Hitchcock’s Strangler Trilogy

By Arnold Stead

Shadow of a Doubt, USA, 1943

Rope, USA, 1948

Strangers on a Train, USA, 1951

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Rope is one of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest masterpieces.

Phillip, a budding pianist anxious to know if his debut concert will be a success, asks Mrs. Atwater to read his palm. She grants his request and says: “These hands will bring you great fame.” Her prophesy should please him, but Hitchcock shows us Phillip’s hands, the hands of a strangler, fingers frozen in the posture of their deed; then the strangler’s terrified face. It would seem Phillip already knows that the fame Mrs. Atwater speaks of is, in fact, infamy.

Flanked by Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Strangers on a Train (1951), Rope (1948) serves as the centerpiece for Alfred Hitchcock’s strangler trilogy, a three-part meditation on murder, madness, and reading. In his famous study of Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut remarks that Strangers on a Train, “just like Shadow of a Doubt is systematically built around the figure two.” In both pictures the two central characters “might very well have had the same name. Whether it’s Guy or Bruno, it’s obviously a single personality split in two.” I will argue that Rope fits Truffaut’s schemata, as Phillip (Farley Granger) and Brandon (John Dall) – like Charles Oakley and his niece in Shadow of a Doubt, as well as Guy and Bruno in Strangers on a Train – form “a single personality split in two.” I will further argue that Phillip’s hands, like Charles Oakley’s and Bruno Antony’s, have a will of their own. Hitchcock endows those male hands with a characteristic usually associated with the phallus. To revise an old chestnut: these hands, when aroused, have no conscience. 

Hitchcock's Strangler Trilogy

As Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten) converges on his niece and alter ego, Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) with murder in his hands, she suddenly stares at his pulsing claws and cries, “Uncle Charley, your hands!” Aroused by fear of what his niece knows, he is intent on committing what might be called a lethal act of incest. The sexual stirrings alive in the act of murder are likewise present when Phillip doesn’t want Brandon to turn on the light, but wishes to remain quiet, like lovers in the dark after killing David Kentley (Dick Hogan). Brandon even lights a cigarette. In Strangers, when Bruno (Robert Walker) stalks Miriam (Laura Elliot), the wife who won’t give Guy (Granger again) a divorce, she clearly interprets his interest as sexual. He plays the strong dominant male for her by rubbing his hands together, grabbing the hammer, and ringing the muscle-man bell at a carnival.  We are told by the barker that he breaks it, proving himself a real man as opposed to the two teenage-looking boys Miriam is with. Through her eyes we see Bruno lowering his victim to the ground as he strangles her. He is “laying” her. The murder might as easily have been a rape.

I place Rope at the center of the trilogy because madness, murder, and book learning interweave in a pointedly philosophical manner. Brandon and Phillip exercise their “privilege” as superior intellects to commit murder. Their teacher at prep school, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), had introduced the boys, particularly Brandon, to Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the superman. The boys grow to be men and put theory into practice.

Phillip and Brandon embody the split in Crime and Punishment‘s haunted protagonist. The former is guilt ridden, the latter triumphant. From the first minute after David Kentley’s death, Phillip seems to reject what his hands have done. He looks upon them now in fearful awe. We watch him rubbing his hands together as if to soothe them and telling Kenneth (Douglas Dick): “It seems I’m to be locked up.” We could at this point easily imagine a confession, but here the stronger Brandon steps in to explain that Phillip will be in seclusion at Brandon’s mother’s country home until his debut as a concert pianist. Phillip breaks a glass and cuts himself when Mrs. Atwater (Constance Collier) mistakes Kenneth for her nephew, the murder victim. Phillip’s guilt erupts yet again when he cannot bring himself to pull the murder weapon, a short length of rope, out of the chest that holds David’s corpse.

For Brandon, killing David puts flesh on the image he has of himself. He had, in his mind, committed the “perfect crime,” employing Phillip as his executioner. Whether Phillip’s hands on a piano or the neck of a victim leave Brandon in awe, or are simply useful tools for the latter’s plans, is a question worth considering. Brandon tells Kenneth he arranged for Phillip’s debut concert. Had the killers not been caught, would there have been a concert? Might Phillip have wound up at the bottom of a lake with David?

Brandon displays his “courage” to act, then stand by his actions as a good Nietzschean would, with everybody but Rupert, before whom he stammers like a schoolboy. With Phillip, Brandon is particularly forceful, at one point even slapping him; I suspect not for the first time in their long relationship.

