Monday, January 17, 2011

THREE CLASSIC HITCHCOCK KILLERS


Alfred Hitchcock once remarked that, “in the old days villains had moustaches and kicked the dog.”  He resisted such clichés, preferring a different kind of heavy, the sort he called “an ordinary human being with failings.”  The director also said, referring to his own work, “the more successful the villain, the more successful the picture,” and though this was not always the case, it held true for some of his best films.

 Three villains who reflect his preferences and support his contention come quickly to mind:

  • Charles Oakley, the “Merry Widow” killer in Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
  • Bruno Anthony, the “Criss Cross” strangler of Strangers on a Train (1951)
  • Norman Bates, the identity-challenged slayer in Psycho (1960)
Shadow of a Doubt: Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten

Shadow of a Doubt is the film Hitchcock sometimes claimed was his favorite. It was one in a string of hits he made during his first years in the U.S.; some call it his first truly "American" film. Joseph Cotten as Charles Oakley is spellbinding, beginning with the rich velvety rasp of his voice. Uncle Charlie’s suave veneer and practiced charm belie his homicidal impulses and he is welcomed with open arms into a wholesome small town.

Strangers on a Train was a major hit and responsible for reviving Hitchcock’s career after a series of mid-century flops. Robert Walker’s hypnotic performance as the bizarrely unbalanced Bruno is so powerful he dominates the entire film. Bruno, glib and witty, smoothly finagles his way into the lives of the unwary.
Psycho: Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh

Psycho was a sensation, the great groundbreaking masterpiece of Hitchcock’s later career.  The personality of Norman Bates is the crux of the plot and Anthony Perkins’s portrayal is both riveting and far-reaching. An engaging young fellow, Norman appears harmless and accommodating to those who stay at the Bates Motel.

Hitchcock cleverly selected actors for these roles who were not known for playing heavies; each was immensely talented as well as cast soundly against type.

Joseph Cotten, 37 when cast as Uncle Charlie, had made his screen debut in Citizen Kane (1941) as down-to-earth reporter Jedediah Leland. He had also portrayed the protagonist in Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and went on to play sympathetic leads in several films following Shadow of a Doubt.

Strangers on a Train: Farley Granger and Robert Walker
In his 2007 autobiography Farley Granger remembered that after he had been cast as Guy Haines, Hitchcock asked him what he would think if Robert Walker were to play Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train. Granger recalled Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt as “masterful surprise casting” and, thinking of Walker’s earlier roles, responded, “What a terrific idea!”

Walker, 31 when he portrayed Bruno, had been knocking around Hollywood for years, repeatedly cast in boy-next-door roles. He had played young servicemen throughout World War II – Bataan (1943), Since You Went Away (1944), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), The Clock (1945) and in the Private Hargrove films. Strangers on a Train, a testament to his remarkable versatility, was the last film he completed before his sudden death.

Anthony Perkins in Psycho
Anthony Perkins, 28 when he played Norman Bates, had been cast mostly as sensitive, sincere young men prior to becoming a Hitchcock killer:  Friendly Persuasion (1956), Fear Strikes Out (1957), The Tin Star (1957) Green Mansions (1959). Afterward, Perkins became synonymous with Psycho and critic Robin Wood spoke for many when he mused, “…the saddest casualty of Norman Bates’s murder spree was Perkins’s career.”

None of these three actors had been or would ever be a top star though David O. Selznick tried hard to make a leading man of Cotten.  It's no stretch to say that each actor’s greatest role was his turn as a Hitchcock killer.

The relationship between these villainous characters is as interesting as the similarities the three actors share.
 
Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train
In his Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, Robin Wood pondered Hitchcock’s avowed disinterest in actors with a grain of salt:  “…one needs to account for the numerous superb performances…” and specifically referenced Cotten, Walker and Perkins. Though he acknowledged that some actors, left to their own devices, might capably seize the moment, Wood believed there was “…more reason to deduce that there are certain performances – or more exactly, certain roles – which arouse in Hitchcock a particular creative interest.”

