Scottie: “What was this desperate urge to see me?” Midge: “All I said in my note was ‘Where are you?’ That doesn’t sound very desperate to me.”
—Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
To be considered desperate is a trap from which there is no clear escape. Denial is fairly fruitless once consigned to that space, all past and future actions painted with the same sour glaze. And nothing is quite so unconvincing as insistence to the contrary. These dilemmas of misplaced affection are often couched in the language of literacy: reading too far into things and between the lines, being written off, poorly translated and, ultimately, taught a lesson. Much of the comedy and pathos of unrequited love is found in such moments of misinterpretation and the kind of humiliation that spreads across the face like a brush fire.
Being defined as romantically inept can also pollute the image in ways beyond simple embarrassment. The more cues missed and conversations misunderstood, the more legible one becomes in the eyes of others. Each fresh mistake leeches away at your mystique as though there are just two ways to be—dull and available or attractive and opaque. That hierarchy of worth is a falsehood, a cruel flourish of social life. It also happens to be a principle endorsed by the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Time and again it’s how the director delineates his starring sexual objects who resist clear readings from his plainly platonic side characters. There are few better ways to accentuate the intoxicating mystery of a protagonist than by demystifying and making feckless fools of her minor female peers—typically cast as frank professionals, self-sufficient spinsters, or coded queers.
Take Marjorie “Midge” Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes) in Vertigo (1958), a shrewd designer whose fondness for John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) leads her to assist in his obsessive pursuit of an enigmatic, potentially dangerous lover. Or consider Lil Mainwaring (Diane Baker) in Marnie (1964), the prickly sister-in-law of publisher Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), whose fondness for him leads her to do much the same. Both women are assured and quick-witted, moving with an air of relaxed competence. Both ferret out key evidence like foreign agents built to push the drama forward. And still, for all their efficient intuition, the pair repeatedly misinterpret the signals of their leading men—planting unwelcome kisses and making inelegant gestures. It would seem that emotional illiteracy befalls only the most accomplished of people.
Yet despite being held in unflattering comparison, cuckolded by poor judgment and saddled with diminutive names, Midge and Lil remain two of Hitchcock’s most confidently perceptive figures. They transcend their status as known quantities by also being each film’s dominant purveyor of knowledge. Hitchcock may well curdle their sensuality as a way to embarrass them for sport, but their keen gazes remain in operation throughout. To be underestimated is, in some ways, to be made free, and so they continue to decipher and translate and speak in a non-hierarchical communion, revealing the ignorance of their male counterparts in the process.
So how are we taught to read the women of Marnie and Vertigo? We first meet brittle kleptomaniac Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren) from behind as she paces down a train platform, lacquered black wig on her head and labial purse tucked under her arm. Then she’s alone in a hotel room and rifling through the contents of a suitcase—nail files, gloves, and worn underwear. This is how she pivots among the competing aliases of Margaret Edgar, Peggy Nicholson, and Mary Taylor. First identified not by her face but by a splintered wardrobe—and her use of that wardrobe to affect passable femininity for criminal gain—she arrives on screen as an amalgam of false composites.
It’s a dislocated identity shared with Judy Barton (Kim Novak) in Vertigo, always partially synthesized with her duplicitous performance as Madeleine Elster. Whether she’s imitating the hairstyle of Carlotta Valdes, performing the mythical role of Galatea, or at a salon being made over in the ghostly image of a dead wife, her cool allure is all tied up in a lack of specificity. Her value to Scottie Ferguson is thus contingent on remaining an indeterminate fetish piece. If the pair were ever to settle down—Judy’s scattered identity now fixed by marriage or household routine—Scottie would surely venture elsewhere for another hit of the unknown. The same is doubtless true of Mark Rutland. Neither man has experience of the tender and quotidien sameness of legitimate love, being only familiar with obsession and the way that it trades in pedestals and sinkholes and blurred vision.
By contrast, Lil and Midge couldn’t be more readily coherent, suspended in transparency like fruit in aspic. The latter is introduced as she works on a state-of-the-art brassiere design, her proximity to sex limited to the strictly professional. While Madeleine Elster dons an incongruous grey suit to face the day, Midge spends her time drawing the apparatuses that conjure such intrigue. Calling Scottie by his given name and talking through his neuroses, she demonstrates all the casual familiarity of a maternal figure, even going so far as to call him “a big boy” and later reassuring him with the line, “You’re not lost, mother’s here.” Through candid advice and coy cooing—“You know there’s only one man in the world for me, Johnny-O”—she is made plainly and at times painfully available.
