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Threatened Heroines – Sleeping Heroes

Posted by keith1942 on March 3, 2010


Sleeping Mitch in The Birds

Sleeping Mitch in The Birds

In this presentation I want to comment on a motif found in a number of films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock is generally accepted in film criticism both as an ‘auteur’ and an outstanding filmmaker. [For example in Robin Wood’s Hitchcock’s Films Revisited]. I use auteur here in a straightforward sense, a director in whose films can be discerned recognisable style and themes.

The motif studied might best be described as ‘the heroine in danger’. It is found in examples of Hitchcock’s work from both his British and Hollywood periods. The sequences, which contain this motif, also display the thematic and stylistic ‘signature’ of the director. This motif can therefore be seen as reinforcing arguments that recognise Hitchcock as an auteur.

The films I have chosen to feature are Blackmail (UK 1929). Sabotage [UK 1936], Rear Window [USA 1954] and The Birds [USA 1963]. The motif is found in a number of other Hitchcock films: it features in the plot of Psycho [USA 1960] and is the kernel of one of Hitchcock’s finest films, Vertigo [USA 1958]. It seems to me that this motif raises interesting questions about how Hitchcock’s films treat women, an aspect of his ‘auteur’ presence that has evoked considerable discussion.

The basic motif shows us a woman, already established as the heroine in the narrative, menaced and in danger, usually from a male villain. The hero, her potential partner, is absent or unable to intervene. This basic situation is rendered more complex by the use of a familiar Hitchcock device: the focus on voyeurism and consequent reflexivity for the audience.

Blackmail provides an early example of the motif. Alice (Annie Ondra) is going out with a police detective, Frank (John Longden). However, she has also attracted the attention of an artist (Cyril Ritchard), who seems more exciting than the staid policeman. Frank leaves after a tiff in a Lyons Cornerhouse and Alice is ‘picked up’ by the artist. He later invites her to visit his flat and studio. Slightly reluctant, Alice is persuaded. In the Studio the artist persuades Alice to pose in a ballerina dress. This leads to an attempted rape and Alice stabs the artist with a bread knife. Her seizing of the bread knife is presented in a close-up of her hand groping through a curtain. Then in panic she flees the scene. The rest of the film develops tensions around Alice’s fate, with her detective involved in the investigation.  In this case he is absent rather than ‘sleeping’ when the heroine is in danger.

Sabotage, taken from Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent, has a somewhat similar sequence. Mrs Verloc (Sylvia Sydney} is married to the older Verloc (Oscar Homolka), who runs a suburban cinema. The marriage ensures a home for her younger brother Stevie (Desmond Tester). Unknown to her, Verloc is also involved in a secret anarchist plot: planting bombs around London. In one of these her young brother is killed. Meanwhile the wife has also caught the attention of a plain-clothes policeman, Ted (John Loder) who is working on the case. Late in the film whilst he is out on the investigation the wife realises that her husband is connected to the bombings. At the dinner table, he realises her suspicions. She snatches up the carving knife just before him and stabs him. Like Blackmail the scene uses close-ups of the hands and knife as both grapple to seize it. Once again the imperilled heroine suffers whilst her romantic interest is absent.

The situation is clearly displayed in the sequence from Rear Window [1954]. Photojournalist L. B. Jefferies [Jeff – James Stewart] is incapacitated with a broken leg. He whiles away his time spying on his neighbours’ apartments. He starts to suspect that one neighbour; Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife. In this scene Jeff’s girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) search the garden for evidence. Lisa, who is a model and wants to impress action man Jeff, decides to climb up to Thorwald’s apartment and search there. She finds a ring that possibly belongs to the [dead] wife and holds it up at the window triumphantly. However, at this point Thorwald returns. The helpless Jeff can only watch and desperately ring for the police. They arrive just in time.

In this sequence the villain menaces Lisa. Jeff is immobilised by his cast, unable to intervene, but he has to watch and endure the suspense that usually only the audience endures. The instrument of the voyeur, Jeff’s 500mm camera lens, is part of the plot of the film. Hitchcock has also developed his use of mise en scène and the audiences focus is carefully pointed, less by close-ups and more by points of attention [windows] in the frame.

The various meanings offered in this sequence could include that suggested by Hitchcock regarding a ring that Lisa finds during her search:

“the dual significance of that wedding ring. Grace Kelly wants to get married, but James Stewart doesn’t see it that way. … To Grace Kelly, the ring is a double victory:”[Hitchcock by F. Truffaut, 1968, page 276].

