ARTICLE | His shadow, her doubt: The feminine versus the queer in Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock’s films foreground a conflict that I call “the feminine versus the queer.” The heterosexual heroine, fighting for love and often for her own survival, finds a surprising rival in a queer character, who simultaneously understands and thwarts her.

Hitchcock’s American career commences with Rebecca (1940), which features a near-explicit lesbian character, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), the head housekeeper of Manderley, the stately home of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). Danvers torments the fragile, awkward heroine, the second Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) in several sadomasochistic scenes. Scholars such as Patricia White, Rhonda Bernstein, and Tania Modleski have eloquently explored their sexual significance.

Mrs. Danvers remains closely allied to the first Mrs. de Winter, the now-dead Rebecca, who perished in a suspect seafaring accident yet still wields considerable power over the sprawling English mansion. The second Mrs. de Winter wanders about the vast patriarchal home, dwarfed by looming door-frames and adrift in enormous rooms. Every room seems to contain physical remnants of her predecessor, such as the stationary and pillowcases emblazoned with the bold majuscule “R.” The dead woman carves her initial on the heroine’s psyche, imprints her artistic signature on Hitchcock’s authorship.

Lesbian threat is an important dimension of Hitchcock’s work—see especially Stage Fright (1950), The Birds (1963), and Marnie (1964). The feminine/queer conflict will most often occur, however, between the woman and a queer male. Films such as Shadow of Doubt (1943),  Spellbound (1943),  Notorious (1946), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960) exemplify this intimate crisis.


Shadow of a Doubt depicts the feminine versus the queer as a fatal struggle between the heroine and her sexually ambiguous uncle. This suspense film, as so many of Hitchcock’s most significant do, intersects with the woman’s film genre that had its heyday from the 1930s to the 1950s. In woman’s film fashion, anxieties over the singular heroine’s romantic future loom. While the film does, if rather wanly, offer the possibility of a romance for her with Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), one of the detectives on her uncle’s trail, the focus is much more intently placed on Charlie’s maturation. It’s a dark coming of age; her exposure to Charles’ evil and the discovery of her own potential for retributive wrath change her indelibly.

Charlie, luminously played by Teresa Wright, longs for excitement, the precondition for the arrival of chaos in the Hitchcock film (The Lady VanishesRear WindowPsychoThe Birds). Charlie abhors the conformity of her small-town life. For this reason, she is overjoyed to hear that her dapper, well-traveled Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten, in his finest performance), is coming to visit. Little does Charlie or her family suspect that Charles is a serial killer known as “The Merry Widow Killer,” given his murders of rich widows.

A brief montage introduces somnolent Santa Rosa, California, where the restless Charlie lives with her much-loved but frustrating family. We are shown a series of attractive sun-dappled house fronts. But their thin veneer of normalcy has an ominous air, given the unmasked Charles’s confrontational line to Charlie: “Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses, you’d find swine?” …Continue reading here.