Saturday, August 8, 2020

AN EXCELLENT FORMULA!


THE HITCHCOCK VILLAINS


This is my contribution to Maddy's 4th Annual Alfred Hitchcock blogathon, click here to learn more...

In 1962, French film director/critic Francois Truffaut spent a week sequestered at Universal Studios with Alfred Hitchcock, a filmmaker he admired extravagantly. There, the two explored each of Hitchcock’s films to date in detail. Discussing Stage Fright (1950), one of his lesser films, Hitchcock remarked, “The greatest weakness of the picture is that it breaks an unwritten law: The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture. That’s a cardinal rule, and in this picture the villain was a flop!” Truffaut was delighted, “The better the villain, the better the picture,” he exclaimed, “that’s an excellent formula!”

Is it? Let’s take a closer look at the villains in some of Hitchcock’s best films.

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Hitchcock came to the U.S. in 1939 under contract to producer David O. Selznick who was then completing production on Gone with the Wind. Rebecca (1940), an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 gothic romance/mystery, was Hitchcock’s first picture for Selznick. Rebecca is a love story wrapped in a mystery. The setting is Manderley, a grand estate on an isolated stretch of English seacoast. The beautiful mistress of the manor, Rebecca, has died and her husband (Laurence Olivier) remarries to a naïve and unsophisticated girl (Joan Fontaine). When the newlyweds return to windblown Manderley, they are greeted by a small army of servants, including the dour head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers.

Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca (1940)
Laurence Olivier is the perfect choice to play the widower, a dashing aristocrat with a troubled soul, and Joan Fontaine is well cast as the young bride who will slowly transition from timidity to self-possession. Equal to both is Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers, the chilly, poker-faced housekeeper. Dead Rebecca is the villain of the tale but, given her physical absence, Mrs. Danvers, her self-appointed minion, acts on her behalf.  Anderson portrays Danvers as cold as ice and perilous as an undetected iceberg. Dressed in black, expressionless and severe, she floats through Manderley like an apparition. Her grim reserve makes it plain that she remains devoted to Rebecca, that she disapproves of, actually despises, the new wife and is bent on sabotaging her and the marriage.

In discussing Rebecca, Hitchcock agreed with Truffaut that the story was a Cinderella tale, and said, “The heroine is Cinderella, and Mrs. Danvers is one of the ugly sisters.”  Judith Anderson’s spectral performance as an “ugly sister” whose repressed menace bursts into active vengeance earns her a place in the pantheon of great Hitchcock villains. She also earned an Oscar nomination for the role. The actress herself would credit her mesmerizing performance to collaboration with her director. She said of Hitchcock, “I knew I was in the presence of a master; I had utter trust and faith in him.” 

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Shadow of a Doubt (1943) has been called Hitchcock’s own favorite of his films. When Truffaut asked him about it, Hitchcock replied, “I wouldn’t say that…” But he would say he enjoyed working with playwright Thornton Wilder, author of Our Town, on the script. When Wilder enlisted to serve in WWII, Hitchcock turned to Sally Benson, author of the Meet Me in St. Louis stories and novel, to complete the script. It’s no wonder, working with Wilder and Benson, that the British filmmaker could so believably depict idyllic small-town America in Shadow of a Doubt.

Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright, Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Santa Rosa, California, is home to the Newton family. Father (Henry Travers) is a bank clerk, mother (Patricia Collinge) is a housewife, oldest daughter Charlie (Teresa Wright) has just graduated from high school and the two younger children are still in grammar school. It’s summertime and young Charlie is feeling restless. Then a telegram arrives from her beloved namesake, Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), Mrs. Newton’s younger brother, announcing his imminent visit.

By this time, Uncle Charlie has already been introduced and there is good reason to be suspicious of him. He is first seen lounging in his room at a seedy boarding house in an unnamed city. Men are after him and his sudden decision to visit family is an escape plan. Joseph Cotten as Uncle Charlie portrays the first in a series of Hitchcock’s “smiling psychopaths,” usually a twisted mama’s boy. In this case, the boy was the baby of the family, doted on and spoiled with little discipline and lots of toys. According to his sister, a childhood bicycle accident effected a change in his personality…

Uncle Charlie grew up to be a real charmer. This would have been no stretch for handsome, velvet-and-bourbon-voiced Joseph Cotten.  At this point in his career he was portraying congenial and attractive good guys in films like Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Uncle Charlie was a break in type for him, for Charlie’s congeniality is, by turns, overblown and hard-edged, reflecting the man’s artifice on one hand, and his volatility on the other. His complete lack of empathy is exposed in an outburst that also lays bare his intense loathing of people. When caught out as a killer by his horrified namesake, he snarls, “Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses you’d find swine?”

