Book Review: Hitchcock's Villains

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 In the old days villains had moustaches and kicked the dog. Audiences are smarter today. They don't want their villain to be thrown at them with green limelight on his face. They want an ordinary human being with failings.”—Alfred Hitchcock

Enough books have been written about Alfred Hitchcock and his films to fill a small library. Yet, not one of them (at least to my knowledge—I can't keep up) has been dedicated to a study of his villains. Considering that he told pretty much nothing but crime stories, this is a strange lacuna in Hitchcock scholarship—until you flip open Thomas Leitch's outstanding Encyclopedia of Alfred Hitchcock to discover that it's also missing an entry on villains. Now that's just weird. Finally, Hitchcock authors Eric San Juan and Jim McDevitt (A Year of Hitchcock: 52 with the Master of Suspense) bring Hitch's bad guys into the limelight spotlight with Hitchcock's Villains, available on Amazon.

Their new book is a high-level survey of Hitch’s criminal element, opening the door to further possibilities to study this important aspect of his films. It’s also a good primer for film students (and film geeks) who'd like to get a sense of the range and beauty of these lovingly crafted characters.

Organized in an alternating chapter format, Hitchcock's Villains intersperses character studies of individual villains (Uncle Charlie, Norman Bates) with chapters that cover thematic groupings (“The Villainy of Ideas,” “Villainous Mothers”). This structure allows them to get some general ideas across while also digging into some of the juicier details about a few outstanding (if not upstanding) characters.

The authors have tapped into a potent subject. Hitchcock’s evildoers are a fascinating lot—intelligent, likable and even wise. They write: “When viewers think about the work of Alfred Hitchcock, they think about men on the run and shadowy villains. What they often miss is the rich sensuality in his work and, more important, how that sensuality influences the actions of his characters, particularly his villains.” That rich sensuality has sparked all sorts of reflections ranging from after-movie kitchen conversations to numerous scholarly articles. (The latter could easily be anthologized into another very large book. I’ve read them: “Big words, small print, no sales.” In general, they make a wonderful cure for insomnia.)

How does one define the scope of a book about Hitch’s villains? The director himself, along with his writers, smudged the line that separates his good guys from his bad guys. It seems that almost all of his characters are at least tainted with villainy. In The Trouble With Harry (regrettably, not much discussed in the book), several characters suspect themselves of killing Harry Worp. The ensuing comedy implies that everyone is a little guilty, and that all are forgiven. There’s an almost Buddhistic notion of radical acceptance at work in this film, which also happens to be a favorite of Hitch’s, and this offers some insight into his complex take on crime and punishment.

Hitch loved turning cherished notions upside down so much so that he preferred to set his crimes in broad daylight rather than under cover of night and to “film his love scenes like murders and his murders like love scenes.” I would add that he also treated his villains like heroes and his heroes like villains.

The Birds is coming... to wake you up
For these reasons, I think San Juan and McDevitt’s book is at its strongest in the chapters where they gather several movies and characters into thematic buckets. Chapter 6, for example, groups several movies under the title "The Villainy of Ideas." Here they observe:
 “Villainy doesn't always appear in the form of characters in his films. It often appears in the form of ideas. Of thoughts and ideologies and points of view. Or, at the very least, in the form of people who represent those ideologies. Whether communists, socialists, fascists, or simply individuals with worldviews outside the norm, in Hitchcock's work, politics and ideas were a source of danger almost as often as murderers and thieves.”
So true. 

In their chapter on “Authority Figures on Villains,” they note that people in power—cops, employers and others—can behave villainously. In The Lady Vanishes (1938), a story about a woman who discovers that an elderly passenger that she met in the dining car of a moving train has somehow gone missing, an authority figure could be anyone on the train who withholds knowledge that could save her from her predicament. Interesting thought—and it comes to embrace just about everyone on board. When we look at the motives behind these characters’ refusal to get involved, we don’t always see out-and-out treachery. True, there is a gang of enemy spies aboard, but most of the evil is a consequence of the tunnel vision of various passengers’ perverse self-interest. For Caldicott and Charters, involvement with her could cause them to miss their cricket match, while Mr. Todhunter fears exposure as a philanderer. As was explained in a 2007 article in The Guardian, with The Lady Vanishes, Hitch had in mind something both deeper and more immediate. The article states that the film “is a parable about Britain during the appeasement years.” For instance, Charters and Caldicott “were not added just for comic relief. They were symbolic of a peculiarly British obstinacy in the face of Nazi aggression.” I’d add that the doomed Mr. Todhunter likewise stood for the futility of diplomacy. In this context, it follows that the authors' identified villains—those who exercise a certain authority—are just placeholders. Twisting an old phrase, I'd say the real culprit is the evil of banality, or the evil of complacency, and as Hitch saw it, it was threatening the very survival of England.

In fact, if there’s one overarching villainous theme that shows up again and again in Hitchcock’s films, it’s the egoism of lives lived on autopilot—complacency. I’d hoped that McDevitt and San Juan might pick up on that.[1] We see it in Anny Ondra’s teasing heroines in The Manxman and Blackmail, in L. B. Jefferies’ ennui that leads him to spy on his neighbors and desire to “keep things status quo” with Lisa Fremont in Rear Window. It's the attitude that allows for Sam Loomis’ casual acceptance of his lot in Psycho. In each case, their smug satisfaction leads to chaos. You'll find complacency at the heart of such films as Shadow of a Doubt (Young Charlie: “We just sort of go along and nothing happens. We're in a terrible rut.”) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (Ben McKenna: “You know what is paying for these three days in Marrakech? Mrs. Campbell's gall stone.”)

And then there was The Birds.

Regarding this latter film, an epic rumination on the evil that's as deceptively passive as it is omnipresent—literally in the air we breathe—, Hitch explained to Francois Truffaut why he made that movie: there’s “too much complacency in the world… people are unaware that catastrophe surrounds us all." The bird attacks' raison was simple: they were there to stir things up.

When we settle into a comfortable, self-satisfied cruising pattern and fail to think about how our (in)actions might affect others, it leads to disastrous consequences. For Hitchcock, such complacency was the archenemy, the villain that got him up in the morning and compelled him to make films that would “wake audiences as if from a nightmare.”

