Book Review: Hitchcock’s Villains: Murderers, Maniacs, and Mother Issues
Many of you might remember a fabulous podcast called “A Year of Hitchcock” and the resulting book of the same name co-authored by the hosts of that podcast, Eric San Juan and Jim McDevitt. If you recall one or both of those things, then Hitchcock’s Villains: Murderers, Maniacs, and Mother Issues, the new book from San Juan and McDevitt, pretty much sells itself. If you’re not familiar with that previous work, get thee to the podcasts and both of these excellent Hitch studies.
The films of Alfred Hitchcock can be – and are – viewed through a variety of prisms. There’s more ways to appreciate Hitch than there are Hitch movies, and that’s a lot. As the title of Hitchcock’s Villains indicates, San Juan and McDevitt choose to examine the bad guys and wrong-doers who figure so prominently in Hitchcock’s work. With any other filmmaker, that might be a limiting topic but Hitchcock’s own conflicting feelings about right and wrong, good and bad, made for a rich crew of villains who are sometimes more sympathetic and often more charming than their victims.
Written in a delightful and slightly cheeky “case file” format, San Juan and McDevitt gives each of Hitch’s slime-balls a thorough character study. From Verloc, the cinema owner and kid blower-upper in Sabotage to Robert Rusk, the neck tie strangler in Frenzy, the authors range across the whole rogues gallery of Hitchcock bad guys, offering insightful observations about how these characters are a critical component of enjoying these films. The authors opt to view the motivations of these villains, and the audience response as created by Hitch’s manipulations, through the lens of Hitchcock’s own questionable psychology. While that decision carries the serious risk of coming off as superficial pop-psychologizing, San Juan and McDevitt keep all of the speculating ground in verifiable (and well foot noted) fact.
In the book as in cinema, Hitchcock’s Villains hits its stride in the examination of Norman Bates in Psycho. Bates is the apotheosis of Hitchcock and his screen villains. Both utterly sympathetic and thoroughly repulsive, damaged beyond belief but fascinating, a mother dressing murderer who’s still quite charming. San Juan and McDevitt do a fine job of teasing out not only who and what Bates is, but how Hitchcock creates all of these conflicting and contradictory feelings in his viewers via the medium of cinema.
Hitchcock’s Villains is written in a personable, imminently readable way, perhaps making it feel light at first blush. It is not intellectually light however, and brims with thought provoking suppositions and assertions. Hitchcock neophytes will find much value in the overview quality of both Hitchcock’s work and the salient points of his biography. Hardcore Hitchcock fans – I hereby christen them Hitchkooks – will also be rewarded with the deep-cut villains included and the surprising connections the authors make between Hitch the man and his icon, immortal bad guys.