Take the scene in which she unveils a self-portrait painted in the style of Carlotta Valdes, at once implicating herself in and making a caricature out of his obsession. At first pleased to learn that his friend has returned to painting—“I’ve always said you were wasting your time in the underwear department”—Scottie is soon horrified to see her bespectacled head transplanted onto the shoulders of his spectral lover. The canvas is blasphemously legible, in the sense that Scottie has existing carnal knowledge of Midge and in that it reveals the absurd nature of his fixation back to him. It’s worth noting that the original screenplay required the anguished Midge to “paint a mustache and a beard on her image” out of shame, so known by the man as to be male.
Lil Mainwaring is likewise incompatible with Mark Rutland due to her unrelenting knowability. Be it the insouciant meddling or the unwanted embraces, her enthusiasm always overwhelms her capacity for discretion. Strolling into a bustling office in her first appearance, her foraging stares leave no face unturned—so probing that Marnie is forced to look away. With her surname pronounced somewhere between “mannering” and “man-wary," Lil is dually imprinted with independence and artifice. Despite this theoretically making her a perfect dupe for Marnie, her own appeal to Rutland is undone by her availability. As she tells him with her blazing eyes, “Me? I’m just offering you my services: guerrilla fighter, perjurer, intelligence agent…” Like so much of what she says, including the saucy line “Who’s the dish?” when first spying the new girl, Mark interprets her perspective as being clouded by competitive jealousy. In fact her perception is merely over-productive, allowed to proliferate unchecked in the absence of masculine interest.
This operates in the literal sense. Lil zealously corrects a misquoted Ralph Waldo Emerson poem and studiously deduces the secrets of Marnie’s past. Midge is a history buff with a taste for Mozart who makes a living out of translatingthe physics of the cantilever bridge into marketable clothing. They also wield a less visible skill—the ability to accurately decode the impenetrable female, initiating a gaze that sits outside of the films’ heterosexual dialogues. While Mark handles Marnie with armchair psychoanalysis and sickly coercion in equal measure, Lil gains more delicate access to her apparent opposite. “I’m queer for liars,” as she memorably confesses in a moment presented like a brassy flirtation. Of course, Marnie is the film’s consummate liar. This acknowledgement of her own unstable sexual placement is restated when Mark proclaims “You’re being had” and she calmly replies, “You can say that again.” It’s just moments into their formal introduction that Lil first recognizes an aberrant counterpart, asking Marnie to take over pouring the tea as there’s otherwise “sure to be droppage and spillage”—reminiscent of our protagonist leaving “drippings” in her mother’s house. It’s the beginning of a sly surveillance that recurs throughout the film in the form of glances that linger beyond comfort and an extended party scene that references a similarly queered trap set by Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940). Glaring from windows, staircases, and atop a horse, Lil’s eyes always follow Marnie from on high.
Although often understood as such, hers is not a strictly suspicious scrutiny. Usurping the role of protective lover, it’s Lil who wakes Marnie during a nightmare at Wyckwyn Manor—gleefully emphasizing Mark’s emasculation (“That’s supposed to be your department, isn’t it old boy?”) while dressed in the kind of Chinoiserie nightgown that had signified exotic lesbianism since the pre-Code era. In the scene where a distraught Marnie decides to kill her injured horse Forio, it’s Lil who offers to call a vet and then repeatedly urges, “I’ll do it Marnie.” What follows is a struggle over a pistol that’s somehow aggressive and tender—just as Marnie’s bond with her horse is branded with violence (“Oh, Forio, if you want to bite somebody, bite me”). It helps that Lil immediately discerns the importance of her friend’s love for Forio. Moreover, she realizes that the horse is a vessel for Marnie’s unbridled personhood, just like Mrs. Danvers’ precisely maintained hairbrushes or Melanie’s lovebirds in The Birds (1963). It’s a projection that extends to the point of identification, as when Lil eavesdrops on Marnie’s phone call and overhears her homophonous admission, “Yes, mother, I am still a little hoarse.” Like the kinship between Midge and Judy Barton, it’s only by Hitchcock’s predictable demand that they function as rivals that their covert discourse is allowed to “pass” in the mind of the spectator.
