Hitchcock's Villains

[Editor's note. I thank Professor Tom Leitch for the following 'preview' of an entry that will appear in the undoubted second edition of his 'Encyclopedia of Alfred Hitchcock: From Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Vertigo' (Facts on File Inc., 2002).]

Introduction by the author, Thomas M. Leitch

EVER SINCE 'THE ENCYCLOPEDIA of Alfred Hitchcock' appeared, the single biggest complaint I’ve had from readers, some of them old friends, was why I left out some topic or other - never a person, always a thematic topic. Almost without exception the answer has been a rueful 'Because I didn’t think of it.' But that isn’t a good enough response concerning one omission that’s so glaring that I can only plead that, like E.D. Hirsch leaving God out of his 'Dictionary of Cultural Literacy', I missed it because it was too obvious. Here’s the missing entry.  Purchasers of the 'Encyclopedia' are welcome to print it out and insert it into their copies; others are offered a sample of what they’ve been missing - even though up until now everyone else has missed it too ...

Since thrillers are unthinkable without bad guys, it is hardly surprising that Hitchcock has given the screen some of its most unforgettable villains. Discussing Stage Fright with François Truffaut, he went so far as to blame the film’s failure on the fact that its villains were too busy being afraid on their own account to menace anyone else and suggested as 'a cardinal rule' that 'the more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.' Truffaut agreed with enthusiasm, 'The better the villain, the better the picture,' and concluded that the success of Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt, and Strangers on a Train hinged on the performances of 'your three best villains': Claude Rains, Joseph Cotten, and Robert Walker - a list to which he might have added Peter Lorre in the 1934 Man Who Knew Too Much and Ray Milland in Dial M for Murder. But Truffaut’s generalization does not really follow from his examples. Consider the top ten vote-getters in Sight and Sound’s 1999 poll of Hitchcock’s greatest films: Psycho, Vertigo, Notorious, The Birds, North by Northwest, Shadow of a Doubt, Foreign Correspondent, Frenzy, and The Lady Vanishes. Apart from Notorious and Shadow of a Doubt - and of course The Birds - how many of them depend for their effectiveness on their villains? The villain in Vertigo, like the real thief in The Wrong Man, hardly registers at all; until the last few minutes, Lars Thorwald is only glimpsed from across the courtyard in Rear Window; the real 'Avenger' in The Lodger never appears onscreen. Would these films be better if their villains were more prominent? The Lady Vanishes, Foreign Correspondent, and North by Northwest, which feature Hitchcock’s most polished villains, use these characters mainly to motivate threats and dangers without disturbing their films’ tone of comic or adventurous melodrama. Even readers who agree with Truffaut’s assessment may be reluctant to accept his conclusion, especially since so many Hitchcock thrillers from The 39 Steps to Marnie seem to get along just fine with cardboard villains or none at all. It’s worth noticing the subtle shift between Truffaut’s bromide ('the better the villain, the better the picture') and Hitchcock’s ('the more successful the villain ...'), since Hitchcock’s point is that the villains have to be successful enough in their careers to be sufficiently menacing. In this reading Hitchcock’s villains may sound like nothing more or less than MacGuffins, incitements to delicious mayhem more valuable for what they provoke than for who they are.

But there is a more precise formula for assessing the importance of villains in Hitchcock’s films than either Hitchcock or Truffaut realizes, a formula that depends on the slipperiness of the term villain in Hitchcock compared to the term villainy. If Norman Bates is the main character in Psycho, then Psycho is Hitchcock’s only film with a villain for a hero. Or is it? The suggestion feels wrong because Norman is neither a hero nor, really, a villain; he’s just a nice boy who’s also a bogey-man monster. Is Marnie Edgar a villain? Is the Lodger, who’s looking for the 'Avenger' so that he can take his own revenge for his sister’s murder? Is Alice White, who’s wanted for murder after killing the artist in Blackmail, or Lady Henrietta Flusky, who killed her brother Dermot in the backstory of Under Capricorn and allowed her lover to take the blame? Is the real villain in The Paradine Case André Latour, who killed Major Paradine, or Lady Paradine, who incited him despite his loyalty to his master?

Examples like these suggest that although Hitchcock routinely depends on the potency of villainous characters, not all these characters are outright villains; many of them indeed are the nominal heroes of films from Blackmail (whose single most villainous character is probably the murdered artist) to Marnie (whose heroine is shielded from the police by a loving accessory who forces her into marriage and rapes her on their honeymoon). So 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. Of course, this is a formula for a very different sort of melodrama than Hitchcock and Truffaut are discussing, a more complex, Truffautesque sort of melodrama. But this is exactly the sort of movie Hitchcock has increasingly been identified with. 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. In the same way, Notorious isn’t a great movie because Claude Rains is a great villain; it’s a great movie because of the ways it allows Devlin, its hero, to act just as villainous as the villain while still retaining his heroic status. 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.