Accentuating the man’s malevolence is the wholesome counterpoint young Charlie presents. And just as Teresa Wright’s earnest portrayal of moral goodness heightens Cotten’s portrait of irredeemable evil, his progressively more sinister Uncle Charlie amplifies her character’s decency. Shadow of a Doubt is not only blessed with an exquisite villain but also a superbly realized heroine. 

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Francois Truffaut declared that Notorious (1946) was “truly [his] favorite,” at least among the black and white films, and “the very quintessence of Hitchcock.” It was also, without qualification, TCM host Robert Osborne’s favorite Hitchcock. The director’s daughter, Patricia, would proclaim it “...a perfect film!” when she watched Notorious again for the first time in many years.

With Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains on hand, we know before we catch our first glimpse of the back of Cary Grant’s head in Ingrid Bergman’s living room that we’re likely to experience onscreen magic. Providing the backdrop for what becomes a triangular tango is a post-war tale of expatriate Nazis hatching a diabolical plot in South America.

Every aspect of Notorious, from Ben Hecht’s script to Ted Tetzlaff’s cinematography and Roy Webb’s score, is outstanding. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman were both then major stars and at the top of Hollywood’s glittering A-list. Claude Rains was already a well-respected character actor, a three-time Oscar nominee who could deliver performances ranging from the nastiest of villains to the most wise and kindly of fathers.

Leopoldine Konstantin, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains, Notorious (1946)
In Notorious Grant portrays a debonair but callous federal agent named Devlin who enlists Bergman’s character, Alicia, the hard-partying daughter of a convicted spy, to infiltrate a band of Nazi friends of her father that fled Europe for South America. Once they arrive in Rio, Dev and Alicia zero in on her former beau, Alex Sebastian (Rains). Sebastian and his mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) are members of a Nazi refugee group that, though tucked away in Brazil, is plotting a return to infamy.

Rains earned high praise, along with another Oscar nomination, for his performance in Notorious. We first encounter him as Alicia’s still smitten former suitor. As he begins to court her again, he jealously probes her relationship with Dev as persistently as he fawns over her. Mme. Sebastian, a classic devouring mother, does not favor her son’s blossoming romance, so when he asks her to be nicer to Alicia, she sneers, “Wouldn’t it be a little too much if we both grinned at her like idiots?” Rains depicts Alex Sebastian as a man of shifting moods. He is mistrustful of Alicia before and after their marriage. He is an impetuous romantic. He is charming. He is insecure. He will come undone in the face of betrayal. Claude Rains will make of Alex Sebastian that most unnatural of oxymorons, a sympathetic Nazi.

But Alex Sebastian is not the only villain here. His mother, Mme. Sebastian, is played to the cold-blooded hilt by Mme. Konstantin, an actress just three years older than Rains. Alex is a mama’s boy who, when in trouble, always turns to mother. On learning his bride is an American spy, he quickly makes his way to mother’s room. Convinced his blunder will lead to certain death at the hands of his fellow Nazis, he falls apart. And iron-willed mother takes over. Propping herself up in bed, she pulls a cigarette from a bedside box and fires up. No, she assures him, “We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity…for a time.” It is Mme. Sebastian who concocts a plan to slowly poison Alicia so that her death will seem the result of illness and not be questioned. Though Leopoldine Konstantin’s part is smaller than Claude Rains’, she perfectly complements his portrayal of conflicted evil with hers of unblinking resolve. 

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Hitchcock directed four films after Notorious that were not very successful. His fortunes changed with Strangers on a Train (1951), the film that launched his golden decade. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name, the story introduces Guy (Farley Granger) and Bruno (Robert Walker), two strangers who meet on a train and begin to chat. It emerges that Guy, a rising tennis star, is hoping to divorce his faithless wife and marry a Senator’s daughter. Spoiled rich boy, Bruno, is chafing at the financial leash his fed-up father has put him on. In the course of their conversation, Bruno suggests a “criss-cross” murder scheme. He will kill Guy’s wife and Guy will kill his father so that neither will be suspected of murdering their adversary. “Sure, Bruno,” Guy says lightly. But Bruno isn’t joking.

