Producers Anonymous: Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot

On 'Hitchcock' and the enduring mysteries of 'Psycho'

By Jerome ChristensenDecember 20, 2012

    Producers Anonymous: Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot

    SPOILER ALERT! The movie Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, does not have a happy ending. The movie Hitchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi — the story, purportedly, of the making of Psycho — does. Unlike Psycho, Hitchcock is a pleasant motion picture which provides all of the comforts of the classical Hollywood narrative: shot and edited to achieve the illusion of the continuity of time and space and to clarify psychological motivation, propelled by a deadline, and featuring a heterosexual couple whose marriage, though troubled by temptations and mistrust, is ultimately saved by a re-affirmation of mutual affection and respect.

    Psycho, released 52 years ago, is widely regarded as a decisive break with those conventions. Sick of furtive meetings with her lover, Sam, who cannot marry her because he is sunk in debt, Marion Crane, a clerk at a Phoenix real estate office, impulsively steals $40,000 in cash after her boss entrusts her to deposit it in the bank. She escapes town but not her guilt, which, along with the cash, is the baggage she bears when she checks into the Bates hotel and encounters the troubled proprietor, Norman, whose mother is a shrill and dominating (but unseen) presence. After talking to the pathetic Norman, Crane decides to return the money. In the middle of a purgative shower, and only 30 minutes into the movie, Crane is shockingly stabbed to death by a shadowy figure resembling an elderly woman, presumably the jealous mother. Norman cleans up. Eventually Sam, Marion’s sister Lila, and Arbogast, a detective, return to investigate the mystery of Marion’s disappearance. In a stunningly inventive sequence, Arbogast is stabbed on the stairs of the Bates house. In an even more stunning finale, the sister discovers the mother’s corpse in the cellar just as the cross-dressed Norman, with knife raised to strike, discovers her. Norman is disarmed at the last moment by Sam. Norman is incarcerated, diagnosed, and, finally, comfortably reunited with his mother, who has taken full possession of his mind.

    Psycho glories in narrative fractures and perverse behavior; it subverts the expectations of an audience already habituated to Hitchcockian suspense by pushing even further, masterfully administering a dose of sheer shock. Hitchcock, on the other hand, struggles to arouse even suspense. When Alfred Hitchcock (impersonated with corpulent brio by Anthony Hopkins) meets Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), who will star in Psycho as Marion Crane, we are led to suspect that he might lavish on her the same obsessive interest that he has shown towards what his wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren, who plays her as even more elegantly self-possessed than Queen Elizabeth), mockingly calls his “fantasy blondes.” By the movie’s end, however, Alma congratulates Leigh on her professionalism. Rightly so: as we know, nothing happened between her and Hitch. Hitch, for his part, spends much of the movie indulging in almost frantic jealousy that his wife is carrying on an affair with the unctuous screenwriter Whitt Cooke (Danny Huston); he ends by apologizing for his suspicions. Rightly so: as we know, nothing happened between Alma and Whitt. The premiere of Psycho is a triumph. Nothing happens that we've feared; nothing happens that we might secretly desire.

    With the crucial exception of the sentimental Alma subplot, Hitchcock the film is more or less faithful to Stephen Rebello’s book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of PSYCHO (1990). Both book and film begin with an account of the gruesome series of murders by Wisconsinite Ed Gein, a man who, like the fictional Norman Bates, was given to romancing his dead mother. Psycho, Robert Bloch’s 1959 novelization of the Gein case, caught the interest of Hitchcock at a time when he was avid to find a subject that would rescue him from the purgatorial future of endless variations on the slick, suave, and star-driven North by Northwest. The slick, suave, and star-driven Hitchcock features Gein at the outset, but instead of confining him to a prologue, as Rebello does, it unwisely allows him to make guest appearances throughout; played as a dour and eerily sympathetic misfit by Michael Wincott, he freely moves in and out of Hitchcock’s nightmares and cannily stokes the director’s fever-inspired fantasies of his wife’s infidelity. The accumulation of those lurid moments of spectral colloquy amount, however, to little more than a nudging insinuation that Hitchcock’s suspicions involve (gasp) a mother fixation.

    This is hardly a shock to those of us already familiar with the Hitchcock oeuvre; what’s unfortunate is how little significance Gervasi and the film’s screenwriter, John J. McLaughlin, are able to wring out of it. The suggestion that the director might enjoy trying his hand at stabbing some woman ­— whether because of the unavailability of his mother, or Grace Kelly, or Vera Miles, or the Oscar — is never satisfactorily elaborated. Moreover, it is the cheerful, respectful Janet Leigh who, during the shooting of the famous shower scene, becomes Hitchcock’s target as he almost surrenders to his homicidal urges. When, in a tantrum over the desultory handling of the knife by the stunt double, the director falls into a fit of stabbing the air with a butcher knife, it is reasonably shocking. But it is not shocking enough to make us suspend our disbelief that the makers of Hitchcock would have the nerve to pull a meta-murder by having the character Hitch actually kill off the character Janet Leigh. That might have been unpleasant, but it would have been the kind of genre-busting gesture that made Psycho so thrilling — it would have shattered the conventions of the biopic as satisfyingly as Psycho shattered those of the suspense film.

