Alfred Hitchcock

And The Making Of Psycho


Stephen Rebello
Marion Boyars. London. 1990.
Hbk, 224 pages, bibliography, index, b/w photographs, £14.95.


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The success of Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1990) made films about serial killers all the rage. Like their subjects filmmakers are quick to cannibalise anything that might bring them fame and fortune. Hitchcock's Psycho can be regarded as THE film that has set the standard for such productions. The famous shower sequence alone has made it a popular classic. Killing off the female heroine 47 minutes into the film, and the revelation about the murderer and 'mother' added further innovations to a mainstream Hollywood product. 

Everybody knows it is a Hitchcock film, yet the auteurship of the production is quite problematic. The original story was written by Robert Bloch in 1958. His novel was loosely based on the real-life activities of Ed Gein who had a predilection for murdering and dismembering women. Hitchcock saw Bloch's novel as a vehicle for producing something different from his previous colourful and lavish productions. 

James Cavanagh wrote the first screenplay but it ended up as an unconvincing love story. Hitchcock had more luck with Joseph Stefano, and they collaborated on a suitable screenplay. 

The greatest dispute has been over who actually directed the shower sequence. Saul Bass has claimed that he did it. Certainly he produced the title credits, and worked on storyboarding the murder of Arbogast as well as the 45 second murder in the shower. Rebello gives a fair hearing to both sides of the argument, but as Bass is quoted as saying "the truth of the matter is, it was and is Hitch's film. It s all his, no matter what I did." 

The director of Les Diaboliques might have had more justification than Bass for feeling that his creative ideas had been 'robbed'. There are many thematic similarities - between Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1954 film and Psycho. Clouzot was heralded as 'the French Hitchcock' which probably didn't please the real Hitchcock. To rub salt into his wounds Clouzot had out-manoeuvred him into buying D'Entre Les Morts which he turned into the haunting yet at the time disparaged Vertigo (1958). 

Hitchcock made Psycho on a low budget ($806,947.55) and it was shot quickly (principal photography began on 30 November 1959 and ended 01 February 1960). Much of the crew was composed of the TV production crew who usually worked on his Alfred Hitchcock Presents programme. Even the music for the film was discordant and unusual. Nobody knew what to expect of the film and how the audience would react - least of all Hitchcock. The production was a massive gamble. Audiences quickly responded to the film with gruesome enthusiasm. Their screams and laughter puzzled and surprised the makers of Psycho

Rather than ruining Hitchcock it made him the true master of grizzly suspense thrillers. Yet, Rebello believes that such a world-wide success had a worse effect on Hitchcock's creative power than if he had suffered a box-office and critical flop. How could he top Psycho? Too much was expected of him, and he expected too much of himself. Such an attitude is a handy theory for Rebello to close his book with, and depends on how much you regard the films made after Psycho (e.g. The Birds, Marnie, etc.). 

Overall Rebello's book is an excellent insight into the making of a film. It is a model of how to present a vast army of facts into a very readable form. He crisply moves through all the stages of production, and deals with such matters as the publicity campaign for the film and its reception at the Oscar ceremonies. Alfred Hitchcock isn't presented as a saint or a sinner but as a genuinely gifted filmmaker who controlled all the elements of the production. 

Psycho would probably have never have been made without Hitchcock. He selected the team to work on the project and they all made their own individual creative contributions. In turn Hitchcock oversaw that all these elements worked towards producing what he wanted on the screen. For example, Hilton Green directed the killing of Arbogast scene when Hitchcock was ill with flu. On his return he saw the footage which was shot according to Saul Bass' storyboard. After the screening Hitchcock announced: “Fellas, we've made a big mistake. The minute you see the hands on the rail, the feet - you're telegraphing that something's going to happen. Take it all out, except for the monorail shot.” Also, Hitchcock had to contend with the censorship that the Hays Office wanted to place on the production, and he had to consider how much he could manipulate and shock his potential audience. That he got away with so much in such a skilful manner is a mark of his genius. 

Nigel Watson
 
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