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'Hitchcock's' triple play

Director Sacha Gervasi's vision for 'Hitchcock' can be seen clearly in three key scenes, which cover the story's sweep. Here's a look at how each sequence came together.

December 13, 2012|John Horn, Los Angeles Times
  • Helen Mirren as "Alma Reville" and Anthony Hopkins as "Alfred Hitchcock" in "Hitchcock"
Helen Mirren as "Alma Reville" and Anthony Hopkins as "Alfred… (Fox Searchlight )

The original title of director Sacha Gervasi's "Hitchcock" was "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho," the name of Stephen Rebello's book on which the film is based. Anthony Hopkins, who plays the famed filmmaker in the movie, thought the longer name was a terrible idea, sounding more like a symposium than a film — "I said to Sacha, 'That's a doomed title," Hopkins said — and eventually Gervasi shared his actor's opinion.

The plot's real focus, said Gervasi, was not so much how Hitchcock filmed his most renowned work but rather what was happening in his personal and professional life off-screen. "The whole point of the movie is what we don't know and didn't see — it's the untold story," said Gervasi, who makes his narrative feature debut with "Hitchcock," having previously been a screenwriter ("The Terminal") and documentarian ("Anvil! The Story of Anvil").

To dramatize the "untold story," Gervasi worked with Rebello and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin to organize the story around Hitchcock's crisis of confidence. Worried that younger directors were about to outshine him and that he'd become a television hack, the "North by Northwest" director decided he needed to make his most provocative movie yet, which would be "Psycho." But the real scare in Hitchcock's life wasn't the gruesome deeds of serial killer Ed Gein; it was the state of his marriage to frequent collaborator Alma Reville (Helen Mirren).

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Gervasi's vision for "Hitchcock" can be seen clearly in three key scenes, which combined cover the story's sweep. Here's how each sequence came together:

The tea party

Soon after deciding to adapt the book "Psycho" for his next movie, Hitchcock summons a group of high society types, film journalists and gossip columnists to his home. In addition to serving tea, Champagne and finger sandwiches ("They're real fingers," Hopkins purrs to his guests with merry malice), Hitchcock distributes a stack of Gein's crime scene photographs. The photos depicted all sorts of horrors, including mutilated and headless bodies.

"The more people who are offended and upset, the more people will be interested in the film," Gervasi explained of Hitchcock's judgment. "He was taking great delight in shocking this audience."

Because Paramount Pictures had refused to back "Psycho," the director was financing the $800,000 production himself, mortgaging his home to raise the funds. (Gervasi was in part drawn to making "Hitchcock" because he self-financed "Anvil," also mortgaging his home.)

As it plays in the finished film, the scene makes clear not only that "Psycho" is going to scare people, but also that its director is going to enjoy doing it. "Janet Leigh said of Hitchcock, 'He's one of the funniest men I've ever met,'" Hopkins said. "He had a wicked sense of humor."

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The shower scene

It's "Psycho's" most iconic scene — Norman Bates (played in the original film by Anthony Perkins, in Gervasi's film by James D'Arcy) attacking Marion Crane (with Scarlett Johansson replacing Leigh) in a hotel shower with a knife. But in "Hitchcock," the scene, particularly its staging, takes on a very different meaning. Dissatisfied with the sequence's intensity, Hitchcock picks up the blade himself, and in a spasm of violence hacks through the air at Leigh like a crazed samurai, with fleeting images of all of his tormentors flashing in front of him.

"The idea was to explore what was in his mind — the overwhelming frustrations about mounting the film and his concerns over his wife," Gervasi said. As he goes berserk, the director imagines he's slashing at Barney Balaban, the Paramount executive who wouldn't finance the film; Geoffrey Shurlock, the movie censor who intended to block "Psycho's" release; and Whitfield Cook, the screenwriter with whom Hitchcock suspects his wife is having an affair.

Hopkins initially feared the scene might be "a bit over the top" but then came to see how it depicted visually what the director was feeling internally. "It just shows Hitchcock's torment," Hopkins said.

For Johansson, the sequence presented several challenges. She had to be mostly nude — "The best thing to do is go in head first and let everything else follow," Johansson said of ditching her wardrobe — while also trying to be faithful to Leigh's performance throughout the production.

"My goal is for [Leigh's daughter] Jamie Lee Curtis and her sister to look at the movie and say, 'That's Mom,'" Johansson said. "And that takes a lot of reading and a lot of research. I never had to approach a role this way."

A bit easier, perhaps, was her shower scene screaming — Hopkins gave her all she needed. "Tony was so devastating that day. He was so out of control — a controlled out of control — that when he pulled himself together at the end, everybody said, 'Holy …! That was vicious.' It was that intense."

The wife strikes back

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