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He had an enthusiasm for an 'impossible' film

'Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho'
by Stephen Rebello

August 13, 1999
Web posted at: 1:16 p.m. EDT (1716 GMT)

(CNN) -- Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" remains the yardstick by which all other thrillers are measured. Stephen Rebello looks at the making of this incredible movie from beginning (the true life crime on which Psycho is based) to end (Hitchcock's obsessive instructions to darken theaters and close the curtains for 30 seconds after the opening credits, in order to raise the suspense).



The Director: The Trouble with Alfred

Why Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho? Most would understand the glee of a relatively obscure author on learning that one of the world's most celebrated directors had snapped up the film rights to one of his books. Yet even to a flattered novelist, Psycho and the Master of Suspense seemed an odd coupling. In the spring of 1959, Alfred Hitchcock had the movie world wrapped around his pudgy finger. Having been a household name for decades, Hitchcock earned $250,000 per picture, plus a healthy chunk of the gross. Since 1953, after several bumpy years at Warner Bros., Hitchcock and his retinue had presided over a knotty pine-paneled suite in the Producers' Building of Paramount at 5555 Melrose Avenue, Hollywood.

Paramount gave Hitchcock carte blanche over story selection, screenwriter, cast, editing, and publicity for any project costing $3 million or less. The studio superstructure so coveted the director's services that they also turned over to him the highly lucrative rights to Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo after release. No wonder a Paramount executive had written to a counterpart at MGM, while Hitchcock was making North by Northwest in 1958, "Paramount functions practically as a studio setup for him."

In the late spring of 1959, Hitchcock was gearing up for the July release of North by Northwest, a $3.3 million Technicolor chase featuring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, and Mount Rushmore in a larky Ernest Lehman screenplay involving spies, microfilm, and sex. Having mushroomed into MGM's biggest-budgeted project of 1959, aside from Ben-Hur, the picture went on to become one of the great Hitchcock audience pleasers. But there is reason to suspect that the fifty-nine-year-old suspense maestro felt bullied by his brilliant present and past.

Forty-six feature films and three successful seasons on television had put Hitchcock on constant guard against repeating himself. To "recharge the battery," as Hitchcock put it, he had already confined the action to microcosms (Lifeboat, Rope, Rear Window) and gleefully splashed it across public spaces and national monuments (Blackmail, The 39 Steps, the British and American versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Saboteur, Foreign Correspondent). He had gussied-up melodrama with ruffles and flourishes (Jamaica Inn, Under Capricorn) and tricked-out stageplay adaptations with such technical gizmos as the ten-minute take or 3-D (Rope, Dial M for Murder). He had pumped up the adrenaline with chamber pieces about neurotics (Rebecca, Suspicion, Notorious) and full-on psychopaths (Spellbound, Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train). He had played comedy light (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) and autumnal (The Trouble with Harry). He had tried on semidocumentary (The Wrong Man) and haunting, sexy metaphysics (Vertigo). There had even been a couple of lumbering musical numbers (Waltzes from Vienna, Stage Fright); Hitchcock's hand was so practiced, he made top-ten Neilson ratings for "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" on CBS look like something one does in one's sleep.

Alfred Hitchcock was only half joking when he told the press, "If I made Cinderella, the audience would be looking for a corpse to turn up in the coach," or ruefully observed of the trap in which he had caught himself, "Style is self-plagiarism." H. N. Swanson, friend to Hitchcock and agent to such suspense novelists as Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard, put it this way: "Hitch never casually looked for 'something different.' He was relentless." Another longtime Hitchcock associate, agent Michael Ludmer, insisted, "We scoured everything -- plays, novels, short stories, newspaper clippings. 'Whodunits' were out of the question and he mistrusted science fiction, the supernatural, or anything to do with professional criminals. Since one couldn't second-guess what little spark might turn him on, it was terribly back-breaking tracking material for him."

Enter Psycho. "It certainly seemed like a departure," admitted [Psycho author Robert] Bloch in recalling the director's interest in his despairing story of lives played out in dingy offices, run-down motels, and a decrepit house. "He had been doing big color films, with big stars and all the box-office insurances deemed necessary. Although I had no idea what to expect, I knew his film adaptations from novels were very much changed -- The Secret Agent, Suspicion, or Spellbound, for example. However, I felt that there wasn't much point in him buying this particular book unless he meant to use the storyline. There was hardly anyone else in the world I would have preferred to Hitchcock, except [director] Henri-Georges Clouzot, who had done Les Diaboliques."

