Jump to: navigation, search

New York Times (18/Nov/2012) - Alfred Hitchcock's Secret Weapon Becomes a Star



Alfred Hitchcock's Secret Weapon Becomes a Star

Norman Bates and his mother were pretty effective at eliminating motel guests. But it was Alma Reville who really killed off Janet Leigh in the shower scene of "Psycho."

"They were watching a cut of the film," the actor and producer Norman Lloyd recalled, referring to Ms. Reville and her husband, Alfred Hitchcock. "And Alma said, 'You can't -- Janet Leigh swallowed once when she was dead in the bathroom.' It was one frame. No one spotted it except Alma."

Hitchcock, who died in 1980, is getting a lot of attention this year. His 1958 masterpiece "Vertigo" displaced the longtime champ "Citizen Kane" as the No. 1 film of all time in Britain's influential Sight & Sound poll. Two new features -- "Hitchcock," which takes an alternately comic and demented look at the making of "Psycho," and "The Girl," an HBO film that examines the unmaking of the actress Tippi Hedren -- have the droll, acerbic and rotund Hitchcock at their center.

But it is Reville who is finally getting some overdue public attention. As historians and insiders have long known she played an indispensable role in the making of her husband's movies, as a story consultant, script editor, continuity person and overall sounding board. She was his closest confidante, his most trusted ally. When the Hitchcocks met in 1920s Berlin, she was already a rising star at Ufa, the German film studio; he was a would-be production designer with an advertising portfolio under his arm. As Mrs. Hitchcock, Alma Reville became the quintessential unsung heroine. But now, being played by two prominent actresses (Helen Mirren and Imelda Staunton), she is being ushered out from behind the curtain.

"It's time someone heard about her," said Mary Stone, one of the three daughters of Patricia Hitchcock, the only child of Alfred and Alma. "She deserves 100 percent of the recognition she's getting."

Speaking for her family Mrs. Stone said they were never consulted about "The Girl" -- which had its premiere last month and portrays Hitchcock as a sexual predator and sadist, tormenting Ms. Hedren during the making of "The Birds" (1963). The family knew about "Hitchcock," due Friday from Fox Searchlight, she said, but despite a cast that includes Anthony Hopkins as her grandfather, chose not to be involved. Mrs. Stone declined to be specific about the reasons, but the plotline is provocative enough: Ms. Mirren plays Alma as a woman running out of patience with her husband's notorious obsession with blondes and flirts with having an affair of her own, with Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), a writer with whom she had worked on "Stage Fright" and "Strangers on a Train."

Ms. Mirren admits that her character's illicit romance was cooked up. "That man certainly existed, and they did write a script together," she said by phone from England. "And there's a suggestion in one of the biographies that possibly they'd had an affair, but it's not remotely proved. I suspect the way we define it is exactly what happened, something innocent that got right to the edge of something maybe happening. But probably not."

Ms. Mirren expressed regret at not being able to inhabit the physical Alma Reville. "It broke my heart I couldn't be that person," she said. "She was a tiny little woman, under five foot, but she must have been an amazing personality. And she was quite intimidating, from what I've read."

Much of Ms. Mirren's familiarity with her character came from "Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man," the biography written by Patricia Hitchcock with Laurent Bouzereau. Mrs. Stone said that her mother, now 84, is not in the best of health and doesn't do interviews, but Ms. Mirren pointed to Patricia Hitchcock's book as the loftiest compliment to Alma Reville. "She was the child of Alfred Hitchcock and chose to write a book about her mother."

According to Ms. Hedren, and "The Girl," which is based on Donald Spoto's "Dark Side of Genius," Reville was aware of her husband's alleged abuse of the actress and chose to ignore it; Ms. Staunton's portrayal, unlike Ms. Mirren's, is of a victim and an enabler.

"I don't buy it," said Mr. Lloyd, now 98, who appeared in the Hitchcock films "Spellbound" and "Saboteur" (it is Mr. Lloyd who falls from the Statue of Liberty) and was a producer and director on the two Alfred Hitchcock TV series. "Let us say, if he was interested in a particular actress, Alma was very shrewd about what was good for the picture," Mr. Lloyd said. " 'Enabler' is the wrong word. She observed everything, and either said to Hitch yes or no according to the person's capabilities. And he listened to everything she said. His admiration for her was enormous."

Besides, Mr. Lloyd said, Hitchcock never disavowed the whole "Hitchcock blonde" concept because it was good for publicity. "Hitch and Sam Goldwyn," he said, "were the best self-promoters in the history of Hollywood."

Ms. Mirren said she found herself more or less in agreement. "That whole thing about blondes is a bit of an exaggeration and a slightly lurid construct," she said. "But he was creating a brand. And incidentally Alma recognized that. The success of that brand made them a lot of money and allowed them to enjoy a rather expensive lifestyle. They spent a fortune on food. They had it flown in every week from Britain."

"Hitchcock" deals with the food, the obsessions and the financial risks Hitchcock took on "Psycho." But its director, Sasha Gervasi ("Anvil! The Story of Anvil"), said that while there was "clearly a fantastical element" to his film, "the key elements are based in things that actually happened." These include Reville's contributions to the Hitchcock oeuvre, particularly "Psycho."

"When I took Howard Suber's class on structure," Mr. Gervasi said, referring to the University of California, Los Angeles, film professor, "he does a section called 'the greatest scenes in cinema,' and the first one he shows is the shower scene in 'Psycho.' Hitchcock was against using the music. He did not want Bernard Herrmann's music in that scene, and Alma insisted. And it was only because of his absolute trust in her that it's included. He did it against his own will. And when you think of that scene, you think of that music and you realize she played a critical role not just in that scene but in the history of cinema."

Stephen Rebello, author of "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho," the book on which "Hitchcock" is partly based, interviewed many of Hitchcock's collaborators on "Psycho" and confirmed the film's version of events.

Her instinct for the right thing is shot through Hitchcock's work, Mr. Gervasi said. "I don't think people in general have any idea the degree to which she contributed to Hitchcock's genius. But she wasn't interested in the limelight. She recognized her role. She recognized that Alfred Hitchcock was Alfred Hitchcock. She just wanted to make his films a little greater."