You would be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t know the name Alfred Hitchcock. There are a few classic directors whose legacies have lived on long after their passing, but few can match the renown of "The Master of Suspense" himself. After all, can John Ford or Billy Wilder be recognized by their silhouettes alone? Hitch’s films read like a list of the thriller genre’s greatest hits. Though his prolific output provides ample room for discussion, many consider his best film to be 1960’s Psycho. Whether you find yourself in agreement with this appraisal, it’s no surprise that the first big screen biopic of Hitch centers around the production of the seminal horror movie.
And yet while we all know the name Hitchcock, recognize his famous profile, and are at least acquainted with a number of his films, there is so much of the man’s life that falls far outside the domain of common knowledge. Sacha Gervasi’s biopic Hitchcock aims to help inject some of those tidbits of this great artist’s personal life and trials into the public consciousness. That being said, the biopic doesn’t exactly spoon-feed the audience with exposition so there can be a sense of being thrown into the deep end for those who don’t count themselves among the Hitchcock literati. So here are a few things you’ll probably want to know before you see the movie. At the very least, it will help you better distinguish between what is fact and what might be dramatic embellishment.
Norman Bates is Based on Ed Gein
When contemporary audiences view Psycho, they may be quick to note the tameness of the violence. This is of course a function of the fact that it was produced in 1960, but it is also ironic considering the story basis for the film. Psycho was based on Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name. Though a fictionalized novel, it was largely influenced by the deeds of real-life psychopath Ed Gein.
In the late 50s, Ed Gein killed two women in his Wisconsin town and dug up a number of other corpses to fashion morbid trophies from their body parts. These trophies adorned his home when police later raided it. Gein was said to have dug up middle-aged women who reminded him of his deceased mother, with whom he had been exceedingly close. Within minutes of Hitchcock’s opening, you’ll understand why this information is valuable. Interesting side note, Gein also served as the blueprint for Leatherface and Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs.
Hitch’s Troubled Relationship with His Leading Ladies
Alfred Hitchcock, during the course of his career, had the great privilege to work with some of the most beautiful women in Hollywood history. Grace Kelly, Doris Day, Eva Marie Saint, and of course Psycho’s Janet Leigh. Though he may have preferred blondes, there has been much made of the fact that when it came to his relationship with his leading ladies, Hitch was no gentleman. He had a strange obsession with the glamour of starlets and was known to be rather rough and even cruel to them on set; conjectured to be an expression of his frustration at not being able to sleep with them.
One example of this involves Tippi Hedren, the star of Hitch’s The Birds as well as Marnie. Hedren has gone on record about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her director, noting that it seemed like he loved her except that most people don’t treat the people they love so badly. During the filming of The Birds, she was told repeatedly that her now iconic scene in the attic would involve only fake birds. It wasn’t until the day they were to shoot that scene that a crewmember let slip that the birds would be real. Hedren was beset by real birds, some of which were attached to her, for an entire week. While Hitch didn’t devise anything this malevolent for Janet Leigh, he did leave the prop corpse of Norman’s mother in her dressing room to get the right scream from her. This tendency toward obsession is important to understand going in, so that certain scenes in Hitchcock don’t feel awkwardly out of place.
The Studio Conflict
While Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most celebrated directors in the world by the time he started making movies in America, he was no stranger to having to battle studios and studio executives to accomplish his various visions. In 1940, David O. Selznick, the first American producer with whom he worked, re-edited Hitch’s Rebecca without his knowledge, and solely accepted the Oscar when the film won for Best Picture. This would be the only Academy Award Hitch would win until his lifetime achievement award in 1968. This rocky relationship with the studio system would persist well into his golden era.
Psycho became one of Hitch’s most acclaimed films as well as his most financially successful. But at the time, Paramount balked at Psycho’s content and its dark themes. They also expressed concern that Hitch was going too arty again, wanting to shoot in black-and-white, and were afraid of another financial flop like Vertigo. They didn’t want to produce it, and certainly did not want to finance it. It wasn’t until Hitch agreed to bankroll the movie himself that they agreed to at least distribute it, though they refused to let him shoot on the lot. The movie was instead filmed on the Universal backlot. Universal was only too happy to be back in the Hitchcock game. Since he had last made movies with them, they had been creatively stagnate and were deeply in debt. Keep this in mind when observing the various professional conflicts in the film.
The Importance of Alma
Though he was rumored to be obsessed with his leading ladies, there was no denying Hitch was thoroughly devoted to his wife Alma. She was not merely a loving companion and a source of inspiration, but also Hitch’s most important collaborator. At various points throughout his career, she was his screenwriter, his editor, and she also provided the final say on whether a proposed project was worthy of his time. In fact, if she didn’t like it a script that crossed Hitch’s desk, he didn’t bother moving forward with it. He revered her throughout their whole lives. When he was a young man, first working an entry-level job at a film studio in England, Alma was already established there and, because she held a higher position, Hitch considered it improper to speak to her. Her importance in his life is a central focus of the film.
Hitchcock Was Also a Master Showman
Though he would probably bristle at the comparison, Alfred Hitchcock was sort of the P.T. Barnum of the film world. The attraction he was selling was always himself. Even before he came over to the United States, marking his further meteoric rise, Hitch’s success in England prompted him to hire a team of people whose sole function was to promote Hitchcock; not just his films, but also the Hitchcock name. His marketing and theatrical stunts became the stuff of Hollywood lore. Spying the director’s inevitable cameo became part of the fun of seeing a new Hitchcock film. He also followed Walt Disney’s example and hosted his own television show: Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
For Psycho, he actually forced theater managers to disallow the admission of patrons who arrived late for fear that it would ruin the film’s frightening surprises. It was for this reason he also held no early screenings for the press; a risky gamble to be sure. He also recorded special radio advertisements and even sent manuals to theater owners explaining his gimmicks. Not only are these signature marketing tricks examined in Hitchcock, but Sir Anthony Hopkins, who plays Hitch in the film, actually appears in an ad running in theaters right now instructing audiences to turn off their cell phones. This meta approach would have made Hitch smile — to the extent that Hitch could smile, of course.
[Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight]
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