High on Hitchcock at 110

Browsers Ecstasy


All-Time Favourite: A still from ‘Psycho’

August 13, 2009 brought up Hitchcock’s 110th birthday, and I thought it only fit to celebrate it with a week-long film festival at home by watching restored prints of his classics on DVD from the Criterion collection. Hitchcock’s movies apparently work on some other level — what that level or secret place is I don’t really know or even care — but we all know it’s there and it’s scary and seductive. That’s the dark side of his genius. It must be why his movies lend themselves to repeated viewing.

His movies seem to divide themselves into either straight forward, uncomplicated plot-driven entertainers like Dial M for Murder, The Man Who Knew Too Much and North By Northwest or the dark, seductive, complex and emotionally charged suspense melodramas like Rear Window, Vertigo, Shadow of a Doubt, Marnie, Psycho and Strangers on a Train.

From the early Hitchcock — the silent, black and white British period — the two best loved classics are The 39 Steps (Salinger’s all time favourite) and The Lady Vanishes. And now there is restored, colour-tinted film print of The Lodger from 1927 brought out by the British Film Institute. More recently, some neglected, underrated movies of his have been re-discovered as superior entries: Shadow of a Doubt, The Wrong Man, and Marnie (which most critics have been ambiguous about).

Everyone’s agreed now that Topaz and Torn Curtain are failures — by any standard, not just Frenzy and Family Plot (his last film) are, in retrospect, actually okay.

Most are agreed that Vertigo is his masterpiece (though at the time of its release critics gave it a drubbing and the audience stayed away from it) but there are those who champion Rear Window or Psycho or Notorious. The Master’s own faves were The Trouble with Harry, Shadow of a Doubt, and Notorious.

Intellectual pin-up and culture critic Camille Paglia has an entire book devoted to The Birds which is quite insightful, while the unusual literary theorist Zizek made an intriguing film called The Pervert's Guide to Cinema where he deconstructs Psycho. For several years the best companion to Psycho has been Stephen Rebello’s book on the making of the film.

I re-read parts of it as I watched the movie again, and found it just as fascinating now.

Both Norman Bates from Psycho and Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs, I learnt, were modelled after real-life serial killer Ed Gein. Even Tobe Hopper’s cult classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre used Gein as its model for ‘Leatherface.’ 

Gein’s atrocities outdo any fictional serial-killer a writer can dream up, even Hannibal Lecter. Here’s what the police found at his farm: “Two pairs of human lips on a string. A cupful of human noses that sat on the kitchen table. A human skin purse and bracelets.

Four flesh-upholstered chairs. A tidy row of 10 grimacing human skulls. A soup bowl fashioned from an inverted human half-skull. The eviscerated skins of four women’s faces, rouged, made-up, thumb-tacked to the wall at eye level.

“Ten female heads, hacked off at the eyebrows. In the adjacent shed, they found what remained of a local missing woman as she hung nude, headless, dangling by her heels, disemboweled. Sitting on top of a stove in the kitchen was a pan of water in which floated a human heart. The refrigerator was stocked with human organs.” Eventually, they found 45 graves of female victims of Gein, buried close to his mother’s grave, most of them tortured and disemboweled.

Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, knew some of the facts in the Gein case but was shocked to discover later how close he had come to inventing a Gein-like schizophrenic serial killer. Here’s Hitchcock’s reason for picking Psycho: “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.”

As Bloch had conceived him Bates was pudgy, middle-aged, plain. It was screen-writer Joseph Stefano who changed him into lean, handsome, crafty Anthony Perkins. Up till then no Hollywood movie had shown a close-up of a toilet. Stefano persuaded Hitchcock to not only show the toilet in close-up but to show it flush as well.

Most know that Saul Bass storyboarded the shower scene and Bass as always maintained that directed the shower scene.

The controversy has never been satisfactorily resolved but few know that he was also responsible for the Bates house looking spooky and the shock effect of Lila discovering ‘mother’ in the cellar. He got a naked light bulb to hang above the skeleton and when Lila accidentally swats it, it swings back and forth over the skull, making it come alive.

As for the house, here’s how Bass explains it: “I tried the obvious things. I made a model of the house and tried lighting it various ways, but it looked fakey. Finally, I found an answer... Behind shots of the house against the sky I matted-in a time-lapse, moonlit, cloudy landscape. So when you see the shot, what you look at is the house, but the clouds behind it are moving in a very eerie and abnormal way.”    

The screaming violins and deep cello while Marion is being stabbed has now become a signature tune and it was composer Bernard Herrmann who came up with the idea of having a film score completely for strings — a first for a horror movie. Mother’s ‘voice’ is actually that of male actor Paul Jasmine.

In post-production, Hitchcock added two other female voices and mixed them up.

Eventually, Psycho was printed and distributed with two slightly different endings.

In both versions, the eerie vision of Anthony Perkins grinning into the camera is succeeded by a second shot of the car of the heroine being towed out of the swamp. But in only some prints of the picture is a grinning skull superimposed over Norman’s smile.

Said Hitchcock: “It’s going to be on and off that quickly. I want the audience to say, ‘Did I see that?’ ”

When Psycho opened on June 16, 1960, it won only middling — to-hostile reaction from the critics. But the audience embraced it. From past experience Hitchcock had learned to take the “wait and see” attitude. Such previous Hitchcock films as Foreign Correspondent, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious and Vertigo had also received mixed critical responses. This turnaround phenomenon, says Rebello, prompted the director to wryly observe. “My movies go from failures to masterpieces, without ever being successes!”

At the end of my week-long film festival I discovered that Hitchcock actually makes you experience suspense as if it was an emotion. He showed us why suspense is superior to surprise, and turned it into art.

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