Alfred Hitchcock was called the “Master of Suspense”, and he more than lived up to the title in his 50+ year career. Hitch (as he was called by friends) also brought an array of impressive and complex characters to life in his many films. While he had a well-known penchant for leggy blondes (and mistaken identity…and nice people committing theft…and bird cages for some reason), Sir Alfred Hitchcock has given us compelling men, women, and even child characters over his decades in film. We thought it might be fun to list some of his most intriguing and vibrant onscreen personalities.
For this list, we limited our selections to one character per film. And no, we didn’t get to include characters from every Hitchcock masterpiece—there were just too darn many. Also, you’ll notice that a few of these characters are not the stars of the films, nor are they the most morally upright characters. Sometimes it’s the small or evil roles that give a film real flavor. Expect spoilers for all films discussed.
Here are the 15 Best Characters From Alfred Hitchcock Movies, Ranked.
15. Robert Rusk – Frenzy
When fans make lists of their favorite Hitchcock films, this tale of a London rapist and necktie strangler doesn’t often appear near the top. This film comes at the tail end of Hitch’s long directing career, and was released in 1972…well after rumors of Hitch’s own borderline predilections began swirling. Frenzy didn’t sit well with some audiences, especially given that the killer, Robert Rusk, was neither lovable, handsome, nor sympathetic at all. How can you like anyone who frames a friend for their own heinous crimes?
So why does Rusk make this list?
Some say that Blaney is the more interesting character — the innocent man on the run. But that’s too easy. Next time you watch Frenzy, take a long look at the calm savagery of Robert Rusk. One could argue that he’s a precursor to detached killer Hannibal Lecter. Although we eventually learn why Hannibal is the way he is, Rusk’s origins remain a mystery. Michael Caine was offered the role of Rusk, which he turned down. Caine found Rusk to be “disgusting,” which is almost comical given that less than a decade later, Caine took on a similar role in Brian DePalma’s Dressed to Kill. We say Rusk is a fascinating guy, and we stand by it.
14. Karl Verloc – Sabotage
A film from Hitch’s early years, Sabotage is the 1936 film from where we get his “bomb” theory of suspense. It’s a gripping thriller with a highly satisfying conclusion. One could argue that the best thing about the Hays Code is that it guaranteed viewers righteous and emotionally gratifying endings.
The true heroine of Sabotage is “the wife,” Mrs. Verloc. But her husband is the interesting one. He seems an unassuming movie theater employee (don’t they all?), but in fact, he’s either a terrorist — or a pawn of the real terrorists. To avoid political hubbub, the film doesn’t explicitly state where the terrorists are from or why they hate London so damn much. But that doesn’t ease the tension when we watch the time-bomb being discussed, planned, handed off, and eventually delivered before it kills a sweet young boy who also happens to be Karl’s brother-in-law. If you’re wondering how Karl Verloc manages to live with himself after all that, you needn’t. Like we said, Mrs. Verloc is the hero. She takes care of business.
13. Uncle Charlie – Shadow of a Doubt
There’s something undeniably unsettling about Joseph Cotton. Whether he’s in a masterpiece like Citizen Kane, or thrillers like Gaslight, The Third Man, or Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, he can creep people out at will. This is emphatically the case in the 1943 classic Shadow of a Doubt. Here, Cotton plays Uncle Charlie, an unassuming fella who might be hiding a monstrous secret.
First time viewers might find themselves confused that there’s a male-Charlie, and a girl-Charlie (actually Charlotte) in the film. But that confusion quickly turns to fear and suspicion when it’s slowly revealed that Uncle Charlie hates getting his picture taken almost as much as he hates fat, wheezing widows. Uncle Charlie loves to chat about planning the perfect murder with Hume Cronyn, and clips out articles about local murders as if he’s keeping a scrapbook. Is the jovial Uncle Charlie really a killer? We won’t say, but we think modern audiences will still get a kick out of the ending of Shadow of a Doubt.
12. Abbot – The Man Who Knew Too Much
The 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much is not really based on the book of the same name, though it is a book of detective stories. Hitch did a more popular remake of this same movie 22 years after this one was released. Both films did reasonably well, box-office wise, but we have to say that the earlier version has a far more compelling bad guy. Abbot, played by the great Peter Lorre, is an amazingly scary character.
What’s the best way to keep someone quiet aside from killing them? Threatening their child, of course. That’s what Abbot does when the Lawrences accidentally witness a murder and are determined to report it. Abbot isn’t just creepy because he’s Peter Lorre. Abbot is a fan of Shakespeare for his more visceral poetry. He loves toying with the emotions of his victims even when he has no personal animosity against them. To many viewers, this cat-and-mouse mindset makes him even more terrifying.
11. Margaret Edgar – Marnie
The 1964 thriller Marnie is a groundbreaking film. Sure, it features one of Hitch’s standard tropes—a bombshell blonde with a decidedly immoral streak. But it’s one of the earliest films to explore the idea that things that happen to people in childhood can impact them far later in life. It’s also the first depiction of marital rape, though many have argued that it’s not a particularly accurate portrayal. The scene was a shocking one for its day, to say the least.
