Alfred Hitchcock’s films foreground a conflict that I call “the feminine versus the queer.” The heterosexual heroine, fighting for love and often for her own survival, finds a surprising rival in a queer character, who simultaneously understands and thwarts her. (see Figures 1 and 2)
Hitchcock’s American career commences with Rebecca (1940), which features a near-explicit lesbian character, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), the head housekeeper of Manderley, the stately home of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). Danvers torments the fragile, awkward heroine, the second Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) in several sadomasochistic scenes. Scholars such as Patricia White, Rhonda Bernstein, and Tania Modleski have eloquently explored their sexual significance. (see Figure 3)
Mrs. Danvers remains closely allied to the first Mrs. de Winter, the now-dead Rebecca, who perished in a suspect seafaring accident yet still wields considerable power over the sprawling English mansion. The second Mrs. de Winter wanders about the vast patriarchal home, dwarfed by looming door-frames and adrift in enormous rooms. Every room seems to contain physical remnants of her predecessor, such as the stationary and pillowcases emblazoned with the bold majuscule “R.” The dead woman carves her initial on the heroine’s psyche, imprints her artistic signature on Hitchcock’s authorship.
Lesbian threat is an important dimension of Hitchcock’s work—see especially Stage Fright (1950), The Birds (1963), and Marnie (1964). The feminine/queer conflict will most often occur, however, between the woman and a queer male. Films such as Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Spellbound (1943), Notorious (1946), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960) exemplify this intimate crisis. (see Figure 4)
Shadow of a Doubt depicts the feminine versus the queer as a fatal struggle between the heroine and her sexually ambiguous uncle. This suspense film, as so many of Hitchcock’s most significant do, intersects with the woman’s film genre that had its heyday from the 1930s to the 1950s. In woman’s film fashion, anxieties over the singular heroine’s romantic future loom. While the film does, if rather wanly, offer the possibility of a romance for her with Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), one of the detectives on her uncle’s trail, the focus is much more intently placed on Charlie’s maturation. It’s a dark coming of age; her exposure to Charles’ evil and the discovery of her own potential for retributive wrath change her indelibly. (see Figure 5)
Charlie, luminously played by Teresa Wright, longs for excitement, the precondition for the arrival of chaos in the Hitchcock film (The Lady Vanishes, Rear Window, Psycho, The Birds). Charlie abhors the conformity of her small-town life. For this reason, she is overjoyed to hear that her dapper, well-traveled Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten, in his finest performance), is coming to visit. Little does Charlie or her family suspect that Charles is a serial killer known as “The Merry Widow Killer,” given his murders of rich widows. (see Figure 6)
A brief montage introduces somnolent Santa Rosa, California, where the restless Charlie lives with her much-loved but frustrating family. We are shown a series of attractive sun-dappled house fronts. But their thin veneer of normalcy has an ominous air, given the unmasked Charles’s confrontational line to Charlie: “Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses, you’d find swine?”
Hitchcock uses visual parallels between uncle and niece to convey emotional ones. Eager for change, Charlie rejects her father’s comforting words as she lies brooding on her bed. Charles, when introduced, lies pensively in the same position on a bed in a boarding house as a motherly landlady speaks to him. Suddenly, Charlie gets the idea to go to the Telegraphy office to ask Uncle Charlie to visit them; once there, she discovers that he has sent a telegraph to her and her family announcing his imminent visit! The pattern of doubling continues throughout, reinforcing the idea that Charlie and her uncle remain closely linked even when her role as his comeuppance emerges.
It is significant that the image of the proto-married couple in the closing moments—Charlie and Graham standing in front of the church as Charles’ funeral mass occurs inside—is inextricable from death and fallen knowledge. The hollow words of praise for the dead killer, heard only as sincere eulogies by the unsuspecting crowd, painfully contrast with Charlie’s somber reflections about her uncle’s philosophy: “He thought the world was a horrible place. He couldn’t have been very happy, ever. He didn’t trust people. Seemed to hate them. He hated the whole world. You know, he said people like us had no idea what the world was really like.”
The heterosexual couple is haunted by the specter of a threatening queerness that has been ambiguously reincorporated into the normative social order. Charlie comes of age when she defends herself against her uncle’s murderous advances, pushing him off the train before he can do the same to her. Sexual doppelgangers, the heroine, standing apart from unsuspecting society, and the socially inassimilable queer male double one another, giving resonance to the idea that one’s double augurs one’s death. Shadow of a Doubt prefigures Psycho, a film that takes the feminine versus the queer conflict to a new level of murderous intensity.
Image credits: (1) “Strangers on a Train – Bruno in line” Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, distributed by Warner Bros., Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) “North by Northwest movie trailer screenshot” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) “Rebecca trailer” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (4) “Marlene Dietrich Stage Fright Trailer” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (5) “Shadow of a Doubt (1943)” CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr. (6) “Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt trailer” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Featured image credit: “Multiple exposure of Alfred Hitchcock 1942” by user kristine. CC by 2.0 via Pixabay.