This scene of the threatened heroine continues to recur in Hitchcock’s films, reaching a notable climax in The Birds. Socialite Melanie Daniels [Tippi Hedren] is attracted to young lawyer Mitch Brenner [Rod Taylor]. She visits his hometown of Bodega Bay. During her stay increasingly vicious attacks on humans are made by all manner of birds, seemingly acting in concert. Now she is imprisoned in Mitch’s family house, with Mitch, his mother and younger sister. They rest after a particularly ferocious night-time attack by birds.

Melanie wakes and hears noises. She climbs to the attic to investigate. Here she is attacked by a mass of birds, and badly pecked: Mitch drags her to safety.

When Melanie climbs up to investigate the noises in the attic our hero is asleep. He presumably is awakened by Melanie’s screams, and is only just in time to rescue her. Underlying the film’s surface plot is a suggestion that the attacks by the birds are a punishment on Melanie.

“For instance, when Melanie is locked up in the attic with the murderous birds … What I wanted to get in that attack is as if the birds were telling Melanie, ‘Now, we’ve got you where we want you. Here we come. We don’t have to scream in triumph or in anger. This is going to be a silent murder.’ [Hitchcock by Truffaut, page 371].

The Birds, like Rear Window, displays the familiar style and themes of Hitchcock. As with Rear Window, the audience is likely to have conflicting responses: complicity with Melanie’s curiosity but also a shrinking horror at the likely outcome, confirmed with the attack by the birds. This film, in particular, focuses frequently on the pecking beaks of the birds, visually and dangerously similar to the frequent knives in other Hitchcock films.

Stylistically, all the sequences rely on the way Hitchcock uses technique to focus the audience’s attention. In Blackmail and Sabotage this is by cutting in a close-up of the weapon and the hand. A dramatic technique which seems to zoom in on this crucial detail. In Rear Window the sets are organised to focus attention on one area, in which stands the heroine. And in The Birds the camera follows Melanie into the den of horror. Hitchcock’s ability to use technique in this way can be seen across a range of films, including in some cases bravura tracking shots.

In Blackmail and Sabotage the heroes’ work interferes with his relationship with the heroine. She is thus left alone with a dangerous man. In both cases she has to kill to save herself, rather than being saved in the conventional manner by a male hero.

They and the two later films raise interesting questions about the content of Hitchcock’s auteurism. A number of writers have pointed to the misogyny in Hitchcock’s films, and indeed in his extra-diegetic comments. Misogyny connotes hatred but also fear of women: witness the brutal onslaught on Melanie. This motif would suggest quite complex strands of meanings in the representation of females in Hitchcock’s films. In the Rear Window example, effectively deserted by the hero, the heroine has to grapple and overcome the villain alone. The hero’s incapacity would appear to be intrinsically related to his voyeuristic activities. His function as the ‘viewer’ coming into conflict with his function as the ‘doer’. In The Birds it would seem that Melanie wishes to spare the exhausted Mitch and so ventures into danger alone. But it is her attraction to Mitch that has put her in danger: beneath the surface hovers the suggestion that it for this attraction that she is being punished.

The motif would seem to offer an interesting strand for of analysis for Hitchcock’s work. For example, how did this motif develop over time? What are the differences between the British and Hollywood films? In Blackmail and Sabotage the heroines kill the men alone: in Rear Window the police, summoned by Jeff rescues Lisa: in The Birds the heroine is actually rescued from assault by the hero. What can we deduce from this change in the motif over time?


The motif subverts [to a degree] the classical Hollywood situation where the hero rescues the heroine. Such a reversal is not peculiar to Hitchcock or even cinema. A literary example from before the age of film is Jane Eyre. In this book the heroine is preparing for her marriage to Mr Rochester. At night, his secreted wife Bertha, steals into her room and cuts up her wedding veil. Rochester, like the household is asleep. But the real cause of the danger to Jane is Rochester’s failure to own up to his dark secret.

Hitchcock give shis own spin to this trope and it also develops very interestingly over his film career. His two late masterpieces, Vertigo and Psycho, treat this motif in distinctive and fascinating ways. In Vertigo Scottie [James Stewart] suffers from acrophobia [fear or dread of high places]. An old friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) recruits him to spy on Elster’s wife, Madeleine, who appears to be acting strangely. As Scotty follows Madeleine around a number of San Francisco locations he becomes increasingly romantically obsessed with her. They actually meet when Madeline jumps into the bay by the Golden Gate Bridge. As the relationship develops they drive to an old mission town. Here Madeleine climbs the tower of the mission church. Scotty is unable to follow as he suffers an attack of Vertigo. Helpless he sees Madeleine fall from the tower. Once again in Hitchcock a frozen hero fails in his central role of protecting the heroine.

