The new movie “Hitchcock” contains one of the greatest cinematic moments I’ve ever seen. It comes near the end of the picture. The film is a movie-lover’s dream, presenting a “backstage” story about the making of “Psycho” and the popular director who brought the British delight of mysteries and thrillers to American audiences.
The new movie also touches on Alfred Hitchcock’s alleged mistreatment of some of his leading ladies. Therefore, a little background is necessary.
If you believe what’s being talked about in some circles, the legendary motion picture director was a cinematic genius with serious daddy issues. In this case, the knighted Sir Alfred was the daddy. According to reports, he was mean-spirited, sometimes even cruel and perverse, to some of the women he cast in starring roles. Supposedly, Hitchcock was obsessed with blondes and after he put them in his pictures, his jealousy knew no bounds. He saw himself as their father figure. A couple of these actresses have gone public with their condemnation of Hitchcock’s alleged emotional abuse. There is some legitimate evidence of this behavior, but tackier and more tasteless stories abound and grow exponentially with each retelling. The great director was a man in love with practical jokes, many of them played on members of his cast and crew. For a few, the jokes were wrongly interpreted and were not appreciated.
Hitchcock’s sense of humor was seen either as droll whimsy or obnoxious behavior. There’s nothing wrong with holding a dinner party, as he did, at which only blue food is served, blue food being a rare item in culinary circles. But did Hitchcock’s actions descend into misogyny? Regarding actress Vera Miles, I believe absolutely that his treatment of her was wrong.
Miles was a stand-out in Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man” (1956), earning high praise for her role as the wife of Henry Fonda’s musician, who was wrongly accused of a crime. As with many of his female stars, the director took personal pleasure in attempting to reinvent Miles, ordering a glamorous makeover that would include a new hair style, new make-up, and a new wardrobe. The dark-haired Miles would become a blonde. Hitchcock then cast the actress in a leading role in “Vertigo” (1958) opposite Jimmy Stewart. However, the shooting of the picture was set back by production delays, and then Miles became pregnant and had to give up the part. The pregnancy infuriated Hitchcock because “Vertigo” was going to be a showcase for the woman he saw as his next superstar. Miles was to replace Grace Kelly in Hitchcock’s on-screen and off-screen fantasies. Kelly was the director’s dream actress, the golden girl of a number of his films.
Hitchcock turned a cold shoulder to Miles, effectively shutting her out. In Hollywood in the 1950s, a powerful director linked to a powerful studio could make an actress disappear from the public’s consciousness.
In Francois Truffaut’s extraordinary interview book with Hitchcock, published in 1967, the French director asked Hitchcock about this professional falling-out. Here’s what Hitchcock said: “She became pregnant just before the part that was going to turn her into a star. After that, I lost interest. I couldn’t get the rhythm going with her again.” But Hitchcock and Miles were reunited a couple of years later when he cast her as Marion Crane’s sister Lila in “Psycho.”
While Janet Leigh and Eva Marie Saint have had good things to say about working with Hitchcock, his most persistent negative accuser is the failure known as Tippi Hedren, who blames the director for the demise of her acting career. However, almost anyone who knows and loves good movies realizes right away with both “The Birds” and “Marnie,” the two pictures she made with Hitchcock, that when it comes to acting, Hedren lacks a natural ability to project a believable character.
Imagine, if you will, how much better “The Birds” and “Marnie” would be if someone with talent played the female leads of Melanie Daniels and Marnie Edgar. At least in the very good “The Birds,” there are the attacking feathered creatures to distract the audience from former model Hedren’s lack of experience. In the weak “Marnie,” it’s all Hedren, with her thin voice and lack of emotional range, competing against Freudian symbolism (including a horse) and, well, you know who wins that one.
Blithering non-fiction writer Donald Spoto, who has managed to have a career by maligning myriad celebrities in his biographies, printing just-this-side-of-libelous material about them in his clunky books, including three about Hitchcock, is the ringleader of the assault on Hitchcock’s reputation. The author is obsessed with the director’s “dark side.” You see, if you make mysteries and thrillers and like to play practical jokes on the set, you can’t be normal. Or at least that’s how Spoto, using amateur psychology of the worst kind, sees Hitchcock.
Spoto has also turned his often poison pen towards Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Laurence Olivier, James Dean, Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Crawford, Alan Bates, Lotte Lenya, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, Princess Diana, movie directors Preston Sturges and Stanley Kramer, playwright Tennessee Williams, Jesus of Nazareth, the House Of Windsor, and the saints Joan Of Arc and Francis Of Assisi.