Farley Granger and Robert Walker, Strangers on a Train (1951)
Like Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt, Walker was cast against type. He’d made his reputation in boyish roles during World War II, most memorably as a young soldier opposite Judy Garland in The Clock (1945). He had a sweetness in him, an endearing quality. But Bruno Anthony’s boyishness has neither. His smarmy veneer barely masks the thick layer of rage simmering beneath. With a voice that glides from sensual as silk to cold and hollow as tin, his eyes glitter, glare, caress. Bruno is a psychopath and Walker brings him to fascinating life.

From the first instant Bruno appears in the club car insinuating himself into Guy's life, to his final moments, when he mercilessly implicates Guy with his dying breath, Walker dominates and energizes the film. Patricia Hitchcock has said that for all her father's genius, it is Walker's daring performance that 'made' the picture. Robert Walker died suddenly at age 32, less than two months after the film’s release. He had appeared in more than 30 films, but it wasn’t until Strangers on a Train that he had the chance to demonstrate his range as an actor. Film critic/historian David Thomson wrote of Walker as Bruno, "It is a landmark performance. You see it now and you feel the vibrancy of the modernity..." 

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When scouting for the next mythic Hitchcock villain we jump to 1960 and Psycho. A sensation upon release, it truly was one of Hitchcock’s favorites. He would tell filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich that he was especially gratified by the film’s emotional impact on audiences. This spoke to the power of visual storytelling, he believed, or "pure cinema," as he preferred to call it.

The story begins with a scene of trysting lovers who bemoan the sorry financial state of affairs that prevents them from marrying. When the woman, Marion (Janet Leigh), later has the opportunity to make off with $40,000 in cash, she takes it and skips town. She will change her mind, but by this time it’s dark, it’s raining and she will first spend the night at an out of the way motel. Here she will meet Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who manages the motel for his mother.

Anthony Perkins in Psycho (1960)
Norman appears to be a friendly but anxious young man with a "mother problem." Yes, like Uncle Charlie, Alex Sebastian and Bruno Anthony, Norman Bates is another of Hitchcock’s mama's boys. We imagine Norman’s mother was like Mme. Sebastian, a domineering shrew, rather than the indulgent woman who raised Uncle Charlie. But we’ll never know because most of what we'll know of her we learn from Norman, and Norman, we’ll discover, inhabits a profoundly distorted reality. Hitchcock once more cast against type when he chose Anthony Perkins to play Norman Bates, another “smiling psychopath.” Perkins, like Walker, was usually associated with male ingenue roles and had received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a young Civil War-era Quaker in Friendly Persuasion (1957).

Norman moves to the center of Psycho once Marion meets her demise, but it’s unclear exactly what his role is. The viewer will wonder, “What’s going on here?” We know there’s a killer on the loose but not much more. Which is Hitchcock’s intent. He is “directing the viewers” in one direction so he can deliver another knock-out punch at the climax. Not until the closing minutes of Psycho do we realize who/what Norman Bates actually is. As brilliantly conceived and directed as Psycho is, Anthony Perkins’s performance is one of the film’s great strengths. He must unpeel Norman’s fractured personality layer by layer, until the end of the picture. So well does he do this that, as critic Robin Wood observed, “…the saddest casualty of Norman Bates’s murder spree was Perkins’s career.” Of course, it is because of Norman, a character he revisited in two Psycho sequels, that Anthony Perkins has his place in film history – and as one of Hitchcock’s most magnificent villains. 

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Francois Truffaut was “convinced that Hitchcock was not satisfied with any of the films he made after Psycho.” Maybe. It’s true Psycho was an impossibly hard act to follow. However, the master still had hopes of “topping” himself. Did he? His next film would debut at Cannes, be nominated for an Academy Award, thrill audiences around the world and be critically acclaimed. It was, like Psycho, a blockbuster. The villain in Hitchcock’s 49th film would be of another breed. Literally. The Birds (1963), based on a story by Daphne du Maurier, tells of widespread attacks on humans by different species of wild birds. It was the story’s concept that attracted Hitchcock who felt that with the proper execution it could rival Psycho.