Yet in 1959, virtually no one but Hitchcock could answer "Why Psycho?" Cameraman Leonard South, whose first of fifteen Hitchcock assignments was Strangers on a Train (1951), explained: "Hitch had promised Universal a picture and decided that Psycho, a small project, would get that commitment out of the way." Another reason for Psycho is that, for a director frantically in search of the unexpected, the Bloch novel came to his attention not a minute too soon. Earlier that year Paramount lost small fortunes on two aborted Hitchcock projects. Flamingo Feather had been an adventure-chase involving diamonds and tribal unrest in Africa that the director envisioned as a giddy, John Buchan-esque (The 39 Steps) fandango. Unfortunately, while busily combing Africa for suitable chase locations, Hitchcock had delegated the screenplay to screenwriter Angus MacPhail (The Wrong Man, Vertigo), who never managed to deliver a completed manuscript. No such problems awaited the sparklingly malicious murder comedy, No Bail for the Judge, based on Henry Cecil's book about a lawyer who must defend her magistrate father against charges of strangling a streetwalker. The script by Samuel Taylor (Vertigo) was camera-ready when intended star Audrey Hepburn announced her pregnancy. Then British law cracked down on street prostitution -- Hitchcock's MacGuffin, the plot device that greased the wheels of suspense. In private Hitchcock railed. To the public he made light, as when he told the New York Times about his frustration in finding suitable material: "Newspaper headlines tell too many outlandish stories from real life that drive the spinner of suspense fiction to further extremes. I always regard the fact that we've got to outwit the audience to keep them with us. They're highly trained detectives looking at us out there right now."

Another fly in Hitchcock's ointment was competitors who strayed onto his turf and competed for material. Directors William Castle (When Strangers Marry), Robert Siodmak (The Spiral Staircase), George Cukor (Gaslight), Otto Preminger (Laura, Whirlpool), and dozens of others, had each "pulled a Hitchcock" with varying degrees of finesse. And what about the 1955 French import, Les Diaboliques, one of the first breakaway hits from the art-house circuit, that had critics praising Henri-Georges Clouzot as "the Gallic Hitchcock?"

Hitchcock had also soured at being held hostage to the salary demands of such stars as Cary Grant and James Stewart, or of Grace Kelly, whom he considered his once and future leading lady until she defected to Monaco to marry the dashing prince. "Stars' salaries are becoming unthinkable," the director complained. "The minute you put a star into a role you've already compromised because it may not be perfect casting.... In television we have a greater chance to cast more freely than in pictures. Star names don't mean all that much in television, at least in dramatic terms."

Alfred Hitchcock trusted the film instincts of few. One of his inner circle was Peggy Robertson, a production assistant to him since Under Capricorn (1949). The wife of film editor Douglas Robertson, the razor-sharp, occasionally acerbic aide was one of three women -- Alma Hitchcock, the director's wife, and screenwriter-producer Joan Harrison being the other two -- whose sensitivity to Hitchcock's distress signals bordered on the telepathic. "I've never dealt with whodunits," he often explained of his choice of material. "They're simply clever puzzles, aren't they? They're intellectual rather than emotional, and emotion is the only thing that keeps my audience interested. I prefer suspense rather than surprise -- something the average man can identify with. The audience can't identify with detectives; they're not part of his everyday life."

Hitchcock depended on Robertson to wade through prospective material. In a year in which the Hitchcock office logged 2,400 submissions, Robertson passed on only thirty to the boss. Hitchcock often groused: "I can't read fiction without visualizing every scene. The result is it becomes a series of pictures rather than a book." Robertson had been on the alert for material that might make what her boss had called a "typically un-Hitchcock picture."

With that in mind, Robertson circled in ink Anthony Boucher's strong review in his "Criminals at Large" column. She had read the "coverage" of the novel by Paramount reader William Pinckard (he of the "impossible for films" verdict), but brushed that aside. She also ignored the fact that the novel was reviled by the studio decision-makers. Robertson was an assistant well attuned to how her boss often resonated to obscure material rather than to classics by better-known mystery writers. Psycho began to impress Robertson all the more.

