Alfred Hitchcock is known worldwide as the Master of Suspense, and it is probably an unanimity that this title should not belong to anybody else. With an astonishing filmography of more than fifty movies – from primordial silent black and white to colored ones –, he has become a reference on both technique and narrative. His films never get old and are not only meticulously shot, but also filled with thriller, humour and fascinating characters.
The effectiveness of suspense relies on uncountable elements, however one figure is the basis upon which this kind of plot stands: the villain. François Truffaut said that “the better the villain, the better the picture”, and a careful analysis of Hitchcock’s movies can confirm this statement. If the character of the villain is plain, the audience first reaction will be to repel him. This can work very well in some horror movies, but fails to arouse the psychological tension Hitchcock was looking for.
He believed that his antagonists should be attractive and complex in order to awaken curiosity. The more flaws and insecurities a villain has, more the spectator will recognize his humanity and, as humans themselves, be aware of how malevolent he can be. This will incite vulnerability in the viewer, who usually has ambiguous impressions of these villains.
Almost all villains in Hitchcock’s pictures, may they be murderers, maniacs or involved in some megalomaniac international transaction, have this common characteristic: complexity. Usually they are even deeper than the main character, having their traumas and lives more thoroughly explored.
Throughout years of analysis, scholars have even asked themselves whether some of the villains could not be considered the main characters, what would disqualify them as antagonists. One thing, however, is unquestionable: suspense movies depend on the strength of villainous elements, and Alfred Hitchcock mastered on creating them.
10. Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) from Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window is, above all, a film about voyeurism and human curiosity. L.B Jefferies is a news photographer confined to a wheelchair by a broken leg whose new hobby is to obsessively gaze at his neighbour’s behaviors through his back window. His inability to move also limits the viewer, who is restricted to his point of view, once all the shots are from inside his apartment.
This interesting choice discomforts and involves the audience: even though it is wrong to peep other people’s private lives, it is exactly what enables one to forget his own troubles – and exactly what one is looking for when, for example, watching a movie.
Jeff observes patterns in his neighbour’s lives. At some point, however, unusual things succeed at one of the apartments. The photographer starts to suspect that its owner, Thorwald, murdered his wife. At first, his idea seems absurd, but as the viewer is trapped to Jeff’s perspective, he is easily convinced. As the story proceeds, Jeff and his fiancée get obsessed with finding out the truth, what will make them submit themselves to very dangerous situations.
Lars Thorwald is an unusual antagonist, because the viewer barely knows him. All he has is Jeff’s distant point of view, what gives place to a lot of imagination and uncertainty. There is no real evidence he is a murderer whatsoever until the very ending of the movie, when he makes his first close appearance and proves himself to be a rather villainous man.
9. Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) from North By Northwest (1959)
Phillip Vandamm is the man behind Roger Thornhill’s adventures in the acclaimed North by Northwest. The movie has a common plot for Alfred Hitchcock’s fans: an innocent man is wrongly accused and pursued. With a rather confusing screenplay, it still manages to have the viewer’s attention from beginning to end with its humorous situations, beautiful shots and interesting characters.
At a business meeting in a hotel, Thornhill is kidnapped by two men and taken to Vandamm, a spy who trades secrets with the Soviets during Cold War. He was, however, mistaken with Mr. George Kaplan – a non-existing agent the FBI has created in order to draw Vandamm’s attention while they spy on him.
Vandamm does not believe Thornhill and tries to kill him by getting him drunk and forcing him to drive off a cliff. He manages to survive, but he is sued for drunk driving and nobody believes in his absurd story. He then decides to go after the truth himself.
Murder, love, farce and sexuality have a strong place in this Hitchcock masterpiece, in which turn of events happen all the time and the spectator feels he has nobody left to trust. As for Vandamm, he is a very charming man who does not seem to regret any of his evil acts, may it be murder or treason. He is also very well-off and influential, given the loyalty of those who work for him.
This is one of the few Hitchcock films on which there is a clear distinction between good and evil, but he still manages to make the characters as little shallow as possible: Thornhill will do whatever it takes to find out the truth; and the villainous Vandamm, as any human being, has his Achilles heel: his affection for his mistress, the stunning Eve Kendall (with whom Thornhill happens to fall in love as well). Her presence is crucial for the unrolling of events which will lead to a fatal scene at Mount Rushmore.
8. Brandon Shaw (John Dall) from Rope (1948)
Two friends, Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan, decide to host an unusual dinner as an intellectual experiment: after strangling one of their colleagues, David, they hide the corpse in a wooden chest which will be at the living room during the evening. Only the synopses of Rope appeals to common elements in Hitchcock movies, such as moral ambiguosity and the exaltation of the macabre.
