HITCHCOCK AND QUEER SUBTEXT
written by Olivia York
The medium of film has always been a breeding ground for issues of representation, lacking a voice of justice and inclusion for sexuality, gender, race, and ethnicity (to name a few). Over time, critics, audiences, and filmmakers alike have all taken it upon themselves to work with, against and ultimately through these issues—one of the most prominent issues being representations of individuals within the LGBTQ+ community. Although censorship prevented a broader portrayal of this community in earlier times, filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock still sprinkled queer intimations in their work. Hitchcock’s films have always been a source of great acclimation and controversy among critics and theorists of the medium, and this opposing duality is due to the wide array of receptions and positions these films offer to viewers. Hitchcock’s queer intimations (observed in Rope, Strangers on a Train, and Rebecca, among others) were subtle—revealed through dialogue, form, and mise-en-scéne—yet their impact was vast.
As previously stated, Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) presented some of the more obvious homosexual undertones in comparison to his other works. The film’s main characters, Brandon and Phillip, are introduced to the audience after strangling their old prep school classmate David Kentley. The words and actions that occur after their murderous deed imply a sexual desire of sorts, yet one that is inherently linked to violence through the context and subtext of the narrative. For instance, the moment Brandon and Phillip dispose of David’s corpse, Brandon moves to turn on the light. Yet Phillip stops him, exclaiming, “Don’t. Not just yet… Let’s stay this way, just for a minute.” The heavy breathing, darkened room, and vulnerable words all allude to a sense of intimacy between the two of them, and although these words can be dismissed as purely denotational, their relationship is increasingly unveiled with their proceeding lines and actions. After Phillip’s plea, Brandon promptly fishes for a cigarette and lights it, taking in a slow and long drag. Smoking has always been a sign of intimacy portrayed on screen, especially in lieu of revealing and graphic content; the expulsion of such imagery was enforced by the Hays Code (which was omnipresent during the time of this film’s release). With this textual awareness, audiences start to recognize the depth and history of these characters and their relationship with one another.
While Phillip and Brandon continue to discuss their situation, Brandon asks a troubled Phillip who he would have preferred to murder instead of David (although we can assume this preference could be linked to other desires, like Susan Smith suggests in her “Humor” chapter: “The gay subtext raises the additional possibility that Brandon’s resentment towards David may have been motivated by an unacknowledged or unrequited desire for his murder victim”). With that being said, Phillip’s response to Brandon can be read in a similar light, when he turns to Brandon and says: “You, perhaps. You frighten me. You always have from that very first day in prep school. Part of your charm, I suppose.” Here, again, the undertones of their sexuality are explicitly expressed through and in reference to the violence of the narrative. These suggestive conversations continue to occur throughout the film, like when Phillip asks Brandon “How did you feel during it?” or when Brandon fumbles with a champagne bottle to have a celebratory drink after their “consummation” of sorts. Similarly, the two characters presumably live with each other and share the one bedroom mentioned in the film. Beyond that, Brandon exclaims at one point that “at least if I have a hangover, it will be all mine,” implying that the two of them have shared everything with each other. This relational “sharing” is also reflected in the film’s form: the narrative is mainly shown from Brandon and Phillip’s perspective (an interchangeable point of view typically indicates a link between the two perspectives, in this case, presumably through their relationship). The only time this perspective noticeably changes is when it is equally shared with Rupert Cadell (their headmaster and mentor from prep school who the two boys have always looked up to and dreamed to impress, another viable undertone within the narrative). These gay intimations share an interesting complexity with the narrative, the cultural context of the film’s release, and other works under Hitchcock’s belt that portray similar indications.