Shadow Of A Doubt is arguably Hitchcock's greatest film. When the two argue about feelings and weakness, Brandon has the last word. He says, “Being weak is a mistake,” to which Phillip replies, “Why, because it’s being human?” Brandon retorts, “Because it’s being ordinary.” Brandon is in revolt against the ordinary, as are Bruno Antony and Charles Oakley. The former, upon meeting Guy, wastes no time portraying himself as a seeker of dangerous thrills. Bruno has no intention of being an “ordinary” guy who works for wages and keeps regular hours. Charles Oakley’s loud and reckless remarks at the bank where his brother-in-law (Henry Travers) works are meant to slap the ordinary Joe (his brother-in-law’s name) squarely in the face. He deposits $40,000 in cash, all the while denigrating the effort to acquire such sums. As Charlie Newton tells the “survey taker” detectives: “My uncle’s opinions aren’t average…” She doesn’t like thinking of herself as “ordinary” either.

Reading is of course a well-known escape from the ordinary. The trilogy associates it with youth and childhood, addressing both highbrow and lowbrow reading, the former being furthest from the “ordinary,” and the attitudes brought to each. Brandon speaks of reading on two occasions: once when he is explaining Rupert’s belief that people not only read but can understand what they have read; a second time when Mrs. Atwater remarks that she did a lot of reading as a child. Brandon responds: “We all do strange things when we’re young.”

The books (“first editions”) that David’s father (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), a collector, has come to inspect are of course symbolic of the ideas Rupert introduced to the killers. Dangerous ideas, but then we must not forget Oscar Wilde’s axiom: “Any idea that is not dangerous, is not truly an idea at all.” The books are then accomplices to the murderers, while the rope used to kill David is symbolically parallel to the inscribed emerald ring Charles Oakley gives Charlie Newton in Shadow, and the cigarette lighter Bruno Antony clings to with his last breath in Strangers.

As a boy, Charles Oakley read a lot before his near-fatal bicycle accident. “Let me tell you,” his older sister, Charlie Newton’s mother (Patricia Collinge), says, “he didn’t read much after that.” Charlie’s kid sister, Ann (Edna May Wonacott), is disappointed by their father Joe’s lowbrow, murder-mystery magazine reading. We might be inclined to surmise that Joe’s lowbrow taste is emblematic of his harmless nature, that the rarefied cerebral regions of philosophy serve as a potential vehicle for unspeakable deeds while the reading matter of the “ordinary Joe” contribute to a happy, loving nature; but Bruno Antony pulls us up short. His reading comes straight from the daily newspapers, the sports and society sections. Apart from the opportunities afforded by his father’s wealth, he is rather ordinary, a spoiled and decadent rich boy. Conventionally Oedipal, Bruno is, despite all the “I’m a man” bravado, a teenage rebel in the body of a man pushing, if not looking back on, thirty.

In Rope we see the effects of taking what one reads too seriously in its deadliest manifestation, murder. Ann’s father in Shadow of a Doubt is concerned, as you would expect a loving father to be, that reading too much will damage his daughter’s eyes. But Ann believing the fiction she reads is “all true” points toward a more fundamental problem: even bright children like Anne and Brandon are not yet ready to engage fiction and philosophy as the two mediums sometimes demand.

Strangers On A Train is a fascinating psychological thriller from Alfred Hitchcock, one of the master's very best. The manner in which the trilogy toys in an explicitly comic way with murder seems to underscore the need for not taking one’s beliefs too seriously, while at the same time displaying possibilities “civilized” society does its best to ignore. Witness Mr. Kentley referring to Brandon as such “a charming young man,” or the voice of an unseen minister praising Charles Oakley’s humanity at the end of Shadow of a Doubt.

In Rope Rupert speaks of murder with a wit everyone but Mr. Kentley, and possibly Phillip, finds entertaining. Strangers has Bruno parodying Rupert’s take on murder but going too far and nearly choking a woman to death, while in Shadow Joe and next door neighbor Herb use a running game of devising ways to kill each other as a method of relaxation. Hitchcock’s playfulness inserts the comic touch for which he is so rightly acclaimed, but the strangler trilogy’s primary concern is the concept of the ordinary, the average. We have already seen the idea of being ordinary rejected by Brandon, Bruno, and both Charleys. The concept’s lone defender is Detective Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), who tells Charley Newton average families are the “best kind.” This detective appears to be a vehicle for wisdom as he speaks and acts in a moderate, ordinary fashion. All three films illustrate the dangers of not being ordinary. The trilogy brings to mind an Anton Chekhov short story, appropriately titled “The Murder,” in which a man who others believe to be a saint falls “into fornication” and upon seeking the advice of a devout and well respected elder is told: “Be an ordinary man. Eat and drink, dress and pray like everyone else. All that is above the ordinary is of the devil.”

Arnold Stead is a playwright, novelist, poet and retired college professor with a Ph.D. in English literature, as well as a lively interest in the cinematic art form; he is also the father of MoviesIDidntGet.com’s head editor, Ezra Stead, and the original source of Ezra’s own film obsession.

Contact the Author: Contributor@MoviesIDidntGet.com


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