5. Bob Rusk (Barry Foster) from Frenzy (1972)
Frenzy was the penultimate Hitchcock film and, according to Roger Ebert, “it’s almost as if Hitchcock, at seventy-three, was consciously attempting to do once again what he did better than anyone else”, real suspense. In its breathtaking opening scene, the camera flies over the River Thames until the public speech of a politician which will be interrupted by the realization that a woman’s body is floating on the river. It is another victim of the Necktie Killer.
The audience is then presented to the protagonist, Richard Blaney, who suspectedly ties his tie, what leads them to believe he is the murderer. It does not take long, however, until the real identity of the killer is revealed: Richard’s good friend, Bob Rusk, abruptly kills Richard’s ex-wife, what will make the main character become a suspect. Even though the viewer is touched by his situation, he also follows Bob – who is a likeable man – in very tense situations and therefore ends up identifying with him and hoping he is not caught.
In a very hitchcockian way, the audience finds itself in a dubious situation: although their compassion and fairness are on Richard’s side, Bob is the one who has their sympathy. One specific scene on which he is stuck in the back of a potato-truck with the dead body of one of his victims in order to rescue a piece of evidence will make the audience cringe and hope he gets what he needs soon and ceases their suffering.
As the investigation follows, however, Bob’s tyranny will exceed its limits and reveal the ugliness usually present in Hitchcock’s world. This will lead to a turn of events and the plot will come to a very satisfactory ending.
4. Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) from Notorious (1946)
Alexander Sebastian lives in a mansion in Rio de Janeiro with his mother. He is a German Nazi, therefore political meetings and social reunions often take place at their house.
One of his colleagues – on whose daughter, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), Sebastian used to have a crush – is sent to jail and consequently commits suicide. Alicia is then hired by the FBI to travel to Rio, seduce Sebastian and spy on him and his friends. She and the FBI agent to whom she has to report, Devlin (Cary Grant), fall madly in love, what will make her mission much harder.
Sebastian’s first appearance occurs only halfway through the movie, but, due to prior dialogues and Devlin’s angst of leaving Alicia in his hands, the viewer is already scared of him. When he finally appears, however, he’s a small but rather charming man with real feelings for Alicia who treats her kindly and is sensitive enough to realize her passion for Devlin. He then asks her to marry him as a proof of her love, which she does.
At this point, the audience is left with an ambiguous feeling towards this man, specially when his mother’s jealousy and insidious behavior with him start to be revealed. “It’s rather touching: the small man in love with a taller woman”, writes François Truffaut. His biggest fear is losing the wife he loves, and when he finds out she is a spy the spectator is yet not sure of what he is capable of doing, what increases the tension. His following actions, however, will reveal his villainy – even though he is extremely manipulated by his mother, what makes him even more human.
3. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) from Psycho (1960)
With an outstanding performance by Anthony Perkins, Norman Bates is the perfect example of a traumatized man. Behind its cinematic perfection, Psycho reveals once more the fascination Hitchcock had with psychoanalysis and Bates gathers famous complexes theorized by Sigmund Freud. Hitchcock says that in this film he “was playing [the viewer] like an organ”, and this was only possible because of the strength and constancy of Perkins’ character – which could actually be considered the main character.
If one imagine watching Psycho for the first time before the shower scene became one of the most known in film’s history, they will be amused by Hitchcock’s ability to fool the viewer.
First, the narrative follows the star Janet Leigh stealing forty thousand dollars in order to better her rather frustrating life. The viewer is completely led to believe that she is going to be their hero, but she is killed in the end of the first third of the movie. Bates, who has already aroused compassion – if not sympathy –, is who the viewer has left to care for.
Even though the murder was clearly either his or his mother’s fault, the meticulous way he gets rid of the body and what he said to Leigh earlier – that “a son is no good substitute for a lover” – helps the audience to understand his feeling of not being enough loved by his mother and its consequent frustrations. Here Hitchcock dares to do what no filmmaker had done so far: slowly switch the main character in an almost imperceptible way.
The lonely and rather weird boy who collects stuffed birds has both the viewer’s sympathy and suspect until another murder takes place in the house and something incoherent about the story he has been telling is revealed. The following events will confirm his psychopathy and villainy and the spectator will feel he was fooled just as the other characters were.
2. Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) from Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Uncle Charlie might be the most charming villain of all times, and his beautiful niece, who was named after him, certainly agrees. They seem to have some kind of strong connection which, at first, makes her behave very naively around him, but her sagacity will soon allow her to find out his real personality and therefore place her in a very dangerous situation.
Uncle Charlie is already presented to the viewer as a suspicious man: in the opening scene, two investigators come looking for him at a hotel he is staying at and he – clearly preoccupied – runs away. He then decides to go visit his older sister’s house in Santa Rosa, California, where she lives with her husband and three kids, including young Charlie.
His arrival brings to the typical american family excitement and happiness, and his kindness and handsomeness are glorified with the expensive gifts he brings to them and the exciting stories he tells about the world. In less than fifteen minutes the viewer is caught by his fascinating personality and starts to admire him. It doesn’t take long, however, until his weird behaviors appear.
At the dinner table, young Charlie whistles the waltz The Merry Widow, and he doesn’t seem pleased to hear it. Then he hides a piece of the newspaper and his niece, out of curiosity and suspicion, goes to the library to find out that it was on the search of The Merry Widow murderer, and that her beloved uncle was one of the two main suspects. Their relationship changes when he discovers she knows his secret and starts to act very violently towards her.
Uncle Charlie is a very strong character because he is a murderer with an ideal and he suffers the psychological consequences of what he has done. He kills widows out of despise of the way they live and wants to get rid of them because the world is already evil enough.
However, he is clearly worried about being caught and keeps having the same disturbing vision (which is actually the same shot behind the opening credits of the movie): couples waltzing to The Merry Widow. His love for his niece is also truly strong; and everyone around him admires him because of his personality.
This brings the viewer’s perception once again to the ambiguity of humans and the idea that “villains are not all black and heroes are not all white; there are grays everywhere”, as Hitchcock once said.
1. Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) from Strangers on a Train (1951)
It is not an easy task to choose the best one among so many fascinating villainous characters Alfred Hitchcock has created, but the seductive Bruno Antony is probably a good shot. The masterpiece Strangers on a Train is about a tennis player, Guy Haines, being accused of a murder he did not commit, a common subject in Hitchcock’s movies.
A well-known incident from the director’s childhood in which his father sent him to the police station with a note and the chief of police locked him on a cell for a few minutes and said this was what happened to naughty boys is a plausible explanation to his obsession on the theme.
Guy Haines can be seen as the weak little boy who, wanting to divorce his cheating ex-wife, Miriam, to marry the beautiful daughter of a U.S senator, Ann Morton, runs into the wrong man on a train. Their paths cross in a beautiful metaphor with the train rails: two men whose lives go parallel ways meet at a crossing point which will leave their destinies forever linked.
However, it does not really feel as a coincidence once Bruno Antony seems to know everything about Guy’s private life, what leaves him bothered and intrigued. Bruno then tells Guy about his hate for his father and offers him a “criss-cross” plan: he will kill Guy’s ex-wife and leave him free to remarry and, in exchange, Guy will kill his father, leaving on both murders no possible connection between the killer and the victim.
Guy finds the idea absurd and leaves to solve his own problems. What he does not predict is that Bruno will move on with his psychopathic – and rather perfect – plan and, after strangling Miriam, chase him in order to ensure he will do his part of the agreement.
With enchanting manners and a good sense of humor, Bruno manages to enter Guy’s social circle and plays hideous psychological tricks on him. These are effective given the vulnerability of the tennis player’s situation because, not only he is the main suspect for the crime, but also realizes the benefits of Miriam’s death. He is left on a situation of moral ambiguosity which even makes him feel that he committed the crime himself.
As the narrative follows, the audience learns more about Bruno Antony’s personal life, his crazy mother and how his wickedness will haunt Guy Haines and those he loves. The two main characters will then be led to a brutal confront in a Merry-go-Round which has become one of the most famous scenes of Hitchcock’s career and probably of film’s history.
Author Bio: Carolina Starzynski just graduated from film school in Brazil. She worked mostly in small projects as a cinematographer, but intends to study creative writing from now on.