    Such a turn of the screw would, however, have also have meant the exile of Scarlett Johansson from the picture, which, given the economic constraints under which McLaughlin and Gervasi labor, just could not happen. Arguably the biggest star in the picture, she’s too costly to relinquish just for the sake of a good shock. Hitchcock, on the other hand, faced no such problem with the real Janet Leigh, playing the “real” Marion Crane. She came cheap. Leigh was paid just $20,000 for her role in the movie, even though her name appears at the end of the credit sequence in bigger letters than Anthony Perkins’s (who earned twice as much). If Janet Leigh hadn’t been blonde and cheap, she wouldn’t have been in the picture; and she wouldn’t have been cheap if she, like Hitchcock, hadn’t been under contract to the super agent Lew Wasserman, head of the Music Corporation of America (MCA). Wasserman provided Hitchcock with a star he could afford to kill.

    The reports on the salaries come from Rebello’s book, but, as Hitchcock does not mention Leigh’s involvement with Wasserman, there’s no way for a member of the audience untutored in Hollywood intrigue to connect the dots. Wasserman does appear in Hitchcock, credibly played by the intense Michael Stuhlbarg, but he appears strictly and straightforwardly in his capacity as the smart agent who gets juicy deals for his clients. (He boasts to Hitchcock, for instance, of the breakthrough deal he delivered to James Stewart for his role in Winchester 73 (1950), which established the formula for a star’s enrichment: that a sacrifice on salary would be made on the front end in exchange for a substantial percentage of the gross, eventual ownership of the films, or, both. The gamble paid off for Stewart, and it worked again with Psycho.)

    It must be admitted that Hitchcock does a decent, though somewhat deceptive, job of evoking the industrial context in which Hitchcock thrived. We are introduced to Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow), head of Paramount, who wants to condemn Hitchcock to a lifetime of North by Northwest remakes; Peggy Robertson (Toni Colette), Hitch’s girl Friday; the brilliant graphic artist Saul Bass (Wallace Langham); and, too briefly, the screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio). But Hitchcock fails to come to terms with three of the most significant mysteries of Psycho’s peculiar credit sequence: the absence of a producer credit; the attribution of the film’s provenance not to Paramount or Universal but to Shamley Productions (the company that had been established by Hitchcock in concert with Wasserman to hold the director’s copyrights; and the credit to Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia, who played the role of Caroline, the clerk who shares the front office of Lowery Realty with Marion.

    In addition to acting as agent for Hitchcock and Leigh, Lew Wasserman provided vital assistance in the production of Psycho, but his name is absent from the credits. Hitchcock depicts the deal between Balaban, Wasserman, and Hitchcock as an agreement that the director would finance the picture himself, in return for 40% of the profits (or 60% of the negative, as Rebello’s book reports it), and that Paramount would distribute it. This is all accurate enough, except that it omits the important codicil that the film would be made on the so-called Universal lot (so-called because it was at that time owned by MCA, which was headed by … Lew Wasserman). Although the Paramount lot was available, the deal swung by Wasserman stipulated that Psycho would employ the under-utilized Universal facilities, thereby securing for MCA and Wasserman a substantial share of the below the line costs. Arguably, then, Wasserman deserved a producer’s credit. It is easy to understand why it was withheld, however, for it was this kind of double dealing by MCA — collecting a percentage from a client that is represented and then either employing the client or compelling them to use production facilities owned by the agency — that had made MCA a target of anti-trust investigations by the Eisenhower Justice Department (and which would end with its forced divestiture of the talent agency in 1962). The last thing Lew Wasserman wanted, in 1960, was credit as a producer on an Alfred Hitchcock motion picture. Better to keep a low profile.

    Patricia Hitchcock’s absence from Hitchcock is less easily explained. Neither Hitchcock nor Alma ever mentions that they have a daughter, despite her credited participation in Psycho. Janet Leigh does describe herself as a wife and mother, which is enough to exempt her from disrobing for the shower sequence. But we also learn that when Vera Miles showed up pregnant two weeks before the shooting of Vertigo, it was sufficient cause for Hitchcock to shut down the star-making machinery he had assembled on her behalf. Although motherliness is a conspicuously disturbing theme in both the Psycho script and in Hitch’s fevered nightmares, McLaughlin does not take advantage of his well-known habit of calling Alma “mom.” Hitchcock finally brushes away both erotic obsessions and parental connections in order to focus on rectifying the supposed injustice done to Alma Reville, long suffering wife, for not being credited as screenwriter, editor, adviser, and, indeed, director on Psycho. Hitchcock ends as a new auteur — Alma Reville — is born.

    That consecration of Alma may be heartwarming to contemporary audiences, but it is historically unwarranted. As important an advisor to Hitchcock as Reville was, she didn’t direct any of Psycho, and certainly not the stunning scene of the detective Arbogast being stabbed on the staircase, which McLaughlin and Gervasi attribute to her. Hitchcock was home in bed with the flu that day, to be sure, but the Assistant Director (Hilton Green) took charge, did what he could, and awaited the Director’s inevitable corrections on his return.