Following their chapter on the villainy of ideas, Rope’s Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan are singled out as villains whose actions are motivated by pure ideology. Still, while this chapter does a very nice job analyzing their role as villains, it also points up the hazards of separating out certain characters to be thus labeled. Influenced by their former teacher’s endorsement of the Nietzschean “Superman” for whom murder is a privilege, Brandon and Phillip strangle a former schoolmate and then serve a dinner party from the chest in which he’s hidden. Say what you will about the whiff of sexual asphyxia implied in the murder act itself, you have to admire their blend of panache and theoretical rigor. But did they truly act alone? What about their mentor, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart)? For years, as their prep school headmaster, he’d been marinating their brains in such ideas as: “Murder is—or should be—an art. Not one of the 'seven lively,' perhaps, but an art nevertheless. And, as such, the privilege of committing it should be reserved for those few who are really superior individuals.” Surely, he bears some responsibility as well. As a guest at this dinner party, he repeats these lines, so often uttered, that Brandon practically mouths them along with him. McDevitt and San Juan add:
“[Brandon] thinks that he has found a place of agreement with his old master. Rupert continues to egg him on, too. When Brandon says that murder victims are ‘inferior beings whose lives are unimportant anyway,’ Rupert agrees. Only he does not really agree. Rupert is teasing him, but Brandon—so blinded by arrogance and a desperate need for approval—does not recognize that he is being taunted.”
I don’t think the film allows for such a one-way reading. Rupert insists that he is, indeed, speaking in earnest:
JANET: Well, now, you don't really approve of murder, Rupert? If I may? 
RUPERT: You may, and I do. Think of the problems it would solve: unemployment, poverty, standing in line for theatre tickets….
The introduction to the screenplay also makes room for a two-way interpretation: “One cannot be sure whether Rupert is essentially good or essentially evil.”

As McDevitt and San Juan point out, Rupert and his two students once enjoyed a gay, three-way relationship, and this shared guilt (considering the era) further implicates Rupert in their crime. For these reasons, when Rupert later denounces their crime, saying that “there’s always been something deep inside me that would never let me [commit murder] and would never let me be a party to it now,” it doesn’t gel.

But wait, there are more implications in re Rupert's villainy. Having fought in World War II, Rupert was actually a murderer—officially sanctioned, but still—and in this we find a revelatory connection to James Stewart's real life. In Rope and Vertigo, along with many of his other postwar films, Stewart bears more than a passing resemblance to the characters he plays. He, like Rupert, also fought in the war, and the trauma of those experiences affected his return to the screen. While the allied powers promoted their victory in this "just" and "good" war, returning veterans knew that the truth was more complicated, and they had few resources to deal with the psychological turmoil. Stewart himself nearly gave up acting because of it,[2]  and though he didn't, Hitch scholar Amy Lawrence points out that “consequently, nearly all of Stewart's postwar roles are haunted by an undercurrent of confusion, guilt, and shame.”[3] Rope is an astonishing film in that, like Lifeboat, it's one of the few that touched on the villainy that erupted on all sides in the war. By the end of the movie, Rupert realizes how much of a sharer he is in Brandon and Phillip's sins and it's a truth he can't handle. Says Lawrence:
“The vehemence with which Stewart denounces Brandon and Philip indicates the importance of projecting the bloody guilt outward, his inquisitorial zeal necessitated by the fear that the guilt lies within. However, as Stewart begins to pace, Hitchcock places Brandon directly in the center of the frame, the obstacle around which Rupert must maneuver, pacing desperately back-and-forth, but which he cannot escape. To save himself he has to sell them out…. When Hitchcock cuts to Stewart looking in the chest, we see him brought face to face with the unthinkable: that James Stewart is a killer.” (Italics mine.)
McDevitt and San Juan maintain that Scottie Ferguson, also played by Stewart, in Vertigo, is a villain. Maybe. I think their energy for such a controversial argument is better spent on Rupert. The authority he wielded as their schoolmaster and the power he held as the object of their admiration demanded a deep sense of responsibility. Instead, he exploited that influential position— and for what, some intellectual jollies and maybe more? That's rather villainous. But why stop there? Aren’t Mr. Kentley, with his unrealistic insistence on obsolete old-world values and the daffy palmreader Mrs. Atwater also part of the problem? And aren’t we, the audience, complicit as well? After all, we do root for the killers throughout most of the movie and maybe even beyond, if we're honest with ourselves. Again, complacency seems to be the real evil at work!

Where do you draw the line?
Quite often, San Juan and McDevitt approach the villainy in Hitchcock’s films with sheep-and-goats certitude, divvying up their characters into two pens: good and bad. Regarding Notorious: “It is easy to forget that Alexander Sebastien is not a good man”; meanwhile, Psycho’s “Norma Bates was not a good woman.”  (The latter might be debatable on the grounds that we really only know her through her son, who’s not the most reliable narrator.) North by Northwest’s Roger Thornhill, on the other hand, is a “good [man] caught up in something beyond [his] control.” But is he, really? Considering that he’s alcoholic (or on his way to becoming one), a three-time divorcee and an ad man (don’t even get me started) who thinks lying is just an expedient exaggeration, he’s not exactly citizen of the year. As his last name suggests, Roger Thornhill could use some redemption, and the travails of this film provide it.

This somewhat simplistic outlook also leads to some oversights. For example, while they correctly note that Lifeboat’s Willi was “a villain for no other reason than that he’s on the other side of a political divide,” they overlook the ancillary implication that the American and British characters are only heroic because they’re on “our” side. They thus miss the point that when the other passengers kill Willi in an orgy of violence, “like a pack of dogs,” as Hitch described it to François Truffaut, their behavior is villainous. Villainy whooshes about that film with all the equal-opportunity arbitrariness of the wind that blows their tiny seacraft about.

