On Murderers and Artists: Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho and Hollywood
Exquisitely cast, Sacha Gervasi’s film, Hitchcock (2012), about the making of the master of suspense’s Psycho (1960) relies on star intertextuality to interrogate issues of gender and authorship in popular cinema. For example, Ralph Macchio portrays screenwriter Joseph Stefano as a therapeutic mess, perfect for writing a film adaptation of a novel about a Freudian serial killer, but a long way from his status as teenage heartthrob in The Karate Kid (John G. Avildsen, 1984). Similarly, Danny Huston, from one of the royal families of American cinema (he’s the son of John and grandson of Walter Huston) plays Whitfield Cook, the screenwriter of Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950) and Strangers on a Train (1951). In the film, set almost a decade after Cook’s collaboration with the Hitchcocks, the down on his luck screenwriter exploits Alma Reville’s strained relationship with her young blonde-obsessed husband to attempt to resurrect Cook’s career. In both of these instances, writers as embodied by film stars allows Gervasi to explore the relationship between popular filmmaking and the fraught psychosexual activity of writing for a living.
However, the film’s coup de grace involves its casting of the Hitchcocks. Alfred is played by Anthony Hopkins and Alma by Helen Mirren. These two monumental personages, each of whom have moved from Shakespearean theatrical training to more popular Hollywood fare, vie for the film’s focus. Indeed, despite every aesthetic attempt by Gervasi, Mirren’s Alma grounds the film, uncovering the woman behind the masterpieces. It is she who re-constructs the disastrous test screening version of Psycho, re-editing and advocating for Bernard Herrmann’s use of music in the shower sequence (perhaps the most famous piece of original music—screeching violins—in all of cinema). By inhabiting their characters with such precision, Mirren and Hopkins are able to aid the film in its anti-auteurist project, revealing how Psycho was constructed by a complex amalgamation of Hitchcock’s vision mixed with fundamentally transforming contributions by Alma, other craftspeople such as Herrmann, and the film’s remarkable cast of actors (James D’Arcy’s Anthony Perkins and Jessica Biel’s Vera Miles are standouts in Gervasi’s biopic).
Both Hopkins and Mirren made their switch from theatre to film via the Shakespearean film adaptation. In Tony Richardson’s Hamlet (1969), Hopkins plays a grotesque Claudius who lies in bed with Gertrude eating chicken while tormenting Hamlet (played as a madman by Nicol Williamson). In Peter Hall’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968), Mirren plays a precociously sexual Hermia in a film that celebrates the youth culture’s assault on the generation in authority. In Celestino Coronado’s infamous “naked” Hamlet (1976), Mirren plays both Ophelia and Gertrude, again with intense sexual force: at one point, the mad Hamlet carves with a knife into Ophelia’s naked chest. In short, Hopkins and Mirren bring to their roles of the Hitchcocks the gravitas enabling Gervasi’s film to argue we are witnessing the creation of Shakespearean-level greatness in the cinema. And indeed we are: Psycho is the 9th Symphony of the cinema, something that Gervasi literalizes when Alfred refuses to watch the triumphant premiere of the re-edited Psycho, instead standing in the lobby, conducting each scream during the shower sequence, sight unseen.
Yet, Hitchcock applies this study of great film artists to the larger question of how such figures survive as functional people at home. Whereas most biopics use melodramatics to separate the creative work from the gossipy scandals of private lives, Gervasi finds a way to integrate both artistic creativity and interpersonal foibles, in stark contrast to the HBO film, “The Girl” (2012) in which Hitchcock’s artistic genius comes at the direct expense of his abject abuse of Tippi Hedron during the filming of The Birds (1963).
The end of Hitchcock reveals how the star intertextuality forwards this complex engagement with artistry. The film bookends by returning to its opening gimmick, in which Hitchcock the television host jokes with the film’s viewers about the oddness of Ed Gein, the serial killer on whom Norman Bates was modeled. As the film comes to a close, Hopkins’ Hitchcock again steps out of character and directly addresses us in the audience, asking us “gentle viewers” to excuse him as he goes to work on finding his next project. A large bird lands on his shoulder, returning the film to a comic tone which it has variously engaged amidst horrific acts of violence by Gein, whose spectral persona at times threatens to take control of Hitchcock while making Psycho. Hitchcock turns his back to the camera, which cranes upward. In a long take before the end credits roll, he walks directly into the background; Alma stands on the front porch of their house awaiting him.
The scene beautifully undoes Hopkins’ appearance in his most famous role, as Hannibal Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991). In that film, after having both tormented and assisted FBI agent Clarice Starling in capturing a serial killer, Lecter escapes custody and goes into hiding in the Caribbean. He phones Clarice from a small village on a tropical island, taunting and horrifying her. He hangs up the phone and walks into the background of the image. The entire end credits roll over Hopkins’ Lecter walking back into the depth of the image, finally disappearing into anonymity, able now to resume murder and mayhem.
By invoking this ending, Hitchcock is able to use Hopkins’ star persona to exorcise Hitchcock’s macabre fascination with Ed Gein. Hitchcock the artist circumvents the implosion of his private life that such obsession threatens. Instead, with Alma’s crucial assistance, Alfred finishes making Psycho, the crowning achievement of his career, and resumes private life with his beloved wife. Whereas Lecter consumes his entire film—both symbolically and literally—Hitchcock the artist and Hitchcock the film subsume the vile components of Hollywood to a more important love for Alma. Lecter disappears, but Alfred re-appears, putting to rest the Ed Gein who heretofore haunted his dreams. It is a beautiful ending, a tender testament to the power film art has to sculpt our experience of the world.
– Walter Metz