    When investigating the making of a Hollywood picture, it is wise to pay close attention to the credits, both what they include and what they omit. Psycho credits Patricia Hitchcock, Alfred and Alma’s daughter, as an actress in the film. Hitchcock mentions neither Patricia the actress nor Patricia the daughter. Alfred Hitchcock produced all of his postwar pictures but took a producer credit only on To Catch a Thief (1955) and Frenzy (1972). As in the case of Irving Thalberg’s famous refusal to take a credit for producing any of the MGM pictures he meticulously shepherded through the production process, the absence of a producer credit on Hitchcock’s pictures is an example of conspicuous modesty. And nowhere is the auteur’s modesty more conspicuous than with Psycho, which thematizes that omission.

    Although a producer is not named in Psycho’s opening credits, one does make an appearance in propria persona during the second scene, which takes place at the real estate office where Marion works, and which is also the one scene in which Patricia as Caroline appears. The scene has been shrewdly analyzed by the critic Charles Dove in an unpublished essay, where he calls attention to the initial shot of Hitchcock framed through the window of the office, shot from behind in three-quarter view with a Stetson on his head as he stands on the sidewalk. Marion then crosses behind him as she enters the office, where she asks a couple of nervous questions, then retreats to her desk in the background.

    A brief, cross-cut conversation between them is interrupted by the return of the boss with his swaggering client, Mr. Cassidy, who wears a Stetson identical to Hitchcock’s. The well-heeled Cassidy has brought along $40,000 in cash to purchase a house for his daughter who will be married the next day in order to “buy” (or, better, produce) “happiness.” Cassidy refers to this patrimony as a gift for his “sweet little girl,” and, in turning to Marion, exempts her from the intended reference, while sleazily including her as a possibility within its frame. We are meant to understand Marion’s theft as exploiting, if not justifying, her theft of the undeclared cash, which diverts it from Cassidy’s daughter.

    The sartorial matching of Cassidy with Hitchcock, should, however, remind us that there is another “sweet little girl” in the room — Hitchcock’s own daughter — who is only in the picture because her father mortgaged the family home in order to pay the “talent” whose participation would make the whole enterprise commercially viable. So, not only is Marion taking money intended for Cassidy’s daughter, Janet Leigh is accepting money that should rightfully belong to Patricia.

    imagePatricia Hitchcock and Janet Leigh inPsycho.

    Why should it be Leigh who takes the rap? Because she is the only actor in the picture who is under contract to Wasserman, and she therefore puts Hitchcock in the annoying predicament of returning the money to another Wasserman client (and 10% of it to Wasserman himself) as the price he must pay to make his movie. The equivalence between Marion/Leigh and the cash could hardly be made clearer by the subsequent shots pairing both, in her apartment and the motel room. Marion is suitably punished for her theft by being killed, just as Leigh is punished for diverting family money by being discharged from the narrative. When finally stowed in the trunk of her automobile, Marion’s beautiful body sinks in the swamp, and the money accompanies her.

    To be sure, after the successful completion of the plot, the filthy cold corpse and the filthy cold cash both resurface, though still entombed. It is unlikely that Cassidy will get any of it back since it is dirty money that would surely attract the IRS. But both corpse and cash have been rendered incidental: the former because Norman’s twisted talent has long since eclipsed the physical allure of Marion; the latter because the nation’s thrilled response to Hitchcock’s movie guarantees a return that makes the declared loss of $40,000 insignificant. The return is guaranteed in part because Hitchcock does not trust either Balaban or Wasserman with his cash. (In a rare moment of visual acuity, Hitchcock shows Hitchcock signing the check — the signature of the producer as auteur.)

    And so there was a happy ending to Psycho, after all — just not the one that Hitchcock invents, in which Hitch and Alma bond as loving collaborators outside the theater after the picture’s Chicago opening. That happy ending is, unhappily, a fake. As John Russell Taylor reports in his biography of the director and Pat Hitchcock O’Connell corroborates in her biography of Alma, the Hitchcocks were, in fact, traveling in Europe when Psycho opened. In real life, there was no portly man out in the lobby grandly orchestrating the gasps and shrieks of the theater audience during the shower scene. Anthony Hopkins lavishes his outsize talents on the scene, but he isn’t, and couldn’t be, Hitchcock — as Hitch’s daughter surely concluded before she declined to cooperate with this fanciful project.

    The real life happy ending to Psycho occurred in 1964, when Hitchcock compounded his patrimony by exchanging his rights to Shamley Productions, including Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and all the reverted Paramount films for enough stock in Universal to make him and Alma the third largest stockholders in the company, thereby securing a corporate, if not quite a family connection with Wasserman, the new head of the studio and the uncredited and unindicted co-producer of Psycho. The stock, which would skyrocket in value when Universal was acquired by Matushita in 1991, was legally declared and signed over as legacy to be bestowed on Hitch’s “sweet girl,” Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell.


    LARB Contributor

    Jerome Christensen is a professor of English at the University of California Irvine. His books include Romanticism at the End of History and America’s Corporate Art: The Studio Authorship of Hollywood Motion Pictures.


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