Since Mother’s Day is officially over, it’s safe to broach the subject of moms in Hitchcock movies. Why, you ask? What could be more boring? Well, Norman Bates would beg to differ. As would A.H. himself. For in many Hitchcock films, it’s the mother who plays a pivotal part in the story’s outcome. And as any fan of the Master of Suspense will tell you, Hitchcock loved to re-use certain elements and ideas from one film to the next, mothers one of his favorite subjects.
Fans will be familiar with the “good” mothers, those women who- at the risk of sounding chauvinistic- take their roles as nurturers and protectors of spouse and children seriously. They are basically nice people, well balanced and adjusted- ready to take on whatever brickbats the story throws at them.
Sylvia Sidney (Sabotage), Dame Mae Whitty (Suspicion), Patricia Collinge (Shadow of a Doubt), the mother in Lifeboat who loses her child, Shirley MacLaine (The Trouble With Harry), Doris Day (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956), and Vera Miles (The Wrong Man).
Those women who died, leaving Dad or a nursemaid to raise the little ones. But though long gone, their absence places the offspring in harm’s way. There’s Rebecca, from the film of the same name; Mrs. Fisher (Foreign Correspondent); Mrs. Huberman (Notorious), Mrs. Morton (Strangers on a Train).
Then there are the …
Neither well-adjusted, devoted, stable or nice (or some combination of the four), they are the most interesting.
The Man Who Knew Too Much. Though not a monster, Jill Lawrence (and her husband, for that matter) are disengaged parents. They have an only child named Betty, but she is more of a nuisance than a joy to them. The way they treat her, one wonders if she wasn’t more of an accident than a planned pregnancy. Regardless, their benign neglect directly or indirectly leads to her being kidnapped. Much heartbreak ensues as Jill and her hubby realize what they have lost. They then have to risk life and limb to try getting her back. As usual, the police are of little help (speaking of patterns).
Notorious. Pure evil- that’s Madame Sebastian, and played to the hilt by Leopoldine Konstantin. Overbearing and emasculating in every scene with her son Alexander, she is everything we’d come to expect from a Nazi mother. Jealous of any woman who would dare come between her and her middle-aged son, she is at first merely icy and suspicious of Ingrid Bergman. When Alexander is betrayed, though, Mother Hitler is there to console her boy, suggesting that his new wife be slowly poisoned to death over a period of weeks. Scary from beginning to end, she bears direct responsibility for the doom that befalls her little family, by movie’s end.
Strangers on a Train The original wacko mom, played to perfection by Marion Lorne. (Think Aunt Clara, the character she played so well some fifteen years later in the TV show “Bewitched”.) Though not as wigged out as her psychopath son Bruno, Mrs. Anthony is a stay-at-home mother for more reasons than one. Not only is she clueless about the extent of her boy’s homicidal tendencies, but she is in a permanent state of denial about Bruno’s all-too-obvious Oedipal affection for her. Spending her days inside the family mansion, she paints and putters around, oblivious to the act of patricide Bruno is planning for her husband- who is, by the way, the only sane one of the three.
To Catch a Thief. Some might say it’s unfair to include Jesse Royce Landis in this motley matriarchal crowd. But she’s dotty. The sardonic rich widow, she travels the world with her stunning daughter Grace Kelly. The party comes to a swift end when her jewels are stolen by The Cat, a local jewelry thief. Though world-weary when it comes to the niceties of romance, Mrs. Stevens has taught her daughter well: don’t trust men. Just take what you can get- then run for the hills. Luckily for Cary Grant, Grace comes around, realizing that he’s a good catch, though a fixer-upper in the Commitment dept. We don’t see much of Landis until the end of the film, when she returns, at least in spirit, having persuaded her daughter to marry Grant. Landis is nothing if not domineering, which earns her a place in the Bad Mother Society.
North By Northwest. This time around, Jesses Royce Landis plays the domineering mom, Cary Grant her spoiled son, and despite CG being Mr. Corporate Executive, Mother bosses him around, big time. What’s odd about Mom, though, is that despite her bailing him out of jail (again), she doesn’t believe the story he tells her about nearly being killed via a murder attempt. Making fun of her son when he’s in danger of going to prison makes her a Bad Mom, in my opinion.
Psycho. Though not actually alive in the film, Mother lives on in the mind and psyche of her sicko son Norman. Driven insane many years earlier, all fingers point to Mrs. Bates as the primary cause of Norman’s mental demise. But though we are cognizant that he “never had a chance”, he’s still a homicidal maniac, and never deserves the pity we might reserve for others killers. He is Mrs. Bates, through and through, Norman only allowed out long enough to carry her around the house. Pretty sick, the movie is a masterpiece, but one that makes viewers wonder why they are watching it yet again.
