Book vs. Film: 'Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho' and 'Hitchcock'
Hollywood loves navel-gazing. It’s a long-held truth. Every year Tinseltown releases a slew of movies about making movies, whether the film within the film is fictional or factual. So I’m rather surprised that a silver screen adaptation of Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho has been such a long time coming. The 1990 non-fiction book has been very well received over the years, as it’s infinitely readable, meticulously researched and wonderfully enlightening.
And this month’s Hitchcock, from director Sacha Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin, has one very important quality in common with its source material: it’s infinitely watchable. Meticulous and enlightening? Not so much. The film focuses on the marital and professional relationship between Anthony Hopkins’ Alfred and his wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), or “Mrs. Hitchcock” as everyone calls her. It’s a compelling story, in which Alma battles for respect as Hitchcock’s collaborator and begrudges his leading lady flirtations, but one that, as far as Rebello’s book is concerned, had very little to do with the making of Psycho.
This is a book for movie lovers, but it’s not fluff. Despite the irresistibly juicy way it’s written, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho offers a thorough, careful examination of every step of the pre-production, production and post-production aspects of film creation. Just take a look at the Table of Contents (brackets are mine):
Chapter 1 – The Awful Truth – The Atrocities of Ed Gein [in which Rebello dives into the real life crimes of serial killer Ed Gein, on whom the character of Norman Bates was based.]
Chapter 2 – The Novel – Yours Truly, Robert Bloch [in which we meet the author of the novel Psycho and learn how he came to write the pulpy horror novel that so engrossed Hitchcock.]
Chapter 3 – The Director – The Trouble With Alfred [in which we learn that Hitchcock was at a creative, critical and financial juncture in his career after the box office failure of his pet project Vertigo. Rebello discusses Hitchcock’s fear that the string of elegant thrillers for which he was known was encouraging him to self-plagiarize, and his subsequent conviction that Psycho must be his next project.]
Chapter 4 – The Deal – Hitchcock Outmaneuvers [in which Rebello details the indifference Paramount had for Psycho and the shrewd but self-sacrificing negotiation Hitchcock maneuvered in order to get the picture made.]
Chapter 5 – The Screenplays – Writing Is Rewriting [in which Hitchcock applies his fastidious touch to multiple drafts of the screenplay by various writers before settling on newcomer Joseph Stefano.]
Chapter 6 – Preproduction [in which we watch as Hitchcock selects the shooting studio, hires the cast and crew, labors over the production design, wardrobe and makeup and takes on the Hays Code censors.]
Chapter 7 – Shooting [in which Hitchcock befriends Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins but continues to alienate his former star Vera Miles, rages over the lack of chemistry between Leigh and co-star John Gavin, uses innovative techniques to come in under budget with a visually arresting film, battles for secrecy on and off set, works closely with graphic designer Saul Bass to perfect the infamous shower scene and finally completes the arduous shoot.]
Chapter 8 – Postproduction [in which Rebello dives into Hitchcock’s painstaking work editing, perfecting the sound, music and titles, dealing with censors and unpopular screenings and relying heavily on his talented editor wife Alma.]
Chapter 9 – Publicity – The Care And Handling of Psycho [in which we marvel at Hitchcock’s hands-on, grassroots approach to publicizing his hard-won film through creative gimmicks and sheer will.]
Chapter 10 – The Release [in which the public and even critics fawn over the release of Psycho but Hitchcock is still shunned at the Academy Awards.]
Chapter 11 – Afterglow And Aftermath [in which Hitchcock takes satisfaction in the financial windfall and boon to his reputation resulting from Psycho.]
See what I mean? Absolutely every step of the filmmaking process is particularized in Rebello’s brilliant account, each time including a few gossipy anecdotes to ease the intricacies along. So, what of these specifics do Gervasi and McLaughlin include in Hitchcock?
A few. The film gives admirable focus to Hitchcock’s concerns about his career after Vertigo, as he dug in his heels at the studio’s suggestion that he turn in another North By Northwest and instead committed himself to the dubious undertaking of Psycho, an undertaking which no one else, not even his devoted wife Alma, was convinced would be a success. And Hitchcock’s cunning maneuvering with Paramount is thoroughly represented in the film, as he puts his own financial wellbeing at risk in order to ensure that Psycho would be made.
Some other particulars are included, such as a kerfuffle with the censors over the inclusion of a toilet flushing in the film, something that had never been shown onscreen before. Hitchcock’s glee in surprising the audience by killing off his leading lady so early in Psycho is noted in both the film and book, although in the film it’s Alma’s suggestion. Then there are his practical jokes on Janet Leigh (played by Scarlett Johansson), specifically the hiding of the Mrs. Bates corpse in her dressing room, which makes for a lively scene in the film.
Hitch’s efforts with the shower scene and the editing of the film are reasonably well portrayed, but nearly every other detail of the making of this seminal film is glossed over in favor of Hitchcock’s obsession with blondes and his fears that his wife is having an affair.
