Double or Nothing
Paper by Travis Noe. Viewed on DVD.
“A glimpse into the world proves that horror is nothing other than reality.”
― Alfred Hitchcock
The reality is this — all humans are flawed. Some have repressed personality traits that are recessive until they come to the forefront because of an unusual challenges or unexpected event. Some struggles bring out the best in us, while other challenges force us to show our “dark side.” When pushed there, most humans are capable of doing things that would normally seem unthinkable. Alfred Hitchcock, the self-acclaimed “Master of Suspense” explores the theme of duplicity in three of his well-known American films: Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), and Psycho (1960). Ironically, the definition of duplicity is two-fold. First, it refers to deceitfulness and double-dealing. Second, it refers to doubleness or pairs – the quintessential doppelganger. By definition, a doppelganger is a double of a person and it is typically an omen of bad luck or evil. (New Oxford American Dictionary) Hitchcock expertly uses the theme of characters as doubles to demonstrate the struggle between good and evil, and to illuminate the role of mothers in popular culture.
The duplicity in these famous films comes in many forms. The more you look for the doubles, the more you see. You literally start seeing double! Hitch’s directorial genius utilized various techniques to expand on the theme of characters as doubles using pairs, look-alikes, mistaken identity, double-dealings, crisscrosses, shadows and reflected images. Most often, these pairings represent the battle between good and evil. The director’s characterizations demonstrate the philosophy that there are “general truths about human nature” (Fromm 162).
Hitchcock’s audience can learn practical lessons for the actions, thoughts and motivation of the director’s fictional characters. Looking from his perspective and how he frames the characters, we the audience begin to question our own morality. (Wells )What are we capable of doing when put into a predicament like one Hitchcock’s protagonists or antagonists? Since we see only what Hitchcock crafts for our eyes to see and ears to hear, he can frame his characters to decide who is good or evil based upon the cameras point- of-view. Then he can change that view, and our perceptions are altered.
In Shadow of a Doubt, Charles Oakley, the family’s favorite Uncle Charlie, seems to be the answer to the family’s prayers. His namesake, young niece Charlie, is clearly taken with her mother’s younger brother and sees him as almost a savior from her dreary existence in a small town Santa Rosa, CA. The theme of doubles is seen in this film in that Charlie is the namesake of Uncle Charlie. The camera point-of view introduces the pair as parallel visually as though they are one in the same. Charlie even says, “It’s like ￼we are twins.” That’s right, you and your evil twin Uncle Charlie. Though we already know Uncle Charlie is on the run from another twosome, the two detectives, young Charlie has no idea. What at times looks a little incestuous, the relationship between the two Charlies darkens as the niece discovers the unsavory facts about uncle and the Merry Widow Murderer. Charles is two-faced and though he promises Charlie he will leave the town, he double crosses her and attempts to throw her from the speeding train. Lucky for us our protagonist wins the war of good vs. evil and turns the tables to send Charles Oakley under the tracks of an oncoming train. Justice is done!
In Psycho, both Marion Crane and Norman Bates show two shades. First, there’s lovely Marion Crane. On one hand, she is an attractive, hard-working, long-term employee of a reputable real estate firm. On the other side, she takes long lunches to have a little afternoon delight with her non-committal boyfriend Sam. Her lingering dissatisfaction with the status quo is motive for her to seize the opportunity to change her life by stealing $40,000 from her firm. The turn of events and opportunity somehow make it acceptable to do what is normally unthinkable. She defies her employer and she defies the police all to achieve her goal. Maybe not evil twin material, but certainly not goody-two-shoes. Hitchcock seemingly shows us the war she is having with her conscious as we see close- ups of her eluding the cop, the view from the rear view mirror, and the startled site of her own reflection in the hotel mirror, all symbols of her duplicity.
Then there’s Norman Bates. On the surface, he is portrayed as a mild-mannered, kind man who dotes on his old mother. Yet, when we see his close-up reflection in the hotel window, we get foreshadowing that Norman has an alter-ego or split personality. To the community, he is seen as a hermit who is content in his solitary existence running on old hotel off the beaten track. He is the sole proprietor and usually has “18 vacancies” due to the rerouting of the main highway. What is hidden until the plot unfolds is that his solitary existence has allowed him to morph into a schizoid state that is s manifestation of his dead mother. This evil, deranged look appears in his eyes and a smirk sits on his lips when he sees an object of desire or is confronted with adversity. Nasty Norman (aka the ghost of old Mrs. Bates) becomes his “evil twin” who is capable of murdering Marion Crane, simply for being too sexy for poor old Norman. Then detective Arbogast is the target for being a threat and even Sam gets a wild whack on the head before we get a peek at Norman in drag.