Played by Hitchcock staple Tippi Hedren, Marnie is a woman who seems to live from one desperate act to the next. She steals money from multiple employers, helps her mother even thought she clearly treats her badly, and seems more attached to her horse than anyone else in her life. Marnie is a gripping and challenging film, largely due to Hedren’s exceptional portrayal of the title character. And if you always wanted to be married to Sean Connery, this might be the film that changes your mind.
10. Manny Balestrero – The Wrong Man
In order to fully appreciate The Wrong Man, it’s important to remember that in 1956, it was believed that the legal system was completely fair and trustworthy. The idea that someone might be charged, even convicted, of a crime they didn’t commit was ghastly, and almost unheard of. Yet this film is based on a true story. In some modern communities, the incarceration of innocent people is as commonplace as a thunderstorm. Other aspects of the film — such as an insurmountable money crunch over what should be a routine and affordable medical procedure — still (sadly) hold up well.
Manny (Henry Fonda) is believed to be a robber thanks to his being a poor guy with bad spelling. What unfolds is a nightmare (but not really, thanks once again to the Hays Code) of a persecution/prosecution of an impoverished man with basically no one to help him. Even Rose (Vera Miles), his wife, devolves into a nearly catatonic depression over what her husband is put through. Fonda’s performance is bone-rattling, for sure. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why he was so adamant as a juror in 12 Angry Men.
9. Judy / Madeleine – Vertigo
Kim Novak is a world class performer, so it shouldn’t be surprising that her turn as Scottie’s mysterious love interest in Vertigo continues to be iconic. But this 1958 thriller was met with mixed reactions from audiences and critics when it was released. It has since become one of Hitchcock’s most memorable films, and is considered to be a pioneer in both visual style and its use of numerous new camera techniques.
Madeleine is the love interest of Scottie, a retired detective whose vertigo and acrophobia caused the death of another detective on a case. She appears to die via suicide early on in the film. So when she returns as Judy, Scottie is as confused and off-balance as we are. Despite her elaborate deceptions, the viewer begins to feel empathy for Judy/Madeleine, if only because Scottie does. Novak’s spectacular and truthful performance is by far the best reason to watch Vertigo, though the camera work and final scene are close runner-ups.
8. Phillip VanDamm – North By Northwest
Another Hitchcock film known for an amazing female character and some truly iconic imagery, North by Northwest made AFI’s top 20 in their list of the greatest films of all time. Rightly so. In this amazing 1959 film, Thornhill is the protagonist, and Eve is the chick who keeps everyone honest. This is a film about a case of mistaken identity (a common Hitchcockian theme) that leads to international intrigue and, of course, a few deaths. Let’s not forget the amazing moment when Cary Grant is almost killed by a crop duster plane.
But Phillip Vandamm (the great James Mason) is the compelling villain that runs everything from behind the scenes. He’s the boss Carl Grissom, the Vito Corleone, the Keyser Soze. A subtly sensational performance by Mason makes Vandamm an indelible character. Despite Vandamm’s ruthless nature and meticulous planning and skill, he is undone by the last thing he ever suspected: a woman. Somehow, that makes him seem that much more complicated and interesting.
7. Cathy Brenner – The Birds
Like most Hitchcock films, 1963’s The Birds has a cast chock full of fascinating characters. Mitch, Melanie, the crazy ornithologist lady, the schoolteacher, the sour and overprotective mother, and the chubby old guy walking his dogs (ha!) are all fun to watch. But young Cathy Brenner (SciFi staple Veronica Cartwright) has always been a fan favorite. Why? Let’s take a look.
Cathy is much younger than her brother Mitch, leading her toward a worldliness not expected of someone of her age in rural California. She’s funny and even a little sarcastic. When kids around her are attacked by birds at a party, she’s frightened, sure, she keeps it together. When her school is attacked, Cathy runs back to help her fallen friend. Even after it’s clear that the birds are bad news, Cathy still wants to keep her pet love birds with her. That’s an impressive amount of loyalty from someone we’d normally expect to be cowering in a corner while awaiting rescue.
6. 2nd Mrs. DeWinter – Rebecca
Joan Fontaine was not yet a household name when Rebecca was released in 1940. This first turn in a Hitchcock movie brought her international notice and, along with Suspicion, helped her land a star-making role in Jane Eyre a few years later. While a fantastic film, Rebecca embodies some pretty terrible ideas about what it is to be a wife, or to be loyal.
The 2nd Mrs. DeWinter is a shy young woman utterly lacking in confidence — which is exactly the sort of person Maxim (Laurence Olivier) was looking for. The second Mrs. D spends much of the film worried that she’ll never be as awesome as Rebecca, and she spends the rest of her time helping her terrible husband cover up the murder of his even more terrible first wife. The fact that we’re pulling for Ms. Fontaine’s character despite her actions being objectively immoral is a huge part of what makes this movie so compelling. The rest is expert direction and a slew of fantastic performances.
