This post was first published on Culturewatch as part of the Film & Bible Blog. © Tony Watkins 2013. For discussion material on this film, see my Damaris Film Blog discussion guide and the supplementary questions in the published version of this article in the Film & Bible Blog.
Alfred Hitchcock is one of the few people who truly warrant the term iconic. Not only is he perhaps the most significant figure in cinema history, with a film career spanning more than fifty years, but his distinctive, portly profile is instantly recognisable. Hitchcock was not only a master of his art, but also of selling himself as a brand. His influence on generations of film-makers is enormous: as an endlessly innovative director, he pioneered techniques which are now familiar in psychological thrillers.
Sacha Gervasi’s film Hitchcock concerns itself with only one short period in the director’s career: the making of his most famous film, Psycho, which was released in June 1960. Based on Stephen Rebello’s book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the film had a tortuous journey to completion. It coincidentally arrived on cinema screens shortly after the 2012 BBC/HBO television movie The Girl, starring Toby Jones as Hitchcock, in which he is portrayed as obsessive and abusive towards Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller), his leading lady in The Birds (1963). While The Girl attempts to get under Hitchcock’s skin and presents a very unflattering picture of him, Gervasi’s film sees him in a much more positive light, yet fails to deal with its subject with much insight or subtlety.
What Hitchcock does do, however, is to bring Mrs Hitchcock, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), to centre stage. Alfred Hitchcock may have the towering reputation and his name in the credits, but Alma was a vital creative partner. Helen Mirren says that Alma
was fully recognized by Hitchcock . . . It wasn’t as if it was some sort of guilty secret. He didn’t give her credit on the screen, but there was no credit really to be given, because I think she had a finger in so many pies. I’m sure she looked at the costumes and said “No, that doesn’t work. It should be that.” The hair, the editing, the script, she had a finger in so many pies it would sort of be impossible to credit her, but Hitch did credit her personally, absolutely.1
Gervasi doesn’t just show us the creative partnership between ‘Hitch’ and Alma, however, but also her friendship with fellow writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wants more from her than help writing his new screenplay. As Hitch becomes aware that his wife is spending more and more time with the charming Whit, he grows jealous, and their marriage becomes tense.
There are other things to make Hitch anxious, too. The film opens with the opening of North by Northwest in 1959. It was a great success with audiences, but although Paramount wants Hitchcock to produce more of the same, the press begin to suggest that it is time he stopped making films. The director himself feels that he has lost the freedom he experienced in making films in the earlier part of his career, and he longs to do something fresh. As his anxiety over his lack of inspiration grows, he comes across a horror novel by Robert Bloch, based on the true story of serial killer Ed Gein. The book is called Psycho, and Hitch is so caught up by the subject matter that he concludes it must be the basis of his next movie, despite Alma’s attempts to persuade him to film Whit’s screenplay.
Once he has made the decision, Hitch finds fresh energy, and he immediately orders that every copy of the book in the country should be bought so that people don’t know the story and its conclusion before they see the film. However, he faces stiff opposition from Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow), the head of Paramount, who refuses to finance the film, and from Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith), the censor from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), who threatened to withhold permission for the film to be released. At first, Alma is also dismissive of the project, but when Hitch points out the shock value of killing off the leading lady halfway through, she replies, ‘Actually, I think it’s a huge mistake. You shouldn’t wait till halfway through. Kill her off after 30 minutes.’ Alma is deeply committed to her husband — more than he realises as he frets over the possibility that she is embarking on an affair with Whit — and when he tells her that the only way to finance Psycho is to mortgage their house, she readily agrees.
Alfred Hitchcock is well known for drawing on ideas from psychoanalysis within his films, although he was sceptical about its ability to explain human behaviour. One of the key psychoanalytical idea at the heart of Psycho is the Oedipal Complex: the supposed sexual attraction of a boy to his mother, giving rise to the desire to kill his father or, in Norman Bates’s case, his mother’s lover. The urge to possess his mother is what drives all his actions. In Hitchcock, Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) tells Hitch that he is nervous about taking on the role because of the loss of his own mother — which clearly makes it a perfect piece of casting in the director’s eyes.