The Birds. This film stars Jessica Tandy as Lydia Brenner, father of Mitch (played by Rod Taylor). Though overshadowed by romantic leads Taylor and Tippi Hedrin, Mother is always there, hovering in the background. When not busy displaying distrust of Hedrin, she’s laying one guilt trip after another on her son Mitch. Fearing he’ll abandon her, Lydia does her best to sabotage Mitch’s interest in Hedrin, which drives a wedge between the two lovers that may be impossible to remove. It isn’t until mortal peril drives Hedrin’s character to the point of insanity that Lydia finally deigns to back off. By this time, though, it’s a little late for apologies.
Marnie. Hedrin again gets to play a Hitchcock blonde, but this time it’s one with enough emotional baggage to stock a Samsonite store. Marnie is a compulsive thief, master of disguise and a beautiful woman all wrapped up in one messed up package. After stealing from an employer, she heads to her mother’s house to lay low for a while. During the visit we get top meet her mother Bernice, played expertly by Louise Latham. Within a short time we get to see how emotionally distant mother and daughter are. During a particularly painful scene, Marnie is pushed aside by a snotty young neighbor girl that her mother is doting over. Marnie ends up fleeing the house. We get the impression it isn’t the first nor the last time this will happen. When she attracts the attention of Sean Connery after her latest attempt at theft (from the company safe), Connery decides to try and reform her instead of having her arrested. In the process, he falls in love with her and they marry. He plays armchair psychiatrist just long enough to realize that Marnie is seriously ill. Sexually frigid and suicidal, she is coming unraveled before his eyes. Unsure what to do, Sean decides it’s time for a showdown with Bernice. During the ensuing scenes (and a grisly flashback), we find out why mother and daughter are the way they are. Though the conflict is resolved, we know it will takes years for the re-opened scars to fully heal the way they are supposed to.
That’s eight movies out of 45, not counting the group of silent films that precede them. Again you’re saying so what? That’s not a big percentage. But when you look at the way the groups break down, you have to wonder what Hitchcock really believed about the part relationships and families play in life. There are seven “Good” mothers, four Missing in Action, and eight Bad moms.
But there is another group I haven’t mentioned yet: the “Barren”- those women who for one reason or another have decided to forebear having children. In some cases their husbands share in the decision. So, who are they?
Fred and Emily Hill are the childless marriage couple in “Rich and Strange” (1932). Bored with life, work and each other, the young married yearn for excitement, a wish that’s granted when they come into a substantial amount of money unexpectedly. During the course of an ocean voyage, they each have an affair they later regret, learn that adventure-seeking has its hazards, and in the end discover they truly love each other.
Rebecca. Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine are the newly married Mr. and Mrs. Maxim de Winter. Haunted by his deceased first wife, Maxim finds little time or desire to dredge up her mysterious past for the benefit of his beleaguered wife. Fontaine has to take it upon herself to discover why Rebecca’s past has been hushed up.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Hitchcock’s only attempt at an outright romantic comedy. Devoted to each other, the couple nevertheless find their commitment to each other strained during a trip to the mountains.
Suspicion. Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine fall in love and get hitched. Trouble ensues when Fontaine discovers that her new husband is a lazy, immature slacker. Things get complicated when she begins to suspect him desperate enough to murder her for the family fortune.
Notorious. Ingrid Bergman commits to a sham marriage in order to get the goods on a Nazi collaborator. All the while her true love, Cary Grant stands on the sidelines, indecisive about when- or if- he should step in, before disaster strikes.
I Confess. This films provides the poignant depiction of a childless couple in late middle-age. Though not the main characters, their relationship is steeped in sadness and despair, the situation aggravated when the husband commits a murder, then forces the priest he confesses to into a perverse vow of silence.
Dial M for Murder. He’s a narcissist, and she’s an adulteress. Drawn away from loveless Milland to a true-love affair with Robert Cummings, Kelly is later implicated in the murder of the man her husband hired to kill her- a botched attempt, due to Grace’s unexpected use of a sharp pair of scissors in self-defense.
So here we have seven marriages with no children. Does this mean that Hitchcock didn’t think much of the family unit, since the characters in these films choose adventure or romance or a career over progeny? Remember that we haven’t even discussed the romancing of those bachelors and bachelorettes found in “Murder”, “Number Seventeen”, “The 39 Steps”, “Secret Agent”, “Young and Innocent”, “The Lady Vanishes”, “Foreign Correspondent”, “Shadow of a Doubt”, “Lifeboat”, “Spellbound”, “Rope”, “Stage Fright”, “Strangers On a Train”, “I Confess”, “Rear Window”, “To Catch a Thief”, “The Trouble With Harry”, “Vertigo”, “North By Northwest”, “Psycho”, “The Birds”, “Marnie”, “Torn Curtain”, “Frenzy” and “Family Plot”. And of these aforementioned films, there is no sense at their separate conclusions that any of the happy or sort-of-happy couples will ever have children. None of them mention the possibility throughout the respective stories.
Maybe I’m making something out of nothing, but it is interesting to observe that out of all Hitchcock’s films, there are only five I know of where the main characters are part of a complete family unit.
And maybe I’m not being realistic. After all, when one is on the run from the police for a crime he didn’t commit, or is embroiled in a kidnapping, or being attacked by homicidal seagulls, who has time to think about having kids?