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|
|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|
What these three personalities seem to most obviously have in common is a complex psychology rooted in family relationships.
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.
|Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt|
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|
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…