Bright Lights Film Journal

The Mothering of Evil: In Several Hitchcock Films

“She is so enthralled by her boy, the loving product from her own body, that she remains blind to his true nature.”

One could make the case that Mrs. Bates has been a maligned character. We only know about her — and judge her — through Norman. How possessive she was, how controlling, can’t be determined except through the effects. We judge by the effects. Our impulse is to wrest an answer at any interpretive cost and we ignore the movie’s own skepticism toward the explainer/psychiatrist (Simon Oakland).

No, we don’t know for sure about Norman’s mother, but Hitchcock films have a well-established stock of mothers who weigh not only on their sons (Frenzy, The Birds,North by Northwest) but also on their daughters (Shadow of a Doubt, Marnie). But this essay is not meant to be a brief against mothers (and fall into “Mrs. Bates-bashing”). I want to show how incommodious minds result from a type of “mothering” inflicted on the son or daughter.

The degraded feelings or moral depravity suffered by Hitchcock’s aggressively pathetic brood of malefactors appear in the form of divesting other people of their basic humanity. In Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) justifies his serial murders on the idea that the widows have outworn their right to stay alive. How did he develop such a feeling? Mention is made of a head injury which caused him to behave differently, but “behaving differently” in the family setting is only meant to explain his eccentricity. We know little about his real upbringing or parents, but we might look at his counterpart/double, his niece Charlie (Teresa Wright), or better look at her mother (Patricia Collinge), who for all intents is Uncle Charlie’s surrogate mother.

Mrs. Newton appears a concerned loving mother but one lovingly neurotic, and for whom family life becomes the way to create a mechanical order which subordinates true feelings to appearances. The two younger children have retreated into roles of mathematical and literary whizzes which become, in a way, their protection against their mother’s neurotic attentions. Likewise, the entire movie keenly illustrates the sham of orderliness working through Santa Rosa, the quintessential American suburb. A seemingly benevolent form of stunted feeling for people is exhibited at the dinner table (everyone sits at the same place each evening) where Mr. Newton and Herbie Hawkins (Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn) dream up exotic ways to murder people. On the surface, Mrs. Newton responds negatively to the conversation but, in essence, she overlords this mentality.

Hitchcock’s cinema repeatedly shows contempt for such “playing” with lives which unconsciously removes human feeling from the context of people’s lives. In Rope(1949), the bright young men try to show their mettle by killing their friend whom they’ve decided doesn’t deserve to live. Their morally unfeeling stupor is played up during their dinner party when the murder victim’s mother phones to tell her husband how worried she is that her son hasn’t contacted her. Real feeling for another person — a mother for her son — breaks through the intellectual pose of Brandon and Philip (John Dall and Farley Granger). Their “mother,” incidentally, the one who mothered them to such a low high-mindedness, is their teacher, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart). One might reflexively reject Jimmy Stewart as this teacher; he appears too soft for the crypto-Nietzschean ideas. However, Stewart’s very softness (starting with the audience’s basic relationship to his casualness, good sense, and fair judgment) lends itself to a “mothering” role: as mother and the person who fosters this Hitchcockian touch of evil.

In North by Northwest (1959), two mothers manipulate Roger Thornton’s (Cary Grant) life. His domineering mother (Jessie Royce Landes) treats the forty-five-year-old man no better than an adolescent. But his truly more manipulative mother throughout the film, the Professor (Leo G. Carroll), plays with lives in a “spying game” and, at one unguarded moment, actually admits the agency is willing to sacrifice Thornhill to infiltrate Van Damm’s spy ring. And Van Damm (James Mason) iterates the same gamesmanship after Leonard (Martin Landau) is shot by saying that the police weren’t playing fair by using real bullets. Hitchcock also neatly comments on the State’s tendency to obliterate life and humanity for the sake of shadowy goals, especially in Secret Agent, Notorious, Torn Curtain, and Topaz. The task of Hitchcock’s hero is to preserve his/her humanity, as did Roger and Eve (Eva Marie Saint) in North by Northwest, and possibly find love.

In The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964), the Mother as a malevolent force emerges in two variants. Mrs. Brenner (Jessica Tandy) clings to her son in the aftermath of her husband’s death. Mitch (Rod Taylor) keeps her alive, and any outside force to take him away is viewed dimly. So much so that the birds attack after confrontations with a rival for Mitch’s affections. Mrs. Brenner and Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), another woman who wants to protect Mitch, acquire bird-like stares and other avian qualities when Melanie (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch are together — not coincidentally, the same stare is painstakingly attached to Norman Bates at the end of Psycho when he becomes his mother. These stares begrudge the desires of the other, want to deprive the other psychologically or physically of that life (a life that desires — is so vibrant) which threatens them.

In Marnie, Mrs. Edgar (Louise Latham) believes she’s protecting Marnie (Tippi Hedren) from the truth that Marnie killed the sailor (Bruce Dern). So she convinces herself. What Hitchcock reveals about her is that she has deprived Marnie of the ability to love. To see men as human — better, to deal honestly with men’s desires. Instigated by the color red, Marnie subconsciously reacts against her mother’s vindictively chilly nurturing. Whether Mark (Sean Connery) will overcome his fetish-like attraction for Marnie is not answered. Hitchcock suggests that we can’t take for granted that his couple will live happily ever after — getting off to a good start is the lone assurance at film’s end.

