Flaming Classics

Wrong Men, Wrong Women, Wrong Time: Queer Characters in Hitchcock

By Caden Mark Gardner

“I think it is significant that, despite the fact that I knew that I was gay myself, it never occurred to me for a moment that the characters in the film might be; it was, at the time, literally unthinkable.”- Robin Wood on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope

Robin Wood was not only the leading film critic on Alfred Hitchcock, with the book Hitchcock’s Films, but had also later in life commented upon his homosexual identity that became the essays collection Responsibilities of A Gay Film Critic. In terms of Wood finding queer identification in Hitchcock films, Wood laid out the complicated cases throughout Hitchcock’s oeuvre in the 1995 essay for the gay and lesbian publication Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Essays on Popular Culture called The Murderous Gays: Hitchcock’s Homophobia.  Wood mines through queer coding that lived in subtext and symbols due to homophobic norms and censorship, in effect making these readings not very cut and dry. These problems in the readings, Wood notes, derives from the time it was made and that as a Hollywood movie, “… could not possibly answer a question it couldn’t even raise.” But queer audiences would, in searching for identification, grab and hold tightly onto hints of characters, in their gestures, their looks, their interpersonal relationships, their secrets, and, yes, their villainy.

Around the time of Wood’s essay post-The Celluloid Closet, both Vito Russo’s 1981 book and the 1995 documentary inspired from the book, there was renewed interest in looking back at Hitchcock’s villains, particularly Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca and the self-styled murderous übermensches Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) in Rope. Russo examined the positive and negative portrayals in film history of queer characters, itself requiring deep readings of queer subtext and codification that still managed to present depictions of characters, be it as bachelors, sissies, old maids, butch, effete, or being uncomfortable in their own skin. Hitchcock’s films would never be considered progressive in the way filmmakers like Otto Preminger or Stanley Kramer were, but him being a popular Hollywood filmmaker in the time of a lot of censorship, the moments where there can be a reading of gay subtext jump out and also bring into question authorship and auteurism, as to whether the subtext was always by his design, an object of fascination for him, other factors around the text, or external factors.

Rebecca, as one example, has long been a topic of authorship with the behind the scenes squabbles and battles of control between Hitchcock and legendary film producer David O. Selznick. It was Hitchcock’s Hollywood debut film and ultimately would be bestowed the notoriety as a Best Picture winner (the only film by Hitchcock to achieve that), but there were many pains along the way in going Hollywood, with Hitchcock forgoing a lot of the creative control he had in the UK. Hitchcock held his ground against Selznick’s overruling his artistic choices in adapting Daphne Du Maurier’s novel and Selznick’s own questionable suggestions for key scenes in the film.

What remained in the changes were some of the more forward, and open for queer interpretation, lines from the character of Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) when speaking to Joan Fontaine’s Mrs. DeWinter about the previous Mrs. DeWinter, the eponymous Rebecca. Hitchcock made Danvers younger, removing the natural maternal devotion she had for Rebecca as her elder servant and making this devotion more jarring to both Mrs. DeWinter and the audience. Danvers champions and preserves Rebecca’s memory, because her memories of Rebecca reveal themselves as something deeper and possibly romantic. She shows Mrs. DeWinter around Rebecca’s old room, Danvers making sure the whole space is ‘just how she would like it’, pressing Rebecca’s clothes against her face, and recalling intimate scenes of Rebecca undressing herself and casually calling Danvers as ‘Danny’. Fontaine’s Mrs. DeWinter is overwhelmed at what she is up against at her husband’s Manderley estate and Judith Anderson’s laser focus in giving tribute to her deceased boss, possible former lover, and clear object of her affection, has her give herself away as an obsessive and possibly even more. This was enough to even have the censorship offices in Hollywood perk up. Rebecca is never present as a character, but this scene of Danvers conjures an image of a ghost. Danvers herself is hopeful that Rebecca’s spirit still lives in this home, who the new Mrs. DeWinter has to reckon with, not because Rebecca is evil but because of her suspicious death that unfolds as the central plot. Rebecca ultimately is about the unravelling of secrets, the unreliability in subjectivity of the living when the truth and the most important perspective lie with the dead. Rebecca, and to that extent Danvers, do get re-shaped into something complicated, closely becoming villains for antagonizing the DeWinters’ due to the piling up of suggestions pointing to what befell Rebecca. Still, a viewer cannot help but root for this housekeeper and her ghost mistress. Maxim DeWinter (Laurence Olivier) never quite seems honest and comes closer to clueless, particularly in the matters of his first wife and especially compared to what Danvers knows, has seen, has said, and knows what not to confide. Danvers was devoted to a life and then a space, memories and signifiers of that life. Nobody else stood a chance and anybody who tried to destroy that had to pay.