Hitchcock consistently cuts the cake both ways: sure, he allows for a good-versus-evil interpretation of his films (and thus of his view of human nature)—if that’s all you want to see—, but all the while he also undermines such a dualistic view. As he said to Truffaut, “What it all boils down to is that villains are not all black and heroes are not all white; there are grays everywhere.” The authors do quote that nuanced view, but then it seems left forgotten at times when it could have come in quite handy when explaining his characters’ behavior.

A good example of this comes up in Chapter 11, which asserts that Scottie Fergusen is the villain in Vertigo. In setting up their argument, they suggest that Hitch wants us to think only good thoughts about Scottie, who’s been lured in to play the patsy in a wealthy shipbuilder’s plot to murder his wife.
“[Scottie] is not, Alfred Hitchcock seems to tell us, a bad man. This is a good man caught up in forces beyond his control, just like so many Hitchcock heroes that came before, and if he acts poorly in the course of seeing the story through until the end… well, the protagonist can be forgiven. Alfred Hitchcock probably believed this…. He probably believed that Scottie acted with good intentions.”
Hitch more likely thought otherwise, as a closer look at the film itself and other well-known resource materials, such the Truffaut interview, shows. For instance, regarding Scottie’s efforts to make Judy over, Hitch one-upped Truffaut, who said that he was “like a maniac”: Hitch agreed with him, adding that Scottie, in trying to recreate Madeleine, was actually “trying to undress” Judy to get her “stripped… totally naked” for his own sexual indulgence. The creepy fetishism that tends to repulse (female) and excite (male) audiences today was, as they say, baked right in as well: foregrounding the necrophilic overtones of Scottie’s behavior, Samuel Taylor’s first draft of the screenplay was titled “To Lay a Ghost.” So yes, Hitch had a clear view of Scottie’s villainy. McDevitt and San Juan’s possible misapprehension of this gets them into trouble a few pages later.

But first, I need to emphasize that the authors did indeed convince me of Scottie’s villainy—within Hitch’s qualifier that “there are grays everywhere.” Let’s face it, Scottie’s outrageous treatment of Judy was barbaric. The authors succinctly sum it up: Scottie “found a woman resembling his lost love, emotionally captured her, and reshaped her in his vision.” 

Unfortunately, they don’t stop there. For instance, they see his retirement from the police force as an act of “selfishness, the trait that will define him throughout the film.” They write:
“Here we have a seemingly effective, successful officer of the law who gives up his career when another member of the force falls to his death thanks to Scottie's inability to act in a time of crisis. An honorable and decent man would seek to make things right or at least atone for his failure. He would seek treatment for his vertigo. He would return to his job. He would not retire at a relatively young age, essentially running away from his troubles. He would want to retain his status as a respected member of society.”
He would? Really? And it’s all because of his selfishness? First of all, watching his partner plunge to his death while he helplessly looks on could cause any cop to at least question his career choice. In the most expository dialogue possible, the film explains each of those objections away. As if anticipating there would be McDevitts and San Juans in the audience, the scene goes like this:
MIDGE: What are you going to do? Now that you've quit the police force? 
SCOTTIE: (Gently) You sound so disapproving, Midge. 
MIDGE: No, it's your life. But you were the bright young lawyer who decided he was going to be chief of police some day. 
SCOTTIE: (Gently) I had to quit, Midge. 
MIDGE: Why? 
SCOTTIE: I wake up at night seeing him fall from the roof... and try to reach out for him. 
MIDGE: It wasn't your fault. 
SCOTTIE: I know. Everybody tells me.
Whatever character flaws may be apparent at this point in the movie, selfishness isn’t one of them. Scottie is clearly a broken man, suffering from what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This isn’t a matter of doing the “honorable and decent” thing; consumed with grief and guilt, he’s unable to function. Still, can he, as the authors suggest, seek treatment? Unfortunately, Midge says “there’s no losing it.” (Even today, vertigo is difficult to treat.) But maybe he can return to his job. Well, we have an answer for that, too:
SCOTTIE: And sit behind a desk? Chairborne? 
MIDGE: It's where you belong. 
SCOTTIE: (With a grin) Not with my acrophobia, Midge. If I dropped a pencil on the floor and bent down to pick it up, it could be disastrous! 
MIDGE: (Laughs) Ah, Johnny-O...
As a man of action, Scottie doesn’t see taking a desk job as a way to ‘make things right’ or ‘atone for his failure.’ At this point in the story, Scottie is still beating himself up for the tragedy that occurred. This isn’t selfishness, it’s woundedness.

That’s not to give him a full pass, either. McDevitt and San Juan make a good point: Scottie hasn’t really picked up the pieces, re-engaging with life. Instead, he goes a-wandering. More complacency. As the movie goes on, we see where that gets him. 

Where some might simply see differences in taste, the authors see other character flaws. They ask: “Why does Scottie shy away from a romantic relationship with Midge?” Their answer, possibly inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 4: “Maybe he just has a difficult time coping with his emotions.” There's no need to guess. The movie itself tells us why they aren't a couple: Midge cut it off. And why did she do that? Many commentators (me included) agree that it was due to Scottie’s impotence (physical, psychological, spiritual, ecumenical), as represented by his woundedness and Midge’s emasculating “you’re a big boy now” and “Mother’s here” language and as symbolized by his failure to (ahem) successfully mount that delectably Freudian but appropriately nonexistent-except-as-a-matte-painting tower.[4] At any rate, as the movie proceeds, it becomes apparent that Midge just isn’t his type.

Nevertheless, the authors plow on, proceeding from one assumption to the next, namely, that his supposed inordinate selfishness and emotional unavailability are evidence that he is “emotionally damaged” in some dark way. They identify this deeper stain as “pathological narcissism” and they quote a Harvard professor who defines it as behavior that protects and supports a “grandiose but fragile self.” The authors present no evidence of Scottie’s grandiosity. There isn't any. Scottie is self-effacing and avoids attention to a fault.

A truly pathological narcissist would have shifted the blame for his partner’s death elsewhere without a second thought—even if he did bear some responsibility. Scottie, however, is overwhelmed with guilt for an accident that’s not his fault.

