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Hitchcock at 100:
And Then Came Psycho

by Gregory Avery

Then, Psycho came along. Hitchcock's staff included readers who were employed to sift through the stories, books and manuscripts that came into his offices, and Robert Bloch's crudely effective novel struck a chord with someone. Hitchcock had a look at it, and obtained the services of Joseph Stefano, who would later work on the "Outer Limits" TV series. The role of the middle-aged, balding Norman Bates was turned into a young, handsome man, and Marion Crane's shower murder -- which, in the novel, was achieved with one swing of a butcher's knife -- was turned into an elaborate sequence, one that showed Marion's body being violated, again and again, in a matter of seconds by a knife, in what was up until then considered one of the safest, most intimate and private places in the house.

Hitchcock slipped the film into theaters in June of 1960. The Master of Suspense had ingratiated himself into the American consciousness as the man who made witty (and, with regards to commercial interruptions, classically derogatory) introductions on his weekly TV program, and produced classy, gentile movie thrillers. The power of the film that appeared in 1960 cannot be underestimated. Janet Leigh has written that she will take showers only when there is no other way to bathe, "then I make sure all of the doors and windows in the house are locked, and I leave the bathroom door open and the shower curtain or stall door open so I have a perfect, clear view. I face the door no matter where the showerhead is. The room, I might add, gets very wet." One friend of this writer's family, after seeing the film, was unable to sleep at night unless her bed was positioned in the very middle of the room.

Bosley Crowther initially denounced the film, then re-evaluated it again in-part, then re-evaluated his re-evaluation. "Time" magazine openly snubbed Psycho by naming William Castle's quickly imitation, "Homicidal," one of the best films of 1961. Andrew Sarris, in one of his first reviews as the new film critic for the "Village Voice," praised Psycho. He was deluged with negative mail. So was Janet Leigh, to the point where she felt she should turn some of the letters over to the FBI

But business went through the roof. Hitchcock insisted on the policy that no one be allowed into showings of Psycho after they had started. Peggy Robertson, Hitchcock's assistant after Joan Harrison, revealed she and the director came up with this idea so that moviegoers would be sure to see all of Janet Leigh's performance in the picture. This also went towards raising anticipation among people waiting to get in, while ensuring lines around the block. (In Atlantic City, they actually used boardwalk stroller chairs for people waiting outside the theater, with signs that read, "We are waiting to see Psycho.")

It should be noted, here, that, one month prior to the U.S. premiere of Psycho, Michael Powell, another director who was also British and was just as brilliant a filmmaker as Hitchcock, brought out his own equally powerful film, Peeping Tom, in London. Written by Leo Marks, who had performed code-breaking work during World War Two, it also dealt with sexual pathology, had an attractive young man (played by Karl Boehm) as its lead character, depicted a series of murders, and had a hair-raising surprise ending. PsychoBut whereas Hitchcock's career soared because of Psycho, Powell's film was rejected with a vehemency that can scarcely be described. "The sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing" (the "Spectator"), "beastly" (C.A. Lejeune, in the "Observer"), "degradation" (the "Daily Express"), and "appallingly masochistic and depraved..., it is wholly evil" (the London "Daily Worker") was about how the tone ran. Even the great Dilys Powell, writing in the "Times," acknowledged the film's merits but concluded that it was an "essentially vicious film." "To put it bluntly," wrote Alexander Walker, the venerable film critic for the "Evening Standard," in 1997, "Peeping Tom was the first 'snuff' film any of us had seen." (Walker and fellow critics had spent a day in May of 1960 viewing the films opening that week, the comedy The League of Gentlemen, Disney's Toby Tyler, Renoir's Picnic on the Grass, and, then, Powell's film.) Hitchcock's "reputation," Walker wrote, was what saved Psycho when it opened in London. Powell's film was pulled from its premiere London engagement, and the producer peddled the film's rights away as if he wanted to get something soiled off his hands. (One of the reasons the film was very difficult to see years afterwards.) Peeping Tom is nothing of the sort, and, in fact, excels in many ways compared to Psycho. The only thing about Powell's film is that it perhaps swings the mirror around to face the audience squarely a bit too brusquely and a bit too sharply. Whereas Hitchcock only subtly suggests at the very end of Psycho that we, too, may have monsters within us, Powell takes the risk of overtly showing us that fact. Because of its rejection, the film effectively destroyed Powell's career. (Martin Scorsese was among the first to rescue the film, reviving it theatrically in the early 1980s. The film will also be seen in theaters again this year.)