However later in the film Scotty and the audience discover that Madeleine’s apparent suicide was a complex murder plot by Elster. That the ‘Madeleine’ that Scotty shadowed was actually a stand-in, Judy. This happens after Scotty has met the actual Judy and attempted to remodel her into a recreation of the dead Madeleine. Having discovered the deception Scotty returns with Judy to the Mission town and church. He drags her up the church tower, incessantly asking ‘why me’? At the top Judy recreates Madeleine’s earlier fall: though the instrument of this is actually the appearance of a nun, emerging like a ghoul from the shadows.  However, the cause is clearly Scotty’s realisation and anger. The final show of the film shows him arms spread, looking down after the fallen Judy: shocked, horrified but cured of his acrophobia. It would appear that in this film the hero and the villain have become one; [we never hear what happened to Elster]. And Judy is punished for Scotty’s own masculine obsession: he destroys what he most objectifies [rather than what he most loves].

Psycho develops this marriage of hero and villain even further. Marion Crane, fleeing with stolen money, stops overnight at a Motel, run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). She dies in a shocking fashion in the famous shower sequence. At this point the audience supposes that Norman’s mother killed her. He is apparently absent in the old gothic mansion and we hear his cries of ‘mother, mother’ when he ‘discovers the body.

Later in the film the replacement heroine Lila Crane (Vera Miles) is also threatened by Norman’s mother in the mansion’s basement. The shock of the film is when she and we discover that the mother is actually Norman. At the film ends there is a sort of an explanation by a psychologist, Norman has been taken over by his dead mother. In terms of this motif this explanation offers a pointer to the division within male protagonists, between the lover and the patriarch. In all these films, either wittingly or unwittingly, the male heroes allow and even encourage women to be placed in a situation of danger and punishment. The Birds, the film that follows Vertigo and Psycho, is probably the film where this point is made most explicit.

Overall this seems a very complex Hitchcock motif. Not all the films mete out punishment to women: nor do the other necessarily involve the subordination of the heroine to the hero. Both Black mail and Sabotage allow a female character to deal out violence to a male villain. Both also have very dark endings: In Blackmail Alice and Frank are joined together in guilt: in Sabotage Mrs Verloc has killed her husband, but her young brother, for whom she endured this union, is also dead. In The Lady Vanishes and Young and Innocent, much of the action depends on a strong-minded heroine. Whilst a number of the Hollywood films subjugate their heroine, as in The Man Who Knew Too Much, the stronger heroine survives in films like Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window and North By Northwest. It is interesting to speculate what factors or colleagues are in some way responsible for the variations in the films?

Other Movies by Hitchcock’s:

The Pleasure Garden, 1926.

The story centres on two showgirls: Patsy [hardworking and moral – Virginia Valli] and Jill [on the make – Carmelita Geraghty]. Jill ditches her fiancée Hugh (John Stuart) in favour of a wealthy admirer. Patsy marries a colleague of Hugh, Levet [Miles Mander – suggestive casting]: both men work in colonial West Africa. It transpires that Levet is ‘shacked up’ with a native girl (Nita Naldi). Patsy, arriving unexpectedly discovers the liaison. Levet’s response is to drown the native girl in revenge and then, haunted by his ghostly victim, to turn on Patsy. She is saved by one of Hugh’s colleagues as he, the official hero, is laid up with fever. He arrives just after Patsy’s rescue carried by two native porters: and it is Patsy who nurses him.

The Manxman, 1929.

Kate Cregeen [Annie Ondra] is caught between two friends, Pete Quilliam [Carl Brisson}, a fisherman, and Philip Christian [Malcom Keen], a lawyer. Whilst Pete is away at sea Kate and Philip have an affair. Kate marries Pete, but carries Philip’s baby. When Pete learns the truth Kate leaves him, though Pete retains custody of the child. However, Kate is unable to make Philip take responsibility for her. At this point, with both men failing her, she attempts to end her misery by jumping into the harbour. The failed suicide drives the story forward to a climax and resolution.

The Man Who Knew Too Much, UK 1934 and USA 1956.

