Sunday, July 24, 2011

Forbidden Desires: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma

Voyeurism has always been an integral part of the appeal of motion pictures. However, over the years, the taboo of watching and staring into the lives of others was made largely acceptable by movies that didn't implicate us in our peeping. But Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma changed all that. They turned that taboo of staring and watching into a dramatic strategy where both directors forced us to face our own perverse fantasies and forbidden desires.

I first set out to examine this theme in a course I taught last winter at Ryerson University through the LIFE Institute. Partly, the idea for the series was due to my interest in both directors. Their films not only shaped my fascination as a moviegoer, but their work also implicitly led to my eventually wanting to be a critic. Being a critic then showed me that there were are also significant differences in their respective strategies. Where Hitchcock set out to become a master entertainer of exciting spy thrillers and dramas, De Palma questioned with ironic humour the very nature of what makes exciting drama. If Hitchcock desired (and won) a mass audience that made him one of the most highly regarded and respected commercial directors, De Palma became the opposite. He would often alienate audiences because of his ironic desire to treat movie conventions and storytelling in an irreverent way. In doing so, he deliberately (and cheerfully) undermined our desire for a happy resolution to the picture. Hitchcock may have been a genius at manipulating our responses by pulling the rug out from under our expectations in his dramas; but De Palma, in borrowing some of Hitchcock’s cinematic language (as well as the language of Buñuel, Polanski and Godard), used conventional drama to take us deeper and further into more contemporary issues of sexual fear and political unrest. In Forbidden Desires: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, I decided to pair films from their body of work that I felt best mirrored the different ways they work with voyeurism. The series continues tomorrow night at the Revue Cinema.

Janet Leigh in Psycho

For instance, in both Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and De Palma's Dressed to Kill (1980), the allure of voyeurism permeates the films. But they also go in different directions. In Psycho, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is an unhappy bank employee who is having a frustrating affair with John Gavin. One day, she impulsively steals some money she's supposed to deposit and hits the road, looking to make a new life. Who knows where that road is going but the audience immediately feels caught up in a suspenseful heist drama where the only anxiety is whether Marion will be caught. A sudden rain storm takes her off that road into the presumed quiet shelter of Bates Motel. While engaging in conversation with the shy, unassuming Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), the proprietor, she begins to feel the need to cleanse herself of her earlier transgression. To do so, she will go back and face the consequences of her reckless act. First she takes a shower to wash away the guilt. But what she doesn't know (and we do) is that Norman has been watching her strip through a hole in his office wall. Before we can resolve our unease at watching him indulge his masturbation fantasy, we find ourselves watching her, too. When she steps into the shower we invade her most vulnerable and private space. Yet we continue to watch; getting away with our unseen spying, as Norman Bates had moments before. Shortly after, when she ends up brutally murdered, stabbed to death in the shower, we are implicated in that act. The act of watching.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates
Besides breaking a tradition where the lead actress usually survives a picture, Hitchcock made us party to the crime, even slyly shifting our sympathies to Norman Bates. Hitchcock also shattered our safety zone. Janet Leigh was gone before the movie was even half over. What lead actress ever gets bumped off that early, if at all? More to the point, we felt partly responsible for her death not just because we were witnesses, but also because we couldn't reach into the screen and save her. We felt like passive accomplices to both the crime and our desire to watch. In his book, The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, critic David Thomson elaborates on this. "Right from the start, Psycho played with...darker prospects," he wrote. "[N]ow the subversive secret was out truly this medium was prepared for an outrage in which sex and violence were no longer games but were in fact everything." Before Psycho, I don't think sex and violence were games exactly, but they were often treated moralistically so that audiences could easily separate good from evil and feel inviolate. But Psycho ended all that. "The title warned that the central character was a bit of a nut, but the deeper lesson was that the audience in its self-inflicted experiment with danger might be crazy, too," Thomson continues. "Sex and violence were ready to break out, and censorship crumpled like an old lady's parasol."

Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill

By 1980, though, sex and violence was everywhere in movies. There was no longer a censorship code to contain it as there was in Hitchcock's time. Sex and violence became so pervasive, sometimes even lacking in shock, that a hack director could employ it whenever he felt that the audience was getting bored. When Brian De Palma made Dressed to Kill, he took the basic framework of Psycho and reframed it for an age where the fantasies of sex and violence which movies now openly embraced and encouraged could once again regain the power to shock and instill fear. Dressed to Kill begins with a shower scene (much like the famous one in Psycho), but this time, there was more going on than just our role of watching. The main character, Angie Dickinson, is inside her own fantasies, soaping herself and drawing us into her most private sexual thoughts. But we don't know that in the beginning. Instead our unease is stirred because De Palma opens his film with a scene that could have come out of dozens of soft-core pornos. We soon get snapped into reality when we discover that her shower fantasy is distracting her from the miserable round of sex she's having with her husband that morning. Frustrated and tired of the mechanical humping with her mate, she speaks to her therapist (Michael Caine) who tells her to confront her frustrations with her spouse. But rather than deal with the inevitable, she seeks out a man in a museum and has a quick fling. At first what appears to be a happy coincidence turns into something horrifying and that isn't even the murder scene (which also doesn't take place in a shower). Furthermore, the killer who stalks her has issues of his own with sexual identity.

Critic Pauline Kael called Dressed to Kill a horror comedy that cleverly dealt with our fear of sex and also described it as a movie where everyone ended up spying on everyone else (and, of course, the movie came just before the decade would fulfill all those fears). With all the Internet spying going on today, where people post videos on just about anything, Dressed to Kill might be even more prescient than when it first appeared. De Palma though made an essential link in 1980 between our movie fantasies and the sex fantasies of his female character. Those fantasies would ultimately lead to the reality of her murder which led feminists groups to protest theatres claiming that Brian De Palma was endorsing violence against women. "I thought that was a very naive reading of the movie because the Angie Dickinson character is darling," Kael told me in an interview in 1983. "You feel so sorry for her. Here is this sweet woman who isn't harming anyone and this hideous irony happens where she steps out and tries to have some sexual pleasure and she gets killed after it. It's so subtly funny in the way that it's handled. Somehow the feminist critics have treated it as if she's being punished for her sexual transgression. I don't think that's remotely what's going on in the movie." Film critic Steve Vineberg (who joins Critics at Large with his first post tomorrow) agreed; perhaps nailing what it was that incensed people at the time. In No Surprises Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade, he wrote that "the link between fantasy and reality in this movie is unconscious. What makes Dressed to Kill both funny and frightening is that when the killer strikes, it's as if he were tuned into his victims' fantasies which obviously he couldn't be; their fate is a perverted playing-out of their most sordid private thoughts."

The playing-out of sordid private thoughts is the true common link between Psycho and Dressed to Kill. But where Psycho operates within the boundaries of genre convention, Dressed to Kill reaches out to society at large; a society where movies have a way of shaping a whole way of seeing, feeling and fantasizing.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. His four-part lecture series, Forbidden Desires: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma continues at the Revue Cinema tomorrow at 7pm with a look at Psycho and Dressed to Kill. You can listen to Kevin interviewed about the series on CBC Radio's Fresh Air which is linked here

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