Hitchcock, on the other hand, was faced with the problem of what to do for an encore, having "shocked the socks" off of America (and making them like it, too -- the picture was repeatedly re-released). At the same time, the women in Hitchcock's pictures began becoming less and less sympathetic. While Jessica Tandy rendered Mitch Brenner's reproachful mother in The Birds with what would become a beautifully cadenced performance, Dany Robin would be stuck playing an unrequited nag in Topaz, and Billie Whitelaw's role in Frenzy was nothing short of mean-spirited and bitter. And there was no sympathy rendered towards the ill-tempered outbursts of the lead character in Marnie.

Hitchcock had five emotional involvement with women during the course of his career. Two of them were with Joan Harrison, his longtime personal assistant, who went on to become a producer in her own right, and Vera Miles, who, though under contract to Hitchcock in the late Fifties and early Sixties, had, to him, the effrontery to put home and family ahead of her career. The third was Ingrid Bergman. Much later in life, when age and ill health were wearing him down, Hitchcock alluded to David Freeman about an unrequited love between him and the actress. When, after the making of Under Capricorn, she went to live with Roberto Rossellini, Hitchcock took it as a personal slight.

The fourth was Grace Kelly, whose retirement from acting, to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco, was also seen as something of a rebuke by Hitchcock. He later set up Marnie as a comeback vehicle for Kelly, but Rainier said no, perhaps considering, wisely, that the role of a "frigid" kleptomaniac and chronic liar might not be entirely suitable for Her Serene Highness.

Enter Tippi Hedren. She had a daughter (future actress Melanie Griffith) and a husband, and was first spotted in a black-and-white TV commercial. Hitchcock signed her to an exclusive contract, and cast her in the lead role of Melanie Daniels in The Birds, the woman whose tumultuous personal life seems to cause all of the local ornithology in Bodega Bay, California to rise-up in revolt. Hedren had no prior acting experience. The climatic scene depicts Melanie becoming trapped in a room and attacked by gulls and crows. While the scene was very specifically detailed, planned and shot, it still required Hedren to submit to shot after shot of live birds being thrown at her, a fact that is painfully evident in the final film.

When Hitchcock went to the Cannes Film Festival, with Hedren, for the premiere of The Birds in 1963, the forthright, hard-nosed Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci interviewed him. She had been an ardent admirer of the director's work until she saw The Birds, a film about, she felt, "birds who eat humans." Fallaci met with Hitchcock, watched him puff on one of the cigars he was fond of, listened to his anecdotes and by-now rote answers, and concluded by saying, "With all your cordial humor, your nice round face, your nice innocent paunch, you are the most wicked, cruel man I have ever met." Hitchcock's response is not recorded.

MarnieTippi Hedren was next cast in Marnie, based on the Winston Graham novel. In the film, Marnie is manipulated into marrying a man (Sean Connery), a behavioral specialist (of animals), or risk being turned over to the police. On their honeymoon, he forces himself on her, despite Marnie's abhorrence of sex (the result of a childhood trauma). Off the set, Donald Spoto has written that Hedren rejected an overt proposition by Hitchcock. (Like Fallaci, Spoto, who had written the laudatory "Art of Alfred Hitchcock," seems to have become disillusioned when he wrote his later biography about the director.) Whatever occurred, Marnie is an unusually flawed film. Hitchcock continues with his experimentation in the use of color, which began with the visual deployment of reds in Rear Window, and continued with signatory uses of jewel-like greens and reds in Vertigo. Diana Baker's character in Marnie, a competitor for the attentions of Mark Rutland (Connery), wears almost the exact light shade of green that Melanie Daniels wears throughout The Birds. And the color red is used to depict the occurrence of Marnie's phobic reactions during the story. But while the honeymoon business is toned-down, from the version in screenplay drafts, part of an important scene which sets the stage for a robbery has been left out of the picture, and for a climatic emotional scene, Hitchcock seems to have chosen the least effective shot of a culminatory reaction from Hedren.

The picture was then advertised as "a sex mystery" ("if one were to use such terms," said Hitchcock in the promotional trailer), although it isn't -- it's about a woman whose traumas affect her behavior adversely, including kleptomania. (Marnie cannot experience pleasure from sex, but she does during theft.) The final dismissal of the film, and subsequently Hedren's association with Hitchcock, occurred when the film premiered in New York City -- a Hitchcock film, mind you -- on a double bill with a Pat Boone movie.

Hitchcock made The Birds and Marnie as part of his new contract for Universal, and, between 1964 and 68, he would end up selling to the studio's parent company, MCA, the rights to Psycho and to his TV show in exchange for enough stock to give him a controlling interest in MCA and make him and his family independently wealthy for the rest of their lives. The exchange, however, would have its effects.