This is the only property that Hitchcock filmed twice, and there are intriguing differences between the British and Hollywood versions. In both films two distraught parents search for a kidnapped child. The child has been adducted to prevent the parents revealing an assassination plot. The actual assassination attempt takes place during a concert at the Albert Hall. As the criminal gang has seized the father, the wife has to attempt to prevent the murder alone. In the British version she [Edna Best] succeeds and the final part of the film shows the rescue by police of both father and daughter. In the Hollywood version the daughter has become a son. The mother [Doris Day] becomes almost hysterical during the concert and apparently unable to intervene, but at the last minute the husband [James Stewart] escapes and arrives to prompt action. This change in gender roles is accentuated by a further revision: in the British version the mother shoots the assassin during the final siege at the gang’s hideout. In the Hollywood version the mother is only allowed to sing, and it is the husband who actually retrieves the hostage son.

The 39 Steps, UK 1935.


A spy thriller. Richard Hannay [Robert Donat] offers shelter to a secret agent Annabella. But she is murdered in the night – whilst he is asleep.

Rebecca, USA 1940.

Max De Winter [Lawrence Olivier] marries the unnamed heroine and narrator of this story [Joan Fontaine]. When they return to his family mansion, Manderley, her life is haunted by the shadow of De Winter’s dead first wife, Rebecca. Yet Max is constantly leaving his young bride without support or protection. This includes a scene where the dead Rebecca’s former confidant, Mrs Danvers, encourages the young wife to ‘end it all’.

Suspicion, USA 1941.

This film offers a divided hero. In this case the division is ambiguous, and the film ends reassuringly: [apparently at the Studio’s insistence]. The ambiguity concerns the husband John [Cary Grant] of heiress Lina [Joan Fontaine]]. She increasingly fears that he is a spindrift and wastrel with murderous intent. The combination of hero and villain in this plot looks forward to the darker and more compelling plots of Vertigo and Psycho.

Notorious, USA 1946.

One of the most compelling examples of the endangered heroine. Alicia Huberman [Ingrid Bergman] is used by the US secret service to entrap a band of Nazis plotting in Brazil. The US agent Devlin [Cary Grant] not only supervises Alicia but is romantically involved with her. Yet he lets her actually marry one of the Nazis, Alexander Sebastian [Claude Rains] and become trapped in his family mansion. Alicia nearly dies from deliberate poisoning before Devlin finally rescues her.

Strangers on a Train, USA 1951.


This adaptation from the novel by Patricia Highsmith offers intriguing variations on the hero and heroine. There are several possible interpretations of how the film treats this trope. If Guy is the hero and Anne the heroine then an absence situation offers little threat. However, if we turn to Guy’s wife Miriam then when Bruno murders her Guy is lounging on a train travelling home from a tennis tournament. This situation is more potent as Bruno thinks he is acting on Guy’s wishes [and unconsciously this may be true). However if wee follow the gay strand, even more potent in the novel, then it is Guy’s absence that occasions Bruno as murderer. Guy is absent because he needs an alibi.

I Confess, USA 1952.

Set in Montreal, the romantic couple are Michael Logan [Montgomery Cliff] and Ruth Grandfort [Anne Baxter]. Michael interrupts the youthful romance to volunteer for service in World War II. During his absence Ruth marries Pierre Grandfort. On his return Michael has a brief reunion with Ruth and then departs to become a Catholic priest. His double absence rebounds when their relationship provides the motive for a charge of murder.

Dial M for Murder, USA 1954.


Another murderous husband. Seeking to remove his rich wife Margot [Grace Kelly] and inherit her money, Tony Wendice [Ray Milland] organises a substitute murderer whilst he has an alibi provided by Margot’s lover Mark Halliday [Robert Cummings]. The actual murder attempt involves strangulation [seeRope] but Margot defends herself with a pair of scissors: similar to the bread-knife in Blackmail. Meanwhile Tony is at a stag dinner with Mark. His telephone call is a prompt for the murder attempt: and his voice is heard on the phone by Margot as she recovers – a distant voice which is reminiscent of the voice that disturbs Alice’s breakfast in Blackmail.

The Wrong Man, USA 1957.

‘Manny’ Balestrero [Henry Fonda] is the ‘wrong man’ arrested for robberies. It is his absence at the police station and subsequently in jail that sparks off the mental illness of his wife, Rose [Vera Miles]. This is an illness that lasts long after his release and the proof of his innocence.

North By Northwest, USA 1959.

Roger O Thornhill [Cary Grant] is mistakenly involved in a spy plot. He meets the very attractive Eve Kendall [Eve Marie Saint]. In a glorious reversal she stays in Chicago whilst sending him to his likely death in the middle of nowhere. However, later in the film the plot develops more conventionally. A burly policeman knocks out Roger, thus stopping him from preventing Eve returning to the dangerous nest of spies. So he has to follow and save her.

