7.10.2017

Her father's daughter: On Patricia Hitchcock in "Strangers on a Train" (1951)

Patricia Hitchcock as Barbara.

Alfred Hitchcock’s casting of his daughter Patricia in three of his films is as clever and strange a stroke of perversity as any other in his career.  “Pat” appears briefly but memorably in Psycho (1960) as Janet Leigh’s obnoxious co-worker Caroline; in Strangers on a Train (1951) she has a sizable role as Ruth Roman’s wonky kid sister Barbara.  (It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen Stage Fright that I can no longer remember what part she plays in that film other than to recall that it amounts to little more than a walk-on.) 

Before she was to become the steward of her late father’s work she was used as yet another one of his many on-screen jokes, another version of his own cameo appearances.  In Strangers on a Train—a film filled with doubles—she figures as a double for its two most “negative” characters, Bruno and Miriam, as well as for Hitchcock himself.  Like the flamboyant, villainous Bruno (Robert Walker), she takes in interest in crime that’s almost gleeful.  While everyone else is busy wringing their hands over Miriam’s murder, for example, she’s practically panting with excitement.  Her casual attitude toward murder raises almost as many eyebrows as Bruno’s does; when she dismisses the late Miriam as a “tramp,” her senator father admonishes her with the reminder that Miriam was “a human being.”  But then Barbara is, if not exactly a tramp, a bit boy-crazy herself. She nurses a crush on the detective who’s trailing Guy, makes eyes at him in the same way that Miriam (whom she resembles) makes eyes at Bruno at the fairground right before he murders her, and even sizes up Bruno the same way the first time she meets him.  Flickers of the whore and the killer are there in this otherwise mild-mannered, bespectacled dweebette (she’s like a grown-up version of the kid sister from Shadow of a Doubt, another one of Hitchcock’s know-it-all bookworms). 




"Who's the interesting-looking Frenchman?": Barbara sizes up Bruno (top) and flirts with Detective Hennessey (bottom).

But then, Hitchcock’s films ask, aren’t the seeds of the whore and the killer there in all of us?  As audience members, we share Barbara’s interest in sex and violence; we come to Hitchcock’s films to look at beautiful people and to thrill to their imperilment.  As a rabid consumer of detective stories, someone who can appreciate a good thrill and who sees her own reality through the lens of narrative, Barbara is both Hitchcock’s ideal viewer and a figure for himself.  In that sense, this seemingly unflattering character is perhaps the one Hitchcock himself approves of and identifies with most.  While Barbara’s on-screen father is busy wagging his finger at her morbid sense of humor, you can almost feel Pat Hitchcock’s real-life father beaming from just off-screen, saying “That’s my girl!”       

Leo G. Carroll, Ruth Roman, and Patricia Hitchcock (reading a mystery novel).

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