What these three personalities seem to most obviously have in common is a complex psychology rooted in family relationships.

Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt
Early in Shadow of a Doubt it is revealed that dapper Uncle Charlie was the youngest in his family, badly spoiled by mother and older sister. His attitude toward men suggests he is used to being top dog and his attentiveness to women implies his seductive powers. But Charlie, with his “spirit wounded and festering” (Lindsay Anderson), is deeply disdainful of everyone.

Dissipated playboy Bruno Anthony of Strangers on a Train still lives at home in the family mansion. He is an only child, coddled by an addled mother and dismissed by a powerful father. Bruno seems to have little interest in women though, like Charlie, he manipulates them easily. While his behavior hints at sexual identity issues, he desperately schemes to dethrone his hated father.

Norman Bates in Psycho is also an only child. Norman appears to be the hapless victim of a domineering mother. Whatever the actual dynamics of the mother/son relationship, Norman never matured or successfully transitioned to manhood. He is awkward and twitchy, if sometimes boyishly charming, as he navigates the dark and chaotic world he shares with his mother.

Uncle Charlie visits Santa Rosa
Hitchcock additionally bestowed upon each of these villains one of his favorite motifs, a "double"…all three have one. Uncle Charlie and his namesake niece/twin, “Young Charlie,” engage in a fierce battle to the death. Bruno proposes to his less sinister double, Guy, that they “trade murders,” but later perceives a “double-cross”…and Norman, well, with Norman Hitchcock takes his fascination with alter-egos to the extreme; Norman has two personas.

In essence, each character is a progressive reworking of a character type and it strikes me how each also fits neatly into the era in which he "lives."

On the surface, Uncle Charlie is the most civilized of the three killers. He is courtly and chivalrous, very polished – and entitled. Shadow of a Doubt is set during the early days of WWII. As eventually in the war, good triumphs over evil, but much innocence is lost in the fight. David Sterritt commented on the turbulence of the early 1940s and saw Uncle Charlie as a depiction of  “a seemingly genuine (albeit very evil) mortal who indeed personifies the worst tendencies of that moment.”
Bruno in Washington, D.C.

Like Charlie, Bruno is also entitled and fairly polished, but his behavior is more erratic, his inconsistencies more visible. Strangers on a Train takes place during the post-war era in Washington, D.C., seat of power of newly affluent and upwardly mobile America. Bruno and Guy both have aspirations - Guy desires a new well-connected wife and a political career and Bruno plots for his father’s money and clout. Guy’s dreams appear to be within reach by the end, but he also seems destined for the conformity of a “gray flannel suit" (something Bruno would never have worn).

Norman has a naive sort of charm and is not at all sophisticated or polished. But like Bruno, his psychological conflicts are obvious early on. In Psycho just about everyone is nervous and on edge – it’s the Cold War era - but no one is more agitated than Norman Bates with his split-like-an-atom personality. The climax is an A-bomb, the ending an interlude on a psychiatrist’s couch…
Norman Bates at home
 
Uncle Charlie was the original prototype. Updated and fine-tuned he became the more baroque Bruno Anthony who evolved into shattered nowhere-man Norman Bates. All three are singularly conjured variants of what David Thomson has called the "smiling psychopath" - and legendary among Alfred Hitchcock's "successful villains." Strangers  on a Train, Shadow  of a Doubt and Psycho are all regularly cited on "top ten Hitchcock" lists...


21 comments:

  1. These three really are the apex of Hitchcock villainy. I have a particularly soft spot for Uncle Charlie--not only because Shadow of a Doubt is my favorite Hitch film, hands down, but Joseph Cotten is sheer perfection in the role. His speech at the dinner table, where he compares women to animals, still gives me chills, even after watching the movie more than a dozen times!

