Spotlight on Hitch and Alma in the New Film “Hitchcock”

28 11 2012

Anthony Hopkins portrays Alfred Hitchcock in his own way in the new film “Hitchcock,” which opened last week in limited release. The movie looks at Hitchcock’s difficulties in making the movie “Psycho,” while also delving into his relationships with actors, writers, studio executives and, most importantly, his wife, Alma.

Without creating a slavish recreation of Hitchcock’s drawl or picture-perfect likeness, Hopkins breathes life into the Master of Suspense, whether he is being charming or petulant, commanding or obsessive. Helen Mirren’s portrays Alma as every bit Hitchcock’s equal, returning his cool remarks with her own withering sarcasm. And yet there is a real affection behind their barbs.

Alma stands by Hitchcock throughout the arduous task of making “Psycho.” When he selects the project; she gets on board despite her distaste for the subject matter, and later she lends her expertise to sharpening up the final product after a screening goes badly. Despite his suspicions about her work with another former collaborator, writer Whitfield Cook, Hitchcock implicity trusts her, both as a soulmate and filmmaker.

“Hitchcock” is very enjoyable look at the creative process; one wonders, however, if it could have been sharper. The flirtation between Alma and Cook feels almost trite, and the specter of serial killer Ed Gein overstays his welcome. Also, this Hitchcock seems far more open with his feelings than the real one was; he acts explicitly where the real McCoy would likely not have. And as much as Hitchcock liked to say that he played his audience like an orchestra, it’s hard to believe that he would have acted that out so literally as he does in one scene here.

James D’Arcy and Ralph Macchio each have one great scene as Anthony Perkins and Joseph Stefano, respectively; each gives viewers a chance to see the voyeuristic component of Hitchcock’s personality, as he perks up at their mentions of their own neuroses. Scarlet Johannson and Jessica Biel, too, as Janet Leigh and Vera Miles (also respectively) serve to illuminate aspects of Hitchcock’s way of dealing with others. While Hitchcock has all but dismissed Miles for having dared to get pregnant when she was slated to star in “Vertigo,” he dotes on Leigh, his blond of the moment. There are glimpses, too, of composer Bernard Herrmann and designer Saul Bass, as well as censor Geoffrey Shurlock, and even Hitchcock’s beloved dogs, Geoffrey and Stanley.

The opening and finale may be the two most satisfying moments of the movie; first, Hitchcock introduces the proceedings directly to the camera, in the style of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” And the end hints with great humor at what is come next, acknowledging that “Hitchcock” portrays (and expands upon) just one episode in a tumultous career; indeed, Hitchcock says as much, first by promising that “Psycho” is going to be bigger than “North by Northwest,” and later fretting that it could be another “Vertigo.”

You can read my take on the source material, Stephen Rebello’s “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho,” here.


An Affectionate Portrait of Alma Reville Hitchcock

22 01 2012

Film critic and historian Charles Champlin once wrote, “The Hitchcock touch had four hands, and two were Alma’s.” In “Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man,” Pat Hitchcock O’Connell and Laurent Bouzereau create an affectionate portray of the woman who inspired so much of Alfred Hitchcock’s work, Alma Lucy Reville Hitchcock.

Born in 1899, just one day after her future husband, Alma joined England’s nascent film industry before Hitchcock, having grown up around the corner from Twickenham Studios. Film seems to have been her destiny; her father worked at Twickenham, and Alma was fascinated by movies. She broke into the business while still in her teens, doing odd jobs, learning how to edit films, and even appearing before the camera in a few films.

All this would lead to a partnership with young Alfred Hitchcock that would develop into both collaboration and marriage. O’Connell paints a vivid picture of these early days, providing details and photography that few have seen before. The pictures reveal young Alma as a tiny dancer and actress, with long dark hair and a twinkle in her eye. After the missteps of the early Hitchcock films “The Pleasure Garden” and “The Mountain Eagle,” the newly married couple experienced their first success with “The Lodger.” While describing those early days, O’Connell makes the reader feel at home at the Hitchcocks’ Shamley Green home, recalling in great detail the transition to Hollywood and her parents’ high and low points. And when O’Connell began her own acting career, Alma was there for her daughter, offering support without getting too involved.

“Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man” is a sweet, anecdotal book crammed with photos and details that enhance our understanding of both Mr. and Mrs. Hitchcock. Bouzereau’s hand in bringing O’Connell’s stories to life is evident without being overwhelming. (You can read my post on his recent book “Hitchcock Piece by Piece” here.)

If you aren’t already intrigued by “Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man,” O’Connell ices the cake by dedicating the last 50 pages of the book to her mother’s recipes, giving us new insight into the Master of Suspense’s tastes and shedding light on those legendary dinners at chez Hitchcock. Alma was an accomplished cook, and Hitchcock was happy to do the cleaning up afterward. A 1963 dinner for Sean Connery, for example, began with caviar, vodka and cheese rolls, moved on to mushroom soup, continued with lamb and mint sauce, peas, potatoes, gravy, followed by brie cheese and crackers, and finished with raspberry ice cream with pineapple, coffee and liquors. It’s enough to whet anyone’s appetite.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Collaborators: Alma Reville

26 03 2010

Throughout his extraordinary career, Alfred Hitchcock had the help of several important collaborators in bringing his ideas to the screen. It’s hard to imagine “Psycho” without the musical score of Bernard Hermann, for example. Others, notably female actors like Grace Kelly, inspired Hitchcock to tell a certain type of story.

A shot of Alma Reville around 1920, from the documentary "Dial H for Hitchcock"

The first collaborator we’ll look at is Alma Reville, whose name, my wife would like to say, means “awakening offering.” Born just one day after Hitchcock, on August 14, 1899, Reville joined the British film industry even before her future husband. Her father worked at Twickenham Film Studios, and Reville got a job there at age 15 as a rewind girl in the cutting room. She quickly moved on to film editing at the London Film Company at age 16, while Hitch was designing advertisements for a cable manufacturer. She then moved to Famous Players-Lasky, where she first met Hitchcock; she was credited as saying, with some pleasure, that when they met, her career was more advanced than his, and that he waited until he had more credits to his name before approaching her to edit the movie “Woman to Woman,” on which he served as assistant director.

Wedding day, 1926

She continued working with Hitchcock as his directing career got under way, serving as a film editor, script girl/continuity editor, writer and, most important, sounding board. In his book “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light,” Patrick McGilligan recounts script conferences held over dinners or during long walks in which Hitch, Reville and a third partner – usually the screenwriter of record – would scrutinize every aspect of the story they were trying to tell.

Working on a script, probably mid-1930s

Reville and Hitchcock married in 1926; their one child, Patricia, was born in1928. The couple shared a passion for film, and Reville was credited as a writer on a number of Hitch’s films, including “The Ring,” “Juno and the Paycock,” Murder,” “The Skin Game,” “Rich and Strange,” “Number Seventeen,” “Waltzes from Vienna,” “The 39 Steps,” “The Secret Agent,” “Sabotage,” “Young and Innocent,” “The Lady Vanishes,” “Jamaica Inn,” “Suspicion,” “Shadow of a Doubt,” “The Paradine Case” and “Stage Fright.” She contributed to many other Hitchcock pictures as well, mostly by critiquing the story and editing. Famously, she was the only person to notice that Janet Leigh moved ever so slightly after the shower scene in “Psycho.” (I’ve seen that movement described as either a swallow or the blink of an eye.)

Her career was not restricted to collaborations with her husband, however. She also wrote at least ten non-Hitchcock films from 1928 to 1945, although the time she spent caring for her family limited her career to some degree. It’s thought that Reville would have become a director herself had she not had a child.

According to McGilligan, Reville was devastated by the negative reviews for Hitch’s 1949 picture “Under Capricorn.” After that, she pulled back from direct involvement in the development of the films, although, as mentioned above, she continued to offer her opinions.

Playing along with Hitch's macabre image, late 1950s

During script conferences, Reville would sit quietly nearby, listening, and when a writer made a suggestion that Hitch was unsure of, the director would look to his wife for help. A few words, even a shake of her head, and Hitchcock would tell the writer to try again. Hitchcock never questioned her opinion; any idea or input she offered was put into affect. He trusted and relied on her expertise throughout his career.

Alma Reville Hitchcock died on July 6, 1982, two years after her husband.

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