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alfred hitchcock and the making of psycho
8 september 2021
I came to Stephen Rebello's 1990 Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho after seeing its 2012 film adaptation Hitchcock, which, being me, I didn't get around to watching till 2021.
A little bit about that film later; this is a book review, however belated. And Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho is a very good book. It's as much of a page-turner for the reader interested in the craft of the movies as Psycho itself is a suspenser for its audience.
Film-making is irreducibly collaborative. Everybody who writes about film understands this, but the auteur theory that became dominant in the 1950s and '60s casts a long shadow over film criticism. Alfred Hitchcock was an icon of auteur criticism. His style was so distinctive that there was no mistaking his individual stamp on his pictures. They had the extra advantage of being good.
And Psycho was one of the best: obviously Hitchcock but at the same time obviously original, an example of a creator at the top of his game (coming off Vertigo and North by Northwest) but choosing at the same time to innovate by playing off existing formulas in unprecedented ways.
The crucible for Psycho, as Rebello presents things, was television. TV in the course of the 1950s had transformed movie-going, movie-making, and movie-interpreting, often by contrast: big-ticket Hollywood productions, increasingly in color and wide aspect ratios, with big stars and elaborate locations, made it worth the time and money it took to leave your couch and show up in a movie theater. Splashy color blockbusters won Oscars: Around the World in 80 Days, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Ben-Hur. TV was square, snowy, broadcast gratis (in America anyway), low-budget, and black-and-white.
But increasingly, 1950s feature-film succès d'estime like Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques and François Truffaut's Quatre cent coups were made in a gritty, cheap-looking black and white that played off TV images and challenged the polish of Hollywood. Hitchcock, no stranger to polish, was intrigued by the possibility of making a cheap thriller based in a shocker of a novel (by Robert Bloch) based on a gruesome true-crime case (that of murderer Ed Gein). But making it to his own exacting standards of pre-planning and precision.
Hitchcock had the best of both worlds: he was a Hollywood titan with a hit TV show. Rebello shows how Hitchcock mobilized his TV machine to create the hybrid Psycho, a major feature film that borrowed extensively from cheaper features and TV episodes in style and production values.
By so doing, Hitchcock made his most recognizable film, enormously influential and quotable, the focus of sequels, an ill-fated remake, and even, coming full circle, a TV series (Bates Motel, 2013-17), in the heyday of longform television (well after Rebello wrote his book).
But what was the director's main contribution? Robert Bloch provided the central ideas that make Psycho work: killing off the leading lady early, in the shower, twisting the identity of the murderer around and merging it with that of his mother. (I hope these are not spoilers, because the film opened 60 years ago and is one of the most famous in movie history.) Joseph Stefano imagined how Bloch's fiction would work on screen; Hitchcock, for all his creativity, was no writer and always depended on writers: though in interviews he tended to reduce their contributions, unfairly, to the mere provision of dialogue.
Saul Bass storyboarded key scenes, including the two innovative murders that punctuate Psycho. Later Bass seemed to want credit for directing the shower scene, a claim refuted by everyone else who was present. Bernard Herrmann brought the picture together with his strange and memorable score. Cinematographer John L. Russell and editor George Tomasini actually made the film, of course; but both acknowledge that they executed Hitchcock's visual interpretation of the material. One of a director's key roles is to decide what the technicians shoot, and how much of it. Everyone agrees that Hitchcock controlled the material that went into the editing room, making the finished product match his conception.
Acting gets quite a bit of attention in Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, too. Though Hitchcock famously thought actors should be treated like cattle, he realized early on that Tony Perkins and Janet Leigh were key collaborators, perfectly cast. Troupers like Martin Balsam and Simon Oakland helped steady their scenes. John Gavin mostly took up space, and Vera Miles, who had an uneasy working relationship with Hitchcock, was something of a cipher – even though she and Gavin carry the action of the second half of the film.
There's not much scandal in Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. Sacha Gervasi, working from John J. McLaughlin's screenplay, pumped dramatic conflict into Hitchcock, but at the expense of faithfulness to Rebello's chronicle. Hitchcock had pestered Vera Miles with attention while making earlier pictures, but that is just background to Psycho, by which time the director had tired of his misbehavior towards her. Janet Leigh kept Hitchcock's erotic obsessions at bay with her upbeat professionalism – to the point where Scarlett Johansson as Leigh, in Hitchcock, shows little dramatic energy despite probably having more screen time than Janet Leigh had in Psycho.
Instead, McLaughlin's screenplay imagines Alma Hitchcock (Helen Mirren), scarcely mentioned in Rebello's book, as the woman behind the auteur, stricken with jealousy and getting her own back by verging on a tryst with an aspiring writer (Danny Huston). This works well enough as counterpoint to the making of the film, but is relatively predictable. In the end all is forgiven and we see Alma as Hitchcock's co-auteur. Perhaps she was, but if so, that history did not get included in the definitive "making of" Psycho that Stephen Rebello put together from a decade of interviews and extensive archival research.
Hitchcock also heightens the suspense over the risks that the director took with the film. Hitchcock also produced and funded Psycho, to the tune of $800,000, which sounds like a lot of money even today. What if it bombed? Mirren and Anthony Hopkins as Hitch sit around wondering whether the bank will foreclose on their home. But this is nonsense. Even Vertigo, a relative flop in its first release, made $3.2 million at the box office. North by Northwest made much more. There was no way a single Hitchcock film was going to bring down his empire even if it lost its entire $800K budget.
In fact, of course, Psycho made $15 million in its first year of release, and Rebello suggests that it may have been far too successful. Hitchcock ends with a jovial nod forward to The Birds, which he made at Universal-International studios, where he'd bought his way into a lavish production unit with his Psycho profits. The Birds was a hit too, and iconic in its own way, but on nothing the scale of Psycho. The Birds was also kind of a mess and has divided critics ever since. Marnie (Hitchcock's next picture) seems mean-spirited and ugly in a way (particularly toward star Tippi Hedren) that Psycho, for all its flashing knives and chocolate syrup spatter, doesn't approach. Hitchcock labored through another four undistinguished films after Marnie, remaining popular but increasingly irrelevant in creative terms. What if he had concentrated on TV episodes, TV movies, and smaller-scale noirish features? Maybe they would have failed critically as well. But they'd have been more interesting than what he actually did. Psycho was both the peak and the precipice of its director's career.
Rebello, Stephen. Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. 1990. London: Marion Boyars, 2013.