Psycho Babble: We Talk About Hitchcock

Hitchcock Movie Poster (2012)Good eveeeening.

Alfred Hitchcock fans have been showered by gifts featuring the “Master of Suspense” in recent months.

On Blu-ray there are first-time pristine appearances of 15 classics on The Alfred Hitchcock Collection: The Masterpiece Collection from Universal.

Earlier in the year, North by Northwest, the director’s exciting 1959 spy yarn featuring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and Mt. Rushmore, was screened in theaters around the country.

On HBO, we’ve had the new biopic The Girl, a disturbing look at the obsessive side of the filmmaker (Toby Jones) in regard to his working and personal relationships with Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller), who he directed in The Birds and Marnie. Hitch’s creepy dark side is revealed in disquieting detail.

And now we have the story of Hitch and the making of the 1960 classic Psycho examined in two different media. Published originally in 1990, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, written by Stephen Rebello, is being reissued in both book and ebook form. Hitchcock, the film starring Anthony Hopkins as the director and Helen Mirren as wife Alma Reville, sees the theatrical light of day over the coming weeks.

Like Rebello’s informative, entertaining book, Hitchcock is an enormously enjoyable excursion behind-the-scenes at Hollywood, circa the late ‘50s/early ‘60s.  It details Hitch’s experiences developing Psycho for a movie. In Robert Bloch’s book based on the demented exploits of real-life serial killer Ed Gein—who also inspired 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—Hitch saw a project to shake up both audiences and the studio establishment, whom he believed considered him too complacent and too old. He was coming off the slick hit North by Northwest, but concerned with the disastrous box-office response to his previous film, Vertigo.

As the book and film chronicle, Hitchcock—who had the successful and lucrative anthology Alfred Hitchcock Presents running weekly on TV at the time—was facing his mortality and desired to go radically against expectations. So, this story—about a murderous hotel keeper (Anthony Perkins, as played by James D’Arcy) who dresses like a woman; a criminal leading character (Janet Leigh, as played by Scarlett Johansson) killed early in the film; and a shower stabbing sequence so harrowing it terrified audiences from the get-go, and continues to do so today—was Hitch’s ticket to making a big statement.

Rebello’s book focuses on the behind-the-scene intrigue and shooting of the film. There certainly is no shortage of war stories, and the author does impeccable research here. We learn how Paramount feared backing the film because of its gruesomeness, and how the director had to put his own cash in to finance it, as well as take a deferred directing sum from profits.

There are anecdotes about the hiring of young writer Joseph Stefano for the job, and how Hitch insisted on using his TV show crew to shoot things efficiently and on the cheap. Likewise, there are juicy tales of casting, studio politics and the film’s marketing and eventual impact.

Hitchcock, the feature directed by  Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil) and adapted by John J. McLaughlin (Black Swan), expertly dramatizes Rebello’s prose and adds an extra layer to the Psycho saga by adding the uneasy relationship between Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville to the stew. The director is viewed as a voyeur who was jealous of his wife’s relationship with Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), the self-absorbed writer who worked on the screenplays for his films Stage Fright and Strangers on a Train.

The talented Alma is portrayed as her husband’s closest confidante, who played a large part in his career but lived largely under her famous spouse’s broad shadow. Their close but sometimes tenuous bond certainly didn’t stop his desire for perverse Peeping Tom antics and questionable treatment of women. The film exemplifies this in depicting his relationship with Psycho co-star Vera Miles (Jessica Biehl), a Hitchcock contract player, who was shoddily treated by the director after she put aside her burgeoning career—and a chance to play the lead in Vertigo—to have a child.

Vera Miles in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960)

Vera Miles in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)

Hitchcock gets the period details just right, while the cast is uniformly terrific. The star of The Girl, 46-year-old Toby Jones (who also played Truman Capote in  Notorious and Karl Rove in W) may bear a stronger resemblance to the director, but  the 75-year-old Hopkins’ mannerisms, voice and dark charm pull you in and make you a believer. Mirren, too, is superb; she doesn’t look at all like the short, squat Alma, but she’s spot-on displaying the character’s insecurities as well as her inner strength. Kudos also to Michael Stuhlberg as Lew Wasserman, then the director’s agent; Kurtwood Smith as the head motion picture censor; and Toni Collette as the helmer’s longtime trusted secretary.

Over fifty years since its release, Psycho still has a grip on its audience. It has been continually studied, written about, discussed, revered and, yes, spoofed.

In polls conducted by the American Film Institute, it landed first in the “100 Years…100 Thrills” survey, and was chosen eighteenth on the “100 Greatest Movies List.”

All this from a movie in which Norman Bates, the mild-mannered lead character, “wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

There is so much more to read about the Master of Suspense… take a peek.