What is often the case with the queering of Hitchcock characters is that there is often something withheld, intangible, unknowable about their inner-lives. That does date back into censorship in film. Even if the Hays Code was across the board censorship that even made it difficult for married couples to be shot in the same bed in films, the displays of affection and mores afforded to straight couples and relationships were the standard; anything different was too taboo and must be quashed, omitted, or revised. Naturally, then, the Hitchcock characters who rebelled against norms of society can be read as queer. These characters are often not flagrantly transparent about them going against the grain. They hide it and knew to hide it.

Perhaps the biggest and most famous example of this in Hitchcock’s work is Norman Bates in Psycho. Inspired from the serial killer Ed Gein, who for years got away with killing women and making their skin and body parts personal keepsakes in his Wisconsin home, Norman is, in fact, a character introduced as an innocent when we first see him interacting with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). But his nervous tics and voyeurism do show a bottling up of desires that are even deeper than audiences are rarely ever prepared for. Norman’s pathology, in his mother’s personality taking over his body, that was extremely dated and problematic even then, has the legacy of a lot of revisionism that results in a queering, sometimes unfolding in explicitly gay and trans connotations, and also, quite unfortunately, explicitly homophobic and transphobic as a result. What those knock-offs and imitators of Psycho often lack is the uncomfortable and ingenious audience identification that is placed with Norman in covering up Marion’s murder. The audience is pulled in on the unsettling skillful precision—this could in no way be the first time he has done this—and when Marion’s car does not quite sink into the reservoir, the audience panics and freezes like Norman does. But again, the revelation creates a distance from that identification. Norman looks into the camera and it is somebody in no control of his own mind. He is a not just a murderer, but extremely sick. His otherness is more than just criminality and this is what speaks to a lot of Wood’s own hesitations in being as zealous in retroactively deeming certain characters queer. Where there is murder in Hitchcock, the character behind that murder or antagonism of the common Hitchcock archetype of ‘wrong man’ or ‘wrong woman’ so often aligns with the signifiers in queer coding—criminality and madness entangled or interchangeable in queerness.

The most notorious examples are the tandem of Brandon and Phillip in Rope, based on a play inspired by the Leopold & Loeb murder of teenager Bobby Franks. Often Hitchcock films feature, when there is a murder, discussions of murder in the hypothetical, such as the patriarch and his neighbor in Shadow of a Doubt discussing “the perfect murder”. There is black humor found in the contrast of these regular fellows being so inculpable and talking in this manner of an act that they never could actually commit. But then we get to somebody like Bruno (Robert Walker), a rich, single, effete, mama’s boy who hates his father, wanting to make conversation and set up networks of murder-swapping like it is no big deal in Strangers on a Train and it becomes unsettling. Add in the ruling class and a narcissistic superiority and the topic of murder becomes the ultimate act of villainy: Playing God.

The first scene in Rope goes right into the act of murder in Brandon and Phillip murdering their Harvard classmate David by strangulation by rope, their cause being on the intellectual grounds of superiority and urge to commit a perfect crime. Filmmaker and critic François Truffaut famously would famously summarize Hitchcock as, “You [Americans] respect him because he shoots scenes of love as if they were scenes of murder. We [French] respect him because he shoots scenes of murder like scenes of love!” and that never feels as twistedly realized than in Rope.  Phillip asks Brandon over drinks how he felt during the act and the analogy of aphrodisiac holds that scene as Dall’s Brandon relishes recalling himself overpowering their victim’s body until it went limp as Granger’s Phillip quivers in how turned out he is from hearing and goading on Brandon to continue telling him about the act. Robin Wood would consider Rope to be this:

Rope could not possibly “deal with” the subject of homosexuality, but it seems to me to offer a precise account of its status and mental “set” that would logically accompany it at that stage in our history.”

