Alfred Hitchcock and “The Moment of Psycho”

3 02 2013

Alfred Hitchcock may be the most influential film director of all time, but choThe Moment of Psychoosing which is his most important film is not quite so easy. The British Film Institute clearly favor “Vertigo,” as I wrote about here. And other filmmakers never seem to tire of making references to “North by Northwest.” But for influence that encompasses both film and society itself, nothing surpasses “Psycho.” Writer David Thomson looks at Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece in his 2009 book “The Moment of Psycho.”

The book begins with think piece on the state of the cinema circa 1960, and how “Psycho” transformed both the growing awareness of serial killing and Robert Bloch’s book of the same name into an unsettling film that was unlike anything else in theaters at the time. It had more in common with Roger Corman’s low-budget shockers, which played mostly in drive-ins, than with other films of the time. Indeed, to keep the studio off his back, Hitchcock invested his own money, with a controlling ownership of 60 percent of “Psycho.” As the majority shareholder, he was beholden to no one in his choices. Filming quickly, in black and white, with every scene carefully storyboarded and working with his television series crew, the shoot accomplished a hat trick that is usually considered impossible: It was fast, cheap, and good.

And it was Hitchcock’s control of “Psycho” that made it what it was. At the time, he was still seen by Hollywood as a talented journeyman director, but the French saw him differently. In the pages of “Cahiers du Cinema,” the case was being made that Hitchcock was something else: an auteur, someone whose work as a director transcended the limits of Hollywood backlots to bring a unique vision to the screen.

The real horror of “Psycho,” Thomson argues, is not mere murder and mayhem, but the way in which that bloody moment that shocked audiences follows forty minutes of the banal, depressing life of Marion Crane. It’s a life of furtive, go-nowhere affairs, sleazy clients, ill-conceived and impulsive thievery, an interminable drive, a vaguely threatening cop (whose mirrored shades force Marion to see herself), used-car salesmen and, finally, a rundown roadside motel. And while the young manager is welcoming and sweet, the motel is a place of shadows, stuffed birds and a shrill, unseen mother who’s “not herself.” Marion’s redemption is short-lived; she convinces herself that she can just return the stolen money, writing the sums earnestly, childishly, on a scrap of paper, before she takes the symbolically cleansing shower that seals her fate.

Thomson makes the case that Hitchcock planted the seeds of the story and its real intent from the very start of “Psycho,” when the credits read “And Janet Leigh as Marion Crane,” as though she were a featured player and not the star. Marion’s story is the prologue to the film’s actual story, just as the tale of the stranded passengers in “The Lady Vanishes” is the prologue to Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave’s search for the missing Dame Mae Whitty. Anthony Perkins gets top billing, even though he doesn’t show up in the film until Marion reaches the Bates Motel. And after all, the movie is called “Psycho,” not “Marion.” A few years later, Hitchcock would film a tale of a female thief and give it the more appropriate name of “Marnie.”

To Thomson, “Psycho” presages a decade of the horrors of war and the struggles of the Civil Rights movement. Popular entertainment moved away from musicals and biblical epics and toward tales of crime and violence. Following the 1940s and 50s, during which Hitchcock had kept violence at arm’s length and relied instead upon veiled threats and creeping suspense, “Psycho” pulls back the curtain on a new decade of frank sexuality and explicity violence. Hitchcock would see out the remaining years of his career with films that followed in the footsteps of “Psycho,” serving up violence and sex in differing ratios in “The Birds,” “Marnie,” “Torn Curtain” and “Frenzy.”

If you’ve just seen the movie “Hitchcock,” which of course focuses on the making of “Psycho,” “The Moment of Psycho” would make a great postprandial refresher. Rather than looking at the struggles of making “Psycho,” David Thomson takes the long view on its impact. You can order your own copy of “The Moment of Psycho” here.

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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.





Which Hitch Do You Prefer?

28 04 2012

Recently, both of the upcoming films about Alfred Hitchcock – “The Girl,” starring Toby Jones, and “Hitchcock,” starring Anthony Hopkins – have released images of their respective stars made up and outfitted as The Master of Suspense. Here they are…so now the question is which one looks more macabre to you?

