Fathers in Hitchcock films
|In the world of Hitchcock films, Father’s day would be celebrated with various degrees of devotion; similar to mother’s, AH makes no definite statement about how much or little he reveres them, though there are clues. And so, armed with nary a scintilla of information, we go forth to examine father’s in Alfred’s movies, in the hope that we’ll learn something.|
Generally speaking, the patriarch in Hitchcock’s films can range anywhere from loving and devoted to disengaged and disingenuous. So, for the sake of discussion, let’s clear the decks of the childless fathers.
We begin with Fred Hill in “Rich and Strange.” He works in the business world, struggling through the commuting masses of humanity to his cookie-cutter home, where he and his wife are engaged in a daily battle with boredom. The sense we get here is that Nature will not allow him and his wife to have even one child until he grows up- and the adventure that follows may provide the maturity he is so sorely lacking.
"The 39 Steps" features two minor characters, John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft, who own the farm that Richard Hannay hides out in. Judging by the way the crofter treats his wife, after she talks him into letting the fugitive stay at their place, he should be up on domestic battery charges. No kids in that house, thank goodness.
Oscar Homolka’s character Mr. Verloc, in "Sabotage," is a fiend, plain and simple. Involved in a plot to set off a bomb in London, Verloc’s home life and wife are secondary to his life as a saboteur. He is about as fit to be a father as the Marquis de Sade teaching Sunday School.
In "Rebecca," Laurence Olivier’s Maxim de Winter is a drama king who will probably never commit to raising kids. With so much going on in the Inner Turmoil Department, it’s a wonder that even Rebecca fits into his crowded life.
"Mr. and Mrs. Smith" is the perfect example of a couple that should never have kids. Hedonistic and self-absorbed, David Smith (Robert Montgomery) is only interested in luxury and maintaining a love affair with his beautiful wife- which to some extent is understandable. But the emptiness facing them in the near future is something to avoid thanking about- at least for the moment.
Like Maxim De Winter, Johnny Aysgarth (in "Suspicion") has no room for children- which makes perfect sense, considering that Johnny’s little more than a child himself. He’d probably make a great Dad, but first he needs to A) Grow up, and B) Become a husband to his wife.
In "Notorious," we see the couple that Will Never Have Children. It’s not that Alexander Sebastian might not make a good father, but there are too many other things in the way: his sham marriage to Alicia; Alex’s Oedipal relationship with his Nazi mother; and the fact that he’s an expatriate Nazi himself. It’s just a bad arrangement all around. And having Madame Sebastian for a grandma? Those grandkids would be in therapy for years.
"The Paradine Case" has the hapless Anthony Keane (played by Gregory Peck, in an unfortunate career misstep) falling in love with a manipulative witch of a defendant. Though his wife forgives him, after he confessing his hidden love for the defendant, he is one crappy role model. Then again, The Paradine Case is a crappy movie, so Keane fits right in.
Otto Keller ("I Confess") is such a monster that he doesn’t deserve children. How he made it as far as he did in life- prior to the film’s story- without ending up in the slammer, is a mystery. He treats his wife and everyone else with a level of misanthropy that is breathtaking.
In "Dial M For Murder," Tony Wendice and his wife are a hell of a couple: she’s having an affair with one Mark Halliday, while Tony only has room for one person in his life- the fellow he sees in the mirror. And like Maxim De Winter, Tony is barely wired for the matrimonial life, let alone offspring.
"Rear Window" features a couple in similar straits as the Wendices, the difference here being that Lars Thorwald is successful at disposing of his wife- which puts the damper on child-bearing possibilities.
Though in "Vertigo" Gavin Elster is a secondary character, his life with Mrs. Elster must have been less than ideal. As for kids, who has time to make babies when all one’s spare is taken up, planning your wife’s demise?
So far, a pattern has emerged. Couples ill-equipped to have kids remain childless. Whether or not that will be the norm in other Hitchcock films remains to be seen. Let’s move to the dad’s in the middle.
"The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934) gives us Bob Lawrence and his wife Betty, whose only child Betty is abducted as part of an assassination plot. Bob is a distracted father; we know he loves his daughter, but to him and his wife, Betty is sometimes an inconvenience who is left to her own devices most of the time, since mom and dad want to party almost as much as they like being parents. Their casual neglect is soon paid back with the karmic disappearance of their child. The question is, will they stop taking their girl for granted, and before it’s too late?
"Young and Innocent." Here the father is an officer of the law, his daughter running around with a fugitive- the very man her dad is trying to apprehend. Dad is a devoted family man, but his love for his daughter is tested when he discovers that she’s been consorting with the fugitive, who she’s trying to clear of unjust charges.
"Suspicion." General Laidlaw (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) is one of the good fathers, whose instincts bristle upon meeting his daughter Lina’s new husband, Johnny. Sensing that Lina’s hubby is a freeloading slacker, the General bequeaths only his portrait to the couple, upon his death.