Rope is famous in Hitchcock lore for being filmed under the illusion of real-time in unbroken continuously sequences of long takes in a single-setting. Often it feels like due to this pretense that Hitchcock can feel much too preoccupied with the craft, even as he is clearly glued in and engaged with his pet topics when they occur in the film. So this leaves the script by Arthur Laurents, who later came out in life gay (and later was in a relationship with Rope actor Farley Granger), to offer the queer coding that has never been as thinly veiled in other Hitchcocks. Laurents was working within the true crime and play of the same name when adapting to the screen and Laurents’ own sexuality does feel notable in his authorship throwing more complication into the text along with also ironing out other problems this film presents as a queer text. What could feel anti-intellectual and definitively homophobic in Laurents’ version speaks to the time period of post-World War II where the spectre of Nazism, nihilism, eugenics, and the Holocaust still loomed. Gays died under Hitler and when Jimmy Stewart’s Rupert Cadell refutes his own scholarship and Brandon by crying out, “But what right do you dare say there’s a superior few to which you belong? But what right did you dare decide that that boy in there [David] was inferior and therefore should be killed? Did you think you were God, Brandon?” there is pain in those words, not just from Stewart’s horrifying realization of what his pupils have done, but pain in these knowing words from somebody who knows what it is like to be made to feel inferior by the world around him. That is Arthur Laurents. That is a gay man of his time presenting a world complicit in David’s murder and the murder of all inferiors.

Laurents was hardly the only queer person that Hitchcock worked with or was working from. Daphne Du Maurier was bisexual and the more sapphic elements of Rebecca remained in the film. Lesbian Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers On A Train gave Hitchcock his Bruno, a flashy narcissist who seemed to either detest or pity every heterosexual he came across. Hitchcock also worked with queer icons in front of the camera, namely Tallulah Bankhead (Lifeboat), Montgomery Clift (as a priest in I Confess—so sexless by design), Ivor Novello (Downhill and The Lodger: The Story of London Fog), and Marlene Dietrich (Stage Fright).

Dietrich would be a notable collaboration for Hitchcock. She shines in Stage Fright—a film that Hitchcock would admit was too unchallenging for him in adapting a “Hitchcockian” book when it was released as Man Running by Selwyn Jepson—by having a lot of control over her role in the production in how she would be shot and lit in all of her scenes. The results are that she is clearly the best-looking thing in the film, not just in lighting but dressed from head to toe in Dior. This confusing ‘whodunit?’ of unreliable flashbacks becomes a diva’s revue, the high-point being Dietrich performing Cole Porter’s “The Laziest Gal in Town”, that most assuredly inspired Mel Brooks to give Madeline Kahn that song “I’m Tired” when Kahn portrayed a lampooned version of Dietrich, Lili von Shtupp, in Blazing Saddles.

And one cannot deny the camp value of the queer readings and elements in Hitchcock films. A viewer can have fun with Martin Landau’s flaming assistant to James Mason and state he has ‘woman’s intuition’ in North By Northwest.  One can lose count of the queer coding of Hitchcock films. If these characters are not at the center, they can be found on the periphery, a side-player with gloves on or a dragging a cigarette who cracks a one-liner and suddenly, a part of the viewership feels seen.

Viewers can appreciate, or wrestle, these characterizations in Hitchcock’s work by zeroing in on subtext and details that had they been contemporary would be vastly different. One can appreciate within these flawed characterizations and readings of queerness that these were distillations of their time for both the film industry and the director who shot these films. Homosexuality could not be named or shown, but whether consciously or subconsciously, these were lives that could not be wholly denied in films. They were coded and sending out signals to show they were here all along even as the world has changed.  Films are better for that, of course, but one can still appreciate seeing crumbs of queer history in film dating back decades and apparent in some of the most famous works by the most famous film director.

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