The authors add that narcissists have “difficulties in processing feelings, specifically anger, shame and envy.” Scottie, however, overprocesses these feelings—particularly shame. No, he isn’t narcissistic. If anything, he’s the opposite—a case of depressive disorder. And from what might such disordered behavior stem? Impotence, perhaps?[5]

Come to think of it, isn’t the movie’s actual antagonist, wifekiller Gavin Elster, the real narcissist here? This guy imagines that his elaborate, cockamamie murder scheme will actually work; he hires a shopgirl as his accomplice and makes her over to resemble his wife, bleaching her hair, etc.—while fully aware of why he's doing it and then he pimps her out to his former schoolmate, whom he's suckered in to unwittingly provide him with an alibi. Elster is more than  just a narcissistic jerk. He's a sociopath. This makes him a rarity among Hitchcock villains: he seems to have no redeeming qualities.

Vertigo provides hints that Scottie's malady is analogous to Stewart's post-war "combat fatigue." When Scottie hangs high in the air and watches his partner fall to his death, it would have not been unlike Stewart’s airborne experience, seeing his comrades shot down from the sky. Similarly, his nightmare that revisits Madeleine's death is also suggestive of combat flashback dreams reported by returning soldiers.

Just to point out a similarity, Scottie’s vertiginous view of the tower stairs, along with the nightmare image of his severed head floating over a delirious spiral, bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Christopher Nevinson’s nightmarish World War I painting “Bursting Shell” (1915), which captures the terror of a bomb explosion by collapsing the opposing perspectives of pilot and target into one image. (Click to enlarge):

Nevinson, "Bursting Shell"

Scottie's nightmare.

The "telescoping" San Juan Bautista tower staircase.

Did Hitch—or contemporary artist John Ferren, who painted the portrait of Carlotta and animated the dream sequence—specifically have Nevinson in mind? There's no record of that. But Hitchcock was, indeed, a fan of Nevinson. The following year, when he made North by Northwest, he told reporters that this artist inspired much of the art direction in that film. 

Considering Scottie’s guilt over the death of his partner, when he saves Madeleine from her leap (from a manageable height) into San Francisco Bay, he may have felt that this was a shot at redemption, that it was a step towards 'making things right' that McDevitt and San Juan called for. For the first time since his accident, he seems to really be getting his mojo back, as when he says, “I'm responsible for you now. You know, the Chinese say that once you've saved a person's life, you're responsible for it forever. So, I'm committed.” She was his second chance—just as he stated with bitter irony at the end of the movie.

It’s true that he fell in love with what he thought was a married woman, but it also needs to be acknowledged that she was dangled before him like fish bait, and she didn’t exactly resist his advances. Not that there were any, at least at first. She first begins to fall in love with Scottie when, following her spill into the bay, he takes her home, undresses her and puts her to bed without molesting her. If selfishness was his "defining trait" this would have been the perfect opportunity to show it.

Madeleine's subsequent dying fall plunges Scottie into such a deep depression that he’s hospitalized for it. As his doctor says: “He is suffering from acute melancholia, together with a guilt complex. He blames himself for what happened to the woman.” After his release, still only barely functional, he wanders the streets of San Francisco, looking for his lost love. And then he finds Judy. Yes, in transforming her he seeks to possess her sexually, but primarily—at least at first—he’s looking for a cure:
JUDY: Why are you doing this? What good will it do? 
SCOTTIE: I don't know. No good, I guess. But I don't know.
In their mission to demonize Scottie, San Juan and McDevitt overlook Judy’s villainy. “She doesn’t understand why it’s so important to him that she look exactly the way he wants her to look,” they claim. But, actually, she does. Having led Scottie on in an elaborate con game and as an accomplice to murder, she understands all too well. As Hitch told Truffaut: “the girl’s reason for fighting off the changes is that she would eventually be unmasked.” She fakes her way through his makeover of her with as much skill as she did with her earlier “beautiful phony trances.” As a matter of fact, if Scottie gets a chapter devoted to his villainy, Judy-as-Madeleine should have one too.

When it comes to Scottie, McDevitt and San Juan pull no punches, and I suspect they've been influenced by comments—which I've observed myself during recent screenings of this film—that betray a less-than-careful reading of his admittedly atrocious behavior (particularly if that moviegoer is a gender studies undergrad). Such thinking strikes me as descendant from Laura Mulvey's 70s-era feminist film theories that took movies to task for their invasive "male gaze." Or maybe it reflects the current climate of feminism that perceives villainous patriarchy behind every lamppost. There's a lot of truth in both movements, but it's not the whole truth. McDevitt and San Juan make an interesting case for listing Scottie among Hitch's villains. But when they try to label him as a pathological narcissist, I want to take them aside, like Rupert, and say, “You were pressing your point a little hard back there, weren’t you?”

Okay, so yes, this is personal
In what might be the best chapter in the book, San Juan and McDevitt explore the “Villainy of Non-Villains.” Here they identify as subjects of “moral ambiguity” the thieves Marion Crane and Marnie Edgar (Janet Leigh and Hedren of Psycho and Marnie, respectively), “participant in an elaborate charade” Judy Barton (Vertigo), ex-cat burglar John Robie (Cary Grant, To Catch a Thief) and adulterer Margot Wendice (Grace Kelly, Dial M for Murder). They start to get at the kernel of what makes a Hitchcock villain tick, stating:
“Hitchcock recognized that the most compelling dramas do not spring from simple good-versus-evil struggles but from the complexity inherent in all of us. His villains are layered and often sympathetic. So, too, are his heroes just as difficult to nail down with a simple “good” or “evil” tag. Just as Hitchcock villains reflect facets of the director’s character, so do Hitchcock heroes.”
To what end? For me, watching Hitchcock’s films revel in the gray areas that make up 99 percent of human behavior was a powerful antidote to the us-versus-them indoctrination that I received in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It took a couple of decades to sink in enough for me to take a real stand, but thanks to watching Hitchcock's movies from an early age, I never fully bought into the notion that fundamentalist Christianity is made up of a righteous "few who are really superior individuals." In this way, Hitch helped save my life. 

