The Ladies Don’t Vanish: Hitchcock’s Sheroes

by Isabel Tandazo

The movie was not going to be for him but The Lady Vanishes, 1938 ended up being the most Hitchcock a movie could possibly get. In a twist of fate that allowed him to appropriate a project that had been conceived and developed for someone else, and would later turn into one of his most celebrated films, the peak of his English time-and of his filmography- which was already coming to an end.

Although he still had to make a picture under his current contract with Gaumont British, Hitchcock had already started talks with David Selznick to relocate to Hollywood. Which happened right after his project The Lady Vanishes. The script had been shelved from the previous year; it was an adaptation of Ethel Lina White’s novel The Wheel Spins.

Although the film has an obvious MacGuffin, The Lady Vanishes can be seen as a massive MacGuffin in and of itself: in her improbability, she is all the suspense, the massive trick that keeps us on our toes, and that allows Hitchcock to demonstrate his abilities as an effective storyteller and inspiring creator. The director’s ability to make us feel sorrow, dread, and restlessness with a mystery so basic and clever that it disarms us is precisely what makes The Lady Vanishes such an iconic film. The anecdote of an old woman, Mrs. Froy, who disappears from a moving train that no one – except Iris Henderson – remembers ever having seen. Iris is adamant that the missing lady is not the product of a punch to the head she experienced just before boarding the train, which has thrown her perception into doubt. Iris does not have to establish her innocence, as many other Hitchcock heroines do, because no one accuses her of anything; instead, she simply wants to learn the truth and reclaim her credibility. 

Gilbert and Iris

As the audience, it is difficult to understand why someone went to the trouble of making an elderly woman vanish. The audience gradually learns that Iris’ investigation is being hampered by a conspiracy of silence: whoever kidnapped the woman has not only clear motives, but also the complicity of many on board. The story is very well calculated in a psychological sense, which poses a crescendo of suspense and the intensity of the viewer’s anguish to share the protagonist’s point of view because they know Iris is telling the truth. However, there is a second, unspoken conspiracy at work, which serves as a clever metaphor for the political situation in Europe at the time: several Englishmen on board, who were not involved in the kidnapping plot, also deny seeing the woman, for foolish and selfish personal reasons. They don’t want to get into trouble and prefer to stay away from other people’s problems. Only choosing sides when they realize they are in danger. They reflect prewar English society, in which the upper classes still praised Hitler and dismissed rumors about his dictatorship and invasive intentions.

Iris and friends

Playwright Elizabeth Karlin argues, “The films of Alfred Hitchcock are bounding with the most active and dynamic female characters to be found in twentieth century art. The ladies don’t vanish in Hitchcock. They are front and center. Making trouble. And making things right. Of course other directors have shown women as dimensional figures of action, but none have accomplished it as consistently, as naturally, or as deeply as Hitch

Hitchcock was a pioneer in the interpretive use of psychoanalysis to deconstruct the ways in which old Hollywood narrative structures reinforced gender stereotypes. One could even argue that prior to directors like Hitchcock, cinema was organized according to the active/passive structure, in which the male character -gaze holder- forwards the action while the female character remains passive; however, despite Hitchcock’s efforts to create dimensional female characters, his women are frequently reduced to an object of desire. Because un-sexualized women (to the male gaze) would lack identity and, more importantly, would pose a threat to the male identity and patriarchal order, for which they are subjected to neutralization: fetishism or sadism. The latter is clearly exemplified in Alfred Hitchcock’s work, where the mystery of women is repeatedly investigated in order to eventually devalue, punish, and/or redeem them. As a result, female leads in his extensive filmography are more common: Blackmail (1929), Rebecca (1940), Notorious (1946), Rear Window (1954).

The female character in the first film, Blackmail, violates the patriarchal order, so the goal of the entire narrative is to restore the order broken by Alice White. In Rebecca, the protagonist (Joan Fontaine in the role of the young woman whose name is unknown) must overcome her inferiority complex; this path depicts Rebecca’s invisible omnipotence and the taboo of one woman’s desire for another, both of which are ultimately neutralized through the devaluation and punishment of the already deceased one.

Notorious depicts the process by which the protagonists are positioned into social order: thus, the rebellious Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) goes through a purificatory process in which she expiates the guilt of her criminal father and, more importantly, her own excessive sexuality. Before she is even worth Devlin’s time (Cary Grant). Her potential as a spy and investigator at the start of the film is quickly reversed and inverted because she is the one who is subjected to the violent inquisitorial gazes. In Rear Window, the character of Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) is reduced to a passive image of perfection that only becomes relevant when she becomes the object of L.B. Jefferies’ voyeuristic gaze (James Stewart). However, Lisa can be seen as a strong and active character in a variety of ways: her physical superiority and ability to move over the immobilized Jeff is obvious; moreover, it is she who appears in the final scene, adapted to masculine desire in her outward appearance but true to her own interests. So, in a sense, she is there to serve herself rather than Jeff’s amusement. 

Hitchcock and Lockwood

It is reductionist to label the British director’s films as misogynistic, because his films are distinguished by a constant ambivalence toward femininity, rather than hatred for women. Hitchcock puts viewers of both sexes in an awkward position by depicting the tension between two opposing extremes: the fascination with femininity and the fear that this form of identity will pose a threat to the male identity.

It is undeniable that female protagonists are given special treatment in Hitchcock’s films. Especially given how old some of these films are and how oppressive society was towards women at the time. It is true that his ladies do not vanish, and to some extent, they are sometimes the brightest aspect of his films. It could even be argued that, for the first time, women were explored as dimensional characters with complexity and identity, and even unapologetically so in some films. But, as forward-thinking as that may have been for the society and arts of the time, it doesn’t change the fact that they were still made his, from a male perspective and clearly for the male amusement. Some of these misconceptions continue to threaten women’s identity and position in society to this day, which is exacerbated by the portrayal of women on the big screen.

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1 Comment

  1. Braxton Lawrence

    I one-hundred percent agree with your statement about how Hitchcock gives special treatment for his female protagonists because I believe that he wants to break the stereotype of all women are showed in movie during that era. He wanted to create unique and new stories that were never told before and show that women can also be strong characters and they can carry the lead role of films. That Gender should not get into the way of what roles to give to people, we are all equal and we must spread this message out and let the whole world know so we can stop this problem from limiting movies.


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