Probably the most significant example of characters as doubles is presented in Stranger on a Train. In the first scene we are introduced to one shot, then another of just the lower half of our two main male characters. The point-of-view of the street and two pairs of men’s shoes says volumes without a syllable. We are made to focus on what the shoes say about the men wearing them. One pair of shoes, Bruno’s, is flashy and flamboyant, where Guy’s are plain and conservative. These two men with incongruent shoes end up in the same train compartment and conversation ensues.
Bruno suggests the outlandish idea that the two men do crisscross murders to rid the other of his unwanted pairing. In Guy’s case, it’s is unfaithful wife, Miriam. For Bruno, it’s his disapproving father. Bruno actually commits the Tunnel of Love murder of Miriam, shot with the unique point-of-view as a reflection (another technique of duplicity) of the victim’s eyeglasses. When witless Guy doesn’t hold up his end, then comes the “double cross”. To symbolize this, Bruno orders two double Scotches, indicating without words, the upcoming “double cross” (i.e. revenge) to follow since Guy failed to commit his half of their deal. Though Bruno is clearly portrayed as the bad guy, we realize that Guy actually wanted to be rid of his sleazy wife who was pregnant with another man’s child. He even admits to his girlfriend Anne Morton that he could “strangle her to death”. So do Guy’s desires make him the bad guy and Bruno just the vehicle for achieving his desires? As I said, all humans are flawed. Now, what about their mothers…?
Mothers, generally domineering matriarchs, play a strong part in many Hitchcock films. There are mother figures in all the films I evaluated. In Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock actually named the mother character after his own mother Emma who had died that year. Rather than domineering, she was actually the exception which might be a reflection on the director’s own mother (Mogg 23). Or was Emma Hitchcock a doppelganger of Emma Newton we ask. In the film, Emma is a bit like Mrs. Cunningham from the Happy Days TV series. She is self-less, and all about the family, yet seems naïve to the realities of the cruel world. She fails to see her brother for the man he is. She fails to be suspect of the “Questionnaire Men” who are in fact, pursuing Charles. She is simply too trusting. Surely, some of the other Hitchcock protagonists have shared this trait. Young Charlie started out as smitten, but got her footing as the film progressed. Her mother was not a role model
for strength, but more of submission.
Conversely, the mothers in both Stranger on a Train and Psycho are powerful and their sons, Bruno and Norman, are beholden to them. First, we see Bruno and Mrs. Anthony. The way they look at each and she touches his face is Oedipal in nature. She appears to flirt with Bruno and coos, “Oh Bruno, you’re such a naughty boy!” Her strange Picasso- like painting oddly resembles Bruno’s father in a grotesque fashion, indicating this relationship is abnormal. This Oedipal complex may be the driving force behind Bruno’s macabre desire to murder his father. Then he could have beloved mother all to himself.
Likewise, Norman and Mama Bates have a love/hate relationship. Norman tells Marion, “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” Let us not forget, he also said, “A son is a poor substitute for a lover.” Though we don’t witness interaction between mother and son, (because Hitchcock hasn’t told us yet that Mama Bates is dead and pickled in the fruit cellar), Norman is profoundly disturbed by witnessing his mother and her lover. His manifested schizoid personality, where he becomes the embodiment of Mrs. Bates is Hitchcock’s commentary on the influence of a domineering matriarch. Subtly, at the films conclusion, prisoner Norman’s face actually morphs into the image of his mother’s skeleton. Duplicity at it’s finest.
All humans are flawed. Hitchcock’s prevalent theme of duplicity allows the audience to compare and contrast the characters to one-another and to themselves, showcasing that between individuals and within individuals there are strengths and flaws that can make anyone good or evil in a given time and situation. The director’s storytelling through dialogue, music, camera angles and shadows makes Hitchcock not just director of the actors, but director of his viewers. Of one of his most powerful films, Psycho, Hitchcock noted, “Psycho has a very interesting construction and that game with the audience was
fascinating. I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them, like an organ “ (Shaffer). Well played.
Fromm, Erich. “The Autodidact Project.” Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965.
Gallagher, Tag. “Hitchcock, Machines, and US.” Sense of Cinema. 23 Jan 2003. Mogg, Ken. The Alfred Hitchcock story. London: Titan Books, 1999.
“New Oxford American Dictionary.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 13 May 2012. Web. 23 June 2012.
Schaffer, Bill. “Cutting the Flow: Thinking Psycho”. Sense of Cinema. April 2000. Walker, Michael. Hitchcock’s Motifs. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005.
Wells, AJ. “Hitchcock – Good vs. Evil”. Cinemarollling 9 Mar 2009. 30 June 2012. http://cinemaroll.com/cinamarolling/higchcock-good-vs-evil.