Hitchcock Kills Dad

We all think of Alfred Hitchcock as a kind of pervert, or at least as the kind of man with fetishes and morbid curiosities that he dares not to say out loud. What we typically call perversion film critics have always tended to call auteurism. The common perception of Hitchcock as an auteur grew out of the writings of a group of French critics, especially François Truffaut, in the magazine Cahier du Cinéma, which argued that the film director could be more than a skilled technician: s/he could even be an author of a film’s text — the camera her pen (camerá-stylo). American critic Andrew Sarris expanded on that idea with his three-circle model (from the outer ring to inner: technique, personal style, and interior meaning), and Peter Wollen provided more clarity in his book Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1972). He calls the auteur theory “indispensable” when looking at the structure of an auteur’s films — or, rather, the structures that s/he composes. Important to the concept of the auteur, and of course to Hitchcock’s films, is that “his source is only a pretext, which provides catalysts, scenes which fuse with his own preoccupations to produce a radically new work.” The auteur’s fixations are always arriving, unannounced, within their films.

Two of Hitchcock’s lesser-known films, 1927’s The Lodger (my favorite Hitchcock) and 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt, are among his most morbid films, too. Like many of his films they are obviously (but not simply) Oedipal, and in like many of his other films (The Birds, Marnie, Psycho, Suspicion, to name a few), The Lodger and Shadow of a Doubt house Hitchcock’s fear about the potential hole left by the “death” of the father. In these films, Hitchcock unzips all sorts of psycho-sexual mayhem — homosexuality, sex pests, and incest — and disrupts the social order.

Important for both films is that aberrant sexuality (be it the Lodger’s “dandy” queerness or Uncle Charlie’s incestuous fantasies) presents a challenge, a threat of usurpation, to both the father’s “throne” and phallic providence over the family, especially the daughter. Both films suggest that the family structure itself both creates and maintains such aberrations. It does not so much matter in either film as to “why” these aberrations exist — Hitchcock does not explore the ontology of the family — but rather “how” they work: the surface itself reveals, or at least implies, underlying, disturbing complexities.

The Lodger is a thriller about a serial killer of blonde-haired women named “The Avenger.” Young blonde Daisy Bunting (June Tripp) learns about The Avenger through the newspapers and can’t stop worrying about him. She lives with her parents, who are renting a room upstairs. When the newest tenant (Ivor Norvello) arrives, they all begin to worry because he looks like the alleged Avenger. Daisy and the lodger begin a close relationship, but not before everyone around her is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that this mysterious dandy is The Avenger.

The film is extremely wary of the father’s instability quite early on, as in the scene where the lodger arrives at the Bunting family home. As Mr. Bunting (Arthur Chesney) stands on top of a chair, attempting to repair a cuckoo clock, the lodger enters through the threshold. Suddenly, comically, the cuckoo bird ejects from the clock and the chair topples over, taking Mr. Bunting with it. Hitchcock scholar Richard Allen notes that, while the cuckoo clock is, of course, a classic slapstick noise of disruption and mockery, it is also “an allusion to transgressive sexual behavior.” So it should come as little to no surprise that Hitchcock presents the lodger’s entrance — from the primordial haze of the London fog to the Bunting’s domestic comfort, like the merging of two silent film genres — as a kind of transgression, too.

When Mrs. Bunting (Marie Ault) suggests to Mr. Bunting that the lodger may be the dreaded Avenger, the father’s reaction — aloof, naive, and insecure — suggests the same about the position of the father in general. Staring at a chandelier located directly above the dinner table, beneath the lodger’s room, the chandelier becomes a symbol of a certain kind of “dandiness”; the father’s lips begin to quiver as he removes his smoking pipe and cradles in his hands. (Perhaps the cradling of the phallic pipe signifies the father’s fear of the dandy’s usurpation; the cucking of his “seat” at the head of the household by an (ostensibly incongruous) effeminate, yet phallic, outside force.)

Both the novel and the film describe the Lodger as “queer.” (“Even if he is a bit queer, he’s a gentleman,” one dialogue card reads.) It is quite hard to ignore the connotations of the word “queer” and its connections to the Victorian dandy, who after the trials of Oscar Wilde was inextricably tied to homosexuality. Hitchcock’s acknowledgment of and ambivalence towards homosexuals famously pops up again in Rope, where two gay Nietzschean lovers serve a dinner party on top of a dead body. His use of the word “queer” is perhaps not only a recognition of connotations of the dandy look, but also the Avenger’s (or, rather, the lodger’s) vampiric, sexually-repressive, misogynistic violence.

Hitchcock’s framing of Norvello as a vampire invites comparisons to gothic literature, a psychic development of Victorian repressiveness. If the mysterious Norvello as the lodger-Avenger evokes Dracula comparisons, it evokes Anne Rice’s homo-vamps, too.

