5 Hitchcock Murderers and Their Real-Life Inspirations

One of Alfred Hitchcock‘s favorite topics is also one of mine – murder. You probably know murder is a subject the director visited time and time again throughout his storied career and I’ve devoured each entry with zest. As an October treat I visited with five Hitchcock murderers, people who have committed heinous crimes for the sake of entertainment, and compared them to their real-life inspirations. As enjoyable as the movies are the overall journey has been perilous, not one for the fainthearted. And now you’ve been warned. I’ve no doubt you’ll enjoy Hitchcock’s murder most foul, but proceed with caution.

Sir Hitchcock floating down the Thames River in a publicity still for FRENZY

BEWARE: There will be spoilers ahead.

The Avenger and Jack the Ripper

Considered Alfred Hitchcock’s first important film, it’s only natural that I’d begin with The Lodger (1927). This is Hitchcock’s third movie, an astounding visual achievement for such a young director, which would also prove important thematically since it involves murder. Now, while there’s a lot to be said about the style of The Lodger – and every other movie included here – I’ll leave those details for another day. Today I concentrate only on the murders. The Lodger is of particular interest in that regard as well since this is Hitchcock’s first look at the psychopath who murders repeatedly following a predictable pattern commonly known as the serial killer.

As The Lodger opens we see a young, blonde woman screaming in close-up. We learn soon enough that she is the seventh victim of a serial killer known as “The Avenger” who targets the same type of young woman in a search to quench his murderous appetites. The murderer in this case was based on the infamous Jack the Ripper.

During one of his interviews Hitchcock recalled that the ending of The Lodger was originally supposed to be ambiguous as to the innocence of the lodger who is a suspect in the murders. However, the studio demanded a resolution to the story and the guilty man is caught. As you know that was not the fate of Jack the Ripper who terrorized the Whitechapel section of London in 1888. The Ripper is suspected to have butchered at least five prostitutes in ways that indicated he was familiar with human anatomy. Although suspects have ranged from members of the royal family to constables, the true identity of Jack the Ripper is not known. The Ripper remains, however, one of the world’s most infamous killers with people (like me) still fascinated by who he could have been. The case is such, in fact, that I’ve been presented the opportunity to visit London for only one day in my life and I spent a large part of it on the Jack the Ripper tour during which I visited the sites of his murders. I’ll never forget the experience. The tour guide was graphic and although I know as much about the Ripper’s crimes as a lay person can the experience left me queasy. Retracing the steps of such a sick mind is not easily forgotten.

 

Uncle Charlie aka The Merry Widow Murderer and Earle Leonard Nelson aka The Gorilla Man

Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite of his films was Shadow of a Doubt (1943), his own slice of Americana tainted with the menace of murder. Here we have Charles Oakley, a handsome, mysterious man who visits his sister and her family in the quaint town of Santa Rosa, California. Mr. Oakley’s family is thrilled to see him as he’s sure to add some excitement to their otherwise uneventful lives. What they don’t bank on, especially young Charlie, the man’s namesake and niece with whom he shares a deep bond, is that their beloved Uncle Charlie is also The Merry Widow Murderer. News of the crimes is all over the papers and unbeknownst to all is the fact that Mr. Oakley is being watched by the police as the prime suspect. His hobby, you see, is strangling rich widows.

Shadow of a Doubt received one Academy Award nomination, for Best Writing, Original Story for Gordon McDonell, a story that got to Alfred Hitchcock in May 1942 loosely based on the true story of Earle Leonard Nelson, a mass murderer of the 1920s known as “The Gorilla Man.” The story was adapted by Alma Reville, Sally Benson and Thornton Wilder into Shadow of a Doubt (1943), featuring one of Hitchcock’s most memorable villains played by Joseph Cotten. Uncle Charlie as Cotten portrays him is a suave, charming, but menacing man who possesses an impressive intellect and an upper crust demeanor. The real-life murderer Uncle Charlie is based on had none of those qualities.

The press dubbed Earle Leonard Nelson “The Gorilla Man” due to witnesses describing him as “a dark, stocky man, with long arms and large hands.” Few people know of the man who would become one of the most prolific serial killers of the early 20th Century.