5. Bruno Antony – Strangers on a Train
Fans of The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode featuring Criss-Cross will already know the broad strokes of Strangers on a Train. This 1951 film revolves around one man’s plot to swap murderous assignments with a fellow train passenger in order to create a perfect alibi for each of them. Bruno (Robert Walker — sort of a poor man’s Robert Mitchum of his day) is the big bad, desperate to get rid of his hated father, he offers to kill a stranger’s wife in exchange. But the stranger, Guy (Farley Granger), never actually agrees to the murders.
Bruno is a conniving and savage character who is chillingly comfortable with murdering the pregnant Miriam and, later, framing Guy for the crime. The scene where Bruno is demonstrating how to choke the life out of a wealthy dowager is the stuff of nightmares. By the end of Strangers on a Train, you certainly won’t want a man like Bruno anywhere near your neighborhood. So it’s lucky that the Hays Code was still being enforced at this time, and Bruno gets essentially what’s coming to him.
The film itself is simply a masterpiece, so the upcoming remake from Ben Affleck and David Fincher have a tall task ahead of them to say the least.
4. Gus Smith – Lifeboat
Truthfully, there isn’t a single character in 1944’s Lifeboat that couldn’t carry their own film. They’re all just that interesting and well-developed, even the grieving mother who doesn’t speak. For our money though, the most memorable character is the loveable Gus (William Bendix). He’s a regular sailor who can’t wait to get home so he can take his gal out dancing. Gus is a heck of a dancer. He’s also the most optimistic character in a lifeboat filled with complainers, even though they’re all lucky just to be alive after having narrowly escaped the sinking of their ship by a German submarine.
As Lifeboat develops, we learn that there’s an enemy among our crew of survivors. He’s hoarding water, has a compass, and chooses not to reveal that he speaks English. We also learn that Gus’s injured leg is not getting any better, and we’re forced to watch him endure an amputation with only a little booze to kill the pain. Gus is kind, funny, sweet, and easily the most likable guy on the lifeboat. So when the evil guy convinces him that life is not worth living as a “cripple,” Gus ends up going over the side to his death. A little bit of us goes with him. RIP, Gus.
3. Brandon Shaw – Rope
For serious cineastes, Rope is best known for being filmed as one long cut. Of course, there are a handful of cuts, but not nearly so many as in most other films. Rope does appear to be one long take, but it’s really the characters that make this film the sensation that it is. Based loosely on the Crime of the Century — the Leopold and Loeb murder of a neighborhood boy — Rope features two college friends who murder a classmate just to see if they could get away with it. Spoiler alert: They don’t.
Brandon (he’s the one on the right) is the dominant member of the pair, with the shy and easily rattled Phillip playing second fiddle. Shaw is a fascinating young man who delights in manipulating those in his circle and making them uncomfortable for sport. His firm belief that “superior people” can and should go around doing whatever they want is maddening, but impossible not to watch. He fancies himself to be so damn clever and cool, it’s highly satisfying when Jimmy Stewart finally takes him to task.
2. L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries – Rear Window
Another Hitchcock movie that The Simpsons spoofed beautifully, Rear Window tells the tale of photographer LB Jeffries(Jimmy Stewart), called Jeff by his friends. Jeff is an energetic guy, slowly losing his mind with boredom after breaking his leg and being confined to his upstairs apartment all summer long. When Jeff suspects that one of his annoying neighbors (there are several) may have killed his wife, his friends try to talk him out of it. After a curious dog turns up dead, some investigation into the matter proves that Jeff was right all along. Rear Window is a tense film with some really cool camera work and more humor than you might expect. Like The Birds, Hitchcock uses laughs and casual camaraderie between characters in order to relax the viewer before the tension begins. It’s highly effective.
Jimmy Stewart, legendary everyman of his day, plays Jeff to perfection as a guy who knows what’s up, but isn’t being heard by anyone around him. It’s probably trite and repetitive to call Stewart a national treasure, but come on. There’s no denying it.
1. Norman Bates – Psycho
If the line “a boy’s best friend is his mother” gives you the heebie-jeebies, we can safely assume that you’re a fan of the 1960 film Psycho. Considered by many to be Hitchcock’s magnum opus, it tells the story of oedipal murderer Norman Bates and his short-lived career as an unassuming California hotelier. To say that Norman Bates has a dysfunctional relationship with his mother doesn’t begin to cover it.
Norman is our pick for the most memorable and compelling Hitchcock character for several reasons. First, Norman is synonymous with Hitchcock. Second, the ending of Psycho is still so shocking and horrifying that the reveal remains effective even when you know the secret. Third, Norman would be a wonderful person to know in real life…if he wasn’t a multiple murderer. And finally, there’s no other killer in movie history that fans so empathize with. Even when he’s getting rid of Marion Crane’s car in the swamp, there’s a moment when we’re terrified that he’ll be caught — and we realize we’re pulling for him. And you know, 1960 Anthony Perkins was absurdly handsome, so that certainly doesn’t hurt.
Did we leave out your favorite character from an Alfred Hitchcock film? Tell us all about it in the comments.
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