Eventually, I was shunned by the religion, and the compassion that his films teach helped me to find a path to forgiveness. (I can hear it now: "Compassion in a Hitchcock film, you say?" There'll be more on this in a moment.) The judicial committee that ousted me from the religion was serving a short-term justice of sorts (I had indeed committed a sin—not one of the seven deadly, perhaps, but a sin nevertheless), but it also unwittingly served a deeper justice on my behalf: I didn't have the will to leave on my own, and it did for me what I wasn't able to do for myself. For that I'm thankful. The point is made plain in Hitch's meditation on the temporality of human justice, The Manxman, a story about a love triangle that goes horribly awry when the participants try to do the right thing. During the wedding breakfast, Caesar (Randle Ayrton) points to a handy millstone nearby and sermonizes about the wheels of God grinding slowly. Yet this grinding wheel is illuminated by the revolving lamp of the lighthouse that watches over the town and seashore; in turn, there are the tide cycles that carry their fishing boats out so sea from the Isle of Man (pun fully intended by Hitchcock, I'm sure), where the incursions of Human Progress threaten to undo their traditional way of life. Just as the island's three-legged triskele emblem is conveniently used to symbolize the love triangle, so too the cycling motif points toward the complex clockwork of justice at work in the film. The Manxman is an allegory about The Bigger Picture. Yet that can be said of just about every one of Hitchcock's films. Watching them during my youth and into adulthood was an ongoing reminder that there's more to the world than what I was getting inside my local Kingdom Hall. This is what makes my Hitchcock geekery meaningful, because isn't the search for such truth—personal or universal—the real purpose of scholarship?

Though we never met, I imagine that Hitch would have found my story gratifying. I think that, ultimately, this is the effect he wanted his films to have on people. He wanted his fans to do more than, as Saboteur's villain Tobin puts it, "play along, without asking questions." He wanted us to see that "there's much more to be done than just live small complacent lives." It's the only grand point his movies make—and just about every one of them makes it.

53 movies, 53 shades of grey
As I've stated, Hitchcock's Villains fishtails between acknowledging the difficulty of pigeonholing Hitch's characters as either "good" or "bad" in one paragraph and then doing said pigeonholing in another. I wonder if this inconsistency reflects a difference of opinions between the two writers? The fact is, Hitch's characters are neither strictly good nor strictly bad, and the same can be said of their actions. When Mrs. Verloc's knife enters her husband's belly, is she killing him or is he impaling himself? If she's killing him, is it cold murder or eye-for-an-eye justice for his part in the death of Stevie? And when her lover, Scotland Yard Inspector Ted Spencer, talks her out of confessing, is he obstructing justice or serving a higher one? Hitchcock withholds any pat answer and the film ends in nauseating irresolution. His movies relentlessly tell us that no act, no matter how heinous or noble it appears to be, is either irreducibly "good" or irreducibly "bad." Such ambiguities speak to the way the world really works. Where would Christianity be without the injustice of the Crucifixion and where would civil rights be without the assassinations of Lincoln and Dr. King? While their killers deserve retribution—and I would be the first to flip the switch on the electric chair—their martyrdom propelled their causes forward in ways they could likely never have accomplished had they lived. And while we're on the subject, where would I be if I hadn't been shunned? I shudder to think. (Juxtaposition with those historical figures not intended.)

Hitchcock's films all dwell in the ambiguity of what and who is right and what and who is wrong. 

Maybe that's why Hitchcock's police are so hamfisted in the execution of their duties: even the best cop is still merely working out justice at its most primitive level. He, like the rest of us, is just a functionary in a very big and complicated universe. Even on our best days, we're still only approximately helpful.

McDevitt and San Juan note that when it comes to distinguishing Hitch's good guys from his bad guys, “appearances can be deceiving.” I’d add that the good guys are best kept off any pedestal while the bad guys can be let off the hook, at least a bit. In Hitchcock's films, as in life, villainy is in the very air we breathe. In an upcoming revised edition of the Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia that will include an entry on Hitchcock's villains, Thomas Leitch adds his observation on this by riffing on Hitch's formula that "the more successful the villain, the more successful the picture":
A better formula might be to substitute villainy for villains: the more villainous Hitchcock can make his heroes act, the more completely he can blur the line between heroism and villainy, the more successful the picture.... The test case is Vertigo, whose nominal villain, Gavin Elster, is important only as Judy Barton’s master and the nightmare prototype of the increasingly possessive Scottie Ferguson, who ends up treating Judy as badly, and in very much the same way, as Elster ever did.... Blackmail and Sabotage, in this accounting, become two of the most fascinating Hitchcock films, since in allowing each of their leading characters—Alice, Frank Webber, the blackmailer, the artist in Blackmail; Verloc, the Professor, Stevie, Mrs. Verloc in Sabotage—a chance to play both villain and victim, it raises enduring questions about how little different those functions may be.—The Hitchcock Encyclopedia, 2nd Edition (Ken Mogg has published this piece on his "MacGuffin" blog.)
I think Leitch is on to something profound here, and I elaborated on it myself in one of my very first blog posts.

The moral of his films, therefore—and I believe there is a deeply felt morality at work—is that we're all villainous at times, and we might do well to replace that condescending phrase “there but for the grace of God go I” with a nobler and simpler “there go I,” and then apply it to everybody we meet—black hat, white hat and everything in between. We are all the other person. No exceptions.

As dark as Hitch's movies are, they also leave room for great compassion. After the thief Marnie learns the truth about what her mother went through as a young woman, the pieces in her own life fall into place. Her mother says, “I wanted to bring you up different from me. Decent.” She replies, “I certainly am decent. Of course, I'm a cheat and a liar, but I am decent." Then Mark Rutland cuts in, saying, “Marnie, it's time to have a little compassion for yourself. When a child, a child  of any age, can't get love, it takes what it can any way it can get it.” Where complacency is the malaise, compassion—the sympathetic impulse to understand one's fellows and extend mercy whenever possible—is the cure. 