The Birds (1963)
He had wanted Cary Grant and Grace Kelly for the lead roles, an attorney and a smug socialite. But Grant was winding down his career and Kelly was now Princess Grace, so he instead cast Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren. The film begins as the two meet cute in San Francisco. She will go on to follow him to his mother’s home in Bodega Bay. As Hedren’s character, Melanie, docks her rented motorboat there, the first bird attack occurs - and she is the victim. Soon squadrons of the creatures are flying into the area and none of them are friendly.

The special effects employed in The Birds, are singular and remarkable for their time. Hitchcock would tell Peter Bogdanovich that it was all done with set-ups of highly trained birds and meticulous editing. He told Bogdanovich there were “371 trick shots” in The Birds and that it was the most technically difficult film he ever made. Remember, the film was made years before CGI and involved 3,200 live birds. Ub Iwerks of Disney fame would receive a much-deserved Oscar nomination for special effects.

The apocalyptic scenes of bird attacks are so spectacular and jolting, and the constant gathering of more and more birds arouses such intense dread that the film’s underlying storyline of budding romance and family relations loses its force. The horrific threat of massive, endless bird attacks becomes the story, and the reason for these attacks along with the future of a romance are reduced to MacGuffin status.


The Birds (1963)

Six very successful films, each boasting a splendidly conceived and portrayed villain - or villains. We can’t disagree with Hitchcock’s “cardinal rule” or Truffaut’s assertion that, “The better the villain, the better the picture…an excellent formula!”


 References:
Hitchcock/Truffaut by Francois Truffaut (Simon & Schuster, rev. 1983)
Hitchcock/Truffaut documentary, directed by Kent Jones (2015)
Hitchcock's Films Revisited by Robin Wood (Columbia Univ. Press, rev. 2002)
1963 Peter Bogdanovich interview with Alfred Hitchcock via The Plot Thickens podcast (2020)
"Film Studies: Robert Walker, a great lost star" by David Thomson (The Independent, Sunday, August 15, 1999)

22 comments:

  1. A magnificent look at those villains who both charm and repulse. I will keep this article for those special times when I revisit those films.

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    1. Thanks! I'd be curious to know your reaction when you revisit these films.

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  2. Patty, this is an excellent analysis of Hitchcock villains. (I loved, LOVED your description of Mrs Danvers as a "poker-faced housekeeper".) As for Notorious, I think the Sebastians are the most interesting characters in the film, especially that mother.

    One of my fave Hitchcock films is Shadow of a Doubt, which I was able to see on the big screen last fall. Even though I'd seen it several times at home, it was like watching it for the first time. The things that struck me the most were Joseph Cotten's chilling portrayal, and Theresa Wright's intelligence and strength. Like you said, she truly is a superbly realized heroine.

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    1. I've seen quite a few Hitchcock films on the big screen, but not Shadow of a Doubt. Know what you mean, though, about the experience of "like watching it for the first time." There's no question that these films were made and meant to be seen on theater screens.

      Thank you, Ruth.

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  3. Well that was a wonderful read, Patty. There are so many great villains in Hitch's films, but the ones you highlight here are indeed some of those who stick in the memory the most.

    Thanks so much for joining me to celebrate Hitch and his work.

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    1. Thanks, Maddy, and thanks for hosting another Hitchcock celebration. No director deserves it more than he.

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  4. “The better the villain, the better the picture"

    I mean...how freakin' true is that?!

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    1. And who better than Hitchcock to prove that point?

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  5. A very interesting essay! I agree with five of your six choices. However, I don’t consider the birds to be “the villain” of The Birds. The birds serve merely as the film’s catalysts. The story is really about Rod’s mother and her desire to be the sole woman in her sin’s life. When she finally accepts Tippi, the movie ends. That’s the climax. So, I don’t think there’s a villain at all.

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    1. Hmmm. Can't agree with you, Rick. In terms of the story, yes, but in terms of the overall concept, no. The storyline of romance/family dynamics may end with the mother's acceptance of Melanie, but not the film. The final scene is a grim landscape blanketed in restless birds, birds that seem to be between forays. I believe Hitchcock intended this apocalyptic image of impending horror to be what stayed in the viewer's mind. The audience experiences the birds as the villains(s) and I think Hitchcock was as focused on audience reaction with The Birds as he was with Psycho.

