Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Torturing Women and Mocking Men: Hitchcock's Rear Window

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Torturing Women and Mocking Men: Hitchcock's Rear Window

Article excerpt

ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S REPUTATION as a misogynist is probably indelible and, it has to be admitted, he earned that reputation through scenes of violence against women in films like Psycho and Frenzy and through his often coarse comments about women in his interviews. Nevertheless, there has been a growing trend in Hitchcock criticism (see Lesley Brill's The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock's Films and Tania Modleski's The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory) to notice how many of his films express a both a deep sympathy for women and a sharp critique of the male psyche. There is a real question as to whether the notorious scenes from Frenzy and Psycho have not been unduly emphasized in our judgment of Hitchcock and whether Hitchcock's films, in general, are not only sympathetic to women, but unusually so.

Our sense of Hitchcock as a dark misogynist has been perpetuated by Donald Spoto's biography of Hitchcock, The Dark Side of Genius, which concentrated, in obsessive detail, on Hitchcock's infatuations with his actresses towards the end of his career, particularly with Tippi Hedren during the filming of Birds and Marnie. The book underplays the healthy relationship with actresses that characterizes the majority of Hitchcock's career, and more importantly, underplays a tendency in Hitchcock's films to be deeply empathetic to women and often hostile to men and critical of their treatment of women.

Suffering Women

Hitchcock's film Rear Window, in particular, seems to call into question a simple assessment of Hitchcock as a misogynist. Like so many other of Hitchcock films it tells the story of a man who trivializes and persecutes the woman who loves him and in doing so builds a strong bond of sympathy between the audience and the suffering heroine. The hero of the film, L. B. Jefferies, or Jeff for short, played by Jimmy Stewart, reminds one of the Cary Grant characters from Notorious and North by Northwest. In both of these films, Grant's character underestimates his leading lady's moral character, assuming she is more criminal and promiscuous than she really is. Jeff too assumes that the urbane, glamorous Lisa Fremont does not have the moral fortitude or seriousness to share his life as a Robert Capa-like traveling photographer. Like the Grant characters, he too assumes she is more trivial and promiscuous than she really is, at one point comparing her apartment to that of the exhibitionist dancer in his neighborhood whom he dubs "Miss Torso." "She's like a queen bee with her pick of the drones," Jeff says of Miss Torso, but means as a reference to Lisa.

Jeff is also a bit like Scotty in Vertigo. Jeff ignores real-life love in Lisa, instead investing himself in fantasy women who live in the apartment building across his courtyard and who he watches through

binoculars and the telephoto lens of his camera--the sexy Miss Torso, the touching Miss Lonelyhearts, even the unfortunate Mrs. Thorwald whose death requires that a knight in shining armor do it justice. Lisa has all of the same needs as these women. She finds no response from Jeff to her beauty or loneliness, and his concern for Mrs. Thorwald, his sympathy for Miss Lonelyhearts, and his erotic interest in Miss Torso all represent ironic counterpoint to his cruelty and indifference towards her. Similarly, Scotty, in Vertigo, is cruelly indifferent to Judy's love and her merits (as he had been to Midge's) as he uses her body to rebuild a fantasy image of Madeleine.

What is interesting is that these four films (Notorious, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest) represent four of Hitchcock's very greatest works. The theme of a man who underestimates a woman, who is too sure of himself and often very cruel to the woman, who through his own callousness to the woman's feelings places her in a dangerous situation, and only once saving her from that situation realizes the full measure of her worth and his blame--this was a theme Hitchcock felt with enough depth that it gives these films an emotional resonance films do not always have. …

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