Toby Jones (with Sienna Miller) in "The Girl"

Anthony Hopkins in "Hitchcock"

Of course, neither of them looks quite right in these shots, although they do look very good. Our Hitch was an unusual looking person, and finding a double for him would be nigh on impossible. Still, both of these actors have a knack for impersonation: Hopkins made a convincing Richard Nixon in “Nixon,” and Jones channeled Truman Capote in “Infamous.”

I first raised some questions about casting on these movies in this post – but now that we’re seeing images from the movies, I’ll ask again: What do you think of this casting, and who would you like to see playing Sir Alfred?





Alfred Hitchcock – Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

7 12 2011

Since the start of 2011, there’s been talk about Sir Anthony Hopkins playing Sir Alfred Hitchcock in a big-screen adaptation of “Writing with Hitchcock,” Anthony De Rosa’s fantastic book about Hitchcock’s 1950s collaboration with screenwriter John Michael Hayes. (I blogged about this book here.)

Now, it looks like we’ll have our pick of Hitchcocks. And Alma Revilles, too.

First, the BBC has announced plans this week for the movie “The Girl,” about Hitchcock’s difficult relationship with Tippi Hedren during the making of “The Birds.” The movie will star Sienna Miller as Hedren, with Toby Jones as Hitch and Imelda Staunton as Reville. Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto will serve as a consultant on the film; no word yet on when it will air, but it’s a good bet that it will be sometime in 2012.

Toby Jones and Sienna Miller, slated to play Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren

Today, the Anthony Hopkins Hitchcock project got an update, with Fox Searchlight announcing that the movie would be about the making of “Psycho,” with Helen Mirren as Reville. Reports say that the film’s story will focus on Hitchcock’s decision to make a horror film, and his struggle to finance it when he could not get the studio backing he had expected. It looks like this movie may start production in the spring.

Helen Mirren to play Alma Reville

Anthony Hopkins IS Alfred Hitchcock!

So, film fans – who do you like better as Hitch? And who will be the better Alma: Helen Mirren or Imelda Staunton? I think it all sounds pretty amazing – but Helen Mirren may be a little too glam for  Alma – but we’ll have to wait and see.





The Persistence of Hitchcock: For the Win!

27 04 2011

Tonight let’s take a look at another aspect of “The Persistence of Hitchcock,” namely, Hitchcock’s continued popularity and influence.

Alfred Hitchcock continues to be one of the most revered and studied directors of all time. Movies as recent as 2010’s “Shutter Island” and “Inception” are called “Hitchcockian” for their suspenseful plots.

Hitchcock’s presence in film and on TV continues to this day in other ways as well. Anthony Hopkins is currently in talks to play Hitchcock in a film version of the 2001 book “Writing with Hitchcock,” by Stephen DeRosa.

More than 30 years since his death, Hitchcock’s films still dominate best-of lists.

  • Roger Ebert lists “Notorious” as one of the “10 Greatest Films of All Time.”
  • The American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies,” compiled in 2007, lists “Psycho” as the #14 film of all time.
  • AFI’s “Top 10 Mystery Movies” list includes:

#1 – “Vertigo”

#3 – “Rear Window”

#7 – “North by Northwest”

#9 – “Dial M for Murder”

  • AFI’s “100 Years…1000 Thrills” list includes:

#1 – “Psycho”

#4 – “North by Northwest”

#6 – “The Birds”

#14 – “Rear Window”

#18 – “Vertigo”

#32 – “Strangers on a Train”

#38 – “Notorious”

#48 “Dial M for Murder”

#80 – “Rebecca”

  • AFI’s “100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains” list includes

#2 – Norman Bates from “Psycho”

#31 – Mrs. Danvers from “Rebecca”

  • The New York Daily News list of “The Top Ten Best Spy Movies Ever Made” from June 2010 includes:

#2 – “North by Northwest”

#4 – “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934 version)

#8 – “The 39 Steps”

  • The British Film Institute’s “Top 100 British Films” includes:

#4 – “The 39 Steps”

#35 – “The Lady Vanishes”

  • The Time Out London list of “100 Best British Films” includes:

#13 – “The 39 Steps”

#44 – “Sabotage”

#59 – “Blackmail”

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