Hitchcock’s 5 Greatest Character Films
In the opening scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt,” the camera looms in on Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) stretched out on the bed of his rooming house in a suit, eyes closed, hands folded across his chest. He is a perfect imitation of a corpse at a wake.
A pile of money lies scattered on the end table, a few bills having tumbled to the floor. The light from the half-shut blinds stripes Uncle Charlie’s face symbolizing the internal conflict of good and evil.
Enter the landlady, a gregarious older woman who naively informs him that two men are looking for him. Through Uncle Charlie’s callous disregard for the kindly landlady and his deep, detached questioning, we discover the men are obviously police investigators.
The landlady departs and Uncle Charlie rises slowly from the bed – reborn. He quaffs a glass of whiskey and then hurls it violently to the floor where it shatters.
In less than three minutes, Hitchcock has given us an intimate portrait of the character of Uncle Charlie.
Hitchcock is famous as the master of suspense and a director of technical achievement, especially in the use of light and shadows and unusual, but human, perspective camera angles. But often overlooked is Hitchcock’s ability to create rich, dynamic characters like Uncle Charlie.
“Shadow of a Doubt,” often cited as Hitchcock’s favorite film, is a perfect example of the complex characters Hitchcock introduced to viewers. Uncle Charlie is a serial killer called the “Merry Widow Murderer” who hides out with his sister’s family to avoid a police sting designed to bring him to justice.
The reason why Uncle Charlie becomes so terrifying as a character is because Hitchcock humanizes him. He brings him into the fold of the Newton family – a loving, eccentric family who worships the Uncle Charlie they think they know. At times, we forget that Uncle Charlie is a killer because of his charm and obvious delight at being in the presence of his extended family.
Joseph Cotten gives a stunning Jekyll and Hyde performance aided by Hitchcock’s masterful use of shadow and camera angle to paint a portrait of a tortured man nearing the end of his criminal career.
DaRK PaRTY presents Alfred Hitchcock’s 5 Greatest Character Movies – those films where Hitchcock’s dynamic leads create complex and fully realized characters:
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Synopsis: Uncle Charlie, a serial killer who strangles older women, retreats to his sister’s suburban home in California to hide from the police. His namesake and niece, Young Charlie, begins to suspect that her favorite uncle might not be the man she thinks he is.
Character: Uncle Charlie
Actor: Joseph Cotten
Why it Works: Unlike other villains, Uncle Charlie becomes human to the viewer; in fact many in the audience might be rooting for him to succeed and escape the police dragnet that is closing in.
Great Detail from the Film: His secret finally out in the open, Uncle Charlie pulls Young Charlie into a seedy barroom and as they talk he begins to twist a napkin in his hands as if it were the neck of one of the victims. When both characters realize what Uncle Charlie is doing the tension is thick with suspense.
Rear Window (1954)
Synopsis: A photographer confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg wiles away the boredom by watching his neighbors out his rear window. He begins to suspect that one of his neighbors may have murdered his wife.
Character: L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries
Actor: Jimmy Stewart
Why it Works: Stewart’s character is literally a Peeping Tom. Bored by his injury, he spies on all his neighbors using a zoom lens. His indiscretion becomes justified when he catches a murderer. Jeff is a rather unlikable character – arrogant, conceited, and aloof. Yet Hitchcock makes us care for him.
Great Detail from the Film: When Jeff, his girlfriend, and nurse watch a lonely woman next door try to commit suicide and sit mesmerized as if watching a film – and then suddenly realize that they have the power to intervene.
Synopsis: Two New York intellectuals, Brandon and Phillip, murder their friend, David, in order to commit the perfect murder. They hide his body in a chest and then throw a dinner party inviting David’s family and girlfriend. Their plan begins to go awry when their former professor, Rupert Cadell, shows up and begins to suspect foul play.
Character: Rupert Cadell
Actor: Jimmy Stewart
Why it Works: Rupert is the center of the film as his teachings allegedly drive the two intellectuals to kill their friend. The build-up to his arrival on the screen is intense – and Jimmy Stewart delivers a breathtaking performance as the distracted, remote professor with a hidden and surprisingly intense love of humanity.
Great Detail from the Film: Brandon and Phillip argue about strangling a chicken with an intensity that makes Rupert to suspicious and leads him to sarcastically bait them with the dialogue: “Personally, I think a chicken is as good a reason for murder as a blonde, a mattress full of dollar bills or any of the customary, unimaginative reasons.”
Synopsis: A roguish playboy named Johnnie Aysgarth meets a lonely, spinsterish woman named Lina McLaidlaw. Johnnie woos her away from her rich parents and they are married. Afterwards, she discovers that he’s a broke gambler.
Character: Johnnie Aysgarth
Actor: Cary Grant
Why it Works: Hitchcock plays both sides of Johnnie’s personality to perfection so that the audience is never quite sure if he’s a charming rogue or a murdering sociopath. Hitchcock provides the audience with unguarded looks at Johnnie where we’re never quite sure where he stands. It’s a complex and unnerving performance by Cary Grant.
Great Detail from the Film: When Johnnie’s best friend, Beaky, drinks a glass of brandy, he has an allergic reaction to it and appears to lapse into a coma. As Lina becomes distraught, Johnnie gets a mischievous glint in his eye that seems to lock in the fact of his friend’s weakness. It’s the audience’s first real indication that Johnnie might be less than harmless.
The Birds (1963)
Synopsis: Socialite Melanie Daniels meets bachelor Mitch Brenner at a pet shop. They share a moment and Melanie spontaneous buys two love birds and whisks off to Mitch’s home to deliver them. She ends up being trapped with Mitch and his mother and sister as birds begin to attack human beings.
Character: Tippi Hedren
Actor: Melanie Daniels
Why it Works: Melanie is a complicated character – a put together, spur of the moment woman who is deeply passionate and romantic under her sophisticated veneer. Tippi and Hitchcock create a compelling, mysterious woman who carries the movie on her back.
Great Detail from the Film: The tit-for-tat, rat-a-tat-tat dialogue between Melanie and Mitch creates great romantic tension and also builds their characters. At one point, Melanie says she volunteers for Travelers Aid at the airport. Mitch asks if she is helping travelers. Melanie’s deadpan response: “No, misdirecting them.”
Labels: Hitchcock, Movies