Psychotic Doppelgangers: The Reflection in the Double’s Mirror

Paper by Renee Handley.

Hitchcock preferred the use of suspense over surprise in his films. He has been referred to as the “Master of Suspense.” In surprise, the director bombards the audience (the viewer) with frightful things or ideas. In suspense, the director shares things with the audience which the characters in the movie do not know about, and then builds tension around what will happen when the characters finally learn the truth. Hitchcock once said, “I am a typed director… If I made Cinderella, the audience would immediately be looking for a body in the coach” (Humphries). Many Hitchcock movies depict characters as doubles of one another with a twisted view of the transference of guilt from one to the other, characters with devious personalities, comparable to the concept of good vs. evil. I will be focusing my paper on these three films: “Rebecca” (1940), “Vertigo” (1958), and “Strangers on a Train” (1951) as well as touching on other Hitchcock movies. The three films that I will be focusing on are connected thematically where ordinary people get caught up in extraordinary, inexplicable circumstances and their stories are told visually through the effects of the camera.

I believe this is relevant because (according to Andrew Sarris) it is the director who is the sole author of his work, the auteur. It is the responsibility of every director to raise the status of cinema from just entertaining its audience to being a high art form (by personalizing their films). For instance, although “Vertigo” was a commercial failure, it has become viewed by many film critics as one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces. The movie starts with Scottie clinging from the ledge of a tall building after landing there while chasing a villain. Scottie witnesses a fellow officer fall to his death while trying to save him. The movie begins with the director’s camera taking point of view shots from the perspective of Scottie clinging to the ledge of a tall building. The film tells its story visually through the camera’s lens. A “vertigo” effect is made by pointing the camera toward ground level and zooming the camera image in and out. This introduces the audience to the “vertigo” effect that Scottie faces due to his fear of heights.

Much of the suspense is created by focusing the camera on Scottie’s facial expressions which show his reaction to what he is seeing or thinking. In this psychological thriller Scottie attempts to transform Judy into Madeleine, his deceased love. First, he buys Judy the same style gray suit and black evening gown that Madeleine wore, then changes the color of her hair. The audience is witness to a woman becoming a mannequin to a man’s obsession (Hoerneman). This is indicative of Hitchcock’s being a masterful manipulator and leaving his audiences engaged, yet powerless to the suspense/tension he creates and to the acts his characters undertake.

Danger enters the lives of innocent people:

Hitchcock generally portrays innocent people caught up in circumstances beyond their control or understanding. Danger enters the lives of innocent people living very normal, ordinary lives. For example in “Vertigo,” a retired policeman, Scottie, is hired by an old college acquaintance, Gavin, to tail his wife to prove her mental instability. Later, the audience discovers that Gavin has manipulated everyone into believing that Madeleine took her own life, using Scottie as one of his pawns. In “Rebecca,” an innocent young woman marries a mysterious rich widow, Maxim, shortly after meeting him while working as a travelling companion in Monte Carlo. She soon discovers that his first wife died from an apparent suicide and she believes she must live up to the accomplished image of her predecessor as the new mistress of Mandalay. And, in “Strangers on a Train,” two strangers in a seemingly innocent encounter, meet on a train. A young tennis player, Guy, engages in a conversation with a charming psychopath, Bruno, who then discusses the perfect murders – the killing of Guy’s wife in exchange for murdering Bruno’s father. After Bruno commits the murder of Guy’s wife Miriam, he tries to force Guy to complete the bargain. Much of the suspense is created by focusing the camera on Bruno’s facial expressions which show his reaction to what he is thinking.

Transference of Guilt:

This often involves a “transference of guilt” where an “innocent” weak character yields to a stronger evil character by sharing his guilt and this weakness/guilt is magnified (Hoerneman). This can be interpreted as seemingly innocent people can have a secret, hidden dark side. For instance, in “Strangers on a Train” Guy goes along with Bruno’s plan because he really does want to kill his wife. Thus, he transferred his guilt through his weakness to the psychotic Bruno who ultimately kills Guy’s wife Miriam. Hitchcock often uses the “double” in his films as a way to draw parallels between two characters. For example, two characters sharing the same type of desire (murder here), although only one of them is depraved enough to take action. In “Vertigo,” there is a transference of guilt from Gavin to Judy for participating in Madeleine’s murder and deceiving Scottie. Later, Judy goes along with Scottie’s attempts to transform her into Madeleine, his deceased love. And, in “Rebecca,” there is a transference of guilt from Rebecca to Maxim in causing him to believe he murdered her without cause. Maxim feels weak to his guilt which consumes him and he does not feel he can love anyone. That is until he shares his secret with his second wife who then coaches him to avoid being charged with murdering Rebecca.