Hitchcock holed up with the novel for a weekend in his home on Bellagio Drive in Bel-Air. The working-stiffs milieu, two shocking murders, a twist finale peppered with transvestism, incest, and necrophilia -- these were catnip to a man who fancied himself a connoisseur of abnormal psychology. Hitchcock would observe: "I think that the thing that appealed to me and made me decide to do the picture was the suddenness of the murder in the shower, coming, as it were, out of the blue. That was about all." Elaborated Robert Bloch: "[Hitchcock] said that the things that attracted him to Psycho were that it had characters with whom the reader could identify and care about. He felt it was very important for shock value that the audience care about the characters who get killed. Then, of course, the cleverness of the device of transvestism." Bloch's novel spoke to Hitchcock's savage sense of irony as had few pieces of material in ages. "I am aware," Hitchcock said, "that I am equipped with what other people have called a fiendish sense of humor."

MCA agent Ned Brown, who struck the deal for the Hitchcock acquisition of the book, once said: "Hitch was fascinated by the idea that the story starts out as one thing -- the girl's dilemma -- then, after a horrible murder, turns into something else. But frankly, we all thought he would keep the shower murder of the girl and come up with a whole new situation and characters!" Michael Ludmer, who also assisted Hitchcock in finding suitable material, observed: "Often, all Hitchcock was looking for was a springboard or a trigger, even just a relationship. Raw material was all he ever needed." Despite the consternation of some of his colleagues, Hitchcock -- to keep the surprises of Psycho as surprises -- reportedly ordered Peggy Robertson to buy up as many copies of the novel as possible from the publisher and from bookstores.

Hitchcock had finally laid claim to something he had craved since 1955. That year, French director Henri-Georges Clouzot (Quai des Orfèvres; The Wages of Fear) had beaten Hitchcock to the punch by buying the rights to a recently translated French suspense novel, Celle Qui N'Etait Plus (The Woman Who Was No More) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. On the rebound, Hitchcock purchased D'Entre Les Morts (roughly, From Amongst the Dead), another book by the same authors. Clouzot turned The Woman Who Was into Les Diaboliques, a gimmicky shocker with a surprise ending that won in [1954] surprising worldwide success with both audiences and critics. In 1958, Hitchcock turned his Boileau-Narcejac property into the haunting, elegiac Vertigo, which took a drubbing from most critics and the paying public. Alfred Hitchcock had a score to settle with Clouzot.

Although he rarely acknowledged the influence of any sound-era films or directors, Hitchcock clearly scrutinized Les Diaboliques (released in America by United Motion Picture Organization as Diabolique or The Fiends) as well as its publicity campaign as if with a jeweler's loup. Clouzot and cinematographer Armand Thirard photographed Les Diaboliques in moody, dirty-dishes-in-the-sink black-and-white. Boileau and Narcejac's serpentine plot hinges on the strange bond between birdlike Christina Delasalle (Vera Clouzot) and cool, predatory Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), respectively the wife and the mistress of a venal schoolmaster, Michael Delasalle (Paul Meurisse). The two women conspire to murder the rotter, but when the wife unravels from a case of the jitters, Nicole drowns her lover in the bathtub. The screws turn as snoopy Inspector Fichet (Charles Vanel) asks too many pointed questions and the dead man's presence seems to cry out from beyond the grave for vengeance.

The set pieces of Les Diaboliques -- the murder in the bathroom of a grimy hotel room, the hidden corpse that is almost discovered by the schoolboys in a foul swimming pool -- build to a finale that made audiences gasp and scream aloud. In France, newspaper ads discouraged moviegoers from seeing the picture except from the beginning. Theater entrance doors were closed at the start of each performance. Titles at the conclusion chided, "Don't be diabolical yourself. Don't spoil the ending for your friends by telling them what you've just seen. On their behalf -- Thank you!" When the United Motion Picture Organization imported the movie to the Fine Arts theater in New York on November 20, 1955, both the ad campaign and end titles emulated the exploitation gimmicks that had worked so well in Europe.

Films and Filming from England called the thriller "beastly and brilliant" and Bosley Crowther of the New York Times thought it "one of the dandiest mystery dramas that has shown here in goodness knows when. To tell anybody the a crime that should be punishable by consigning of the culprit to a diet of grade-B films." The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner critic wrote: "If director Henri-Georges Clouzot isn't the master of the suspense thriller today, then who is? True, Hitchcock is suaver; but this Frenchman is joltier, a master of timing and building an almost unbearable suspense." How could Hitchcock help but feel a bit superannuated when the "joltier" Clouzot and Les Diaboliques won the prestigious Delluc Prize in France for highest achievement in originality?