Earle Leonard Nelson was born in Philadelphia in 1897. Nelson’s trouble with the law began when he was 18 with a breaking and entering charge. It is believed that a violent collision with a streetcar at the age of 10 caused Nelson to suffer from delusions and act out in violent ways his entire life. He was in and out of mental institutions until 1925 with each stint followed by increasingly violent behavior. Some believe he murdered three women in Newark, New Jersey in late 1925, but his first confirmed murder was in San Francisco in February 1926: a woman in her 60s, found strangled in her home. For the next year and a half Earle Nelson traveled across the U.S. and Canada killing at least 22 people, all but two of them landladies as a result of his searching for “room for rent” signs as his way in.

Nelson’s murders were brutal and personal. He was prone to raping, bludgeoning and strangling his victims, who were mostly widows or spinsters who took in a mild-mannered boarder, impressed by his manners, his smile and the bible he carried. Earle Leonard Nelson was caught and stood trial in Canada for two murders in Winnipeg and was found guilty in November 1927. On January 13, 1928, 30-year-old Earle Nelson was hanged to death at the gallows in Winnipeg. (Crime Index)

 

Mrs. Bates and Ed Gein

Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) works in a real estate office. She’s a young, lovely woman who makes off with $40,000. Escaping with the loot and with plans to meet up with her main squeeze, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), Marion happens into the Bates Motel. It’s a rainy night and, lucky for Marion, 12 out of the 12 cabins are available. Norman Bates is there to greet her with conversation and sandwiches a plenty. Norman is charming, if a little shy, and enjoys telling stories – even if they cross over the weird line where mother is concerned. The young Mr. Bates is also a hard worker. Norman not only manages the Bates Motel and maintains its 12 cabins, but he also runs errands for his incapacitated mother. Norman, one might say, is a momma’s boy. No harm, no foul. Except we soon learn Norman Bates has secrets. Deep, dark secrets. And a killer methodology.

Ed Gein has inspired more memorable popular films than any other serial killer in history yet his name remains largely unrecognizable. Gein was born in 1906 in La Crosse, Wisconsin to a quiet alcoholic father and a strong-willed, loud, fanatically religious mother whom little Ed idolized and to whom he was obsessively devoted.

Similar to Earle Leonard Nelson, Ed Gein grew up listening to constant preachings about the ugliness of sex and sexual desire. Warnings about these terrible sins were part of his daily upbringing. Unfortunately the frequent religious lessons would prove fruitless once Ed’s beloved mother died in 1945. Robbing graves and making clothing and household items out of the skin of cadavers became one of his hobbies. As time passed Ed Gein became increasingly deranged as his interest in human taxidermy was practiced on his own murder victims. Ed was so good at his hobby, so unique in his methods that he’d inspire Norman Bates in Psychoone of Hitchcock’s most admired movies, but also Jame Gumb in Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs and Leatherface in Tobe Hooper’s cult classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – plus a myriad of other films and TV shows that used his practices as part of their stories.

Ed Gein was arrested for the murder of two women in 1957 and pleaded not guilty by reason by insanity. Although he was initially found unfit to stand trial, he was ultimately found guilty of murder. Gein was confined in various criminal psychiatric institutions for the rest of his life, which ended on July 26, 1984 due to heart failure. He was 77 years old. (Biography)

 

Robert Rusk and Jack the Stripper

Based on the book, “Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square” by Arthur La Bern, Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) is about a serial killer whose modus operandi is raping women before he strangles them with a neck tie. The story, adapted for the screen by Anthony Shaffer, was inspired by the real-life unsolved crimes of a serial killer that terrorized London in the 1960s. That killer was referred to as “Jack the Stripper” for the similarities to the infamous Ripper mentioned above. The Jack the Stripper murders also came to be known as the “Hammersmith Nude Murders.” Like the Ripper murders, the Hammersmith murders have never been solved although six victims have been attributed to the one individual with a possible few others the result of his handiwork.

