them. (1926 audiences would have known that such music halls were often thinly disguised brothels.)

We're even given a privileged view of the backstage area and dressing room. Though today we might be inured to relatively tame images like these, these scenes were rather sensational in 1926. Hitch's camera took the audience into previously forbidden areas, the voyeurism intensifying the erotic power of such scenes.

This may be the first example of that tried-and-true teen flick trope: the close-up-on-the-ankles panty drop. The implied nudity in is almost as hot as if he'd actually shown the girl's naughtier bits.

For starters, Hitch understood that sexual tension can increase in direct proportion to the withholding of its satisfaction. The blondes in his early films are first-rate teases.


Über-tease Kate (Anny Ondra) refuses to give her lover a direct answer to his proposal of marriage.

One particular area where Hitchcock's kisses stand out is their placement in the story. While most films put the dramatic love scene at the end, Hitch usually placed his roughly halfway through. As a result, his kisses aren't climaxes, they're preludes. Sure, they consummate desire—but they also drive the plot forward, usually to doom or redemption or, more often, both.

In Rear Window (1954), Grace Kelly's superheated stop-motion smooch with James Stewart leads to more canoodling, but also to an argument about his failure to commit. Eventually, it leads her to risk her life by snooping around murder suspect's apartment.

In one of the Hitchcock's most iconic kisses, when psychoanalyst Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) surrenders to J. B.'s seduction (played by Gregory Peck) in Spellbound, the 'doors of her mind' fly open, signifying release and sexual awakening. The scene points back to the film's prologue, which promises that through the logic of psychoanalysis, the 'locked doors of one's mind' can be opened, leading to a cure from neurosis. For Constance, however, her (f)rigidity is cured by that most illogical of devices—a kiss—and it leads to her entanglement in J.B's efforts to run from the law and from the past.

And what about To Catch a Thief? This movie is one long come-on, this time perpetrated by Grace Kelly on a coolly cooperative Grant. Everything goes along swimmingly until they spend a fateful night together, after which she wakes up to find the he has **cough cough** robbed her of her jewels. With that, the plot picks up speed (even as it loses a measure of romantic steam).

Camille Paglia has said that
"Hitchcock's vision is so extensive, so broad, that it takes in everything, from architecture to politics to sexuality -- but sexuality in particular, with its weird mixture of beauty and desire and horror and the macabre. There's an emotional depth to Hitchcock's films that I find almost completely lacking in some of the European art films that I once so adored and now regard as rather affected and very partial statements about human life."
I'm going to explore what she meant by that in my next post.

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4 comments:

DorianTB said...

Somehow this post makes me want to put on something more comfortable -- um, I mean, great post! :-) Seriously, Joel, you've done a fine job of portraying desire in Hitchcock's world. He had a way of showing the aching romantic longing of Hitchcock heroes and heroines. They were all wonderful, but for my money, the Hitchcock couples who portrayed this most effectively (meaning both movingly and playfully) were Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Grant and Ingrid Bergman in NOTORIOUS, Bergman and Gregory Peck in SPELLBOUND, Grace Kelly with any Hitchcock leading man, Janet Leigh and John Gavin in PSYCHO, and of course, James Stewart and Kim Novak in VERTIGO. Looking forward to reading your next post in this series!

Saturday Nightmares said...

This might be interesting to the fans of Alfred Hitchcock, Tippi Hedren will be signing autographs at our next Saturday Nightmares Expo June 3rd-5th. We will be screening The Birds and will have Tippi Q&A prior to screening. If you are a fan you should not miss this expo. For more info please visit: www.saturdaynightmares.com

Juliette said...

Until you said repressed sexually, the man sounded well above average to me. Excellent article and insight into this character. Sounds like he suffered from his strict education and ended up living his sexual fantasies through his movies.

Anonymous said...

This is a fantastic, biography-worthy essay on The Master's handling of sex in cinema. I came here while writing a screenplay in the style of Hitchcock's films - he appeared in a dream to me and gave me a humdinger of a story, but there's a romance between a prima ballerina and an autistic man who is her greatest fan. I was unsure depicting a kiss (or more) between them would be true to Hitchcock's style. You've reassured me it is... now off we go to finish that movie! Thank you for a wonderful article. Yours, an NYU filmmaker...