    That's not to discount Walker and Perkins--no other actors I can think of could have played those roles so well. Hitch may have famously (reportedly) compared actors to cattle, but the man certainly had a gift for extracting indelible performances from them!

    Brilliant post, Lady Eve--I really enjoyed reading this!

    Brandie
    True Classics
    http://trueclassics.wordpress.com

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  2. A fantastic read! What a great choice for the Blogathon. Admittedly I haven't seen Shadow Of Doubt but it's on my "must see" list.
    It's nice to have the opportunity to read other blogs from the CMBA.
    Page at My Love Of Old Hollywood
    http://myloveofoldhollywood.blogspot.com/

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  3. I agree with trueclassics -- I think Cotten's Uncle Charlie is probably the ne plus ultra of Hitchcock villains, primarily because a lot of his cynicism and world-weariness doesn't seem all that villainous; he outwardly appears to be a pleasant, courtly individual who just happens to look at life through a skeptical prism.

    As for Robert Walker's Bruno Anthony...well, it's simply one of the best-acted roles in film. I bow to no one in my admiration for Bogart but not only should have Walker been nominated for an Oscar he deserved to take home the trophy had he been so honored.

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  4. Very well written, Eve. And you include great references. Psycho is probably Hitch's greatest effort, and your choice of the other two movies allows good comparison for what Hitchcock does best...get a great performance out of his cast. The similarities of the three villains are used to create differences in them. How is that possible?!?

    Even with Hitch's use of the camera, which is technically brilliant, he couldn't make a great movie without using the cast to its fullest. And you can't have a great thriller without a great villain.

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  5. What can I say, Eve? Fantastic article, as always. You chose a very creative and insightful comparison of Hitchcock's work. I have to rate Joseph Cotton as my favorite of the three, with Robert Walker coming in a close second. Don't get me wrong, I think Anthony Perkins was wonderful, but the other two men were, to me, more frightening. Perhaps because, unlike Norman Bates, their world was every-day ordinary, a scenario that to me sets the audience up for true horror.

    Excellent article for our Hitchcock Blogathon!

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  6. Superb. "Shadow of a Doubt" is also my favorite Hitchcock film from the 1940s, and I love this because I love Hitchcock's premise -- introduce an element of evil into a typical American family and see what happens. Uncle Charlie could be any of our uncles who we rarely see but are fond of when we do. Joseph Cotton embodied this character perfectly. But you are right about Walker and Perkins. All three actors give their greatest film performances as villains. They may have been overlooked by the Academy, but fans remember them fondly in these roles. Thank you for a superb post.

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  7. What a wonderful, thought provoking post. Wasn't it Hitchcock who said he wanted to bring murder back into the home, where it belonged? He may have been talking about these films.

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  8. Awesome!! Review Eve, I have been waiting to read your tribute to, Alfred Hitchcock. I love All three, movie choices. Psycho, is one of the classic films I can not watch alone.

    Thank you for allowing me to share your wonderful Vertigo trip report to my article for the Hitchcock Blogathon.

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  9. Excellent comparison! I like that you chose to look at Hitchcock's repeating motifs and characters rather than focus on one film.

    -Caroline

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  10. This was a terrific article, Eve! I love the part about all three villains having doppelgangers of a sort. If I could add a fourth to the mix, it would be Rebecca de Winter. In REBECCA, Maxim has to cope with both the real Rebbeca and the "false memory" of her pertetrated by others. I know...that's a stretch...it's not nearly as clear as the three you mentioned. Ironically, the psychological make-up of these villains make them a little more sympathetic than other Hitchcock ones. As vile as Uncle Charlie is (he's going to murder his favorite relative!), he is clearly a psychopath as you pointed out. In contrast, Madame Sebastian from NOTORIOUS is just plain evil. Thanks for a very thought-provoking post.

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  11. Eve, an extremely interesting and insightful article. In their own 'odd' way Bruno Anthony and Norman Bates were both mama boys and obviously all three are psychotic in behavior, yet they can be such charming souls. Robert Walker nailed the part of Bruno in a spectacular performance.