The other key idea in Psycho is that traumatic events from childhood are repressed by the conscious mind, but the presence of those memories in the subconscious inevitably gives rise to neuroses or psychoses. In particular, for Freud, most repressed memories relate to sexuality. So Norman Bates’s psychopathic behaviour results from the repressed memory of finding his mother and her lover in bed, and murdering them. In Hitchcock, Perkins confesses to Hitch that he has seen Vertigo and Rope several times, to which Hitch replies that, ‘Norman Bates is the logical extension of those two characters in that movie. Appealing, sensitive, suffering the terrible burden of being forced to pretend to be something he is not.’ This has resonance for viewers in two ways. Firstly, in an earlier discussion of Perkins’s suitability for the role, it is hinted that his sexual orientation might not be what is assumed in the conservative society of the day. Secondly, and more significantly for Hitchcock, we already realise that inwardly Hitch is not as confident and in control as he appears.
In fact, Hitch is so anxious — especially about his reputation in the eyes of others — that he begins to fantasise that he is undergoing psychoanalysis — and that Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) is his analyst. He complains to Gein that, ‘Everyone in Hollywood resents me. I make them millions of dollars and every year I sit at those dreadful award show dinners waiting for someone just to say, “You’re good.” They take sadistic pleasure in denying me that one little moment.’ He goes on to confess that, ‘more and more, I’ve been having these . . . impulses.’
Those impulses are, on the one hand, to pay rather-too-close attention to attractive young women and, on the other hand, to feel violent towards Alma. At a press conference to publicise the filming of Psycho (part of his shrewd marketing strategy), he remarks, ‘All of us harbour dark recesses of violence and horror. Fascinating, isn’t it?’ Much later, he says to Alma, rather ominously, ‘Beware. All men are potential murderers. And with good reason.’
Hitchcock has a framing device of Hitch breaking the fourth wall and speaking to us about the film and about the violence that lurks within the human heart. At the beginning, after seeing Ed Gein murder his brother, apparently with very little provocation, Hitch observes that ‘brother has been killing brother since Cain and Abel.’ The reference is to Genesis 4:1–16, where we read that, once human beings had rebelled against God’s authority, and had been evicted from the Garden of Eden, almost the first thing to happen was Adam and Eve’s oldest son murdering his younger brother in a fit of envy.
Hitch’s implication that this potential for evil lies within all of us, but is (usually) restrained by the constraints of social mores, is consistent with the Bible’s view of all humanity being driven by selfish desires. The apostle James, for example, writes: ‘What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you? You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them’ (James 4:1–2). This evaluation of human nature goes deeper than, and is far more comprehensive than, Freud’s contention that repressed behaviour is always tied to sexuality. One of Hitchcock’s great innovations was making the audience see from the point of view of his key characters. Part of the power of the famous shower scene in Psycho — along with Bernard Hermann’s brilliant use of shrieking violins. the inclusion of which we can thank Alma Reville for — is that Hitchcock makes us watch it through the perpetrator’s eyes. He forces us to feel that we are somehow complicit in the violence, because violence lurks in all of us.
Mercifully, few of us ever give vent to any murderous feelings which we may experience, but Jesus makes clear that the thoughts themselves make us culpable: ‘You have heard that our ancestors were told, “You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.” But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment!’ (Matthew 5:21–22). Hitchcock may not have seen it in quite the same way, but he would have understood God’s warning to Cain: ‘Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master’ (Genesis 4:7).
- Capone, ‘Capone Interviews Hitchcock Star Helen Mirren About Portraying the Woman Who Worked Side by Side With the Master of Suspense‘, Ain’t it Cool News, 20 November 2012. ↩