HITCHCOCK'S MOTHERS
a commentary by Tony McRae

 

There are mothers as enablers, mothers as tyrants, wacky mothers, flighty mothers, even girlfriends as mothers.  And we can't forget the murderous mother.  What we rarely come across in a Hitchcock movie is "the normal mother," -  Doris Day in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" a notable exception.  

Like most of her roles, Doris Day's character exudes wholesomeness.  Not Hitchcockian at all.  No hang-ups, especially not sexual ones.  Certainly not the case with the half dozen or so moms we're looking at here.

Perhaps the closest to normalcy in Hitchcock's maternity ward is Emma Norton in "Shadow of a Doubt," but here too we sense an unhealthy infatuation for her younger brother Charles, played by Joseph Cotten, who turns out to be The Merry Widow Murderer.  As played by Patricia Collinge, Emma is a forties woman who knows how to run a house, and care for her children.  When Charles shows up she moves her husband off to the side so that she can look directly at Charles now seated at the head of the table.  When daughter Charlie (Teresa Wright) begins to suspect her uncle, he is clever enough to use Emma feelings for him to dissuade Charlie from going to the police with her suspicions.  Emma may be a bit wacky but her affection for her brother sets up the movie's dynamic.  Both Uncle Charles and niece Charlie are aware of Emma's fragility.  Charles knows that Charlie will not expose him as a murderer because the knowledge would devastate  Emma.  The ring Charles gives his niece is an early guarantee - he hopes - of her complicity.  The irony, of course, is that the ring becomes the means whereby Charlie uncovers his true nature.  After Uncle Charles' death, Charlie makes sure her mother is kept in the dark about the true nature of her brother.

We go from a too affectionate mother to a flighty one, Bruno Anthony's mother in "Strangers on a Train."  Mrs. Anthony spends her days painting and attending to her son's needs - we first see her manicuring Bruno's nails.  She treats him like a little boy who's always getting himself into trouble.  He may be naughty but he makes her laugh.  His father has a very different take on him.  "The last thing I do, I'm going to have that boy taken care of.  If necessary, put him under restraint."  Mrs. Anthony is more upset by this than by any of Bruno's "antics."  Though her role in the movie is minimal (only two scenes, one with Bruno and the other with Ann Morton, Guy's fiancée, who tries to warn her about her son, she is clearly Bruno's only ally, perhaps the only person to believe he is not really bad.  While Bruno may or may not think he is doing something immoral by switching murders with Guy, Mrs. Anthony would never for a moment entertain such a thought.   Her response to Ann Morton's accusation is to ask the question, "Did Bruno tell you this?"  A conversation stopper is there ever was one.  

Though Bruno is psychopathic, he is also charming, clever and rational, at least in his own mind.  Having his father killed makes all the sense in the world:  he's a tyrant who treats him and his mother despicably.  What better reason to get rid of him?  Both mother and son are wacky, the difference being that Bruno is a psychotic murderer who loves his mother, while she is a muddled woman who loves her son.

In "The Birds" Mitch's mother Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy) is clearly upset with her son's interest in newcomer Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren).  Before the arrival of Melanie - and the birds - she's been content with her role as mother and caretaker.  There's her house in Bodega Bay, an adolescent daughter and of course son Mitch (Rod Taylor) who has a law practice in San Francisco and comes out to Bodega Bay on weekends.  Beautiful Miss Daniels is clearly a worry.  Like the birds later on, she invades the house and threatens to take it over, at least from Lydia's perspective.  

Does Lydia see something of herself in Melanie?  It is  no coincidence that Hitchcock chose Jessica Tandy not only for her acting ability but also for her stature, her silhouette if you please, and facial bone structure, and tightly coiffed hairdo.  Might she be jealous of Melanie, if for no other reason than the young woman's ability to attract her son.  Mitch's former girlfriend Annie (Susan Pleshette) lives nearby and teaches school in Bodega Bay, but she is not a threat.  We're not quite sure why she and Mitch stopped seeing one another, but there is little doubt that Lydia played a role.  Melanie suggests she might be the clinging possessive mother.  "Wrong," Annie answers.  "With all due respect to Oedipus, I don't think that was the case...Lydia is afraid someone else will give Mitch love, something she can't do."

The movie's last scene sees Melanie in a catatonic state after being attack by the birds.  This is Lydia's chance.  She puts her arm around Melanie as she and Mitch get her into the car and away from the birds.  And probably away from Bodega Bay - and out of Mitch's life? - for good.

There's no mother in "Rear Window" but there might be a substitute.  Grace Kelly hardly seems the nurturing type but when boyfriend Jimmy Stewart breaks his leg and is confined to a wheelchair, someone needs to pamper him.  Stewart will have none of it.  Sure, he tolerates therapist Thelma Ritter's rubdowns; in effect she's getting him ready for another photo assignment in some faraway spot.  Girlfriend Kelly has a different agenda:  soften him up and insure he doesn't get away again.

If Stewart wasn't such a voyeur - that's what photographers do  -  Kelly's strategy wouldn't work and their relationship would be status quo.  But this is a Hitchcock movie and so Stewart starts snooping on his neighbors across the courtyard.  He figures out that salesman Raymond Burr has sliced up his bedridden wife but he can't  convince his detective friend that there's been a murder.  Grace Kelly to the rescue.  Up to this point, she has been an impediment to his snooping, a distraction to his obsession with the drama across the yard.  But Kelly is smart - she knows what she has to do.  Still dressed in designer clothes she sheds her fashion-plate persona, climbs over fences and gets into Burr's apartment while he's away, finds the evidence, and captures Stewart's heart.  This girl has spunk, we can see Stewart thinking.  This is one desirable and tough woman.  