Marnie, USA 1964.

The situation of the heroine Marnie {[Tippi Hedren] appear similar to Psycho and Vertigo: she is involved with a man, Mark Rutland [Sean Connery], who represents both romance and danger for her. The difference from the earlier films [appears to me] that the nominal hero is not divided: he engenders no sympathy, only fear and repulsion. This is partly due to the script, partly to the casting of Connery. We learn that Mark has an interest in zoology, and he treats his amour-cum-wife like some specimen in a cage or tank. The darker side of Hitchcock appeared to become stronger in his later films, and this seems to be a clear example. But the ending conforms to Hollywood conventions: Marnie is ‘cured’ of her mental illness and chooses to stay with Mark. At the start of the film Marnie is clearly able to handle and manipulate men to her own advantage. By the time the traumas arranged by her husband are over she appears the dependent female, willing to accept her position with him.

Topaz, USA 1969

This is probably the stodgiest film directed by Hitchcock and contains some of the most wooden acting in his output. This could be put down to failing powers, but equally the didactic cold war thriller [from a novel by Leon Uris], rather like its predecessor Torn Curtain (1966), is not really his forte. The film is full of his mannerisms but lacks his usual subtlety. The banality of the film is demonstrated by the use of a pieta pose for a couple of traitors after an interrogation.

The film is set in 1962 shortly before the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’. The plot concerns a French agent André Dévereaux (Fredrick Stafford) working secretly for the USA and attempting to find out about Soviet activities in Cuba. His agent, and lover, is Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor), protected partly by being a widow of a Cuban ‘hero’.  Sure enough, Juanita is left alone when André is forced to leave by Cuban Security chief Rica Parra (John Vernon}. However Juanita, unlike most Hitchcock heroines and possibly because André already has a wife [and anyway she is Cuban] is shot by Rico. Sadly the film ends happily for André and the USA, but we do get to see Fidel Castro along the way.

Frenzy, UK 1973.

The hero Richard Blaney [Jon Finch] seems play the ‘absence motif’ in minor ways. The first actual victim of Bob Rusk [Barry Foster] that we see in the film is Blaney’s now-divorced wife Brenda [Barbara Leigh-Hunt]. And the second is Babs Milligan [Anna Massey] after she has left Blaney and returned to Convent Garden. But Richard is responsible in the second case. Whilst he kips at friends she returns to her work at a pub. Richard rings her there which results in argument with the landlord (Bernard Cribbins) and her packing in her job. It is then that she meets Rusk who offers to put her up: but in fact assaults and murders her. Bob is a sort of friend of Richard who has himself stayed in Rusk’s flat.

Family Plot, USA 1976.

Hitchcock’s last film has many of his familiar touches and motifs. And once more the heroine, Blanche [Barbara Harris] is left to face danger alone. George [Bruce Dern] has to go off to his taxi job. In his defence he warns Blanche to wait till tomorrow to investigate the dangerous kidnappers / jewel thieves Arthur Adamson [William Devane] and Fran [Karen Black]. And George does turn up for a last minute rescue, a classic confessional ending.


This was written and presented for A Level students as an example of the Auteur Project required in FS4 of the WJEC A2 syllabus. The presentation included screening the sequences from Hitchcock’s films, about four or five minutes each: here they are described in the text. I provided exemplar handouts with a brief biography of Hitchcock and a list of his most important films. The students were all given exemplars for the Catalogue and Evaluation required for the project.

3 Responses to “Threatened Heroines – Sleeping Heroes”

  1. […] particular motif in Hitchcock films is the absent hero. Late in the film Mander has disposed of the native girl but is haunted by her spectre. It drives […]

  2. […] a MacGuffin, which is the key, which passes round the characters. But thematically it is about the threatened heroine, a sexual triangle, guilt and innocence, and a touch of […]

  3. […] Intriguingly the film features a triangle, Miles Mander as Sir Hugo Boycott, Madeleine Carroll as Lady Madeleine Boycott and John Loder and Lord David Harborough. Sir Hugo is a philanderer and abuses his wife. This partly motivates the romantic but chase affair between Madeleine and David. At a crucial point in the film Hugo physically attacks his wife. But David is away in London, the ‘absent lover’. This is a not uncommon motif but one that appears regularly throughout the career of Hitchcock. Whose motif? […]

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