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cinema history Archives – FutureFemme

From 'Psycho' to 'The Birds', here’s our ranking of Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies in terms of female representation.

Ranking Alfred Hitchcock’s best films for female representation

By News

Between his famously sketchy on-set treatment of women to his depiction of them in his movies, Alfred Hitchcock remains a divisive filmmaker when it comes to women. Between the female stars he cast and the characters he cast them as, the director has repeatedly been criticized for a punishing perspective of women.

In his book Alfred Hitchcock: A Brief Life, Peter Ackroyd suggested that Hitchcock’s often perverse personal perspective of women seeped through into his cinematic one.  

“The sexual fantasies of his adult life were lavish and peculiar, and, from the evidence of his films, he enjoyed devising the rape and murder of women.”

Meanwhile, Roger Ebert once suggested that the “blond . . . icy and remote” women of Hitchcock’s movies were all treated in a similar manner: “Sooner or later, every Hitchcock woman was humiliated.”

However, while there are certainly some films we agree on regarding this, there are other Hitchcock movies that actually provide captivating and unusual depictions of women that were well ahead of their time.

Here’s our ranking of Hitchcock’s best movies in terms of female representation.

12. Strangers on a Train (1951)

Hitchcock’s suspenseful conspiratorial film noir (based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name) is an undoubted masterpiece of intrigue – even if the subtextual use of the “depraved homosexual” trope in the character of Bruno (Robert Walker) is irksome in retrospect.

Though Miriam (Laura Elliott) is a promiscuous monster murdered for her cold-hearted lascivious ways, the rest of the women in the movie remain on the periphery of the story as moral radars, pointing as to whom they think is innocent or guilty.

11. North by Northwest (1959)

Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) is a female character as defined by her duplicity in the story, as she is by her staggering beauty and sensuality.

As a result, the character is made love to on a train by Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) and dragged along Mount Rushmore like a woman forced on a hiking expedition for a first date. However, she’s far more integral to the story than Hitchcock’s wanton gaze of her suggests.

10. To Catch a Thief (1955)

It’s Grace Kelly and Cary Grant enjoying a romantic vacay together! The romantic caper is charming and dazzling, if a little overly simplistic.

Still, the chemistry between Grant and Kelly is lit as ever and Frances Stevens (Kelly) is a hot-headed gem of a character with an audacious love for danger that’s delightful to watch.

9. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Doris Day is an unexpected standout in this thriller where she plays a female character who capably subverts Hitchcock’s usual icy blondes. Not only is she sweet and tender as the mother of a boy snatched by a terrorist organization, but she’s also dynamic and tenacious in her bid to save him.

8. Dial M for Murder (1954)

Margot Wendice (Kelly) using a pair of scissors to stab her attempted murderer is one of the most powerful images of Hitchcock’s overall ouvre – particularly as it shows a woman repurposing a domestic instrument into being an object of violent survival.

Aside from that, however, Margot isn’t the greatest Hitchcock heroine ever devised and she’s also the only main female character surrounded by male detectives, killers, and lovers.

7. Vertigo (1958)

Much has been said about how Vertigo (no matter how important a movie) is “still considered the last word in misogynistic creepiness,” as Kim Novak takes on dual ones, one of which is shaped into the ultimate fetish doll of James Stewart’s Scottie.

However, as The Guardian once suggested, there’s an argument to be made that Vertigo “is not an example of misogyny, but an overblown, beautiful and tragic deconstruction of it.”

6. Rear Window (1954)

It could be argued that via the voyeurism of Jefferies (Stewart), Rear Window is a tribute to the perverse power of the male gaze and that women don’t particularly factor into that narrative as active participants.

However, Thelma Ritter is exceptional as Jefferies’s quippy nurse and Kelly is as bodacious and intelligent a heroine as you could ever hope to see – even if we only touch the surface of her intrepid character.

5. Rebecca (1940)

The gothic melodrama based on Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel features one of Hitchcock’s most intriguing and chilling lead female characters in the form of Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) – a lonely housekeeper obsessed with the dead wife of her master.

The psychological back and forth between the character and the long-suffering Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) makes Rebecca a rare Hitchcock movie that revolves around two lead female characters in peculiar roles.

4. Notorious (1946)

One of Hitchcock’s rare attempts at romance actually draws an incredibly complex female character in the form of Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) – an undercover spy tasked with infiltrating a group of Nazis in South America.

Alicia’s mission becomes complicated by her falling in love with co-worker Devlin (Grant) while marrying family friend Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), but her role is never undermined by the romance. Alicia remains a powerful portrait struggling to consolidate her desires to do right by herself, her family, and her country.

3. The Birds (1963)

The behind the scenes cruelty and sexual harassment of model-turned-actress Tippi Hedren at the hands of Hitchcock during the making of the film has been well documented and is galling to revisit in full. However, Hedren’s character (Melanie Daniels) is one of Hitchcock’s finest.

Daniels is a firebrand of a woman – a free spirit and a prankster who does whatever the fuck she wants. However, when nature starts going apeshit, it’s fascinating to see the vulnerability splinter through the cool veneer even as she fights back.

2. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

One of the most underrated and influential characters in cinema history has to be Charlotte (Teresa Wright) – a dissatisfied angst-ridden teenager who starts to suspect the uncle she idolizes might actually be a serial killer.

The noir mystery hits some subtle incest beats that are challenging to get past, but ultimately Charlotte is compellingly complex. She’s a young woman fighting for survival and for peace of mind while also losing a pivotal part of her innocence in the process.