Films like Strangers on a Train (1951) and Rebecca (1940) exhibit these comparable qualities. In Strangers on a Train, Bruno illustrates many gay intimations; he has no partner, is invested in quality fabrics (like his silk robe), has familial issues with his parents, always tries to impress his mother, and prioritizes hygiene upkeep (revealed through his manicure scene with his mother). Beyond these moments, it’s important to note the first few scenes as Bruno and Guy get to know each other. There seems to be a flirtation of sorts between the two of them, or at the very least, a noticeable fascination. Bruno repeatedly tries to impress Guy; he insists on buying him lunch, and as a result, brings him to his compartment car on the train. When discussing the murder, Bruno offers to rid himself (and Guy) of his own father and Guy’s wife, two individuals that could be seen as obstacles in keeping them from having a relationship with one another. During this scene, Bruno says to Guy “We do talk the same language, don’t we?” to which Guy replies, “Sure Bruno, we talk the same language.” Coincidentally, Guy forgets his lighter as he leaves the train, which Bruno proceeds to use to light his cigarette as he lays down in his cart in a pleased state of reflection (very similar to the scene and signals we observed with Brandon and Phillip in Rope). There are other hinting moments in the film too, like when Bruno waits in bed for Guy upon expecting his arrival. During their confrontation at a party, Bruno exclaims “But Guy, I like you!” to which Guy responds with anger and force, punching Bruno in the mouth. These characters and complicated intimations are all once again linked to the narrative plot and its violence within.
In Rebecca, the intimations were more subtle (note that the film was released years earlier than its successors, which could have hindered the portrayal of these qualities in light of the severity of censorship and understanding at the time). Yet, they were still alluded to through Mrs. Danvers’ obsession with Rebecca. When bringing The Nameless One into Rebecca’s bedroom, Mrs. Danvers reenacts her past memories in an obsessive daze. Her infatuation with Rebecca is uncanny; she walks through the room, commenting “this is where I keep all her clothes. I keep her underwear on this side. I always used to wait up for her, no matter how late. While she was undressing, she’d tell me about the party she’d been to…When she finished her bath, she’d go into the bedroom… I’d brush her hair twenty times over…” All of these obsessive actions seemingly took place at night while she and Rebecca were alone in the bedroom. When moving toward the bed, Mrs. Danvers removes Rebecca’s nightgown, which in itself was very suggestive and transparent (both literally and metaphorically). Her obsession is frightening, which is heightened by her malicious intent towards The Nameless One.
There are so many ways these inclinations can be read by audiences and critics, and just like any other film or filmmaker, they have been greatly criticized and praised for years on end. Why would Hitchcock incorporate such taboo relationships in his films? Perhaps he felt that it was important to include such representations; many have praised Hitchcock for portraying the absurdity of the patriarchy, especially in light of its treatment toward women. Was this his motive for inclusion of the queer community? After all, many of these aforementioned characters exude sophistication, superiority, and intuition; it takes a specific type of intellect to manipulate people and maintain power over them. But is the sophistication of murder and malice these characters possess supposed to be praised, especially while being portrayed by members of the queer community? I understand that Hitchcock films are contained to genres of thrillers and suspense that require vicious antagonists. Yet, even if they were put in place to showcase the absurdity of preconceived notions toward queer individuals (linking them to harm), their representation on screen becomes more of a demonstration. As a filmmaker, you have great power and responsibility; a wide screening of ideas are always at risk of public acceptance and negligence. Since these gay inclinations are repeatedly shown in Hitchcock’s work, they become more of a pattern, a conscious decision. Of course, the censorship was heavy-handed and issues of representation weren’t as prominent or accepted as they are now, but what was the motive behind these inclusions?
Knowing the answer to this question may never be in our control, but as audiences and critics, we have the power to receive, analyze and react to these works with the knowledge of cultural context, critical awareness, and a newfound understanding of representation and inclusion, ultimately allowing us to better ourselves and the medium in a progression toward accurate and fair representation.
This essay won a $500 runner up, honorable mention for the Michigan State University Laurence Allen Tate Film Writing Award, which is granted to outstanding film writing relating to LGBTQ+ issues.