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Phantom Thread: An Ode to Hitchcock

Warning: This article does concern some spoilers.

Phantom Thread

There’s a smug satisfaction that one feels when they recognise a reference. It almost seems like a secret that you and the director are sharing with one and another. Recognising a homage, or a reference to another text is a sign that you are an active viewer, rather than a passive one.

Noticing the janitor in Scream (1996) is wearing a similar striped sweater to Freddy from A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Or spotting that the club at the start of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) is called Club Obi Wan. Proves that you are aware of other texts, but these are very noticeable and are hardly subtle. However, recognising that the speech Jake LaMotta gives in Raging Bull (1980) is from On the Waterfront (1954). Or noticing how De Palma replicates the staircase scene from Battleship Potemkin (1925) in The Untouchables (1987), sets you apart from other viewers. It reassures you of your status of being a cinephile (a devoted moviegoer who is knowledgeable about cinema).

Being someone who has extensively studied the history of cinema (two years at college for A Level and a further three years at University), I have researched into the evolution of the art form. I am aware of how the German Expressionism film movement of the twenties influenced the film noir movement of the forties and fifties. I am aware that the nouvelle vague (The French New Wave) led to the birth of New Hollywood in the late sixties and seventies. And I am aware that the Italian Neorealism led to the kitchen sink dramas that blossomed in British cinema during the late fifties and sixties.

We wouldn’t have the famous montage from Rocky (1976) if it hadn’t been for the likes of Strike (1925) which gave birth to the concept of the montage. We wouldn’t have the jump-cut if it hadn’t gained popularity through À bout de souffle (1960). The slow motion scenes in The Matrix (1999) wouldn’t have occured if it had not be for Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954).


Every film that is shot owes some debt to the films that have came before it. And it shows the level of appreciation that the film director has to reference and pay homage to other films that have touched upon the same subject matter, or share the same similar visual cues.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, Phantom Thread is a cinephile’s dream. Anderson makes numerous references to other directors and films throughout his work. Whether it be in Boogie Nights (1997) with Heather Graham wearing the same heart shaped glasses that Sue Lyon wore in Kubrick’s Lolita (1962). Or the multi-strand and multi-character narrative seen in Magnolia (1999) being an ode to the work of Robert Altman (Nashville and Mash).

For Phantom Thread, Anderson has decided to focus on the most famous auteur of them all, Alfred HitchcockPhantom Thread’s narrative, involving a young woman being manipulated and controlled by a much older man, who decides what she is to wear and how to look is very reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1959).


The narrative of Vertigo concerns Scottie (James Stewart) who becomes obsessed with the haunting memory of a woman he lost (Madeline played by Kim Novak). So when he meets Judy (also played by Novak) who shares very similar likeness to Madeline, he decides to change her appearance in an attempt to recreate her in the image of his lost love.

In Phantom Thread, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is obsessed to some degree of replicating his idea of the perfect woman (his mother). And this is shown by his extensive measuring of Alma’s (Vicky Krieps) body. We are later informed that Reynolds prefers petite, slim build women with “a little bit of a belly” and small breasts. When we see the image of his mother in the wedding dress he made for her, her body shape is very similar to Alma’s.

We can also see a reference to Vertigo, in how Reynolds instructs Alma to remove her lipstick (“I like to see your lips”) over dinner. Reynolds dresses Alma’s in certain dresses because he believes he knows best, we see this when she complains about the material of one dress. Again this is a nod to Vertigo when Judy expresses her dislike for the grey suit that Scottie wishes her to wear.

I have previously mentioned Reynold’s obsession with his mother, which is a recurring theme throughout Hitchcock films. Most famously recognized in Psycho (1960). Just like the character of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) Reynold’s mother shaped his life, and he is devoted to her even though she has been dead for many years. Reynolds’ even hallucinates at one point of the film whilst recovering in bed. That his mother is in the same room, silently gazing upon him with sad, concerned eyes. There is another nod to Psycho, when Reynolds’ peers through a peephole to gaze upon Alma as she models his design for him. Again referencing the voyeuristic nature that many of Hitchcock’s characters had. And like Marion (Janet Leigh) in Psycho, Alma seems unaware that she has become an object of desire in that moment.


Another one of Hitchcock’s film that Anderson addresses is Rebecca (1940). The early stages of Reynolds’ and Alma’s relationship is very similar to the portrayal of the second Mrs De Winter (Joan Fontaine) and ‘Maxim’ de Winter (Laurence Olivier) with a whirlwind passionate holiday romance. Reynolds meets Alma whilst on holiday and they begin courting. Things escalate quickly and Reynolds asks Alma to come and live with him to be his muse.

In Rebecca, the second Mrs De Winter accepts Maxim’s proposal after she has known him for a very short time. The house where Reynolds lives is very much like the house featured in Rebecca known as Manderley, with it’s large, grand and empty rooms and spiralling staircases. And the character of Cyril (Lesley Manville) seems at times very distrusting, cold and hard to read like the character of Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) who delights in terrorizing the second Mrs De Winter. Certain scenes between Manville and Krieps seem to come from the very pages of the Daphne du Maurier novel in which Rebecca was adapted from. Especially when Cyril declares her dislike for Alma.

And like the character from Rebecca, we know very little about Alma’s background and her past. It is also worth mentioning how certain lines of dialogue from Phantom Thread echo dialogue in Rebecca. For example when Reynolds states “Kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick.” it seems very similar to Maxim saying “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.”. Whether that’s a conscious choice by Anderson, it’s unknown but still it gives a brilliant insight into the similarities of these two characters and their attitudes towards women.

I could go on discussing the other references I picked upon but already this is becoming a dissertation. I do highly recommend Phantom Thread whether you’re a hard core cinephile or not. A beautifully crafted film which offers an unique insight into the world of a very unconventional relationship. And if you’re not convinced by the theory that Anderson has made Phantom Thread as an ode to Hitchcock, just take note of the names of the film’s two main characters Reynolds Woodcock and Alma. Alfred Hitchcock’s wife of 54 years was called Alma.



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