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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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. Print this post