Our Mirror Selves: The Hitchcock Double

Ivor Novello in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lodger.” Courtesy of Gainsborough Pictures.

Ivor Novello in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lodger.” Courtesy of Gainsborough Pictures.

What is art if not a reflection of the world as we perceive it? Great artists dare to explore those aspects of ourselves that we prefer to keep hidden from view. Only in the darkness of a movie house do these forbidden dreams shine brightly, illuminating the trance-like expression on our faces. Populating the screen are human figures we are meant to invest in as if they are ourselves. For that moment in time, they are our reflection, our double. 

Alfred Hitchcock, perhaps the greatest of all cinematic storytellers, spent his extraordinary career portraying the dichotomy of man. It was his intent for us to acknowledge the darkness residing within our own minds and hearts, which can manifest itself simply through the voyeuristic allure of movie-watching. We are horrified by the sight of characters perched on the precipice of doom, and yet we cannot look away. We don’t want to see poor Marion Crane be senselessly, viciously murdered, and yet what would “Psycho” be without its shower scene? Hitchcock makes us complicit with his gallery of suave, seductive villains, who seem to snicker at us when they see we’ve fallen under their spell.

Anthony Perkins stars in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Anthony Perkins stars in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Doubles populate every corner of Hitchcock’s filmography, from the two Charlies (the innocent girl and her homicidal uncle) in 1943’s “Shadow of a Doubt” to the titular acquaintances in 1951’s “Strangers on a Train,” who both harbor a desire to strangle women (though only one would act on such instincts). Marion’s deranged smile that materializes as she listens to the imagined voices in her head foreshadows the smile of Mother Bates that falls upon Norman’s face in the final scene. These linked representations of innocence and perversity suggest that they are two sides of the same coin.

What’s so fascinating about Hitchcock’s career is how it ultimately is a reflection of itself. Recurring motifs, images and archetypes show up in each movie, evoking memories of every picture that came before and after it, while deepening our understanding of the director’s own obsessions. Just take a look at his third feature effort, 1927’s “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog,” which ranks as his first indisputably great achievement, helmed at the tender age of 28. The picture is chockfull of elements that would show up again and again in his work, such as…

Endangered blondes with “golden curls”...

Endangered blondes with “golden curls”…

Vertigo-inducing angles...

Vertigo-inducing angles…

POV shots of couples about to kiss.

POV shots of couples about to kiss.

Now look at Hitch’s penultimate film, 1972’s “Frenzy,” which also happened to be his last great triumph. It is a virtual mirror image of “The Lodger,” albeit a far darker, angrier and more cynical one (in contrast, “Family Plot” ended his career on a note of playfulness, another signature characteristic of the Master of Suspense). It’s the most deeply disturbing film Hitchcock ever made, ripping back the curtain of suggestion and rubbing the audience’s face in its grisly carnage. There are moments where you feel compelled to leave a crime scene much like the camera does in the film’s most memorable shot, inching down the stairs as the killer advances on his latest victim.

“The Lodger” and “Frenzy” both take place in London, feature a cast of relative unknowns and center their tale on a killing spree in which a “Jack the Ripper”-like killer preys on women. In each case, the killer leaves behind clues, identifying himself as the perpetrator (in “The Lodger,” it’s the picture of a triangle with his name—“The Avenger”—in the middle; in “Frenzy,” it’s a necktie). There’s an innocent man who eventually becomes wrongly accused, though he sports many of the same characteristics as the killer. Our assigned protagonists are every bit as much “avengers” as the evil men they are mistaken for, and are every bit as capable of committing atrocious acts. Whereas the upbeat, studio-approved ending of “The Lodger” can’t remove its unsettling implications, the abrupt finale of “Frenzy” finds both men—the good and bad—equally ugly.

As impeccable bookends to a filmmaking career that spans over five decades, these two pictures would make a smashing double bill. I wouldn’t, however, claim they are among Hitchcock’s masterpieces, which began with 1929’s “Blackmail” and ended with 1964’s “Marnie.” Those two films enter the heightened psyche of women wracked with guilt after committing murder. Both women, I might add, are also victims of attempted rape. Yet another unsettling reflection.

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