Mark's villainy is manifest. He's guilty of sexual blackmail and marital rape and while his sexual fetish—thieving young women—isn't exactly villainous, it does add an ironic layer to Marnie's reluctance to take him home to mother. Yet, however devilish his treatment of her had been, with the above scene he completes his transformation into an angel of light—at least for a moment. In this way, if he's rescued Marnie from a bitter fate, then she's his salvation as well. In a dream fantasy where he visits the wrongdoers in Hitch's other movies, I wonder what sort of blessing—or at least succor—he might distribute among them. There's Uncle Charlie, who suffered head trauma as a child and Lars Thorwald, who had a nasty wife and a not-so-thrilling life. What would he say to poor Norman Bates? I suspect Mark would find similarly compassionate words for them—even as they're being led away in handcuffs. (Ever notice how Hitch spares his villains that shame?)

Stack up a few Hitchcock DVDs for a Sunday binge and a sly compassion will emerge that cuts through the fog of morally ambiguous villainy. Just for range, you might start with Hitch's silent victory, the coming-of-age thriller Blackmail; then you might move on to his early talkie Murder!, in which Britain's suffocating class system and its implied homophobia lead to murder and suicide. Add Lifeboat to your stack for a purported war propaganda film that's so sympathetic to its Nazi villain that the Times' Bosley Crowther complained that "the Nazis, with some cutting here and there, could turn Lifeboat into a whiplash against the 'decadent democracies.'" Hitch's unfairly maligned late film Topaz is a fugue of sympathies performed by an international dramatis personae of spies and their politicians, where the implications of sleeping with the enemy are taken to their heartbreaking conclusion.

In Psycho, compassion is shown from an unusual (for Hitch) quarter: a lawman. As a bookend to the earlier highway cop's blind vigilance, Hitch gives us another policeman—Deputy Sheriff Al Chambers—who shows us a very different side of the law. Sam and Lila roust him out of bed and we get to see him out of uniform, in a scruffy bathrobe, commiserating with the pair and his wife over the mysterious events at the Bates estate. In this oft-overlooked scene, a lawman—and, it should be emphasized, his wife—is presented as a capable and knowledgeable, albeit comical, keeper of the peace. Mrs. Chambers is described in the screenplay as bearing a "corona of hospitality," while he is described as greeting the pair with "no-nonsense concern." Fittingly, Deputy Chambers is the one who first begins connecting the dots: "Well, if the woman up there is Mrs. Bates, who's that woman buried out at Greenlawn Cemetery?"

Deputy Chambers' compassionate law enforcement also contrasts with Arbogast's loutish gumshoery. Hitch admitted to Truffaut that he had to reshoot the scene storyboarded by Saul Bass where Arbogast walks up the stairs and meets Mrs. Bates because it didn't adequately convey a sense of the detective's "complacency." (Let's pause for a moment of silence to appreciate the sensitivity with which Hitchcock crafted the mood of his scenes.) At the top of those stairs, Arbogast learns the truth about Mrs. Bates, but it costs him dearly.

Hitch on the stand
I'd like to call Hitch's free-floating sympathy that co-exists with his atmosphere of villainy radical compassion. It's what he wanted for others—and I'll bet it's what he wanted for himself. In the last couple of years, his reputation has taken a beating. Two highly fictional “biopics,” The Girl and Hitchcock, along with a string of interviews by Tippi Hedren, have perpetuated the belief, based on greatly distorted facts, that he was a sexually deviant tyrant. With all the fury and spittle of a lynch mob in a teacup, a small group of people has shaped the opinion of millions of others.

What to do? Many of the eyewitnesses to his life are dead, and now it’s increasingly up to careful researchers to put the pieces together and, when necessary, correct misconceptions. However great his talent and influential his celebrity, Alfred Hitchcock was also a human. His memory deserves a fair shake. For that reason, when I got to Chapter 14, “The Psychology of Hitchcock and His Villains,” my antennae came out.

Here the authors observe that “many of the dominant themes of his work are intensely personal. Obsession and transformation. Brooding and manipulative mothers. Voyeurism. Fear of authority figures…. Interestingly, [these] psychological quirks would often manifest in the villains that appeared in his films rather than their heroes.” Why did Hitch reveal so much of himself through his villains? It’s a compelling thought and I’d hoped they’d make more of it. Instead, they went looking for a “single common thread linking Hitchcock’s villains into a cohesive whole.” 

Eventually, they felt, they found one: Hitchcock’s villains are outsiders. “Outsiders in dramatically different ways, yes, but outsiders all the same.” From there, they notice a parallel in Hitch’s life that he also “likely felt isolated and had since childhood.”

Before I go any farther, I just want to point out that the “common thread” about which the authors write is missing a few strands. The 39 Steps’ Professor Jordan, Foreign Correspondent’s Stephen Fisher and Saboteur’s Stephen Fisher are all consummate insiders; their evil derives its power from the access they have to the highest reaches of government. Frenzy’s Barry Kane is a social butterfly and seems to be well-known in his neighborhood, and Family Plot’s Arthur Adamson enjoys a comfortable bourgeois life as the neighborhood jeweler.

But anyway, in claiming that Hitch was too solitary, McDevitt and San Juan repeat a point that others have made. I’m not sure it holds water. Hitch was devoted to his wife and daughter and, when they came along, three grandchildren. Most would agree that they had a rich, fulfilling family life. When it came to having close friends, there was writer Angus MacPhail, of course. Also, one-time partner Sydney Bernstein comes to mind, with whom he routinely took lengthy, Sunday morning phone calls that, according to biographer Patrick McGilligan, were “a habit that waxed and waned over the years.” Ingrid Bergman was a long-time, loyal friend and confidante. Grace Kelly, too. There were others.

Biographer Donald Spoto has long contended that Hitchcock was a tortured loner prone to retreating into “gloomy isolation,” but he tends to pathologize every fragment of Hitchcockiana that blows his way. It’s true from a Hollywood perspective that Hitch was an outsider. He and Alma didn’t make a point of showing up to many parties, and when he wasn’t shooting a film, they were more likely to be found at their ranch several hours north of Los Angeles. How much of this is a consequence of some dent in his psyche, and how much stems from the cultural differences that go along with being an Englishman in Hollywood? Maybe he just didn’t fit in.