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  12. Eve, this is a very well analyzed comparison of three male murderers. The most chilling, in my opinion, is Uncle Charlie. He has become the cold judge and executioner of wealthy widows and now finds he must kill his young namesake for being too clever. Teresa Wright is quite believable as the adoring niece who must grow up quickly in her realization of whom her mother's brother actually is. Bruno is a master manipulator but his success is also related to Guy's weakness. Norman is fascinating in his dual roles. Anthony Perkins gave a remarkable performance in arguably one of the most shocking of Hitchcock's films, especially on the first viewing. Excellent article, Eve!

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  13. Hitchcock was a real "piece of work" himself - your article superbly shows this through the psychological portraits you present of three of his most memorable villians. The "master manipulator" loved to present a perverse and subversive subtext to his audience (coming to america seemed to especially stimulate this tendency) - I think he took personal pleasure in this. Hitch was a genius, control freak who knew how to take his viewers on an amusement park thrill-ride of psychological twists and turns - a merry-go-round spinning out of control, where innocence confronts evil. It seems to me that Hitchcock's very civilized, english gentleman exterior was allowed to be lifted when he expressed his baser instincts in art, and especially through his villians. You did a brilliant job, Ms Eve. You inspire me to ask the question: what was the nature of Hitchcock's relationship with his own mother? Do you know?

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  14. Wow, that was interesting. My fave of the three is definitely Joseph Cotten, very normal in appearance as you said, but really evil :)

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  15. Eve, some really remarkable insights into these three characters and the actors who played them. I especially liked the observation of Hitckcock's use of the double, the classic example being of course Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. Not only does each of these characters have an external double, but each also has in internal double. Each appears normal, innocuous, even charming on the outside but conceals something horrible and festering on the inside. I also really liked that observation by Robin Wood you cited about performances like these belying the notion that Hitchcock had little respect for actors ("Actors should be treated like cattle."), and also his notion that great roles inspire great performances. Finally, I liked your analysis of the disordered personalities of each of these being rooted in the family dynamics of childhood and the implicit notion that each is an example of narcissism and arrested development. A really thought-provoking post that concentrates on the most difficult and problematic thing to write about, especially in regard to movies--ideas--without getting lost in abstractions.

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  16. very well stated...subtle villiany at it's best..for me, BRUNO ANTHONY is the creepiest...NORMAN BATES is the most obvious...and UNCLE CHARLIE the most polished!!!

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  17. The comments on this piece are some of the most interesting and stimulating ever posted at this blog & I thank all for their thoughts. The idea to write on this subject had been in my head for quite a while...I'm very happy so many found the end result worthwhile. Thanks again.

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  18. When I grow up, I want to write like you :)
    This was wonderful and gave me insights I haven't had before. All three villains are great in their villany, and the casting couldn't be more perfect.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Kisses!

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  19. The connections you cite among the three characters are most compelling, as compelling as the performances by the actors themselves.

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  20. Eve, I'm glad to have finally caught up with THREE CLASSIC HITCHCOCK THRILLERS; it truly blew me away, with your riveting, in-depth discussion of Hitchcock's unholy trio of Uncle Charlie, Bruno Anthony, and Norman Bates. Now THERE'S a trio you don't want in a game of MYSTERY DATE! It's remarkable how Joseph Cotten, Robert Walker, and Anthony Perkins were so lovable in their early films, yet they took to darker roles with what seemed the greatest of ease (including reportedly having a wonderful time on the PSYCHO set). BRAVA to you on what's already become one of my favorites among your LADY EVE'S REEL LIFE blog posts! Great job, and Happy Halloween!

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  21. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant analysis. I agree these three are the most compelling of Hitchcock's villains. Also, good point that each one has a double. I'd never thought about that before.

    My fave of these three is Robert Walker. I consider his performance here to be one of the best on film.

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