Hitchcock's Heroines


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Hitchcock’s Heroines, by Caroline Young. 

Insight Editions. 

From Grace Kelly to Kim Novak and Tippi Hedren, the women in Alfred Hitchcock’s films are most often described as being icy; beautifully-costumed victims who were fetishised by the director. 

But as I explore in my book Hitchcock’s Heroines, these leading ladies were more than just passive victims, and Hitchcock was careful to shape these characters to appeal to women. They could be brave, plucky, sensual, complicated, and most importantly, sympathetic. In many of Hitchcock’s films we view the story from the heroine’s perspective, and when it comes to solving the crime, often it is the woman who has the wits to do so. Lisa in Rear Window, for example, springs into action and places herself in danger while her partner, played by James Stewart, is incapacitated. Hitchcock also takes the heroine’s point of view in many of his films including Rebecca, Suspicion, Notorious, and The Birds

One thing Hitchcock highlighted, from his career beginnings, was that women were his primary audience. He told a magazine in the early 1930s: “The chief point I keep in mind when selecting my heroine is that she must be fashioned to please women rather than men, for the reason that women form three-quarters of the average cinema audience.”

In the 1930s, the mother in The Man who Knew Too Much is a crackshot with a rifle, ultimately rescuing her kidnapped child. Along with Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt, who must take on her beloved uncle Charlie in order to save her family, Ingrid Bergman in Notorious is one of the most interesting of characters in the 1940s. Alicia was shaped into a complex and flawed woman. She is fast with men, drink, and driving as she tries to escape the disappointment she feels in her Nazi father, sentenced for his war crimes. Even Janet Leigh in Psycho, dispatched in a shower 30 minutes into the film, was shaped to be likeable and appealing, so much so that her early death on screen is devastating to the audience. Hitchcock was fastidious in creating a sense of realism in creating the character, and sent a photographer to Phoenix where they found a girl like Marion, visited her home, and photographed her bureau drawers, her suitcases, and the contents of her wardrobe.

It was in the 1950s, Hitchcock’s golden era, when elegant blondes, such as Grace Kelly, became the dominant heroines of his films, wearing what we consider to be the Hitchcock heroine style of fitted suit, heels and blonde hair in a chignon. Hitchcock was meticulous about the visuals, and costumes in his films were carefully constructed to serve the narrative and to offer subliminal messaging. Glasses were a common motif, signifying the unmasking of a woman such as Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound or Joan Fontaine in Suspicion, while a bird brooch on the lapel (or twin brooches in Shadow of a Doubt) acted as a warning, just as birds in his films commonly indicated dark forces about to strike. 

In Dial M for Murder, his first of three films with Grace Kelly, Hitchcock planned a colour progression for the character of Margot with a bright wardrobe at the start, becoming more sombre as the story progresses, from brick, then to grey, then to black. 

In Rear Window, sticking with the film’s theme of voyeurism, Grace Kelly’s Lisa is a fashion maven who is used to being watched and admired. Lisa likes to display herself through glamorous costume, with an awareness of creating meaning through what she wears. But instead of impressing Jeff, her clothes serve to cast further doubt in his mind as to whether she can match his adventurous career. By the time Lisa sneaks into Thorwald’s apartment, Jeff has found a new appreciation for his girlfriend, realizing she is not as frivolous as he thought. Her floral dress was designed to add a sense of vulnerability as she climbs up the fire escapes and clambers over railings. And it also connects Lisa to Mrs Thorwald, whose head is buried in the flower beds. 

In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock and Doris Day discussed the clothes she would be wearing, and she found the director was “very precise about exactly what he wanted for my wardrobe.” Day wore a tailored grey suit for the scenes set in London, which shares strong similarities to the structured grey suit Kim Novak wears in Vertigo. In contrast to the sand and blue tones of the Marrakech scenes, this suit would blend into the gloomy brick buildings and quiet streets of London, so as not distract from the plot. In Vertigo, the grey suit was key to a film about obsession and identity, where James Stewart’s Scottie forces Judy to wear the grey suit to make her into the image of his dead lover. Kim Novak was the most remote and ghost-like of Hitchcock blondes, and Hitchcock told costume designer Edith Head “the girl must look as if she’s just drifted out of the San Francisco fog.” 

For critic Camille Paglia, Melanie in The Birds is “the ultimate Hitchcock Heroine,” as she is “mistress of chic, a beautiful woman haughtily used to exercising her power over men in public and private.” Everything she does, such as dialling the phone with a pencil to save her long, manicured nails, is designed to show us the personality of Melanie, while her green suit and fur coat, was the outfit of a San Francisco socialite who must unravel on screen. 

Tippi Hedren’s experience working with Hitchcock is often considered the pinnacle of his obsession for blondes. To look at Hitchcock through a modern eye, can be troubling, with Tippi’s testimony and countless opinions that defend or condemn the director. However, it’s the actresses and female characters that first drew me to Hitchcock’s films in the first place, and rather than being the last word in misogyny, I’ll continue to admire them for their complicated, inspiring, stylish selves. 

Caroline Young
Author, Hitchcock's Heroines 
carolinejyoung.com 

You can purchase a copy of Caroline Young's beautiful book from Amazon, here


Win a copy of Hitchcock's Heroines! When you purchase a ticket to Vertigo at GFT (13 - 17 July) online, you'll be automatically entered into a prize draw to win a copy of Caroline Young's Hitchcock Heroines. T&Cs apply.


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