Double Relationships / Appearance & Reality:

Hitchcock was fascinated by the concept of “doubles” as shown visually in his films. I found Hitchcock’s use of “the act of looking” very interesting. He found a way to symbolically explore two-sides of the same personality. For example, in “Vertigo,” “Strangers on a Train” and “Rebecca,” he employed the use of mirrors/images/reflections/shadows in establishing a “double” relationship between characters where guilt is transferred from one to another (e.g., the main characters in “Rebecca,” “Vertigo,” and “Strangers on a Train). In “Vertigo,” he uses the portrait of Carlotta to establish a double relationship between Madeleine and Carlotta. Also, Midge paints a similar portrait of herself styled in Carlotta’s pose, representing Gavin’s manipulation of the truth. She destroys the portrait when Scottie rebukes her which can be interpreted as the danger he faces in falling into Gavin’s game of deception. As she destroys the portrait, she turns her head and gazes over and sees herself in the room’s window reflection, one of the movie’s final images of reality.

In “Rebecca,” Rebecca lived in the closed off west wing to Mandalay in the most beautiful room in the mansion. It had multiple mirrors and glass windows surrounding the walls of the room. The psychotic Mrs. Danvers kept the room the same as it was when Rebecca was alive. So, anyone entering the room is reminded of the dead Rebecca and making a comparison with her and Maxim’s new wife. The double faceted characters, as Rebecca is, appear to be what they are not in reality. In “Strangers on a Train,” the image of Bruno killing Miriam is reflected in her broken glasses. Later, Bruno is reminded of his killing Miriam when he sees Barbara, the younger sister of Anne, wearing similar glasses. This while he is demonstrating how he would kill someone by chocking them to death. The doubling of the characters, Guy and Bruno, can be interpreted as two-sides of a single personality. Specifically, the hero (Guy), is seen as the conscious control and the evil villain (Bruno) is the demonic conscious (Giannetti 298). Bruno, in “Strangers on a Train” appears to be charming and polite and able to fit-in easily with high society, but in reality he is a psychopath villain. Other double comparisons in “Strangers on a Train” is the relationship between Miriam and Anne. They both want to have a male-female relationship with Guy, but are different in their personalities where Anne is the “good double” and Miriam the “evil double.” In addition, the comparison between Miriam and Barbara who resemble one another in appearance and somewhat in personality, but Barbara is the obedient “good double.”

In “Rebecca” and “Strangers on a Train, the “good double” reveals a strong inner conflict between the fear of involvement and the fear of non-involvement, doing the wrong thing, going to prison and ultimately death. The “good double” learns about his/her dark side and his/her potential for evil that is brought about by the “evil double,” or otherwise referred to here as the “Psychotic Doppelganger.”

Order and Chaos:

Film critic Thomas Hemmeter pointed out “Hitchcock views the world as a volatile duality of order and chaos, where the forces of order are but a frail hedge against arbitrary eruptions of disorder from nature, society, or from within the mind…” where the criminal, the psychotic and the demonic intrude with brutal violence into the lives of normal law abiding people (Giannetti 294). Hitchcock’s characters are either destroyed or are transformed to view the world and themselves as a duality of good/bad or innocent/guilty as the characters move through their world to determine what is an illusion and what is real. In other words, he blurs the lines between reality (the familiar) and the strange. Hitchcock tends to blur moral distinctions between his doubled characters where “all villains are not black and all heroes are not white… there are grays everywhere” (Granetti 304). For example, the villain, Bruno, in “Strangers on a Train” is charming and polite and able to fit-in easily with high society.


Hitchcock movies have setting motifs that run repetitively through the film. The most memorable motif in “Rebecca” is the glass walls in Rebecca’s oceanfront bedroom which shows a long drop into the ocean. The transparent walls also allowed the surviving characters to see Mrs. Danver’s die in the burning bedroom along with Rebecca’s personal belongings. Another motif is the long stairwell in which the heroine walks down in her long gown. Other motifs in this film include the letter “R” inscribed on all of Rebecca’s belongings, one of which burns at the close of the movie. These motifs demonstrated how important a role Rebecca (“R”) had at Mandalay as the mistress of the house. It is as if she were still living in Mandalay a year after her death.