In most situations, Alfred Hitchcock was the smartest man in the room. Privileged though that is, it’s also a very lonely place to be. Alma was his only intellectual equal, and for the most part, she seemed to be enough for him.

I don’t see enough isolationism in Hitch’s lifestyle to devote much ink to it—definitely not enough to associate it with some "dark side," or villainy. This isn't to say that Hitchcock didn't ever engage in isolating behavior. My point is: So what? Who hasn't? It's easy to get caught in the trap of his larger-than-life celebrity, inflating his emotional tics and psychological burbles into a Thanksgiving Day Parade of neuroses. Thus, when the authors write such passages as: “The sense of being an ‘other,’ of being on the fringe of the very society he worked so hard to entertain, must surely have informed his work” and, “His own inner wickedness points to a delight in dark, unsavory things….” I cringe.

Regarding many of his villains’ well-known mother issues, the connection the authors draw between them and his real life can be tenuous. Their evidence sometimes even contradicts itself. “When Hitchcock had an opportunity to leave home in his teenage years,” they write, “he promptly took it. To at least some extent, he must have felt that he was living under [his mother’s] thumb.” Not necessarily. He could also have simply left home, as young men do, to establish his autonomy. But doesn’t this detail of his story undercut the supposed connections between Hitchcock and his villains who, well into their adult years, never made a break from their mothers?

In general, I agree with the authors that Hitch may have had some mother issues. But in sifting through his films for clues to that relationship, separating fact from supposition requires the sharpest of Occam's razors.

As they see it, “If Vertigo was Hitchcock expressing an unconscious desire to control and manipulate a young woman to do his bidding, then Marnie is his subconscious attempt to justify doing exactly that to Tippi Hedren.” Again, this view that Hitch's subconscious issues kept popping up in his treatment of women is not uncommon and it's understandable that McDevitt and San Juan would repeat it. But it doesn't hold up. (I'm reminded of Hitch's reaction to a comment in the New Yorker suggesting that North by Northwest's humor was "unconscious": "The stupid idiots! As if I don't know what I'm doing. My technique is serious. I am consciously aware or what I am doing in all my work.") These themes appear again and again in his movies, and he repeated personal anecdotes about his quirks and fears again and again in interviews. He would have to be mentally dense not to see a connection—and if somehow he missed it, Alma surely would have pointed it out. I find it difficult to imagine that he could entrust the crafting of a screenplay to a collaborating screenwriter and then to delegate its production to dozens of cast and crew members and still somehow see the final cut emerge with all this sublimated content miraculously intact, in film after film. Either Hitchcock lived in some benighted state of ignorant grace or he was all-too-painfully—and gleefully—self-aware. I’m going with the latter.

When it came to Tippi Hedren during the production of Marnie, Hitchcock's domination of her was very much like that of the fictional Mark, who'd blackmailed Marnie into marriage. Truly, his actions could easily be interpreted as a repeat of directorial tactics he'd successfully employed before. For example, years earlier, during the making of Rebecca, he led the cast in treating Joan Fontaine with near-contempt. Understandably, this provoked a great deal of anxiety and those apprehensions come through palpably in her performance. Hitch never explained why he did this, but when Fontaine won the Academy Award for Best Actress, everything became clear. And before anybody rushes to use this as proof of Hitch's misogyny, it's useful to remember that, while filming Lifeboat, he giggled while an imperious Tallulah Bankhead ran roughshod over the feelings of the rest of the cast, kindling the same resentment among those actors that, in their performance, they were supposed to express toward her in her aristocratic role.

To me, it's likely that Hitch's overbearing treatment of Tippi was a conscious choice, made with similar ambitions in mind. Obviously, it backfired. And it still leaves plenty of questions to ask about the morality of a director who would would be so cruel to one of his actors, just to get a desired performance out of her. Then again, Hitch was not the first, nor was he the last, director to pull a crazy, potentially abusive, stunt to get an actor to deliver what he wanted. This is what separates the good directors from the greats.[6]  This, perhaps more than any thing else, is why I haven't become a movie director myself. I don't have the will to do what Hitchcock (and Kubrick and many others) did. In the movies, if you want to make an omelette you need to break a few egos.

And besides, that sadomasochistic tension between director and actor is what Hitchcock's best movies are all about. There is a very potent metafictional aspect to these films, and it needs to be factored into any close look at the relationship between these works and their auteur.[7] Beginning with the reflexivity of the opening theatrical/voyeuristic scene in his first film, The Pleasure Garden, his movies are about moviemaking. Isn’t that what’s behind the haunted, observing gaze of Ivor Novello in The Lodger, the portrayal of L. B. Jefferies as a photographer in Rear Window, the obsession with Judy’s hair in Vertigo and the sadistic control of Marnie Edgar, to name just a few? Perhaps his films can be seen as a confessional, that what he’s saying by way of allegory is, basically, “Look at what I do! It’s monstrous! And my career depends on it, for if I were less controlling and, yes, obsessive, my movies—and their ticket sales—would suffer!” This brings us to a certain mitigating parity between the director and his hired performers: if Hitch was at times sadistic toward actors, his films' brutal honesty about his role as director is also masochistic.

If the occasional hell he put his actors through ennobled audiences—say, by stimulating their introspection and discourse—for years to come, is his behavior justifiable? Perhaps. Looked at in that way, his actions could even be construed as courageous. The wheels of justice do indeed grind slowly.

We sympathize with the Nazi collaborator Alexander Sebastien and might even pity Uncle Charlie and Norman Bates. In these films we’re being asked to see a bigger picture about these characters than just what their crimes suggest. Movies like Vertigo and Marnie can be seen as the cri de coeur of a man who desperately wanted to be understood first and judged second. 

Such self-awareness can be burdensome. I’d like to posit that genius can be defined as having a great tolerance for self-knowledge. As Andre Gregory confesses in My Dinner with Andre, it entails knowing
“what it means to be truly alive. Now that's very frightening, because with that comes an immediate awareness of death. Because they go hand in hand. You know, the kind of impulse that led to Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass, that feeling of being connected to everything means to also be connected to death. And that's pretty scary.” (Italics mine.)
It’s also a very Hitchcockian statement. Ask anyone who's on such a journey: self-knowledge is a heavy cross to bear. For some, overindulgence in food and alcohol may be coping tools. Could this explain Hitch’s gastronomic habits?

