Stephen Rebello’s “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” (1990) would hardly seem, on the surface, a likely candidate for adaptation to the screen itself. A meticulously detailed account of the master director’s bucking of the studio system to get the picture—thought by many to be based on unseemly material—to the screen, it records how Hitchcock made it as inexpensively as possible, and largely with his own money. And it celebrates the film’s triumph both financially and artistically.
Rebello, who was deeply involved in helping to shape the final version of John J. McLaughlin’s script for “Hitchcock,” which stars Anthony Hopkins in the title role and Helen Mirren as his wife Alma Reville, visited Dallas for a special screening of the film recently, and was asked about his obvious admiration for the director—with whom as a young man he’d conducted an interview that turned out to be Hitchcock’s last.
“I was always fascinated by him,” Rebello said. “His films had an emotional impact upon me. I felt they were immaculately filmed…he had such mastery of the medium. He also made movies that were popular with people, that audiences all over the world responded to in very similar ways. And he was unpretentious about himself and his work and had a great sense of humor. I think it takes a grace to be a great talent and a great genius and also to be a populist and a man of the people.”
Rebello recalled the interview with Hitchcock with obvious affection. “It was pretty scary,” he remembered. “He was a formidable gentleman, and he had a way about him that said, ‘I am somebody, I’m an authority, I’m an expert, I’m a genius.’ He also had this humanity that I responded to immediately, and a vulnerability that I certainly responded to.
“He was enormously gentle and kind with me, and he was playful toward me—not in a flirtatious way. But he flirted with people, not in a sexual way. He wanted to see what I was made of. He played a stunt on me in which I was made to sit in a specific chair, in his outer office, and his secretary said he was in with his barber for his daily haircut and shave and they opened the door just slightly so I could see Hitchcock with his head tilted back and this straight-edged razor over his neck. And the door slammed [shut]. A few minutes later I was ushered into his office. I was enormously flattered that he cared enough to stage [that] prank. He also did it to see what I was made of—if it would throw me. I was delighted by him, and charmed. He could have given me stock answers, but didn’t. He was fresh and funny…. And because of that interview that was published around the world, I suddenly had a bit of a calling card as a journalist. That led to me meeting many people in the Hitchcock universe. And that led to my writing the book…and that led to my becoming so creatively entrenched in the making of ‘Hitchcock.’ How could I not be grateful? I just feel as if he was, and is, like a kind of guardian angel in my life, because none of that should have happened. Hitchcock sort of put his hand on me.”
With a sigh, Rebello added, “I wish there were a contemporary Hitchcock. I wish there were someone who had that unique, magnetic, odd personality and could also make spectacular movies. Because I love showmen, that era of showmen, whether it’s William Castle or DeMille or Hitchcock—people who are larger than life, almost as large as the movies they make.”
One major addition that the film makes to the book is the attention it gives to Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville, who was not only supportive of his work but, as an expert in the craft herself, was instrumental in helping to perfect his films. Rebello explained, “The book…was largely dependent on what the people around Hitchcock told me at the time about the making of that specific film—I tried to [help] people to be sort of flies on the wall during the making of a film that was shot very quickly and inexpensively…. I apologize for downplaying Alma in that book. I was under a misconception. I was under the impression that most people knew how important she was to every one of his films. So with the film I wanted to correct that—it was a course correction on my part.
“But there was another reason. When I was a kid, I saw Alma standing literally in the shadow of Hitchcock, watching him, being very gracious with the crowd. I saw an enormously sharp woman….just an enormously bright, birdlike, intuitive, very observant person. And accustomed to, in fact maybe being more comfortable with, being in the shadows—except at home, and except on the set, where she knew her stuff. She’d been in the business before he was, he was beholden to her, he was almost on bended knee, in a sense, in terms of her expertise as a moviemaker and editor [and] as an audience surrogate, where she was truly a genius. She knew exactly what an audience might not respond to. She was a referee and a coach; she would get between him and [composer] Bernard Herrmann, for example. She was so charming, but also so brilliant, that she was able to say to Hitch, for example, listen to Benny’s cue for the shower sequence, don’t reject it out of hand. And Hitchcock, to his credit, knew when something was good. You know that famous quote to Mr. Herrmann saying, ‘Improper suggestion, old boy,’ which was [admitting] it should never have been silent, it should always have had this music, you were correct. But without Alma I’m not sure that they wouldn’t have just duked it out and both walked away knowing they were right, and the film [would have] suffered for it.
“So when we were going to make a film and a number of producers came to me, it was imperative to me that the story not just be interesting to me and film buffs and student who love and admire Hitchcock. It needed to be an audience movie, because we would be violating Hitchcock’s rule—you need to engage the emotions of an audience. So I wanted there to be a beating heart in the movie, and to me Alma was that. She was his course correction; she was the one who’d slap him on the hand when he was being the puckish little boy. I think she made him a better man. I think he was a genius, and I think she made him a better filmmaker.
“So Alma is given very short shrift in the book, and I wanted to make sure that was redressed…. I wanted it to be, hopefully, a mature look at a couple who’d been together a very long time and how they knew where the bodies were buried, and wanted to remind the other that they knew. And I love Nick and Nora Charles and the ‘Thin Man’ movies, so I’ve always loved elevated, heightened dialogue, and I love barbed dialogue. So we wanted to bring all that to the movie. I hope to some extent we succeeded. I know that when we did the first table read of the screenplay, Helen Mirren and Tony Hopkins were an old married couple of thirty-five years—they immediately began insulting each other and stepping on each other’s lines and finishing each other’s sentences and telling jokes on each other…They were being Alma and Alfred Hitchcock. We all got chills. They heard the music of the script and had done their research and just fell into it. I think they got at the heart of who these people were.
“I really hope that the real Mr. and Mrs. Hitchcock would feel that they weren’t trivialized,” Rebello concluded.
“Hitchcock” is a Fox Searchlight release.