Also like the Ripper case the Stripper has never been found despite the many theories and suspects that have been put forward through the years. To my knowledge the latest one is by author Michael Litchfield who claims in his book, The Secret Life of Freddie Mills, that the boxer admitted to having committed the Stripper murders. Mills was found dead of a gunshot wound in 1965, six months after the discovery of the last Stripper victim. Despite the horrific multiple murders, which occurred a century after those of Jack the Ripper, the Stripper has never reached the same level of notoriety although a greater number of gruesome murders are attributed to him.

On June 17, 1959 the naked body of 21-year-old Elizabeth Figg was discovered in a secluded area near the Thames River. It was discovered that Figg had been a prostitute and her body was discovered unclothed. The police believed that she’d been strangled by a man she’d picked up, but with no leads or suspects the Elizabeth Figg case soon went cold. Four years later the body of another prostitute, Gwynneth Rees, was found in the same condition in a garbage dump near the Thames. Months later a third victim who was in the same profession was found – and on and on another five times.

Alfred Hitchcock pulls no punches in his depiction of murder in Frenzy with several scenes pushing the grotesque to the limits. He repeats many of his familiar trademark shots and elements, but as he deals freely with the subject matter this is the first Hitchcock movie to receive an “R” rating and also the first he made after the dismantling of The Production Code. You can read my complete Frenzy commentary here, but suffice it to say Hitchcock does the methodology and gruesomeness of serial murder proud with this movie.

As far as what Frenzy has in common with the Jack the Stripper story…well, enough so that one can recognize the elements. The River Thames, for instance, plays a part as does the stripping part of the killer’s MO. One can also not discount Hitchcock’s returning to London to make Frenzy after many years of making movies in the U.S., which serves to further tie the movie’s killer, Robert Rusk (Barry Foster) to his real-life counterpart. In Rusk Hitchcock also manages to portray what one would think is the loss of control and intimacy of such ugly crimes.

 

Brandon and Philip and Leopold and Loeb

Richard Loeb (17) had a history of destructive behavior when he renewed his friendship with Nathan Leopold (18) in 1923. The two had grown up in the same neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago. Both young men had brilliant minds and were from wealthy families, but their similarities ended there. Loeb was sociable and handsome while Leopold tended toward solitude. Perhaps it was the old opposites attract thing that brought the two together and led to their being intimate companions, but we know in retrospect that the attraction was such that Leopold indulged Loeb in all misdeeds. When Loeb started talking about committing the perfect crime Leopold was all in as all devoted friends and lovers would be.

Richard Loeb got a kick out of committing crimes while Nathan Leopold had a habit of bragging about his accomplishments – real or not – to the point of believing himself a rare superman, along the lines with Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy. As a result of those ideas Leopold felt that laws and moral codes didn’t apply to him or Loeb. If it gave him pleasure Nathan Leopold believed, he had a right to do it. Even murder. It wasn’t a shock to him then when Loeb came up with his plan for the perfect crime, the kidnap and murder of a child. The two spent hour upon hour discussing the crime and planning its execution, which included demanding ransom from the child’s wealthy parents. Leopold and Loeb were driven by the thrill of the criminal acts they performed, not necessarily by murder. That just happened to be part of what they perceived as a necessary part of getting away with the perfect crime. (Smithsonian)

