In an essay on the doppelganger, Albert Guerard mentions how the double appears in stories precisely at a moment of crisis.
The crisis could involve a mental breakdown or a dark desire; the double harasses the protagonist, acting either as a conscience or tempter or a mirror. Usually, the double is seen as a threat and must be expelled or expunged. Then the protagonist is either freed from the dark desires and temptation or, conversely, mortally wounds his own spirit.
This double can appear in physical form or takes shape as a mental delusion. In Strangers on a Train, Bruno (Robert Walker) is real, from a well-to-do family, and exhibits all the traits of an adult not grown up. His father is stern and his mother, doting. He acts independently of Guy (Farley Granger) but, at the same time, gravitates around Guy's life.
I have characterized Guy as the most important individual in the relationship (in my previous blog). The film is about Guy. Yet, Bruno controls the events. Equally important, Guy never recognizes Bruno as his double or “other self”. The literary or cinematic doppelganger functions best like this.
When Guy vanquishes Bruno, all seems well from Guy’s perspective. He’s proven that he didn’t murder his estranged wife, Miriam. He can marry Senator Morton’s daughter, Anne, and have a political life when he retires from tennis.
Yet, Hitchcock isn’t letting Guy off easy. The very last scene, after he and Anne are married, they are sitting in a train’s club car and a man sitting across from them asks: “Aren’t you Guy Haines?” The man is a priest or minister and Guy, remembering that the same question was asked by Bruno, takes Anne’s hand and leaves in a sort of mock panic.
The scene represents typical Hitchcockian humor. Comic relief at the end. But the question lingers. Does Guy know himself: who he really is? Hadn’t Bruno acted out what Guy had thought? Wasn’t Bruno, that “evil double”, the agent of Guy’s happiness? Are Guy and Anne assured a happy, settled marriage?
A sort of answer comes in a Hitchcock film a couple years later, Dial M for Murder (1954). In that film, an ex-tennis pro, Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), plots to murder his wife, Margot (Grace Kelly), who has had a brief affair with a writer, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Like Bruno, Tony gets someone else to do his murder, blackmailing an old college chum, Captain Swann (Anthony Dawson). Also like Bruno, the plan gives Tony the perfect alibi.
Despite the film being based on a popular play by Frederick Knott (Strangers is based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith), I can’t help feeling that Tony is an older but not much wiser version of Guy Haines. Tony-Guy has learned from his past venture with Bruno that one should choose one’s surrogate murderer more carefully.
Unfortunately for Tony, Captain Swann dies trying to kill Margot and the perfect murder blows up in Tony's face. The one real difference between Tony and Guy is that Tony (Ray Milland’s tennis player) is the more interesting person, just as Bruno had been more interesting than Guy.
One of Hitchcock’s most interesting use of doubles is in Shadow of a Doubt (1943). In this case, they are a teenage girl and her uncle, both named Charlie. Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) is a serial killer specializing in rich widows. His niece (Teresa Wright) is bored with everyday life and wishes her favorite uncle would visit to liven up the town, Santa Rosa, California (incidentally, one of the places mentioned as being attacked in The Birds ).
One of our first views of them has them lying in their respective beds, a continent apart, dreaming and depressed, waiting for something to illuminate their lives.
The Charlies are a strange doubling, nothing like Guy and Bruno. Yes, one of them represents a dark, pessimistic perspective on human beings. But they have a special bond, symbolized with a ring that he gives his niece, as if they are married. A bright, innocent view of life coupled with a brooding, troubled view. The niece unwittingly has released this dark force upon her small town.
Slowly, inevitably, she learns the truth about her uncle. Even then, his charisma keeps her from exposing him to the police, who have tracked him across the country. When the police are about to give up their search, Uncle Charlie decides to leave Santa Rosa, unwilling to stay near the one person who knows his darkest secrets. But he can’t help trying to kill her and, in the process, while defending herself, the niece throws him from the train and kills him.
Her struggle with this dark force becomes a form of self-knowledge, unlike Guy’s struggle with Bruno which is more an attempt to remain ignorant of his true self.
Another type of doubling occurs in Psycho (1960). Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) resembles Sam Loomis (John Gavin). Bates has killed Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), Loomis’ love interest. Late in the film, Bates and Loomis face each other in the office of the motel while Lila (Vera Miles), Marion’s sister, searches the Bates’s house for Norman's mother. Behind Loomis is mirror reflection of himself, suggesting another self lurking within his personality, perhaps a Norman self. Psycho is a film filled with mirror reflections of many characters, further pressing the issue of doubles.
The fact that Marion’s name is a near anagram for Norman's, links these two characters, who confess to one another that they are caught in traps. Norman says that he has been born in his, while Marion is the victim of an wild impulse to change her life.
At the moment Marion is freeing herself from her personal neurosis—symbolically washing off her sins in the shower—when Norman slays her. The mother-side of him will not allow Norman to desire another woman, sympathize with another human being, perhaps killing his last fleeting moment of self-knowledge, and escaping his trap.
One other Hitchcock character, L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), in Rear Window (1954), directly confronts his double, Lars Tharwald (Raymond Burr), who lives across the apartment court. Jeffries believes that Thorwald has murdered his wife and chopped her up. Unusually, in this film, it’s the double who ends up being harassed.
Jeffries’ crisis stems from his resistance to marrying long-time girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly). He’s reluctant to give up his career as a globetrotting photojournalist. Indeed, many of the scenarios in the apartments around Jeffries' enact different forms of relationships between men and women, including the pains of loneliness in those people lacking a relationship. Jeffries’ mental state is being played out before his voyeuristic eyes. One of these relationships includes the bickering Thorwalds.
After getting Lisa to break into Thorwald’s apartment to find evidence that the wife had to have been killed, Lars seeks out Jeffries, who is laid up in the apartment with a broken leg.
Lars enters and approaches Jeffries asking, “What do you want from me?” Thorwald remains a shadowy figure the entire scene, further emphasizing the doubled aspect of the two men.
Thorwald’s question reminds me of Bruno’s final words in Strangers on a Train. Both killers seem to be saying: Why are you bothering me? Don’t you realize who I am? Haven’t I done what you—we—were thinking? How could you think of living without me?
Collingswood resident Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.
Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.