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.


Alfred Hitchcock’s Two TV Rarities

23 02 2011

Besides seventeen episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” and one episode of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” Hitch directed just two other television programs. The first, which was shown on September 30, 1957, was from the new series “Suspicion,” and like the “Suspense” radio series of the previous decade, Hitchcock directed its first episode, and in fact served as executive producer.

The hour-long story is called “Four O’Clock,” based on a story by Cornell Woolrich and starring E.G. Marshall as Paul, a clock and watch repairman who owns a small shop in a middle American town. Paul is a tightly wound man who has a reputation as being brusque but very good at his job. As the episode begins, we see him methodically working on an alarm clock: wiring it in some strange way, plugging it in, and using it to detonate a small charge.

His thoughts tell us that he’s planning something – he suspects something to do with his wife. Going home that evening, he sees bits of evidence that someone else has been in the house, and he decides that it’s a man. His wife is having an affair, and now he’s ready to kill them both by blowing up the house. His observations have told him that the man, whoever he is, comes by the house every afternoon – so Paul is going to set the bomb to go off at four o’clock.

The next night, Paul tries to give his wife a chance to confess, but she admits that she “had a good time” that afternoon, Paul can’t believe how calm she is. The next day, he slips into his basement during the day and sets up the bomb – but when he hears a noise from upstairs, he discovers that he’s being robbed. The thieves catch him, then gag him and tie him to a pipe in the basement where he can see the clock as it ticks down to the explosion. (As a side note, one of the thieves in Paul’s house is played by a young Harry Dean Stanton.)

Paul tries to get loose, but can’t; he also fails when he tries to break the ropes by rubbing them against the pipes. Upstairs, he hears his wife and a man, but listening closely, he realizes that it’s her brother. She’s been hiding him because he’s ex-convict, and she hasn’t worked up what to say to Paul about him coming to live with them. Paul tries to get their attention, but he can’t make enough noise, and soon, they decide to go to his shop to meet him.

Time continues to tick down, and Paul grows more and more frantic. He’s unable to get the attention of the gasman, and a small boy who peeks into the window is too small to explain to his mother that the man in the basement is in trouble. His thoughts scream that he’ll do anything to be free and safe. As Paul struggles and four o’clock grows closer, the ticking of the clock gets louder and louder and his heart pounds harder and harder.

We cut away to the outside of the house, where a crowd has gathered. In the basement, doctors are fitting Paul with a straightjacket as he mumbles to wife that he doesn’t mind if she takes a lover, only, he begs her, “Don’t leave me… don’t forget about me.” A copy trips over the power cord that’s connected to the timebomb, pulling it out of the wall. He looks at the setup and asks Paul’s wife if she could turn on a light so he can see whatever it is, and she says no, she can’t, because she blew a fuse in the basement that morning.

In this story that recalls Hitchcock’s 1936 movie “Sabotage,” it’s no surprise that the master of suspense keeps viewers on the edge of their seats as four o’clock gets closer and closer. There’s an absurdity in the situation, too, as Paul realizes how foolish his predicament is and pleads with anything and everything, even the clock itself, for help.

On April 5, 1960, the series “Ford Startime” broadcast Alfred Hitchcock’s one and only color TV episode: called “Incident at a Corner,” it starred Vera Miles and George Peppard and was set in another non-descript American town. The show begins outside a school, as an elderly crossing guard attempts to stop an oncoming car. The driver blows past his stop sign and parks, and a woman, Mrs. Tally, gets out. She’s late for a meeting at the school, but the crossing guard says that he has to report her to the police for not stopping. She is furious at this and berates him as a teacher listens to what’s going on.

Hitchcock pulls a mini “Rashomon” here, showing the scene over and over from several angles, and it’s in the final replay of the scene that we see another car nearby. A woman gets out of that car, hiding her face and rushing into a house, while her companion, an older man, watches Mrs. Tally yell at the crossing guard. Once both are inside, we hear the woman tell her companion that she knows that crossing guard, and that he’s going to give her away if she recognizes her. The man, played by Jack Albertson, reassures her, saying he’ll take care of the crossing guard.

Later, we see Vera Miles, playing Miss Medwick, granddaughter of the crossing guard. She’s tutoring a young man in math, but after receiving a phone call he abruptly leaves. Medwick’s fiance, played by George Peppard, joins the family to celebrate the old crossing guard’s birthday, but the party is interrupted by someone from school who has stopped by to tell old Mr. Medwick that he can’t be a crossing guard any more, because he’s been accused of getting too close to the little girls.