As the film starts, the two friends are convinced of their superiority as human beings, and therefore believe that they not only can commit the perfect crime, but also have no legal or psychological consequences out of it. As the dinner goes on, the viewer learns that another thrilling aspect was involved in the crime: David’s parents and fiancée are expected. Brandon and Phillip disclose hints of truth in order to impress one of their professors, who ends up putting it all together.
Brandon Shaw considers himself a typical Nietzschean superman as he utters that “good and evil, right and wrong were invented for the ordinary average man, the inferior man, because he needs them”. He wants to be applauded for his crime, and gets frustrated as Phillip starts to reveal guilt. His conviction of what he has done makes the audience suffer, once only a true psychopath could behave like him.
Brandon’s bigger dissatisfaction, however, comes as the professor finds out everything and reacts very ordinarily, strongly dissenting of what he has done and calling the police.
Even though Hitchcock himself was not very found of the movie and called it “an experiment that didn’t work out”, it still is an essential experiment to be watched and raises very interesting discussions, both in cinematical and philosophical terms.
7. John Ballantine (Gregory Pack) from Spellbound (1945)
John Ballantine is an unusual kind of villain. Actually, he is more the representation of the villainous element in Spellbound than the villain itself, who ends up being another man.
The film is a tribute to psychoanalysis, which fascinated Hitchcock. It is about the uncommon love between John Ballantine and Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman), a psychoanalyst who has dedicated most of her life to studies. The substitution of the director in the asylum she works at brings a new man to the place: Anthony Edwardes. When she first meets him, they immediately fall in love, even though Dr. Pertersen realizes some weirdness in his behavior.
It does not take long for her to find out the man she is in love with is not who he claims to be, but someone who does not know his real identity and believes to have murdered Dr. Edwardes and have taken his place in order to conceal his crime. Constance, convinced of the good inside her lover, believes this is a typical example of amnesia and guilt complex and decides to run away with him in order to cure him.
Although the viewer sympathises with this polite – and rather handsome – man, who is truly in love with Dr. Peterson, the tension in the movie is created due to the uncertainty of John’s behavior. Nobody knows (not even himself) what he is capable of doing.
She seeks help of her old analyst, Dr. Brulov, and together they try to rescue facts of her lover’s childhood and recent life that could have caused the amnesia (one of his dreams was actually created by Salvador Dalí and is beautifully shot).
When they get very close to how Edwardes might have died, Constance recalls that Sigmund Freud once said that if the amnesian patient really committed the murder, he will very likely kill again. The audience is yet not sure about Ballantine’s real personality and cringes with the fact that she will go to back to the place Edwardes’ death happened with him.
Nobody is sure about Ballantine’s personality until the very ending of the movie. Once again, Hitchcock shows how a character’s complexity and non-manichean personality can create a tense atmosphere, and only by killing the ghosts that exist inside their own self “the devils of unreason are driven from the human soul”, as written on the opening scene of Spellbound.
6. Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) from Rebecca (1940)
Judith Anderson, although british, was the first to perform a Hitchcock villain in the United States. Rebecca is about the marriage of a young simple woman and a rich widower, Maxim de Winter, the owner of a beautiful mansion called Manderlay. It is not easy for her, however, to live in the shadow of Maxim’s ex-wife, Rebecca, who died very mysteriously and for whom the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, keeps her loyalty and love.
The way the maid talks about Rebecca and takes care of her old room and things drives new Mrs. Winter insane, and she starts to doubt her own ability to run Manderlay and also the love of her husband. Mrs Danvers’ obsession is so strong that it helps the main character and the viewer to create a phantom of the perfect Rebecca which seems to be hiding behind each door and each element of the mansion. The ever-present housekeeper is the personification of this ghost.
The characters are therefore built in order to guarantee the villainous elements’ effectiveness: Mrs Winter does not belong at the mansion, Maxim acts very mysteriously and Mrs. Danvers’ creepiness invades the atmosphere. These elements cooperate to exalt Mrs Winter’s own insecurities and leave Rebecca alive inside her, making Manderlay a rather scary place. At the end, Maxim’s secret will be revealed and Mrs Danvers will prove her capacity of doing anything in order to preserve the memory of her former mistress.
The psychological ingredients Hitchcock worked with in Rebecca for the first time influenced him to add this perspective, which became a mark of his work, to all his following films.