The most beautiful Damsel in Distress was once again the center of attention this week, as the character made a grand entrance on the red carpet at the 87th Academy Awards.
But, as we know, appearances can be deceiving. While fans were celebrating her entrance, actress Reese Witherspoon was in post-Oscars interviews expressing concern regarding her character’s wellbeing. After failing to persuade the producers of her show to change course, Ms. Witherspoon finally gave in and agreed to take a back seat in the upcoming episode.
So is Damsel in Distress really as good as it seems? Let’s take a closer look.
To begin with, it should be noted that the film itself is actually two stories that are intertwined. The first part of the movie takes place in modern day New York City, where an independent young woman named Annie (played by Emily Blunt) is working as a paralegal at a law firm. She lives in a small studio apartment in a walk-up building with her close friend Ledy (played by Jennifer Connelly), who also happens to be her boss. Annie is looking for love, but doesn’t seem to have much luck meeting people her own age, so when she finally does, it’s not long before she finds herself in the middle of a passionate love affair. This is where the film’s second story begins, and is set in 1941, when Annie’s great uncle Charlie (played by Paul Bettany) is accused of being a Nazi war criminal. To prove his innocence, Charlie will embark on a mission to find documents proving his wartime activities, and in the process becomes the target of a manhunt. In order to save Charlie, Annie decides to take on the role of a secret agent and becomes involved in a dramatic game of cat and mouse that will eventually land her in Berlin, where the film’s climax takes place.
The film was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who also famously directed the movie version of Stephen King’s The Shining. So it’s not like this was some small-budget indie project that came together because the stars just so happened to be in the right place at the right time. This was a highly-budgeted production that took a lot of planning and strategizing to get right. For that reason, it’s entirely possible that certain scenes were left on the cutting room floor, and even more so, it’s possible that certain scenes were added at a later date for maximum emotional effect.
But even if we ignore all of that, the fact is that even the most subtle (and/or subliminal) viewer would have no trouble picking up on the film’s central message: Women shouldn’t hold back from entering into professional fields that historically have been considered “man’s work” and/or “unladylike.” This comes through loud and clear in the film’s title sequence, which takes place in a snowy landscape against a backdrop of classical music. In the opening scene, Ledy encourages Annie to follow her dreams and become anything she wants, even if that means leaving the law behind. Just as she’s about to accept the challenge, Ledy stops her and informs her that she’s actually going to have to leave the country. This scene wouldn’t just set the stage for the rest of the film, but it would also serve as a metaphor for the women’s liberation movement.
In an era when women are still debating whether or not to enter traditionally “male” fields, the fact that a prominent film director would feel the need to make a comment like this speaks volumes. These sorts of subtle, yet significant, cues are what makes great art, and it’s no coincidence that this was one of Hitchcock’s last films before his death in 1969. In other words, this film won’t just entertain you; it will also teach you something. And that’s worth celebrating, even if it is 40 years later.