The story begins to examine the nature of rumor mongering, as the Medwick family begins to argue about how – and if – they should fight these rumors. On the one hand, it seems like there’s no real way to fight back, as they are only rumors. On the other, Peppard (not sure of his character’s name) insists that they have to clear the old man’s name if he’s going to continue living in their town.

Peppard and Miss Medwick take it upon themselves to talk to the school’s principal and the head of the PTA, who had received an accusatory note calling Mr. Medwick a vicious old man. They then interview the teacher who had witnessed the incident, and who reported that Mrs. Tally had called Medwick “a vicious old man.” But when they confront, she haughtily refuses to admit any wrongdoing, although they’re sure that she wrote the note in the first place.

After visiting the other teacher again and learning that Mrs. Tally had never called Mr. Medwick vicious – she actually called him officious – they are at a dead end, until Mr. Medwick remembers the other car that had been nearby. They find the house and knock on the door, and Medwick does indeed recognize the woman inside: She’s from his hometown, and had been an underage “burlesque” performer years before. She had been afraid that he would start rumors about her, but now that it’s all out in the open, Medwick promises to keep her secret.

“Incident at a Corner” doesn’t bear many of Hitchcock’s typical hallmarks, although it does have an air of creeping dread. The most memorable moments are the various versions of the opening and the moment when, after he’s just been fired and accused of being a child molester, Medwick gloomily opens his front door as his family sings “Happy Birthday” to him. George Peppard is a particularly seething angry young man, although, of course, he’s wearing a suit and tie throughout.

Alfred Hitchcock Invents the Modern Horror Film with “Psycho”

5 02 2011

“I think that the thing that appealed to me and made me decide to do the picture was the suddenness of the murder in the shower, coming, as it were, out of the blue. That was about all. ‘Psycho’ has a very interesting construction and that game with the audience was fascinating. I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them, like an organ. I don’t care whether it looked like a small or a large picture. I didn’t start off to make an important movie. I thought I could have fun with this subject and this situation. The picture cost eight hundred thousand dollars. It was an experiment in this sense: Could I make a feature film under the same conditions as a television show?” – Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock’s comments about “Psycho” hits several pertinent points about this movie, which paved the way for a new type of horror movie set in the modern day, in the real world, a world where danger – real danger, not just dread – lurks around every corner and no one is safe.

Released in 1960, during the run of “Alfred Hitchock Presents,” “Psycho” was a huge hit for Hitchcock. It was based the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, which in turn was inspired by the crimes of serial killer Ed Gein. Starring Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles and Martin Balsam, it’s a thrilling roller coaster of a movie with two of the biggest bait-and-switches ever.

Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane, a young woman having a hopeless affair with a man, Sam, who’s in debt following a divorce. When her boss asks her to deposit $40,000 cash in the bank on her way home from work, Crane takes off with the money, hoping that she can use it to fix her relationship. On her way out of Phoenix, Arizona, to meet Sam in California, Crane spends a night sleeping on the side of the road in her car, and is awakened the next morning by a police officer who notices how nervous she seems. He follows her into town, where she trades in her car for a new one. The cop is not seen again as Crane continues her drive, clutching the wheel with tension as she imagines the accusations against her from her boss and the used car salesman.

Rain sets in and Crane decides to stop at The Bates Motel, a little roadside place with a Gothic style mansion looming over it. It’s here, of course, that the film takes its major turn. Up till now, the story has been entirely about Crane, her misstep with the money and her dilemma. She talks to the motel’s manager, Norman Bates, who, though socially awkward, chats with her, offering her dinner. Crane overhears Bates arguing with his mother back in the mansion, but doesn’t think much of it. Over dinner, Bates provides some incidental advice when he talks about how “we all go crazy sometimes.” Crane realizes that she has to make amends, and, back in her room, calculates how she’ll pay back her debt, then flushes her calculations down the toilet.

Stepping into the shower, Crane looks relaxed at last when she is attacked by a knife-wielding figure in a dress. The figure leaves as Crane’s blood washes down the drain. And now, the movie has a hole at its center, one that fits Norman Bates perfectly. He wraps the body in a shower curtain, places it in the trunk of Crane’s car, and sinks the car in a swamp. Hitchcock does a fantastic job manipulating the audience’s sympathies; the car stops sinking when it’s halfway into the swamp, forcing us to ask, “Will he get away with it?” Now we’re on Norman’s side, hoping he’ll be able to cover up his the crime.