In the last scene we observe a sleeping Stewart, now with both legs in casts.  Alongside him is Kelly, this time in jeans.  They may be fashionable jeans, but it's a step in the right direction, the sign of an adventurous woman who's ready to accompany Stewart on his next assignment.  She's even reading a book about the Himalayas.   She glances over at Stewart to make sure he's sleeping, puts down the book and picks up the latest copy of Bazaar, a content look on her beautiful face.  Yet again Stewart has underestimated her.

Since we're talking about surrogate mothers, we can't forget Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) in "Vertigo," who could not be more different from Kim Novak's femme fatale.  She's the girl-next-door, homespun, caring, supportive.  We might say these are maternal traits, not the assets of a lover, at least not for Jimmy Stewart.  After Stewart has had his attack of vertigo and quits the police department, Midge suggests he go away for a while, take a vacation.  Stewart's retort is immediate:  "You mean to forget?  Oh, now, Midge...don't be so motherly."  But she is motherly.  "You have any dizzy spells this week?" she asks.  And later, when he asks her about this "thing" she's working on, she tells him it's a brassiere.  "You know about those things.  You're a big boy now."  It's no wonder he doesn't think of Midge in sexual terms.  Not so with Kim Novak.  Midge may have Stewart's best interests at heart, but he does not need a mother.  He'll take an emotionally disturbed Kim Novak any day.

Hitchcock's toughest matriarch is Madame Anna Sebastian (Leopoldine Konstantin), Claude Rains' mother in "Notorious."  The key scene:  Rains in his mother's room as she sleeps.  He awakens her, tells her he has made a terrible mistake.  "I am married to an American agent."  Rains and his mother are part of a Nazi organization that intends to resurrect the Third Reich, and Ingrid Bergman, with American agent Cary Grant's help, has seduced Rains into marrying her.  If the other Nazis find out that Bergman is working for the Americans, they will kill Rains without a second thought.  He now comes to his mother seeking help.  Madame Sebastian, sits up, reaches to her night table and lights up a cigarette.  For the first time we see her smile: she is pleased that her son has need of her.  When he expresses fear  that he will be found out by their Nazi friends, she says:  "We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity."  Good ol' mom, at once pleased that her son must now rely of her as she makes sure to put him in his place.  She will take over and make sure that Bergman will cause them no further trouble.  A slow poisoning will do the trick.  

Madame Sebastian is one in line of Hitchcock mothers who show their love for their children by denigrating them or holding back their affection.  We've already mentioned Lydia Brenner in "The Birds."  Add to that Cary Grant's mother in "North by Northwest" (Jessie Royce Landis) who, in her few scenes, manages to treat Grant as a spoiled and immature playboy - which is not far off the mark; Tippi Hedren's mother (Louise Latham) in "Marnie" will not touch her daughter; Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) in "Rebecca" who, though not a mother, assumes the role of matriarch of Manderlay and begins driving the unprotected Joan Fontaine to madness.

Then there's "Psycho."  Mamma mia!  Who's the evil one?  Poor Norman (Anthony Perkins) who tries his darndest to take care of the motel and see to the needs of his demanding mother?  Often these two duties converge; Norman occupies himself with chores we often refer to as "a woman's job."   He prepares a meal for Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and chats with her at some length in his parlor.  After Marion's death, he painstakingly cleans up his mother's mess.  

Of course he's also a red-blooded male, so he peeks in as Marion undresses.   He knows his mother would disapprove - no, she would damn him, call him a dirty, evil little boy.  And she would insist that that evil be eradicated.  She might scream at him but she could also be understanding.  Norman is at heart a good boy, never mean.  If that woman hadn't come to their motel, none of this would have happened.  His life with mother hasn't been so bad.  After all, Norman tells Marion, "A boy's best friend is his mother."  

If his mother ever found out what was going on down at the motel, she would ...  Norman has a pretty good idea what his mother would do if she found out he was "seeing" this woman, this seductress.  Why she would eliminate that source of evil who puts ideas into the poor boy's head.  In the end, deep down, Norman knows his mother is right.  

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So what can we draw from all this?  Is it the unhealthy mother who is responsible for all these horrors we find in Hitchcock's movies?  Is it she who corrupts her child so that he (or she, in the case of Marnie) can be all hers?  Philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who has written extensively on Hitchcock's movies, puts the blame on the son; it is he who has incestuous urges, he who fantasizes.  I'm not convinced.  Might we not counter this view by asking:  "Wasn't it mom who brought up her child, usually by herself?  We might also ask "Where are Hitchcock's fathers in all this?  Of all the movies I've cited here, there are only two fathers to be seen, Mr. Anthony in "Strangers on a Train," and then only for a minute, and Joe Newton (Henry Travers) in "Shadow of a Doubt" who, with neighbor Herbie (Hume Cronyn), provides comic relief.  Clearly Hitchcock decided to put the burden on mom, and she never really delivers the goods.  

Screen these movies again and decide for yourself.

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