or adultery v. art
By Jonathan Price
If you’re a film buff or if you have nothing to do this weekend, or if you’re a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, or if you wanted to know how Psycho was made, but were too afraid to ask, you might want to spend a few hours watching the 2012 film, Hitchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi.
It’s based on a book-length study by Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, first published in 1990. The film’s frame is intriguing, as Hitchcock at its beginning and end addresses us directly about what we are about to see and what we have seen; though clearly the man himself is dead and is being played by Anthony Hopkins in a fat suit. One of the troubles with movies like these is that, despite their various claims to authenticity, we know that they are in fact, fake. Anthony Hopkins doesn’t really look like Hitch, though he has hit pauses and speech down to a T; actually, the actor Godfrey Teale in Hitchcock’s 39 Steps looks a lot more like Franklin D. Roosevelt (as he is supposed to) than Hopkins looks like Hitchcock, or Helen Mirren looks like Alma Revile (actually, she looks far more attractive), or Scarlet Johansson looks like Janet Leigh, or the nearly anonymous actor James D'Arcy looks like a squirrelly Tony Perkins, who played the murderer in Psycho.
An NPR program quoted a recent Hitchock biographer’s critique of errors of fact in the film—that Hitchcock didn’t really have to mortgage his house to get Paramount to commit to the picture, that the Hitchcocks actually had a sound, 50-year marriage, that Hitchcock didn’t actually try to terrorize Janet Leigh in the shower scene.
But for me none of these is the point, especially since the biographer himself seems to be evasive on some of the key facts. The film presents both Hitchcocks as toying with infidelity, with Alfred peering through keyholes at his voluptuous actresses, and being angered that Vera Miles gave up her career to pursue domesticity and motherhood, and with Alma as co-writing a screenplay with an old family friend who seems to be making a pass at her. It also presents them never crossing over the line, and offering accolades to each other for their loyalty as well as their cinematic excellence. Nevertheless, in the 1980s Donald Spoto created a mild firestorm in his Hitchcock biography (The Dark Side of Genius) with his tales of Hitchcock lusting after some of his blonde stars, and actually suggesting to Tippi Hedren a dream of undying love. Hitchcock’s blend of quasi-adulterous material underlying the filming of Psycho thus has some basis in titillating fact (a pun Hitchcock himself makes anent Leigh’s physique), and does enliven the idea of the intercourse between art and life.
But the film also cheapens the idea of how art is made, suggesting that Hitchcock’s primary impulse is audience manipulation and suspense. Both the actual film and the film that is its subject matter reach a climax of sorts in the shower scene, as when it portrays Hitch himself standing outside the auditorium door to conduct, in a series of gratifying knife stabs, the audience’s screams as the actress in Psycho is attacked in the shower scene. So the purpose of all this manipulation is merely momentary and illusory gasping; this is unfair to Hitchcock in a major sense, since his films from The 39 Steps to North by Northwest to The Birds offer a series of commentaries on many profound issues, such as the nature of identity and the fragility of human society. Hitchcock, on the other hand, seems like so many American movies to be about the well-known and expected success when a master of suspense manipulates an actress and an audience and makes a fortune.
Copyright © 2013 by Jonathan Price