Nowhere does the mothering of evil in Hitchcock’s work get more splendidly dramatized than in Strangers on a Train (1951). He devotes much of the first half of the film to showing how people respond to the psychotic Bruno (Robert Walker). The film itself runs on a north-south axis, New York to Washington while the two strangers, Bruno Antony and Guy Haines (Farley Granger), are seemingly on the opposite ends of the psychological axis. Not recognizing Bruno for what he is will not be a fault Guy possesses alone. Bruno, however, knows all about Guy, a tennis pro and celebrity — and by “know” I mean Bruno knows Guy’s true character, his weaknesses, his subconscious desires.

They meet accidentally, eat lunch, and have an edgy conversation after lunch in Bruno’s train compartment. Guy humors Bruno, especially a few of Bruno’s ideas. You see, Bruno has many ideas with which he regales his company. Guy listens gentlemanly but assumes Bruno knows that he’s not listening seriously. Most especially not listening to the idea for the perfect murder (echoing Shadow of a Doubt‘s dinner conversation): You kill my problem, I’ll kill yours. Crisscross. Guy laughs away the implausible scenario whence Bruno kills Guy’s estranged wife and Guy, Bruno’s strict father. Guy says, “Sure, Bruno, that’s a great idea, you have lots of great ideas.” For Bruno, not being taken seriously is tantamount to Guy having given Bruno the go-ahead to murder Miriam (Laura Elliot).

This “sure, Bruno” treatment continues in subsequent scenes ultimately leading to Bruno’s mother. Before getting to her, we see Bruno insinuate himself an invitation to a party given by Senator Morton (Leo G. Carroll), who, at the party, listens to Bruno’s idea for “harnessing the life force” and responds similarly as Guy, just to get rid of this odd fellow. Likewise, a socialite allows herself to be a choking victim for Bruno, who momentarily loses control and nearly kills her. At this point, Bruno becomes a social pariah, not as a potential murderer but as being boorish and a little queer. Nobody wants to call his bluff.

Except one person. The same one Bruno wants dead. Now we can understand why. His father acts decisively against Bruno’s sophisticated brutality, has acted against it all Bruno’s life. He wants the boy to grow up, emerge from the shadow of hermetic ideas, get a job and some responsibility, do something constructive. Bruno refuses and seeks protection behind his mother.

His mother dotes on him, laughs with him; she is so enthralled by her boy, the loving product from her own body, that she remains blind to his true nature. Her relationship with him is mirrored by most of the other social contacts he has had in the film. But what best captures her neurotic attachment to Bruno is the actress herself playing Mrs. Antony, Marion Lorne. She brings to this and any other role I’ve seen her, a lightly nervous if not unsettling demeanor which undermines her apparently benevolent nature. When Guy’s fiancée, Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), confronts Mrs. Antony with the fact that Bruno killed Miriam, Mrs. Antony will not hear of it. Why? Her logic is precious: “Did Bruno tell you he murdered anyone?” “Well, no. . . .” “You see, then he couldn’t have done it.”

We understand the source of Bruno’s psychosis: the very person who fails to hold him to regular social standards. Not accidentally, she paints violently abstract pictures which may serve as an outside signal to the moral discord that this harmless woman perpetuates. Or put another way, her apparently harmless mothering perpetuates a morally discordant Bruno. Mrs. Bates (as well as Bob’s mother in Frenzy) could easily have been this type of mother and not the possessive monster told us (via the psychiatrist) by Norman.

The mothering of evil does not stop within the family. Guy’s problems with Bruno started precisely because he was oblivious to his own Bruno-like nature; in essence, by not accepting the possibility of being Bruno-like, by not seeing a resemblance to his evil within him, Guy (and everyone else) would prefer to mother him, not take him very seriously, castigate him once in a while, but certainly not banish him. What threat is he? That in itself could cause an anarchy of its own. The police aren’t going to help, no, they’ll accentuate the problem by going after the wrong man, not seeing their own dehumanizing methods as a part of the broader evil (hence, a propensity to “mother” the police rather than criticize them).

Hitchcock offers no solution. There isn’t one. Only the surcease of the mothering of evil. A more humanized world does not make evil any less a possibility, but perhaps we might engender an ability to veer from evil choices might become visible to us.

Guy and Ann (Ruth Roman) at the end of Strangers on a Train meet a priest. Guy runs from him as if the priest were another Bruno. A parting joke from the once-Catholic Hitchcock. Yet it also shows how Guy remains morally confused, unable to discern who can harm or help him, much like Norman Bates, who lived alone, mothering himself to pieces. Yes, but Guy has a new wife to mother him. All is fine. At least until Dial M for Murder (1954), when an ex-tennis pro (Ray Milland) decides to murder his wife.