Some of the escalated scandal in the film is clever and subtle, taking a grain of truth from the book and adding a lurid shine to it. For instance, a brief throwaway line in the book…
Hitchcock and Stefano held five weeks of daily story conferences at Paramount, beginning at 10:30 A.M., the hour to which the director agreed to accommodate Stefano’s ongoing sessions with a psychoanalyst.
…twists into a scene in the film where Stefano, played by Ralph Macchio, tells Hitchcock that he talks to a therapist about “The usual. Sex. Rage. My mother,” an answer that intrigues the director and leads him to hire the screenwriter to craft the ultimate Freudian villain.
The film hints somewhat overtly at the sexually conflicted identity of Psycho star Anthony Perkins, something the book never discusses, only instead praising Perkins for taking on the risky role of a cross-dressing serial killer.
But one tawdry bit of scandal, probably the most fascinating part of Hitchcock, scarcely required any spin from the way Rebello tells it in The Making of Psycho. After directing Vera Miles in “Revenge,” an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Hitchcock decided he’d found himself a new leading lady, now that Grace Kelly had ditched him to become Princess Grace.
‘I feel the same way directing Vera that I did with Grace,’ crooned a usually more circumspect Hitchcock to a reporter for Look magazine. ‘She has a style, an intelligence, and a quality of understatement.’ Convinced that he had found in Miles another icebox blonde in the Grace Kelly tradition, Hitchcock ordered costume designer Edith Head and Paramount’s platoon of makeup and hair specialists to groom her expensively to his precise specifications.’
Hitchcock invested quite a lot of money and energy in transforming Vera Miles into his ideal star, priming her for his planned masterpiece Vertigo. But the actress was too intelligent and independent to want to become Hitch’s next project. Their relationship fell apart during the making of The Wrong Man.
Miles found Hitchcock’s attentions toward her stifling and inappropriate. Hitchcock barraged her with flowers, telegrams, and demands for private conferences. Miles found herself constantly in arrears to express her gratitude.
After Vera Miles married Gordon Scott, the star of a string of Tarzan films, and became pregnant three times in rapid succession, Hitchcock grew enraged and gave the plum role of Vertigo’s Madeleine/Judy to Kim Novak instead.
‘He was overwhelmed,’ Miles had said. ‘He said, ‘Don’t you know it’s bad taste to have more than two?’ Instantly, the director cooled toward Miles. Hitchcock had lavished on his budding star time, money, and most precious, emotion. Hitchcock associates say that he believed Miles should have been grateful and compliant. Privately, Hitchcock fumed like a rebuffed suitor.
This story, the most gossipy and engrossing of any of the anecdotes in the book, is hardly embellished at all in Hitchcock, as the director punishes Miles (played by Jessica Biel) with the unwanted role of Lila Crane, swathed in an unflattering wardrobe and drab hair and makeup. She was still under contract to him for one more picture (intended to be Vertigo), and he was going to make her work for it.
Hitchcock’s production assistant Peggy gently chastises him for casting Miles as Lila, saying “Rather a thankless role, don’t you think?” to which Hitch responds, “For an utterly thankless girl.” Later, Vera reminds herself, “I just have to keep telling myself one more picture, and then I’m free as a bird.” As she eyes the hideous underwear her character is meant to wear, she sighs, “Wow. The old man is really unhappy with me, isn’t he?”
But even this story, salacious as it is on its own, is made more shocking for Hitchcock. As Vera prepares to don the unforgiving lingerie, Hopkins’ Hitchcock stares through a hole in the wall into her dressing room, in precisely the manner Norman Bates spies on Marion Crane in Psycho. The scene is so on-the-nose, it’s ludicrous.
With all of that said, Hitchcock is very entertaining, thanks in large part to wonderful performances by all, but especially by Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren. The relationship between Hitch and Alma is the crux of the film, and it’s a relationship in which I’m invested. Hitch’s arc rises and falls by the way he learns to appreciate and respect Alma. And Mirren in particular is exceptional as the long-suffering equal partner who is always made to stand behind in shadow.
It’s an acceptable embellishment, unlike the sensational peephole addition. Director Gervasi and screenwriter McLaughlin imagine what seem to be very likely problems in this marriage. And while far too much screen time is spent dwelling on Hitchcock’s preoccupation with his icy blonde leading ladies, the above story about Vera Miles makes it clear that this was a real issue, and one that certainly must have perturbed the director’s wife. (Hitch’s jealousy regarding Alma’s flirtation with Strangers on a Train and Stage Fright writer Whitfield Cook appears nowhere in the book.)
While I accept and understand some of the changes made to The Making of Psycho in order to make it a cohesive film narrative, what I love best about the book – and what I imagine most fans love best about it – is witnessing the minute ways in which a master crafts his masterpiece. And in exchange for voyeurism and extramarital flirtations, that aspect of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho is almost entirely absent from Hitchcock.
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