1. Psycho (1960)

All shower slaughter and voyeuristic glimpses of nudity aside, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is a subversive female character (particularly for the time) who simply seeks self-gratification and freedom at whatever cost.

Likewise, her sister Lila (Vera Miles) is arguably the first archetypal final girl of horror, refusing to back down in her investigation of her sister’s disappearance and showing true tenacity in her disturbing search for answers.

Watching Stanley Kubrick’s films through a feminist lens

By News

Did you know it was acclaimed director Stanley Kubrick’s birthday last month? The prolific filmmaker (who passed away in 1999) would have turned 90. To honor the occasion, the official Twitter page posted a tribute video made up exclusively of white male filmmakers fawning over the filmmaker’s genius (and their own).

Martin Scorsese stares straight into the camera as though he’s delivering a cult induction video and suggests Kubrick is something “you live by”. Christopher Nolan (a director known for “fridging” the female characters in many of his films) stated simply that Kubrick’s movies have a “very special place” in his heart.

Meanwhile, Simon Pegg simply reeled off even more white great male directors in his honoring of the late director, stating, “The likes of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola – those guys are the movie brats that shaped the contemporary movie industry but I think all of those guys would absolutely defer to Kubrick as being a huge influence.”

We’re obviously huge fans of the director’s work and there’s no doubt he helped to influence an insurmountable volume of independent and Hollywood movies – but he isn’t beyond reproach. Furthermore, tributes like this that only focus on the white male perspective of his oeuvre and influence do little to counter criticisms that Kubrick’s treatment of women during production and as characters in his films was (to put it politely) a little iffy.

It’s a criticism that was brought to mainstream attention when Stephen King (who has long and openly challenged Kubrick’s treatment of his novel The Shining) called Kubrick’s depiction of Wendy Torrance (Shelley DuVall) “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film” in an interview with the BBC. The horror writer reasoned that the character is “basically just there to scream and be stupid and that’s not the woman that I wrote about.”

It’s a difficult criticism to argue against. For as multi-layered and truly ingenious as The Shining may be as a film, Wendy is a shrill prop of a woman – a thing to swing an axe at. The character is further worsened by Kubrick’s merciless treatment of DuVall while directing her on set.

In the behind the scenes documentary of The Shining filmed by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian, we witness the abuses DuVall endured at the hands of the director – all in the name of enhancing Wendy’s insecurities. Such intense pressure was heaped onto DuVall that she notoriously suffered hair loss from the stress of it all and was found crying between takes.

The culmination of which is most evident in the iconic scene in which Wendy swings a baseball bat at a deranged Jack. Her hysteria is palpable and it’s also very real – it broke the World Record of the most takes ever shot for a scene with spoken dialogue at 127 takes. In the documentary, Kubrick can even be heard urging other crew members “don’t sympathise with Shelley” even though she’s stood right next to him. It’s just locker room talk, right fellas? Such jokes. Much funny.

Following the film’s release, DuVall opened up to film critic Roger Ebert that she essentially “had to cry 12 hours a day, all day long . . . nine months straight, five or six days a week.” She also sadly lamented that for all her hard work and suffering, she wasn’t recognized for her efforts, with critics failing “even to mention it, it seemed like. The reviews were all about Kubrick like I wasn’t there.”

It’s a telling quote and it perfectly summarizes some of the criticisms of Kubrick’s work when viewed through a feminist lens. In Lolita, Eyes Wide Shut, and A Clockwork Orange, women tend to take two forms – they’re either young sexual objects or they’re elder shrews.

The lusty nymphets who strut, seduce, and are sexually and rapaciously consumed provide a framing of a woman’s power being solely beholden to her youth and beauty. The older women of these movies tend to be subsequently rendered weak and powerless and pushed into the outer frame of shots.

As Danielle R. Pearce wrote in her essay “Kubrick, Misogyny & The Human Condition”, in Lolita, “severe contrasts can be seen between mother and daughter. Kubrick clearly places Lolita in the center of frame when she is featured. This is different to her mother, whom is consistently framed off center – in the periphery. Humbert is fixated on Lolita, however Charlotte is simply an annoyance to him.”

There’s obviously an argument to be made (especially considering the satirical nature of Lolita) that Kubrick is simply reflecting societal attitudes towards women. Particularly in regards to how young and beautiful women are given prominence across all corners of society while women beyond a particular age (even a goddess like Nicole Kidman) are pushed to the outer fringes.

The problem with that reading (no matter how true it may be in regards to his intentions) is that he never made a film that truly challenged the idea of women being anything more than victims, objects, or shrews. In Killer’s Kiss, the heroine is relegated to the subordinate role of a frightened dancer striving to escape her dangerous boss, while in Barry Lyndon the movie explores ideas surrounding toxic masculinity, but still depicts a cheery scoundrel of a protagonist who marries a woman for her money and has his merry way with their merry maids.

In Kubrick’s further masterpieces Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Paths of Glory, and Full Metal Jacket, women are mostly absent from the narrative. Which, in all honesty, is fine – we’re happy to enjoy a film mostly free of a female presence than one where a woman has been awkwardly shoved in for the token representation. The point is that Kubrick’s vision was such an obstinately male one that it left absolutely no space for a single complex female character or perspective.

And you know what? That’s fine. Grab a spoon and eat your fill of it if that’s what you think is the marker of masterful filmmaking. However, it leaves a distasteful residue upon the history of Hollywood that Kubrick is still renowned as being one of the most influential directors of all time. Especially when a modern perspective on his legacy still only offers a male white championing on the impact he continues to have on modern filmmaking.