On the afternoon of May 21, 1924 Leopold and Loeb patrolled the neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago searching for a victim when they spotted Bobby Franks, an acquaintance of both. They lured Franks into their rented car where they brutally murdered the boy with a chisel. From there the two stuffed Bobby’s body in a drainage tube at a marshland taking extra steps to ensure identification was difficult. Leopold and Loeb contacted the Franks family and set up a plan for the $10,000 ransom to be dropped off, but before that came to fruition Bobby Franks’ body was discovered by the police. The perfect thrill crime was spoiled. Leopold’s eyeglasses were found at the dump site and linked to him and the two confessed to the murder before long maintaining an eery superior disposition before and during their sensational trial. The fact that the thrill of it was the only motive for the horrific crime was not denied. It was only Clarence Darrow’s brilliant defense that saved Leopold and Loeb from being sentenced to death although Richard Loeb’s life ended in prison during a fight. Nathan Leopold was released in 1958 after thirty-four years of confinement. He admitted an undying love for Richard Loeb for the rest of his life.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) was the first of four films (to my knowledge) based on the Leopold and Loeb case. The other three are Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion (1959), Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992) and Barbet Schroeder’s Murder by Numbers (2002). Hitchcock was less than thrilled with Rope as were audiences at the time of its release. The director viewed his efforts on his first Technicolor movie as an “experiment that didn’t work out.” He kept the title, along with several others from his impressive filmography, from release for almost three decades. When Rope was re-released in the 1980s – along with Rear Window (1954), The Trouble with Harry (1956) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955) – it garnered renewed admiration for the experimentation. Hitchcock had had huge successes by 1948 and the fact that a premiere director would venture forth with a bold undertaking such as Rope is no doubt worthy of attention. I happen to love the movie not only because of its unique pacing, which has the feel of a play. I’m not bothered at all by the unique edits, which distract some people. There are only about 10 long shots in Rope with edits occurring when the camera pans close to a dark surface and then out again on the other side. In any case, I enjoy it and love the apartment, which is reminiscent to pre-war apartments I grew up seeing in Northern Manhattan. Also, Rope has a number of terrific suspenseful sequences.

As far as the story goes, we can say that Hitchcock was not particularly concerned with characters in Rope, opting instead to focus on the idea of the perfect murder and its connection to superiority. There are instances where there is stiffness of movement due to the limitations the director placed on himself and the actors, but the overall theme, which connects it to the Leopold and Loeb case is intact. For one, although the word “homosexuality” is not uttered in the movie there’s no doubt murderers Phillip (Farley Granger) and Brandon (John Dall) are a couple. In fact, Rope was banned in many places due to its homosexual subtext.

Of the two murderers in Rope Brandon is the colder, the one who looks at their actions and the prospect of getting away with it as a game. I should probably mention that Alfred Hitchcock pulls no punches in that regard. Following a rather idyllic opening, a shot of a beautiful street scene from way up high during which we are treated to the director’s cameo, the camera pans toward windows of a building (a Hitchcock signature shot) wherein a man is being strangled. It’s quite a shock to suddenly be that up close and personal to the final moments of a man’s life in such violent circumstances. After the man dies the camera pans out and we see Phillip and Brandon readying to place the body in a trunk in their living room. Their unfathomable hubris dictates that they then have a dinner party using the trunk as a buffet table. The most important – and accurate – connection between Rope and the Leopold and Loeb case, in my view, is that the message that the murderers commit the unspeakable crime for the thrill is clear. Although they are the only murderers in this post who are not serial killers, Brandon and Phillip must stand up with the worst of them. They don’t murder a child, but they do kill a close friend and host the friend’s father at dinner minutes later. That’s as cold as it gets.

“A glimpse into the world proves that horror is nothing other than reality.”
― Alfred Hitchcock

11 thoughts

    1. I saw COMPULSION a long time ago, but enjoyed it. I like ROPE for its innovation and fascinating theatrics. Also, the cast is wonderful, in my opinion. THE LODGER is great. The Criterion copy is wonderful, by the way.

  1. Aurora, you have a really good blog site, which I’m enjoying so much. I like to read articles which are well researched and well written. You do both really well. Also, the photographs, that are used, enhance your writing. Keep on doing what you are doing.
    I like Alfred Hitchcock movies and the five you selected to write about were some of his best, concerning “murder most foul.” The real-life horror stories behind the fictional stories are indeed horrible and Hitchcock reveals his and our fascination, attraction, and revulsion to murder. Aurora, thank you for these real-life inspirations, though horrible, behind these Hitchcock masterpieces.
    Yes, Patricia Nolan-Hall, by all means, view THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY(1955) and I hope you did.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Walter. That means a lot.

      I have THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY on hold to watch as soon as I have the time. It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen it. Yes, the real-life murders I mentioned were horrific, but fascinating in a morbid way. It’s something to even consider how the human mind can grow so foul. Hitchcock, of course, made the best of it by making these wonderfully entertaining movies.

      Aurora

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