In “Vertigo,” the most memorable motif are the various tokens of Carlotta’s life, including her portrait hanging in a museum, her former home, her gravesite, her jewelry, her hairstyle, etc. In addition, the “vertigo” or dizzying effect made by pointing the camera toward ground level and zooming the camera image in and out, such as the height from a steep spiral staircase, hanging from the ledge of a tall building, the view looking down from the top of the bell tower, etc. And, in “Strangers on a Train,” Guy’s cigarette lighter, travel by train, and the scene of Miriam’s death at an amusement park. These motifs are suspense builders.

Distrust of the Law:

Hitchcock films display a distrust of the law – e.g., where the police pursue the falsely accused hero who in turn is chasing the true villain. In “Vertigo,” the police believe Scottie could not react in time due to his vertigo condition to save Madeleine from jumping to her death which causes him to lose his mind. When he is released from the hospital, Scottie uncovers the truth about Madeleine’s murder by her husband Gavin before being pushed off the top of the bell tower. In “Rebecca,” the first Mrs. De Winter sets up her husband Maxim for her own death. The audience later learns that she was dying from cancer and was provoking Maxim to put her out of her pain, while setting him up for murder. And, in “Strangers on a Train,” Guy being set up for his wife’s murder by the psychotic Bruno. The police are tailing Guy and Guy is chasing Bruno.

Strengthening of male-female relationships:

Hitchcock’s films general conclude with the strengthening of male-female relationship and the switching of power or control between the characters. In “Vertigo,” Scottie is empowered once he uncovers the truth about Gavin’s manipulation of Madeleine’s death and the role Judy played in it. Once Scottie uncovers the truth, he takes Judy back to the scene of Madeleine’s murder and Judy ultimately falls to her own death. This can be interpreted as his way of punishing Judy for her bad behavior. In terms of strengthening his relationship with Madeleine/Judy, Scottie gets the girl, loses the girl, re-gains the girl, and then loses her again. In “Rebecca,” the second Mrs. De Winter gains confidence once she uncovers the truth about her predecessor and coaches her husband Maxim to avoid being charged with the murder of Rebecca. This ultimately destroys out of control Mrs. Danvers power over Maxim and Mandalay. And, in “Strangers on a Train,” Guy gains confidence with Anne’s help and is able to stop Bruno from setting him up for Miriam’s murder. Bruno is killed in the mayhem of the police chasing Guy while Guy is chasing Bruno.

One difference that “Vertigo” has from the other Hitchcock films is that the main characters do not end up together in a relationship at the conclusion of the film. Judy falls to her death in the same manner as Madeleine appeared to have done earlier in taking her own life. In “Jamaica Inn” (1939), “Rebecca” (1940), “Strangers on a Train” (1951) and “Rear Window” (1954) the films conclude with the main characters in a male-female relationship. The Hitchcock male-female couples are really triangles, with a missing third person. For example, In “Rebecca,” the triangle is Rebecca (the first Mrs. De Winter), the second Mrs. De Winter and Maxim. In “Vertigo,” the triangle is Judy, Madeleine and Scottie. And, in “Strangers on a Train,” the triangle is Anne, Miriam and Guy.

Hitchcock’s psychological thriller “Rear Window” utilizes Hitchcock’s “act of looking” with the main character Jeffries watching his neighbors through their apartment windows and sizing them up from afar – where each window symbolizes a fragment of his divided and unresolved fears, all focused around love, career and marriage. Here, the apartment tenant Jeffries’ double is actually himself, the voyeur Jeffries (i.e., two-sides of the same personality). “Vertigo” is also a psychological thriller from the point of view of the main character who cannot overcome his fear of heights (“vertigo”). He becomes obsessed with and falls in love with the woman he is hired to watch and losses his mind when he cannot save her from jumping to her death. Gavin, an old college acquaintance of Scottie’s and Madeleine’s husband, had been manipulating Scottie through Judy into believing Madeleine took her own life. In closing, Hitchcock’s films tend to have similar recurring themes and plot devices, along with dramatic geographical landmark settings that occur repeatedly in his movies.

Works Cited:

Hoerneman, Christie. “Masters of Suspense: Alfred Hitchcock a Maurier.” LibraryPoint. 2014. Web. 10 July 2015.

Giannetti, Louis. “Masters of the American Cinema.” New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.,1981. Print.

Humphries, Patrick. “The Films of Alfred Hitchcock.” Conneticut: Brompton Books Corporation. 1994. Print.

Schmenner, Will. “Casting a Shadow: Creating the Alfred Hitchcock Film.” Illinois: Northwestern University Press. 2008. Print.

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