Granted, Crawford’s daughter Christina, and then actress Faye Dunaway playing Crawford in “Mommie Dearest,” put the proverbial nail in Joan’s reputation coffin, but Spoto didn’t help things. Spoto also wrote a book about the acting Redgrave family (Michael, Vanessa, Corin, Lynn, and the three Richardsons – Tony, Natasha, and Joely). Seven talented folks dumped on for the price of one. Usually some burden of proof is requisite for dismantling people’s lives, but Spoto is a clever, albeit annoying little gnat. In all of the books of his that I’ve read, he dances around his creepy accusations staying protected by his careful and frisky use of the English language.
Spoto’s silly book “Spellbound By Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock And His Leading Ladies” is the basis for Hedren’s revenge fantasy, having been turned into a cheesy HBO movie entitled “The Girl,” which in addition to being an incoherent mess, also didn’t muster many viewers. The director is Julian Jarrod and the screenwriter is Gwyneth Hughes, both Brits, and neither of whom deserve much further attention. Author Spoto also gets a “creative consultant” credit and Hedren gets a “Thanks.” Prior to the recent premiere of “The Girl,” Hedren was out beating the publicity drums as if her life depended on it. It was embarrassing seeing Hedren demean Hitchcock as only a hack can do.
Everywhere she appeared, Hedren blamed Sir Alfred for a multitude of sins. Her biggest complaint seemed to be that during the filming of the attic scene in “The Birds,” the director ordered that live birds be thrown at her to achieve a reaction that wasn’t forthcoming. A believable actress knows how to play being attacked by “angry” fake prop birds. Not Hedren. If she had been honest, she would have noted that live birds were also thrown at a number of other cast members during the filming. However, Hedren had to personalize this and turn it into a twisted tale of Hitchcock’s loathing of her because she didn’t succumb to his alleged smarmy advances. Or at least that’s how she sees it.
Returning again to Truffaut’s book with Hitchcock, published years before Hedren craved the fame spotlight again, the two directors discuss the fact that some of the other cast members, in addition to Hedren, had birds thrown at them. Truffaut asked: “I’m curious about that gull that flies across the screen to swoop down upon the garage attendant. How was it possible to direct a bird with such accuracy.” Hitchcock replies: “That was a live gull thrown (at the actor) from a high platform off screen.”
Utter failure though it is, “The Girl” helped rekindle interest in Hitchcock, not that he needed it. He was and still is, even deceased, the most instantly recognizable motion picture director of all time. Three things led to this attention. For starters, audiences, especially in the United States in the 1940s through the early 1970s, loved Hitchcock’s movies. Secondly, his mystery anthology television program, introduced by the portly man himself with his odd British sense of humor, was a huge success and is still playing in re-runs. And third, his cameo appearances in many of his films turned finding Hitchcock into a cinematic version of “Where’s Waldo,” well before Waldo came upon the scene.
Now we have the movie called simply “Hitchcock,” which may not be suspenseful but is certainly enjoyable. It’s also vastly superior to “The Girl” on every level, including directing, screenplay, acting, and production values. After the success of “North By Northwest,” which many consider to be the quintessential Hitchcock picture, the director was beset with questions about his age, then 60.
As noted in “Hitchcock,” he was asked what he was going to do next because few thought he could top his latest hit. This question, hurled at him by a reporter at the Chicago premiere of “North By Northwest,” stung Hitchcock: “You’re the most famous director in the world, but you’re 60 years old, don’t you think you should quit while you’re ahead?”
Hitchcock may have been older, not that 60 is old, and he certainly wasn’t elderly, but an overriding 1950s age prejudice was front and center. Hitchcock was determined to top himself. To make an even better and more popular and more talked-about motion picture.
What he made would change Hollywood forever.
“Hitchcock” is the first fictional feature film directed by Sacha Gervasi, a British-Canadian who studied screenwriting at UCLA and is known primarily for his scripts for “The Big Tease,” “The Terminal,” and “Henry’s Crime,” which was shot in Buffalo. Gervasi directed an off-beat documentary about a heavy metal band known as Anvil. The screenplay for “Hitchcock” is by John J. McLaughlin (“Black Swan”) and is based on Stephen Rebello’s lively book “Alfred Hitchcock And The Making Of Psycho.”
Anthony Hopkins plays Hitchcock, and although he doesn’t favor the director’s rotund facial features as precisely as he should have, he does deliver a clever and entertaining performance. Helen Mirren may be too tall to play Hitchock’s wife, the tiny bird-like Alma Reville, but she shines in the role of the woman who was much more than the director’s spouse.
The two met when both were working in silent films in London. In fact, her job was more important than his. But society being what it was like at the time, and bias against strong women in motion picture production being what it was, Alfred became the world famous director and Alma his key advisor, confidante, and a person who had a hand in every single movie Hitchcock made. She helped prepare scripts, offered casting and production advice, watched first cuts, and gave her husband ideas about problematic points in his pictures. It’s safe to say that without Alma, there would not be an Alfred Hitchcock as the world knows him.