Soon, Crane’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles) and the detective she hired, Arbogast (Martin Balsam), find Sam, whom they assume is hiding Marion. He hasn’t heard from her, though, so Arbogast decides to look for her. He finds his way to the Bates Motel and questions Norman, who stammers his way through some not very convincing answers. After asking some questions about Norman’s mother, Arbogast asks if he can talk to the old woman. Bates tries to dissuade Arbogast, but the detective insists, entering the old house and creeping up the stairs to find Mrs. Bates. As he reaches the landing, the same figure that killed Marion Crane leaps out at him with a knife. With blood on his face, Arbogast falls down the stairs dead. Knowing that trouble is brewing, we hear Bates ask his mother to hide in the fruit cellar, but the old woman refuses. She protests as Bates carries her to the cellar. (Of course, we don’t actually see them arguing!)

Lila and Sam soon begin to wonder why they haven’t heard from Arbogast, and they, too, find their way to the motel. While Sam keeps Bates busy at the motel, Lila sneaks into the house and finds one of the film’s greatest shocks: In the cellar, seated in a rocking chair, is the dessicated corpse of Mrs. Bates. Just then, Norman enters the room, dressed in his mother’s clothes and a wig, brandishing a knife and cackling like a maniac. Sam grabs him from behind, knocking off the wig and pulling the dress open, and saving Lila from becoming Norman’s latest victim. The moment when Lila discovers mother’s body was one of the trickiest in the film, as it involved split-second timing in which the chair had to turn, Vera Miles had to scream, step back and hit a bare lightbulb with her hand.

Click on this image to see the skull overlayed on Perkins' face.

We cut to a local police station, where a psychiatrist explains Bates’ split personality and psychosis. The camera follows a police officer to a cell where Bates sits, alone and silent, his mother’s voice ringing in his head, explaining that “they’ll see I couldn’t have killed anyone.” As the scene fades, there’s a split second in which a skull overlays Bates’ face before we cut to Marion Crane’s car being dragged out of the swamp.

For the first thirty minutes or so, the movie is about Marion Crane: Her affair, her crime and her flight. There’s about fifteen minutes in which Crane and Bates are together before she is killed. It’s this murder that necessitated two of the film’s ingenious publicity gimmicks: First, theater owners were asked not to seat anyone after the film begins. Only by seeing the movie from the start would a viewer completely identify with Marion Crane, maximizing the shock when she is killed.

The second gimmick was the campaign to keep people from giving away the movie’s surprises. These were very unusual requests at the time, and they contributed greatly to the buzz behind the movie.

Besides killing off Janet Leigh, the film’s other great bait and switch is thematic in nature. Marion Crane’s story is a gripping melodrama, the kind Hitchcock had dealt with many times before in movies like “Suspicion” and “Shadow of a Doubt.” After her death, the movie becomes something completely different and new. Although Hitchcock does not abandon suspense, he uses surprise as never before, making audiences scream with each new shock. Horror movies like the “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” series follow the same pattern, though without Hitchcock’s finesse.

“Psycho” was Hitchcock’s final film in black and white, and he chose to work this way for two reasons. First, as Hitch explained, he wanted to avoid making the shower scene too gory. (The blood is actually chocolate syrup.) Second, the personal challenge Hitchcock set for himself was to shoot the movie as efficiently as possible, using the crew from his TV series. The resulting movie cost only $800,000 to film, making it extremely profitable for Hitchcock’s Shamley Productions, as well as Paramount Pictures and Universal Pictures. It was such a big hit that it was eventually followed by several sequels, a remake and even a TV series. Hitchcock’s reason for holding the budget to this figure had to do with the studios’ reluctance to take on the project. Also, Hitchcock was aware of some cheaply made thrillers of the period, and wanted to see if he could make a movie on the same scale, bringing his own sensibilities and expertise to the table.

Although “Psycho” was very successful on release, critics were not kind to it. Assistant Director Hilton Green speculated that this may have been partly due to the fact that they had to watch the movie with full audiences rather than in previews. Both Time magazine and The New York Times later reversed their initially negative reviews.