The lodger’s love of his dead sister (killed by the Avenger) traipses around the topic of incest without truly discussing it; instead, Hitchcock chooses to consider the homosexual dandy as a kind of vampire, creating suspense and latent (homo)sexual desires that the lodger (Avenger) never fulfills. Hitchcock casting Ivor Norvello, a well-known (gay) performer, is just the cherry on top:

[It] is surely no accident that Hitchcock chose an actor rumored or known to be homosexual to enact this role, even if the fact was not widely known. Furthermore, the knowledgeable audience will recognize that the Lodger’s phantom-like presence emerging out of the London fog resembles Nosferatu…In other words, Novello’s performance also involves a self-conscious allusion to expectations set up outside the film about the nature of the monstrous, with the connotations of perversity these allusions carry with them.

The sexual threat of the gay vampire adds a strain to the role of the father (and the life of the daughter).

The ending to The Lodger only adds to the film’s vampiric intrigue and latent homosexuality “perversions,” like his misogyny and fetish violence. When the lodger reveals that his sister is one of the Avenger’s victims, it becomes all the more perplexing when we learn that the lodger’s mother encourages his strange behavior. The psycho-sexual circle is complete. For the sake of suspense, Hitchcock remains ambiguous and refuses to explicitly confirm our hunch that the lodger is the Avenger.

The lodger’s repressed homosexuality and murderous fetish for blondes become in 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt an unspoken desire for uncle-niece incest — and a moral crusade against widows. Like Norvello’s gay vampire, Uncle Charlie (played so brilliantly by Joseph Cotton) seeks to impose his will over the family through the daughter, also named Charlie (Teresa Wright). She is both his niece and, in many ways, his twin. Truffaut notes too that this “doubling” of names also happens in the film’s form, with opening scenes that introduce both Charlies.

Young Charlie’s ambivalence towards American middle-class life will remind modern viewers of Sam Mendes’s (another Englishman) American Beauty, where the “miserable” lives of yuppies became allegedly tragic. Hitchcock’s treatment of middle-class malaise is deeper, richer, and less clichèd. “We just sort of go along and nothing happens…What’s gonna be our future?” Charlie asks her father. He replies, “Oh, come now, Charlie…the bank gave me a raise last January.” This answer, clearly unsatisfactory, produces a frustrated response from Charlie: “Money? How can you talk about money when I’m talking about souls?” By the end of the film, Hitchcock will have undone Charlie’s teenage precociousness and introduced her to life outside the nuclear.

Uncle Charlie arrives in Santa Rosa, California, apparently for a friendly family visit. Soon young Charlie learns that her uncle is a suspect in a series of “Merry Widow Murders”; rich widows are getting killed for their cash.

These introductory scenes (old Charlie in his bed, young Charlie in hers) not only introduce a telepathic connection between the two; it places them in bed together, too — like lovers, or husband and wife. The implication of uncle Charlie’s perversions means young Charlie must have some “perversion,” too. We first see Charlie under typical teenage duress, stressed about graduating from high school and the mundanity of middle-class family life. Through her escapades with uncle Charlie, we learn that for Hithcock, young Charlie’s crime is not only wanting to have sex with her uncle; it’s also her desire to escape the family structure.

Like Hitchcock’s “cuckoo” gag in the early scenes of The Lodger, the threat of the father dying plays humorously onscreen — a joke that is not really a joke. In Shadow of a Doubt this is the rapport between Charlie’s father (Henry Tavers) and his neighbor Herb (Hume Cronyn), which involves a series of jokes about murder that climax with the line: “We’re not talking about killing people. I’m talking about killing him and he, me.”

The father “dies” in the film when uncle Charlie places a (dead widow’s) ring on Charlie’s finger. It’s also the closest Hitchcock could get to incest sex. Through his marriage to young Charlie, uncle Charlie aims to “kill” her father and take his place.

Having flirted with the terror of uncle Charlie’s deviancy, young Charlie eventually wises up, and marries Jack a detective, refusing to fulfill her incestuous desires for her creepy uncle. She returns to the American middle-class with her tail tucked between her legs and the memory of her love for her uncle burning like an ember. Hitchcock the pervert was also Hitchcock the auteur — part sicko and part artist. We get a taste of both in The Lodger and Shadow of a Doubt, as well as the impression that, for as much as he indulged in his twisted fantasies, he also always found a way to restore things to “normal.”

— Hayden Church is the author of A Question of Refinement, a book of poems. His work appears in Azure Bell, The Florida English Journal, Encyclopedia.Zone, and an untitled book forthcoming. He has a website.

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