I never met Alfred Hitchcock, but I did interview Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh about the making of Psycho, the seminal thriller for which both actors are best remembered, and which is currently the subject of a breathtakingly wrong-headed and erroneous movie.
Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins, is one of two films about the legendary director currently on display. A cable television movie, The Girl, deals with Hitchcock’s tumultuous relationship with actress Tippi Hedren who appeared in The Birds and Marnie.
What’s remarkable, is the fascination Hitchcock still holds for us nearly thirty-three years after his death at the age of eighty. Is the rotund little Englishman who never attempted anything in his fifty-three films beyond keeping the audience riveted to the screen, the most influential director in the history of film? How could he be anything else? Certainly he is the best remembered, as the two Hitchcock movies demonstrate.
But it is how the movie Hitchcock in particular remembers its subject that is the problem. The film supposedly is based on Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, Stephen Rebello’s straight-forward account, published in 1990, of how the director at the age of sixty made the masterpiece that, for better or worse, did more to shape the making of movies than any other film with the possible exception of Citizen Kane. After the release of Psycho in 1960, American movies were never the same.
Having read Rebello’s book years ago, I was surprised when it was announced a movie would be based on it. The actual making of Psycho was not exactly the stuff of great drama. Hitchcock read the Robert Bloch novel, inspired by accounts of a real life serial killer named Ed Gein, was intrigued, and decided it would be his followup to the immense success of North By Northwest–another Hitchcock classic.
No question, Hitchcock was looking to do something different, away from the big, glossy studio productions he had become so well-known for. He wanted something with a little more edge to it, that showed everyone he was in step with, if not ahead of, the times.
Hitchcock was as powerful in his day as Steven Spielberg is today–if he wanted to do something no one was going to stop him, even if, as was the case, Paramount, the studio to whom he owed one more picture, was not happy.
When the studio balked at the subject matter, Hitchcock decided to do it on the cheap, shooting in black and white, using the crew that shot his hit television series, with money he raised himself.
Even though Paramount finally agreed to release Psycho, the movie was actually shot at Universal Studios–that’s how Norman Bates’s house ended up on the Universal lot, where I first saw it back in the mid-seventies, and where it still sits today, a hugely popular tourist attraction.
Joseph Stefano, who wrote the screenplay for Psycho (and who only gets one scene in the movie), always maintained that the movie was no big deal for a director who by 1959 had been shooting movies for over thirty years.
“Hitchcock didn’t think he was doing anything that was any different from his last movie or would be from his next,” Stefano recalled to author Rebello. “I don’t think at any time he was making it he was knowingly or unconsciously reflecting any particular darkness from within. He simply had a script and he was shooting it.”
The Hitchcock movie ignores this, of course, and shows him worried about age, obsessively dreaming about Ed Gein, and giving the eye to every woman with blond hair who crosses his path.
It does get some things right–Paramount’s dislike of Psycho, the censorship problems–but in attempting to work up dramatic conflict the movie runs wildly off the track by supposing that Hitch’s wife, Alma (played by a miscast Helen Mirren), jealous of her husband’s eye for his leading ladies, becomes involved with a cad of a Hollywood screenwriter named–hang on to your typewriter–Whitfield Cook.
As played by the actor Danny Huston (director John’s son), Whit, as he is known, is your typical writer: handsome, sophisticated, urbane–so of course he never existed, except in the cliché-ridden mind of Hitchcock’s screenwriter, John McLaughlin. In McLaughlin’s re-imagining of things, Whit uses Alma’s infatuation with him so that Alma will persuade Hitch to film his script, Taxi To Dubrovnik.
None of this is remotely true, of course, and dramatically it never rises above the trite and boring, and has nothing to do with the making of Psycho. Also, it is highly unlikely that Alma, as the movie insists,pitched in at the end of filming to help save the movie in the editing room.
There is no evidence in Rebello’s book that Alma played any part in the editing of the film (that was done by George Tomasini). In fact, if anything saved Psycho–or at least helped shape it into the masterpiece it has become–it was the addition of Bernard Hermann’s innovative, shrieking violin-filled score.
Poor Hitch. Here he is, the most famous director in the history of film, and he continues to be saddled with all this blonde obsession stuff. It started with Donald Spoto’s biography, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, published three years after the director’s death. Spoto laid out the argument that has haunted Hitch’s legacy –and is the basis for the two movies–that he was so crazy about blonde actresses that it almost destroyed him. Never mind that he was somehow able to keep his hands off his most beautiful and alluring blond creation, Grace Kelly (who first appeared for Hitchcock in Dial “M” For Murder).
Tippi Hedren, has been vocal about how Hitchcock ruined her career because she rejected his advances during the making of The Birds and Marnie. There is no reason to disbelieve her account of what happened–in The Girl, she is played by Sienna Miller, and Hedren herself acted as a consultant.
It’s hard to know what to make of her claims. On the one hand, Hitchcock was an all-powerful director in a time of rampant male chauvinism. On the other hand, Tippi Hedren was not exactly the Meryl Streep of the era, and it is questionable whether there would have been much of a future for her as a leading lady even if Hitchcock hadn’t turned against her.
In the Hollywood of the day, when Twentieth Century Fox studio boss Darryl Zanuck would shut down his office every afternoon at four o’clock so that he could have sex with a different woman, Hitchcock seems like pretty small potatoes in the unwanted sexual advances department.
He remained married to Alma for over fifty years, was a devoted family man, dotting father to daughter Patricia, and despite his decidedly inappropriate behavior with Hedren, none of Hitchcock’s many biographers accuse him of actual infidelity. In the Hollywood of his time that makes him, to say the least, unique.
When I asked Janet Leigh, many years after she shot Psycho, about Hitchcock’s so-called blonde obsession, she insisted that as far as she was concerned, Hitchcock was nothing but friendly and helpful (the one good thing about Hitchcock, the movie, is Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of Leigh). Perkins was downright dismissive when I brought up the subject to him.
But in the gossipy culture of our time, Hitchcock is bound to forever remain the cherubic genius fixated on beautiful blondes. As for the films themselves, a recently released, handsomely mounted Blu-ray collection of fifteen of his best-known works, including Vertigo, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North By Northwest, and, of course, Psycho, produces a confusion of reactions, ranging from admiration for his undeniable and occasionally innovative skills, to head-shaking at the needless artificiality that dates many of his movies (The Man Who Knew Too Much being a prime example).
I didn’t see Psycho until eight years after its original release, and the film scared me in ways that no other movie has ever scared me. Despite the hundreds of imitations it has spawned, the millions of words devoted to every scene and camera move so that none of the secrets Hitchcock originally went to such lengths to preserve are secrets any longer, viewed today in impressively sharp high-definition black and white, Psycho continues to hold you in its thrall and darkly entertain.
Now there is about to be a new TV series, The Bates Motel, that deals with Norman Bates’s teenage years.What’s more, the British film journal, Sight and Sound, recently polled critics around the world, and they named Hitchcock’s 1957 Vertigo the best film of all time, displacing long time first place holder, Citizen Kane– a development that frankly baffles this former movie critic. .
But there you go. The world continues to be enthralled by a gentleman who prefers blondes.