Whats wrong with Hitchcocks women Few would disagree that Alfred Hitchcock was a master film-maker, but the female characters in his films range from stupid to cunning to traitorous, complains BidishaAlfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren filming The Birds. Photograph: Ronald Grant ArchiveAlfred Hitchcock, what a ladykiller. There he is, lurking with rotundgrandeur at the very forefront of film greatness, like an over-zealousrestaurant manager in a PG Wodehouse novel. There are lots ofreasons to love Hitchcock, of course: the style, the guile, the pace, thepitch – I realised that afresh when watching a box set of all his films, inpreparation for a talk at the Southbank Centre on Sunday. Hitch knowshow to frame a shot. But when it comes to the ladies, its slim pickings.Indeed that is literally what his women do: pick their way slimly through arange of awful experiences and deceitful pathologies so extreme youdbe howling with laughter, were the art of cinema not so very serious.Theres the vamp, the tramp, the snitch, the witch, the slink, the double-crosser and, best of all, the demon mommy. Dont worry, they all getpunished in the end.But Im getting ahead of myself. The chief skill of the Hitchcock heroineis to lie, inflict and then suffer untold torments without ruffling her hem. Ifyou want some full-on misogyny, rampant woman-blaming and outrightabuser apologism, look no further than Marnie. Marnie is a liar, thief andall-round uptight frigid piece of trouble who is set up, blackmailed into aforced marriage and raped by her husband. She tries to kill herself. Thehusband subjects her to a private investigation – raping her past. Turnsout Marnies pathology is entirely the fault of another woman, her
mother, who was a prostitute, of course. One night during a storm one ofher mothers johns tried to comfort Marnie, because men who useprostitutes are such nurturing guys. The mother, silly thing, totallymisconstrued it and thought he was molesting Marnie, so she went forhim. And then Marnie, the daft little sausage, got all hysterical watchingthe ensuring tussle – and killed that poor sweet innocent guy with apoker. Anyway, once we get to the bottom of all this, Marnie has abrainwave and decides to make it work with her lovely young abusive,stalking, blackmailing rapist husband. Ah, happy endings.Hitchcocks women are outwardly immaculate, but full of treachery andweakness. But, hurrah, he doesnt kill them all. He just teaches them athoroughly good lesson. In North By Northwest, a seemingly never-ending adventure farce about mistaken identity, double-crossing andCIA agents, Roger O Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) is the innocent fallguy caught up in the life of lying, duplicitous, butter-wouldnt-meltundercover agent Eve. Underneath, of course, Eves just anothermalicious featherbrain who got into the agenting business because shewas flattered to be asked to betray a secretive ex-lover. I love thatcombination of stereotypes: were stupid, cunning, soft-hearted andtraitorous, all at the same time. Only in the mind of a true hater canthese contradictory qualities come together in the nasty piece of workthat is Woman. Anyway, silly girl, Eve gets found out, her lifes in danger,she falls for the fall guy and winds up dangling one-handed over a ledge.Roger saves her.In Rear Window, LB Jeffries (played by James Stewart) is aphotographer recuperating from a broken leg, idly watchinghis neighbours from his window. One of them is a shrew, a nagging wife.She gets a shrews comeuppance when her husband kills her, parcelsher up and disposes of her in suitcases. Then he assaults Jeffriessgirlfriend Lisa when she goes to investigate, although shes saved at thelast moment. Rear Windows a strange, cowardly, mean film. It ought tobe about the horror of witnessing a wife-killer doing his business.Instead, the subplot is about gratuitously bringing the loving, sincere andhelpful Lisa down a peg or two – and then showing how (yep)untrustworthy she is. Played by Grace Kelly, Lisa goes from being aglittering socialite to a modestly dressed girl next door whos interestedin camping. In the films final moments, though, she slyly reads a fashionmagazine when her beaus asleep. Because thats what women are, youknow. Sly.For a more serious message, look to The Birds. The Birds is aresounding warning about what happens when a flirty female tries to