"Shadow of A Doubt." Joe Newton (played with perfect pitch by the wonderful Henry Travers), is Charlie’s father. Though he holds a job at the bank and to all appearances is the corporate man, at home he’s a bit of a bumbler. He sits at the head of the dinner table, but it’s mother who truly runs things. He loves his kids, but in a disengaged way. And more troubling, he seems oblivious to the increasing danger surrounding his eldest daughter, Charlie. Ironic that his main passion/hobby in life is the continuing discussions he has with close friend and perennial bachelor Herb Hawkins about crime, especially murder. With nothing else going on in his seemingly empty life, Herb engages Joe in dinnertime ruminations about homicide, much the same way the elderly socialite converses with Bruno in “Strangers On a Train.” It’s all fun and games until someone gets killed; but even then let’s pass over the grisly details. In the end, Charlie cannot count on her father for much more than passing moral support; she is alone in her struggles, and must come to her own defense.
"Rope" is the one film where the death of a child weighs heavily upon the proceedings. Poor Mr. Kentley, devoted parent that he is, somehow senses that something terrible has happened to his son David, soon to be married to Janet. The love of a father for his son is behind the almost psychic connection between the two, and undercuts the entertainment value of one of Hitchcock’s more unique yet disturbing films.
"Stage Fright." Though the Gills have been separated for years, it’s hard to not admire the loving relationship between Commodore Gill (played to perfection by Alastair Sim) and his daughter Eve, the miscast Jane Wyman. He’d do anything for Eve, and does so repeatedly and at great risk to himself. In the end, it’s his warnings that save Eve from becoming another victim of the resident psychopath.
"Strangers On A Train." In line with the theme of doubles that pervades the entire film, we have two sets of parents. In the first instance there’s Leo G. Carroll (playing Senator Morton). The Senator is a loving, supportive father to his daughters Ann and Barbara (the latter played well by Patricia, Hitchcock’s daughter). The Senator is a voice of reason amid the confusion, duplicity, and madness that threatens to consume and destroy Guy Haines, Ann’s fiancé. Contrast this with poor Mr. Anthony. Saddled with a loopy wife and Bruno, the sociopathic son, father Anthony may not be aware of Bruno’s plans to do him in, but he does have sense enough to know that his progeny is a psycho in need of permanent residence in a rubber room at the local laughing academy. And while he’s at it, he should reserve a room for Mrs. Anthony.
"The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1955). Jimmie Stewart and Doris Day win the Best parents award for their portrayal of Ben and Jo McKenna. Unlike the Lawrences (from the 1934 film of the same name), Ben and Jo are involved in their son Hank’s life, and he in theirs, appearing no worse for the wear as an only child. Their bond as a strong family unit makes things all the more agonizing when Hank is kidnapped.
"The Wrong Man." Chris Balestrero’s life is nearly destroyed when he’s accused of a crime didn’t commit. With a wife and kids at home (parts played by Henry Fonda and Vera Miles), the poor fellow also has to deal with a wife who’s slowly coming unraveled in an effort to prove her husband’s innocence. Chris’s ordeal is based on a true story, which makes what eventually happens all the more disturbing, in the light of Hitchcock’s rumored disdain for the criminal justice system.
Which brings us to the bad dads, of which there are only two (that we know of).
"Foreign Correspondent." Herbert Marshall plays Stephen Fisher, a widower and member of the Universal Peace Party, of which he is a member in name only. In reality, he’s involved with kidnapping and other nefarious acts designed to destroy the peace process in Europe. When his daughter Carol becomes involved with a reporter who’s getting close to the truth about the conspiracy, Fisher tries to have the boyfriend assassinated, all the while masquerading as the loving father.
"To Catch A Thief." Widower and wine steward Mr. Foussard conspires with his daughter to frame John Robie (played engagingly by Cary Grant), for a series of jewelry thefts. A fine example to be setting for your only kid.
And so we see that Hitchcock wasn’t keen on portraying fathers as bad guys. Is there some compelling reason for this? Aside from the possibility of a cultural dictate- that fathers were patriarchs who were above committing acts of moral turpitude- we’ll probably never know.
And what are we to make of the missing fathers?
In Sabotage, Mrs. Verloc and her ill-fated little bro Stevie appear to be orphans. Would they both have had better lives with at least one parent around?
To Catch A Thief features the mother daughter dynamo that is Jessie and Frances Stevens (Jesse Royce Landis and Grace Kelly, respectively). Apparently, dear old dad couldn’t handle the likes of such an independent soul as Jessie, but one wonders about the toll it must have taken on Frances. Her mistrust of men is epic.
Jennifer Rogers is the single mother in The Trouble With Harry, and the lack of a mate has turned her into the resident cynic.
In North By Northwest, we again find Jesse Royce Landis single and with a kid in tow, even if it's momma’s boy Cary Grant.
Norman Bates is a homicidal force of nature in Psycho, but one wonders how any father would have fared (let alone survived) trying to reign in little Norman, with Mom lurking nearby.
In The Birds, what happened to Mr. Daniels, Mitch’s father? Given the almost Oedipal relationship between Mitch and his mother, maybe it’s better to not know some things. Same can be said for Marnie’s father.