While watching footage of the shower sequence in “Pyscho,” in which Marion Crane is savagely murdered by Norman Bates, it was Alma who noticed an almost imperceptible blink by Janet Leigh as she lay sprawled over the edge of the bathtub.
Surprisingly, even after the popularity of “North By Northwest,” Hitchcock was not a completely bankable director. He owed a picture to Paramount, which would back his next film, but only if it was a breezy Hitchcockian thriller. Something light and fun. If he was considered a member of the old guard, ready for pasture, the director was determined to shock the young guard out of its shoes. He came upon a newly-published suspense novel called “Psycho” by Robert Bloch, which is generally thought to be a loose retelling of the murders committed by a Wisconsin man named Ed Gein. The director bought the rights to the novel for $9,500.
Hitchcock decided, against Paramount’s wishes and the initial advice of his agent, to turn “Psycho” into a movie. He ordered that all copies of the book in the United States be bought off the shelves. This way, he believed, very few would know the ending. He lived comfortably in the deluxe Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles, but Hitchcock was not mega-rich. If Paramount wouldn’t fund the picture, the director would mortgage his house to raise money. Because of his television series, Hitchcock knew how to shoot a story quickly and in black and white. “Psycho” would be filmed on-the-fly as it were, cheaply, swiftly, and in total secrecy. He would use mostly 50mm lenses on 35mm cameras to best duplicate how humans actually see things.
Making movies was in his bones, and despite numerous roadblocks and doubts, Hitchcock knew that “Psycho” would create a sensation. A censorship board had to be won over. And the great secret of “Psycho,” and you know what that is, had to be kept hidden from the world. The director came up with a solution. Once the movie started, no one would be allowed into the theater. This was unheard of in 1960 because moviegoers often walked in at the middle of a picture and then stayed until their exact entry point during the next showing. Weird to be sure, but that’s the way it was.
The rest, as they say, is motion picture history. I’ve often written that the first 45-minutes of “Psycho” deliver one of the finest examples of pure cinema you are likely to see. Its achievements belong to Sir Alfred and, of course, to Alma. In “Hitchcock,” we find the director battling demons as the production becomes more and more controversial and hampered by problems. He has nightmares in which mass-murderer Gein talks to him. This is an aspect of the film that works well enough to be acceptable. But one sideshow that doesn’t work for me is the invention of Hitchcock being concerned that Alma is having an affair with a screenwriter, well-played by Danny Huston (director John Huston’s real-life son). This is not rooted in fact and tends to bog down the film, although not enough to derail it. Mirren and Huston both elevate the material.
Gervasi and his team were not allowed to use actual footage from “Psycho,” but they overcome this handicap nicely. Cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth, music by Danny Elfman, editing by Pamela Martin, and production design by Judy Becker are all exceptional. The cast, selected by Terri Taylor, is superb.
Hopkins and Mirren are glorious and believable, not only when they are both enthused about the “Psycho” they are creating, but also when they argue with each other. Their relationship is deep and serious, and they have a prickly, needling love that is the hallmark of so many long-married couples. Scarlett Johansson is flawless and captivating as Janet Leigh. James D’Arcy is outstanding as Anthony Perkins, and Toni Collette delights as Hitchcock’s long-time executive assistant Peggy Robertson, another opinionated woman who helped influence his movies. Jessica Biel as Vera Miles, Michael Stuhlberg as Lew Wasserman, Michael Wincott as Ed Gein, Kurtwood Smith as the chief censor, and Ralph Macchio as Joseph Stefano, the screenwriter of “Psycho,” all merit praise.
At the start of this review, I alluded to the fact that in “Hitchcock,” you’ll discover “one of the greatest cinematic moments I’ve ever seen.” It involves Hopkins as Hitchcock and it’s both delirious and exhilarating. It’s what Hitchcock does in the lobby of a theater where “Psycho” is being shown to an unseen and screaming audience. In the auditorium itself, there is sheer bedlam. In the lobby there is sepulchral silence. And then Hopkins does something that is extraordinary. You’ll know it when you see it. It’s a movie moment that ranks with the best. I don’t know whose idea it was — actor, director, or screenwriter, but it’s the work of someone who truly understands what Hitchcock the man was all about and what “Psycho” meant to him.
“Hitchcock” the movie is an entertaining and engrossing look at that man and his passion. “Psycho” altered the filmmaking landscape. Horror films were B-pictures, second best, not considered worthy of important directors or beloved movie stars. Hitchcock raised the bar and also opened up new avenues for fast and inexpensive film production. “Psycho” cost only $806,000 to make; a bargain. He knew audiences and he knew technology. There’s a reason some people consider him a genius. And there’s a reason his place in motion picture history is secure.
Michael can be reached at Movierole@aol.com