What new pictures would he make for the Lords of the New Machine? There was Torn Curtain, an East-West espionage drama whose failure Hitchcock laid-off on the casting of Paul Newman and Julie Andrews in the leads, playing physicists who were also in love. Newman and Andrews are perfectly capable performers, but, for various reasons, Hitchcock lost interest in them, instead doting upon the particulars of a prolonged murder sequence, or febrile scenes involving Lila Kedrova as a Polish "countess" seeking entry into the West. Little attention seems to have been paid to the plot, and you don't have to be a wizard to see the idiocy of having Newman's character start a panic in a crowded theatre by shouting "Fire!" -- in the middle of an audience made up of German-speaking people.

The picture was an unhappy experience in another way, as it marked the end of a longtime collaboration with composer Bernard Herrmann. Hitchcock was under pressure to deliver a soundtrack for the film that would sell records. When Herrmann started conducting his finished score for Torn Curtain, Hitchcock stopped him, and they got into an argument that resulted in Herrmann's exit. In the 1992 documentary "Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann," a recording of Herrmann's music was synched-up to a scene from Torn Curtain, showing just how much of a loss Herrmann's departure was for the movie, and for Hitchcock. John Addison, who had just won an Oscar for Tom Jones, was quickly brought in to do the scoring for Torn Curtain. The music is unsurpassingly awful.

TopazIn 1968, Hitchcock announced that, in a year, he would be bringing out a film version of Topaz, based on a best-selling Leon Uris novel that was based on the real-life infiltration of a Soviet agent into the administration of French president Charles de Gaulle. Uris' contract stipulated that he take first crack at writing the screenplay. At the very last minute, Hitchcock placed an urgent call to Samuel Taylor, who had worked with Hitchcock previously on projects ranging from Vertigo to No Bail for the Judge. Taylor and his wife were also friends of the Hitchcocks. Uris' script, it turned out, was unusable, and Taylor had to come to Hitchcock's rescue. It was one of the only times, in a career that now spanned over 50 films, when Hitchcock started production on a film without a finished screenplay, or an ending. Hitchcock showed interest in details involving concealed cameras and microfilm hidden in razor blade cartridges, a scene where Roscoe Lee Browne (in a marvelous performance) insinuated his way into a hotel in order to lift some classified information, or in the way Karin Dor's dark purple robe billowed across the floor as, from high above, the camera watched the life leaving her body. But why would Hitchcock be interested in Communists in Cuba? Or how the 1962 missile crisis affected France's standing in the world community? Why should he be?

In 1982, the original ending for Topaz was discovered, and it turned out to be much more dramatically satisfying than the awful one that Hitchcock had to resort to using after preview audiences, in 1969, reacted adversely to the first, then second, one that Hitchcock made. Also discovered were several cans of undeveloped film for a project called Kaleidoscope, the film that Hitchcock really wanted to make after Torn Curtain.

In "Hitchcock's Notebooks," Dan Auiler, using screenplay excerpts and other documentation from Hitchcock's files, shows that he was intent and all set on making this picture, based on the case of Neville Brand, who sweet-talked women into situations where they ended-up becoming his murder victims. Kaleidoscope would have told the story of a young man, Willie, who was also a killer; his mother, Miriam, an actress who works on the New York stage, and who eventually helps the police in the capture of her son; and Julie, a young woman who starts a romantic involvement with Willie but is, in fact, a police investigator. After starting work on the project with Benn Levy, a collaborator from his early filmmaking days in Britain, Hitchcock wrote much of the screenplay himself; Howard Fast and Hugh Wheeler contributed some work, later on. François Truffaut, whose book of interviews with the director was about to be published, read Hitchcock's screenplay for Kaleidoscope and, while outlining some weak points, wrote positively of it from a professional viewpoint, adding, "I trust also that you have got a good cast in mind. Willie will be a great break for somebody." (While reading the excerpt from Kaleidoscope, one person immediately sprang to my mind for the part: the young Dustin Hoffman.)

What Hitchcock wanted to do was make the film on actual locations in New York City, using a mobile camera, unknown actors, and shooting the scenes using natural light. He sent two still photographers and one film cameraman to make tests to find out which exposures and film stock speeds would work best to this advantage. (The unexposed footage found in 1982 is part of these tests.) The project reads like Hitchcock's Shadows, the John Cassavetes film that revolutionized filmmaking in the late 1950s. And it would have cost a fraction of what the globe-trotting Topaz ended up running.

All that is known at this point is that Hitchcock made a presentation, with slide work, to Universal executives sometimes in 1967-68. And was rejected. "They had belittled Hitchcock's attempt to do precisely what they had urged him to do -- to attempt something different, to catch up with the swiftly moving times," said Howard Fast. "They insisted it might be fine for someone else, but they took all copies of the script from Hitchcock's office and from me." (Thanks to Dan Auiler's work, though, the script has been reclaimed.) Instead, Hitchcock was forced, out of want for anything else to do, to turn out one more spy thriller.

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