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    2. I think his point with the ending was that the birds don't matter anymore. Why else would the birds let Mitch, his mom and sister, and Melanie walk right through them without attacking (as they did at the school and gas station)? The last close-up of the quartet reinforces Lydia's acceptance of Melanie by showing her holding Melanie in a comforting manner.

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    3. That old Dave Mason song from the ‘70s, “We Just Disagree,” comes to mind. In your eyes the film ends with storyline closure, mother and girlfriend bond. I get that. I just don’t see it that way. We even read the final shot very differently. But enough said. I’m afraid we must agree to disagree and move on to the next picture.

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  6. A great premise for a Hitchcock essay and excellently done, Lady E!
    I think that movies' greatest villains usually have, if not a sympathetic side, at least an empathetic one. That's why everyone remembers all of Bette Davis' non-heroine roles. Think Hitch knew this, too. Even his maniac characters like Bruno and Norman, there's the misfit side of them you can empathize with, and a small part of you that wants them to get away with their bad deeds. And Claude Rains may be one of the most sympathetic villains ever in Notorious!
    Love reading your writing by the way,
    Rick

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    1. Thank you very much, Rick. I imagine one of the key reasons Hitchcock cast against type for the roles of Uncle Charlie, Bruno and Norman was that each of the actors could not only play but also was already established in sympathetic roles. And Claude Rains...I'm sure I'm not the only one who felt a bit of sympathy for him at the end of Notorious when he had to go back up those stairs and into the mansion to face his fate.

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  7. Great premise for your blog post Patty, and as you make so very clear, the focus for so many of Hitchcock's films. Indeed, virtually all dramas and super hero movies today need an equally evil villain, though sometimes it takes time to tell them apart. I agree with your assessment of Notorious, and it's my favorite. I tend to get impatient with villains that aren't multidimensional and have one-track minds. That would be my definition of a better villain. Thanks for highlighting this aspect of Hitchcock.

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    1. Notorious is a favorite of mine, too. I particularly like that all three leads are characters with dimension. It really is a perfect film. Most listed here are. The only improvements I'd make would be to drop Ruth Roman from Strangers on a train and replace her with Hitchcock's first choice, Grace Kelly, and I'd re-cast the leads in The Birds. I'd also improve some of the too artificial looking "outdoor" scenes in The Birds.

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  8. Fantastic post! Mme Sebastian is one of the most chilling Hitchcock villains, and I'm glad she was remembered in this post, as well as Bruno Anthony from my personal favorite Hitchcock film.
    As for Stage Fright, still fresh in my mind, maybe the villain was weak, maybe he should have been played by an actor against type (like Perkins and Walker), or maybe it had more to do with the flashback than with the villain. But it's certainly food for thought.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

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    1. Hello, Le! I've always enjoyed Stage Fright, even though it isn't one of the greats. The false flashback doesn't bother me, in fact without it, what do we have? The film has its problems, but it's still a lot of fun to watch.

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  9. An excellent subject for analysis, Lady Eve, and you've certainly risen to the occasion! I found myself smiling throughout as you made me recall these powerful performances. I could picture key scenes in my mind as you discussed what made these actors (and, in one case, animals!) create such indelible villains.

    I love each one of these films and would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite from them. Of this group, I most recently rewatched "Strangers on a Train", and I couldn't agree more about Robert Walker's performance. He's mesmerizing. Of course, it all starts with a great script, and we can't give enough credit to Hitch's direction, but Walker does such an outstanding job. We're lucky he was cast.

    Thanks again for a fun post!

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    1. Thank you, Paul. There's nothing more enjoyable for me as a blogger than exploring Hitchcock, and this post was lots of fun to research and write. I'm glad you liked it.

      In his memoir, Farley Granger wrote than when he was cast in SoaT, Hitchcock asked - with a twinkle in his eye - what he would think of Robert Walker being cast as the villain. Granger was surprised and then remembered the against-type casting of Joseph Cotten in SoaD and thought it was a brilliant idea.

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    2. Ha, I can imagine that twinkle quite easily! Glad to have found your page, btw -- I just "subscribed" to it, and followed your Twitter as well. Looking forward to future posts ...

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    3. I'm happy you found my page, too, and thank you for subscribing. Hope you enjoy future posts. Nice to meet you, Paul.

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