McDevitt and San Juan make several references to Hitch's “internal demons.” Thanks to Donald Spoto and more recently Hedren, it's become commonplace to theorize about the "dark side" of Hitchcock's genius. But the most sensational aspects of their smear campaign have been debunked. And many of Hitch's collaborators have come forward to present a very different side of the story. Aside from Hedren's unproved allegations that get zanier every year and Spoto's embellished stories mixed with speculation and innuendo expressed in tabloid terms, there really isn't much evidence to suggest that Hitch had any more demons than the rest of us. We all have our shadow. I'd say he was just more aware of his.

The authors of Hitchcock’s Villains grapple with an impulse to make definitive hot-or-not statements about the essential goodness of Hitch's bad guys—and ultimately the director himself. They ask, “So, was Alfred Hitchcock a good man or a bad man? There is no obvious answer, because people are not so easily categorized.” So why ask? Can anyone be shoehorned into one of those two categories?

Spellbound points to a possibly more enlightened approach to any critical evaluation of Alfred Joseph Hitchcock. Here, in spite of the unflagging loyalty and support of the aptly named Constance Petersen, John Ballantyne is hounded by demons internal and external for a crime we're not sure he didn't commit until he's cleared in the third act. The psychologist Dr. Brulov wants to villainize him, flippantly declaring that “we are speaking of a schizophrenic and not a Valentine.”

Hitch now, more than ever, could use the help of a Constance to step forward and reply: “We are speaking of a man.”

[1] But maybe this is just my bias coming out; if you’re tuned into it, part of the fun of watching Hitchcock’s films is that they can tell you as much about yourself as they do him.

[2] As a bomber pilot, Stewart killed civilians along with strictly military targets. He was even a commander on several raids, notably leading the Black Tuesday attack on Schweinfurt. Despondent over all that carnage, he nearly quit acting. According to Frank Capra biographer Joseph McBride, during the filming of It's a Wonderful Life
"Capra sensed that Stewart still had doubts about whether acting wasn't important enough profession for someone who had experienced what he had in the war, so that director asked the old pro, Lionel Barrymore, to give the star a pep talk.... When Stewart told Barrymore he didn't think acting was 'decent,' Barrymore asked him 'if he thought it was more 'decent to drop bombs on people than to bring rays of sunshine into their lives with his acting talent.' Stewart told Capra that Lionel's Barb's had knocked him flat on his ass, and that now acting was going to be his life's work."—Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success 
[3] "American Shame: Rope, James Stewart, and the Postwar Crisis in American Masculinity," Amy Lawrence, Hitchcock's America (1999). In this essay, Lawrence links Rupert’s espousal of Nietzschean philosophy to not only the Nazi will-to-power but also to the Allies’ hubris that led to the massive destruction they meted out in order to win the war.

[4] “Appropriately” because, since the tower really only exists in our minds, this keeps it more thoroughly in the realm of expressionism. It exists as a projection, you could say, of Scottie's psyche. Thus, it functions in much the same way as Albert Whitlock’s matte paintings do in The Birds and Marnie.

[5] It’s conclusions like this that lead me to conclude that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition—a.k.a. DSM-V—has done approximately as much harm as it has done good. People read a random page out of it and exclaim, “Hey, that’s my sister-in-law!”—and hell breaks loose. At the end of the day, the DSM-V is about as useful and accurate as a horoscope or a Meyers-Briggs test: use it, learn a little from it, but don't get too carried away.

[6] I think Hitchcock was also just as "conscious" about the Elster and Scottie's treatment of Judy as it related to him as a director. During the making of Vertigo, he asked art director Henry Bumstead to purchase more of the wood paneling used in Gavin Elster’s office so he could install it in the study in his Bel Air home; if he wanted to preserve a souvenir of Elster’s personality as a memento because he identified with that power broker, that obviously would have been a conscious decision. (Donald Spoto states that Hitch had Bumstead redecorate his entire office to look like Elster’s. However, Bumstead clarified this, saying that he just wanted the paneling. Thanks to Dan Auiler, in Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic, for that correction!)

[7] In this way, I see Hitch’s films as bearing more resemblance to Nabokov’s books than any other single director.


Hi Joel, I think your analysis of Scottie in Vertigo is spot on-- by no means a villain-- but, more an illustration of shades of gray. Elster on the other hand is an unambiguous narcissist, whose surface similarity to Scottie (remaking Judy) is superficial, or at least hides as much as it illuminates. I also don't believe that Scottie not rejoining the police force was selfish and your explanation of the motherliness of Midge as providing a sexual dysfunction to a romantic enterprise is convincing.
merci pour l'info, si ce film est traduit en français, je pense le commander.
Un autre qui super est Hitchock par Truffaut.

Lynda said…
Dear Joel

Thank you for your comprehensive survey of Hitchcock films. I found myself saying 'Yes' and 'Exactly so' many times. I have reached the same conclusions as you about Hitch but could not have expressed them so well. One line of dialogue in The Lady Vanishes has always intrigued me. When Mr Todhunter is questioned by his mistress about his behaviour regarding a beggar in Damascus, he replies 'I was looking for a street called Strait'. The reference to the experience of St Paul is unavoidable but why is it put into the mouth of such a shallow character. It also occurred to me when reading your blog that Tod is German for Death, so we could be dealing with Mr Death Hunter. Complacency is a kind of death, perhaps. Anyway, thanks for one of the most satisfying analyses of Hitchcock I have ever read

Dan Auiler said…
May be the best book review I've read in some time. Your section on Scottie and Vertigo, first rate.
Joel Gunz said…
Dan! Thanks for dropping by. I couldn't have written that section with the help of your book VERTIGO: THE MAKING OF A HITCHCOCK CLASSIC!
Joel Gunz said…
Lynda and Jeff-For-Progress, thanks for your additional insights. Lynda, your thoughts have my wheels turning... Watch this space to see if I can come up with an answer to your question!