Book Review: Hitchcock’s Heroines

Caroline Young is the Scottish author of several books on film and fashion, most recently Hitchcock’s Heroines, a big, beautiful survey of women’s style in the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

Each entry focuses on one actress in one of Hitchcock’s films, arranged chronologically from June Howard-Tripp in The Lodger (1927) to the only double bill, Anna Massey and Barbara Leigh-Hunt in Frenzy (1972). Young’s five-decade tableau does indeed cover fashion—from Hitchcock’s era-defining collaboration with Edith Head, to his “Victorian, suppressive instinct for fetishism” manifested through costume. But beyond the gorgeously reproduced production stills and concept designs (Christian Dior’s sketches for Marlene Dietrich’s wardrobe in Stage Fright are a highlight) lie vital gestures toward under- discussed elements that make up the reactive cauldron of Hitchcock’s cinema. Frequent contributions from “the era’s only female writing team” (Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife, and Joan Harrison, his former secretary and future producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents), for example, are faithfully chronicled.

Hitchcock’s notoriously troubled relationship with women in general goes chillingly unchallenged in Hitchcock’s Heroines. In any other year that might slip under the radar, but 2018 is not one of those years. Daily, it seems, the cascade of allegations condemning men in Hollywood who’ve abused their power continues to flow. Though it’s clear Young didn’t set out to analyze but to document, the tacts she took sometimes left me cold. “While other more experienced actresses could laugh it off,” she writes of Tippi Hedren, Hitch’s most enduring detractor, on the set of The Birds (1963), “perhaps her fear of being out of her depth made her more vulnerable.” Perhaps so. Perhaps, too, the director took strategic advantage of that fear, exacerbating her feeling of vulnerability to make her more pliable, isolated. Perhaps this strategy is in part what rendered the iconic looks and performances which made this very book possible.

The Takeaway:

Hitchcock’s Heroines is a powerful aesthetic achievement that lands somewhat stiltedly during a moment wherein a newfound skepticism toward problematic male geniuses is being enthusiastically exercised. The roadmap to any such reckoning is bound to be circuitous, and it’s perhaps foolish to demand that a coffee table-style book succeed visually and narratively in telling the macro story behind one of the 20th century’s most influential image makers. (The technical play-by-play of the Hayes Code-demolishing kiss scene between Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in Notorious is, pun fully intended, spellbinding.) In this respect, even the buffest Hitch-head will be bowled over by the details Young has artfully uncovered. MM

Hitchcock’s Heroines was released by Simon & Schuster on May 1, 2018. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Summer 2018 issue.

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