As opposed to an unbroken thoroughbred, Mark insists on misreading Marnie as an exotic creature requiring close study. Referring to her as “a wild animal,” making suggestive allusions to Arboreal Predators of the Brazilian Rainforest and comparing her to Kenyan insects who camouflage in the shape of a hyacinth, his invocation of biological abnormality seems appropriate at first. But if Mark is titillated by the process of tracking and catching his mate, Lil comprehends the commonplace sadness of her trauma-born deviance. It’s nevertheless in this ham-fisted mode that he “tames” a rightfully antagonistic survivor. What starts as him pacifying her terror with feral kisses culminates in him returning Marnie to her mother’s Baltimore rowhouse to reveal the source of her compulsive behavior. By the end of this deeply unpleasant sequence—the last of many, including a repugnant scene of spousal rape—Marnie has been made cooperative by pure exhaustion. Her husband has wrested control not by some thoughtful effort of communication but through hardened combat.
Midge similarly deviates from Scottie in her approach to the mystery of his sexual object—that is, she doesn’t find Madeleine Elster or Judy Barton to be opaque enigmas in the first instance. While he’s drawn around San Francisco by his nose like a kid following the scent of a windowsill pie, Midge inserts herself within the mythology of Carlotta Valdes with ease. Beyond the physical insertion of her self-portrait, it’s the scholarly Midge who escorts Scottie to his first clue, introducing him to bookshop owner Pop Lieble with her coat collar turned up like a Hammett gumshoe. Listening to Lieble’s description of Carlotta’s tragic demise, Scottie is disturbed to hear of the callous way that her lover “threw her away.” But Midge is sure to see the hypocrisy of the exchange—it’s not just their one-time college romance that has been discarded, but both Madeleine Elster and Judy Barton who will themselves be thrown from atop the Mission San Juan Bautista in good time. Not to mention that it’s Scottie’s inept style of interrogation that will be the cause of the second incident. “Men could do that in those days," Lieble explains, shaking his head.
Much like Lil, though at times scolding and skeptical, Midge’s tone is always based in an astute capacity for care. “Why don’t you go away for a while?” she suggests. “You mean to forget?” Scottie replies, “Oh now … don’t be so motherly,” as if there was something antiseptic about good sense. It’s an overbearing but generous vigilance that even returns when she offers her self-portrait to a shocked Scottie—“I thought I might give it to you”—a nice foil to his bemused entitlement upon being shown the “Portrait of Carlotta” in the museum’s catalogue: “May I have this?” Their searching eyes might grant them intimacy with their supposedly unintelligible peers, but it also casts Lil and Midge as inferior to those exalted objects.
In truth, Hitchcock consigns all four women to the same plane, such is the leveling effect of misogynistic authorship. Whether it’s the doubled title credits in Marnie—both “Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie” and “Directed by Alfred Hitchcock”—or the way that the director’s name erupts from a female iris in the opening minutes of Vertigo, he supersedes all others as the ultimate proprietor of the masculine gaze. It’s an authority affirmed by his cameo in the former film, observing his star as she passes him in a hallway and turning to the camera to offer the viewer a conspiratorial and somewhat cringeworthy look. By the exact instinct that he carried out appalling abuse of Tippi Hedren on and off set, he establishes that the audience, the narrative space and, most of all, Marnie herself exist under his executive control.
It’s a familiar stroke, relegating all non-male characters to a shared realm even after having already made clear distinctions of worth between them. It’s also a mistaken exercise. By handling heterosexual dynamics with such casual arrogance, Hitchcock fails to consider the dialogues that operate healthily among women, especially those who have been placed in mutual competition. It’s perhaps the most noxious instance of misreading that taints the two films—incorrectly transcribing compassion as desperation and watchfulness as simple envy. It should hardly matter to those who can see them as they are, even so. Diligently unpicking their own denigration with every knowing glance and carefully chosen word, Midge Wood and Lil Mainwaring embody the dignity of living as an open book.