Soon after the release of the movie, Hitchcock would cast the actor who played the shabby detective of Les Diaboliques, Charles Vanel, in a small role as Bertani, another enigmatic character, in To Catch a Thief. But the director would later appropriate much more from the directorial competitor whom writers were already calling "the French Hitchcock."

Hitchcock had also been carefully tracking the box-office figures of low-budget horror pictures turned out by Universal-International, American-International, Allied Artists, Hammer Film Productions, and others. Such shockfests as Macabre, I Bury the Living, and The Curse of Frankenstein drew crowds while many Hollywood "A"-budget pictures barely drew flies. Hitchcock had begun to quiz his associates -- everyone from his limousine driver and barber to agents and studio executives -- as to how profitable they thought a first-class, low-budget shocker by a major director might be? Other "name" directors had gone that route before: Howard Hawks (with Christian Nyby) on The Thing (1951), Charles Laughton on The Night of the Hunter (1955), or Mervyn Leroy on The Bad Seed (1956). Hitchcock's colleagues were accustomed to the puckish Buddha's spinning rhetorical questions solely for his own amusement. They passed off these new queries as more of the same. But when the egocentric Hitchcock, hardly given to self-criticism or self-analysis, began to dismiss his recent James Stewart or Cary Grant pictures as "glossy Technicolor baubles," associates of the director realized that Hitchcock had something else up his sleeve.

Hitchcock lived a hermetic life: driven to the studio daily for story conferences or shooting, or to Chasen's for dinner with his wife, gossiping with the high-rollers of the business while puffing imported cigars. But even a monied man who viewed the world through the windows of a suite at Claridge's Hotel in London or a home whose walls were lined with Klees and Vlamincks must have sniffed change in the wind. Television news and franker, more adult movies from Europe were shifting the expectations of audiences toward a grittier reality on screen. All the better for Psycho that it exposed the grinning skull beneath the rhythms and routine of the ordinary -- workaday jobs, make-do relationships, dreams deferred, backwater locales. Psycho took place in a world much closer to the one in which most moviegoers lived. Having been born the son of an East End greengrocer in a second-floor apartment above the shop, Hitchcock was as much fascinated as horrified by that world.

Considering a recent track record that included the successful Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, and The Man Who Knew Too Much, Alfred Hitchcock was surely confident when he met with the Paramount bosses on an early June afternoon to announce Psycho as his fifth and final commitment under his existing contract. Studio president Barney Balaban and vice-president George Weltner had reason to arrive at that meeting with some confidence themselves. Balaban had come up through the ranks. A run-of-the-mill Chicago band singer, he hit paydirt when he and partner Sam Katz opened a chain of nickelodeons in 1916. Years of trafficking in Mafia payoffs had steeled Balaban to tough negotiations. While television had many rival studios on the ropes, Balaban had steered Paramount to a $12.5 million profit in 1958, the studio's largest takings in nine years. But even in a relative boom, to the Paramount brass, Hitchcock and Psycho sounded like a bad mix. Corridor talk at the studio had leaked the rumor that Hitchcock wanted to try "something different." Similar motivations had led to The Wrong Man at Warner Bros. and to The Trouble With Harry and Vertigo at Paramount -- three box-office busts.

Hitchcock's enthusiasm for an "impossible" property sent Balaban, Weltner, and other Paramount moneymen into executive apoplexy. What was with Hitchcock and his cockamamie potboiler about a knife-happy madman who dresses up like dear old Mom? This was worse than Vertigo, which at least had class. "They were very unhappy about it," admitted novelist Bloch in a classic understatement. "Hitchcock's associate producer, Herbert Coleman, told me Paramount absolutely didn't want to make it. They didn't like the title, the story, or anything about it at all. When Hitchcock became insistent, they said, 'Well, you're not going to get the budget you're used to having for this sort of thing.' Hence, no Technicolor, no Jimmy Stewart, no Cary Grant. Hitchcock said, 'All right, I'll make do.'"

Hitchcock loathed anyone's making a "scene." He terminated the meeting with icy politeness. It had been decades since anyone, even someone as powerful as producer David O. Selznick, had the temerity to squelch the mighty Hitchcock. In private, the director may have fumed, but not for long. The score Alfred Hitchcock had to settle now went beyond H. G. Clouzot and Les Diaboliques.

Copyright © 1990 by Stephen Rebello.

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