For years, I've been wanting to write an essay concerning the Hitchcock handbag -- they're quite fetishistic, vaginal things those handbags (I will get to this essay someday -- and I'm not the only one who has noticed these powerful purses), but while staring at all those crisp, snapped, hard bodied rectangular satchels and muffs, I wanted to return to a post about his women (three in particular) who clutched such wombs of wonder. Three wounded, weird, gorgeous, sexually strange but extraordinarily erotic women -- femmes who'd drive most of us to a state of amour fou. And Hitchcock understood such mad love. He also, despite some claims to the contrary, understood women, or rather, a certain kind of woman. Hitchcock, to whom people love to apply the actors as cattle quote ad nauseam, saw something deeply disturbed inside womankind -- especially blonde womankind. He understood their perfected calculations, their sexual mystery, their age-old competitions, and their alternately reserved and hysterical glamour and power.
Though I could point out numerous Hitchcock heroines (Janet Leigh in Psycho for one), three stick out: Vertigo, The Birds and Marnie. All reveal the director's predilection for leaving his heroines vulnerable to danger, dementia and doom. In these films, we can see Hitchcock's bent, or as Camille Paglia states in her excellent assessment of The Birds, his "perverse ode to woman's sexual glamour...in all its seductive phases, from brittle artifice to melting vulnerability."
Who more perfect to represent Paglia's declaration than Kim Novak, who gave the best performance of her life in Vertigo, and Tippi Hedren, a woman whose career seems to have revolved around Hitchcock's? The luminous Grace Kelly, whom I revere, may be considered the quintessential Hitchcock blonde goddess but she's not as cinematically artistic or powerfully damaged as Novak or Hedren. She is a supreme Hitchcock heroine for certain -- an assured actress with mathematically perfect features, a patrician on the outside and a sexual animal underneath, Kelly's not a simplistic princess. And I love that Kelly is interesting because she's too perfect (James Stewart's complaint in Rear Window and why Sinatra fell for her in High Society). And with that, she never touched the wounded, transgressive eroticism of Hedren or Novak. Part of that could lie in Hitchcock himself -- he never tortured her. The more neurotic Hedren and Novak appeared in his pictures (and Hedren was a particularly bizarre interest for the director), the more responsive they seemed to the darker situations their auteur placed them in.
Hitchcock explored truly disturbed female protagonists in his early films, but none matched the wrenching melancholy displayed by Kim Novak in Vertigo. While Stewart was lauded for his flawless performance as the detective who becomes morbidly obsessed with resurrecting the image of his dead lover, Novak unjustly received criticism (at the time) for her uncomfortable portrayal of that lover. She presented a woman whose beauty bequeathed her a power she was ultimately unable to control, making Novak's Madeleine/Judy both wise and naive, hard and soft. Novak revealed the sadness that lurked beneath the smiling facades of bombshells like Marilyn Monroe or Rita Hayworth, by allowing that nervousness to bubble to the surface. It's all in the way she holds herself, talks or furtively moves her eyes. It's as if her mind seems ill-suited for her body, unhealthy almost, making her something of a sexual contradiction. It’s not merely that underneath the classy, gray-suited, sternly coiffed Madeline there's an even bustier, tight-sweatered and common Judy -- it’s that she, like the picture itself, embodies the irrationality of desire.
Like Novak, Tippi Hedren was criticized for her performances in The Birds and Marnie. But time has proven them to be close to or perhaps just as brilliant and challenging as Novak's in Vertigo. The Birds is a movie of endless complexities--all helped, not hindered, by a terrific performance from Hedren. Hedren's Melanie Daniels, an independent rich girl in pursuit of Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) meets all sorts of problems when she journeys to Bodega Bay, including resentment from every other female character (though there's a strong homoerotic undercurrent in her dealings with Suzanne Pleshette).
But what makes the film so intriguing is that it's not just the millions of bloodthirsty birds messing with poor Melanie, it's the gals as well. Watching the weird interplay between Hedren and Mitch's mother (a wonderfully terse Jessica Tandy) brings up all kinds of strange scenarios -- is the mother just being overprotective, or is she a little too caring about her son? Why does she dislike her so much? Indeed, why does every woman in Bodega Bay seem to hate Melanie Daniels? In one of the film’s most telling scenes, a frightened mother blames the bird invasion on Melanie, screaming at her “I think you’re evil! Evil!”
Though a "carefree" playgirl, Melanie is truly a tightly wound bird herself. Her biggest challenge is handling the numerous flocks (human and otherwise) inhabiting the town. Mothers, sisters, earthy women, common townsfolk and birds crack Melanie's pristine exterior of white gloves, mint-green suits and matching handbags. And by the end, those suits and gloves are torn to bits. It’s not just birds against man, its birds against birds (the female variety) and if they’re flocking together, something is deeply, deeply wrong.
In the psycho-sexual thriller Marnie (a film I've seen too many times to count -- which makes me wonder about myself), Hedren's traumatized woman and criminal past leads her into the imprisoning, Freudian arms of Mark Rutland (Sean Connery). Hedren again plays an independent spirit of sorts, albeit an icy, frigid and mentally traumatized one. She can't stand the color red, she has an unusually strong bond with her horse (but then, what women doesn't?) and she loves her cold, flinty mother to the point of masochism. She's clearly never had a normal sexual encounter and though she shows flickers of attraction and flirtation, she appears to hate men. Or maybe just all of humanity.
But the movie expresses sympathy towards Marnie making it hard to blame the woman for her antisocial tendencies. In her experience, men (people) are beasts who've only done her harm (flashback to a very young Bruce Dern freaking out a very young Marnie). In return she violates them by lying, cheating and stealing without ever giving them the full pleasure of her lovely body. If Connery is going to have her, he must break her, via marriage, psychoanalysis and what can only be described as... force.
Like Novak's Madeleine/Judy in Vertigo, Marnie is a magnet for freaky men. And yet, in spite of her pathological frigidity, there's a feeling that somewhere, a ravenous woman could emerge oozing the kind of kinky sexuality that Judy displays in Vertigo.
And yet, through Hitchcock's subversive eyes (and our own), this unhealthy, yet accurate depiction of sexual madness becomes strangely, intensely romantic. Quite clearly Hitchcock, like Woody Allen (as he professed in Husbands and Wives) not so secretly loved his women a little crazy. I think we all do. And perhaps, also, gripping some nifty clutches -- creamy canals just waiting to be cracked.