make a joke. Melanie Daniels, played by Tippi Hedren, is a prank-playerand liar (of course) who tried to gift some lovebirds to the younger sisterof Mitch, the chap she fancies. The entire bird world, chagrined to be thepawn in a devious womans game, gets its revenge. Thereafter, itswomen on the verge of a feathery freak-out, all the way. The message isthat women (a) are all about men and (b) cant get along because theyreso busy pecking and squabbling over men. Mitchs mum hates Melanie.Mitchs mum hated Mitchs ex too, but Mitchs ex loves Mitch so muchshe cant bear to live far from him. Mitchs ex hates Melanie and dies.Mitchs mum is so hung up on men that since Man No 1 (her husband)left her, shes gripped by fear that Man No 2 (her son) will leave too.Melanies own mean mommy abandoned her family. All these neuroticfemales get the avian thrashing they deserve, in a squawking, Jungianfree-for-all of throbbing birds and fabulous hairdressing.Speaking of hairdressing, we must mention Vertigo, a sumptuously cladsmackdown of female two-facedness. To cut a long but extremely well-dressed story short, a lying duplicitous woman exploits an innocentvertigo-suffering man, Scottie, by setting him up as a witness in amurder plot. This plot involves a man murdering his wife and makingit look like a suicide prompted by mental illness. Shadowing the planmythically, and providing a kind of psychological alibi, is the tale of thewifes great-grandmother, who killed herself a century before. In thisinfinite kaleidoscope of mad, sad, bad, super-styled women, only onething is certain: she who lies, dies (although, come to think of it, theinnocent wife died, too). The duplicitous decoy falls in love, as ever,with Scottie, the guy shes supposed to be duping. He gets hisrevenge by breaking her down and making her into the image of thedead wife. He makes her re-enact the murder at the top of a bell-tower – thereby curing his own vertigo, though the film isnt reallyabout that. She gets whats coming to her and plunges off the edgeafter being startled by … another woman. A nun.And now for the biggie: the all-encompassing Hitchcockian entity knownas Mother. In North By Northwest the entire drama kicks off as theprotagonist is on his way to send his mother a telegraph. In The Birds,lawyer Mitch lives with his mother when hes not working. In Vertigo,Scottie chides his ex for being too motherly towards him when sheshelping him convalesce. And in Rear Window, Jeffriess therapist againplays a strongly motherly, advisory role.I think its safe to say that little Alfred had mummy issues. Nowhere arethey more apparent than in Psycho. Despite its horror and suspense,Psycho is one of the simplest of Hitchcocks films because the central
dynamic is so stark. It is also psychologically realistic, despite theghoulish trappings. Rather than the flapping Jungian panic of The Birds,you have a Freudian, tight, Hamlet-like emotional model. The showerkilling scene that everyone remembers – the one with the cheap plasticcurtain – is just Hitchcock enjoying his favourite game of punishing afemale thief and liar, in this case a woman who has run off with somemoney from her workplace and signed into Bates Motel under a fakename. The real drama happens later. Norman Bates loves his mother somuch that he cannot bear her desire for another man. In a fit of jealousyhe kills her, and her lover. He has never grown out of his childlikeOedipal rage and his bedroom is a creepy preserved little kids room,but as he grows older his feelings are overlaid by a very adult and prettycommonplace misogyny. He is ashamed of his sexual desires andprojects his self-loathing on to the women he murders. Instead of takingresponsibility for murdering women, he blames another woman, hismother. He takes on her guise to inhabit her, literally to get inside herclothes the way a lover would. And he tells himself, in another massiveact of projection, that in the murders he is acting out his mothersjealousy towards the women he desires.At the end of my DVD viewing marathon I realised how revealing Psychois. Norman Bates is Hitchcock himself, kidding himself that women arescheming devils and men are just innocent folk, acting up because theygot caught in a tricky situation.