|Fugit Amor (Fugitive Love)|
This article was updated, with new material added, July 26, 2021
I can't think of a single measure by which Alfred Hitchcock could be described as “average.” A man with a ravenous appetite for food and wine, art and intellection, he seems to have been repressed in only one way: sexually. Then again, he even overdid that: a self-proclaimed celibate, he insisted that he'd had sex exactly once. Given such monk-like proclivities, how was he able to direct some of classic Hollywood's hottest sex scenes?
Some suppose that Hitchcock used the movie set to act out his sexual fantasies. There might be some truth in that: most artists worth the price of admission work from the inside out. However, to stop there would be an ungenerous—even unjust—assessment of his artistry, to speak nothing of his humanity. Say whatever you want about him, there's no question that few people understood human nature like him. He knew what makes us tick, and he died a wealthy man by showing us the clockworks of our hidden psyche.
As I've shown elsewhere, he often drew from 2000 years of art and sculpture when designing his films. His love scenes—often among the most carefully planned parts of his films—look to romantic and erotic art to deliver a specially charged sexual wallop. Auguste Rodin's Kiss seems to have inspired aspects of some of his love scenes, but that wasn't the only one. His Fugit Amor acts as a kind of sequel, continuing the tragic affair of Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini depicted in The Kiss. While the earlier piece depicts them before that fateful buss that earned them a ticket to hell (second level) at the hand of her husband Giovanni Malatesta, the latter piece captures them in motion, eternally tossed about by an infernal whirlwind that keeps them forever out of each other's grasp.
|Fugit Amor is tucked away in the bottom right. At the top, you'll find the Thinker, ensconced in his original situ.|
Francesca and Paolo were a popular theme in the 18th and 19th centuries, inspiring countless paintings and sculptures.
In Torn Curtain (1966), Hitchcock recreated Tchaikovsky's ballet Francesca da Rimini. From the film's opening credits to Gromek's murder in a gas oven to Paul Newman's crying "Fire!" in the middle of the ballet, the film is filled with images of fire and hell. One implication is that even Cold Wars are hell; another could be that the turmoil that the Shermans (Paul Newman and Julie Andrews) are caught up in bears comparison to Dante's poem.
In an earlier post, I showed how Hitchcock's Notorious faithfully reimagines that venerable story—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 these classics. 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 DeWinters' troubled marriage boils over at a cliff overlooking the beach in Rebecca.|
In one of its most poignant scenes, the DeWinters have a testy exchange while watching home movies. It is as Francesca, speaking from the maelstrom, says in Dante's poem: “There is no greater sorrow than thinking back upon a happy time in misery.”
For Hitchcock, whose Jesuit education familiarized him with Dante's Inferno, translating these stories to the screen came from a deep place. They spoke on behalf of a director who so often fell for his leading ladies, only to realize that his love would go unrequited.
I'm reminded of Camille Paglia's summary of Hitchcock's vision in her BFI monograph on The Birds:
"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."
Hitchcock fused his private passions with his knowledge of art, literature and psychology to create moments of transcendently erotic—and romantic—cinema.
The erotic power of Hitch's love scenes goes 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.
...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 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.
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).