A few of Hitchcock’s regular movie collaborators contributed to “Psycho,” including editor George Tomasini, Saul Bass, who designed the titles and storyboarded the shower sequence and Bernard Herrmann, who created the film’s unforgettable soundtrack. Reflecting the stark, black and white look of the film, Herrmann limited himself to strings. Hitchcock originally conceived the shower sequence as silent, but Herrmann had the strings play a slashing composition that emphasizes the shock of the moment. (On the DVD you can see the scene without music. It’s more effective in the film not only because the music adds to the drama but because it covers some feeble cries for help from Leigh, which start to sound kind of ridiculous, as well as the repeated stabbing sounds, which were made by plunging a knife into a melon.) Herrmann’s themes for Crane’s drive away from Phoenix is every bit as memorable, as it captures her anxiety.

Screenwriter Joseph Stefano made significant changes to the original Robert Bloch novel in transferring “Psycho” to the screen, including making Norman Bates younger and more affable, expanding Crane’s story considerably, introducing the psychiatrist who talks about Bates at the end and omitting a budding romance between Sam and Lila Crane. Bloch’s association with Alfred Hitchcock continued on television, with three episodes of Hitch’s TV series based on Bloch stories made before the release of “Psycho” and another thirteen after, including six episodes of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.” Stefano’s script is particularly sensitive to Bates’ psyche and motivations; Stefano himself was in analysis at the time, and he put that experience to good use here.

The shot Hitch swore wasn't there in the shower scene.

“Psycho” employs several tricks from Hitchcock’s earlier films; the scene in which Martin Balsam’s detective falls to his death used the same techniques seen in “Saboteur,” as well as echoing the death on the stairs/blood on the face scene from “Foreign Correspondent,” which itself was a reference to Sergei Eisenstein’s “Potemkin.” The lightning-fast edits in the shower scene harkened back to Eisenstein’s editing techniques; here, it allowed Hitchcock to pull off this violent scene without ever showing the knife stabbing Marion Crane, all the

One of several scenes of Janet Leigh semi-nude.

while avoiding any real nudity, although audiences were convinced they had seen both. And while there had been plenty of screaming women in Hitchcock’s movies by this time, Marion Crane’s screams as she is stabbed to death recalls the screaming girl from the opening of “The Lodger.” (There actually is a split second shot that shows the tip of the knife piercing a woman’s stomach.)

Besides the shower scene, “Psycho” had other controversies stemming from Crane’s frankly sexual relationship with Sam, as well as her appearances in her bra and slip. “Psycho” was also the first movie to show a toilet.

“Psycho” had some unexpected impact on its cast. Although Anthony Perkins creates a sensitive, sympathetic performance in “Psycho,” and he looks like he’s having the time of his life as he attacks Vera Miles in the cellar, he had a hard time breaking away from Norman Bates. Janet Leigh was nominated for an Academy Award for her role as Marion Crane, but said she never showered again, and even received threatening phone calls and letters about Marion Crane. This was Vera Miles last film with Hitchcock; although she had been signed to an exclusive contract with Hitch, she did not enjoy working with him. Following “Psycho” she appeared in two episodes of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and an episode of the TV series “Startime” directed by Hitchcock.

The original trailer for “Psycho” took advantage of Hitchcock’s role as master of ceremonies on his TV series. Hitch hints at awful things, but does so in a funny, voyeuristic way. He takes us on a tour of the Bates Motel, talking about where people were killed going into much detail, which only makes the viewer want to know more. At the end, the quick cut to a woman screaming (it’s actually Vera Miles, not Janet Leigh) jolts you from the humor of Hitchcock, the TV host, back to the cold “reality” of the film itself. He’s demonstrating how easy it is to see even a ghastly subject in a humorous light – as long as it’s at a distance. Get too close, and it’s shocking. (Hitchcock makes his cameo early in the film, appearing outside Crane’s real estate office in a cowboy hat while his daughter, Patricia Hitchcock, chats away with Janet Leigh inside.) Here is the trailer:

The old house and the motel are also characters in the film, in a way. The house represents an old-fashioned sort of horror and looks like it’s haunted – which it is – while the motel represents a more modern horror, with its sleazy innuendo, brought to life when Bates peers through a hole in his office wall at Crane as she undresses.

“Psycho” remains one of Hitchcock’s greatest films, with themes and characters that continue to resonate today.

Next, Hitchcock adapts one last work by Daphne du Maurier, in the film that introduced Tippi Hedren: “The Birds.”

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