It’s been 53 years since “Psycho” was filmed in Hollywood, but they’re still talking about it. And now, so are we.
At the time, Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most respected directors in Hollywood, having already produced masterpieces like “Vertigo” and “North By Northwest” and “Rear Window” and many others that would later be legitimately termed classics, and studied in film school by generations yet unborn.
And yet, in 1959, when Hitchcock was 60, there were whispers that he was no longer as capable. Past his prime. And he was determined to prove them wrong. True, he was far too corpulent to be healthy. And he drank too much, usually all day long, though he was apparently one of those functioning alcoholics who managed to keep his considerable wits about him. And he still had Alma (Helen Mirren), his faithful wife, who was just as intelligent and ambitious as he was, and an equal partner in the cutting room, if not on the set itself.
Anthony Hopkins is so convincing in this role that even the physical resemblance is striking: the unique accent, the courtly bearing, the portly demeanor, the dignified carriage – all this was part of the Hitchcock persona, but there was a darker side, too. Besides being beset with inner demons of self-doubt, he was a dirty old man, having installed a crude peephole between his office and the starlet’s dressing room. He fantasized about his young female leads, and secretly kept publicity photographs of them in his office. He even shamelessly flirted with them on set, but by this time he was considered somewhere between kindly old grandfather and legend emeritus, so they tended to think it was cute and dismiss it as mere flattery.
The ingénue in “Psycho” was Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), who famously did the shower scene which hinted at her nudity, but didn’t actually show the viewer anything (according to this version, Mr. Hitchcock managed to get an eyeful during filming by demonstrating the knife technique he wanted, up close and personal). But the movie itself was floundering, partly because Hitchcock was under enormous pressure to get it done as quickly as possible, because when he couldn’t find funding, he and Alma agreed to mortgage the house to finance it together. That kind of personal risk was extremely stressful, and the fact that Alma was currently working on another project with another screenwriter pained Alfred to distraction. He kept imagining his wife having an affair, and at one point even confronted her with his explosive suspicions. It wasn’t true, but she at least realized how much he missed her and needed her to work with him on his precious project, so she did. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Hollywood loves doing Hollywood, and especially enjoys paying homage to its own heritage and tradition. (That’s not unlike the church, but we won’t go there right now.) A younger person not already familiar with Alfred Hitchcock or his considerable body of work might be amused with all the period dress and quaint social mannerisms, but just wouldn’t perceive the whole context, which this film hardly bothers to explain.
For us old-timers, Anthony Hopkins’ performance is nothing short of mesmerizing, and it’s fun to reminisce about this unique personality with the Hall of Fame credentials.
Ronald P. Salfen is minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.