Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Tale of Two Alfreds: Fiction and Fact

The most curious object I inherited from my late father is a skeleton key attached to a round metal tag that reads “Bates Motel,” along with the room number 1. I’m not sure how he came to own this movie memento, although his admiration for Alfred Hitchcock – they shared the same first name – predated the 1960 release of Psycho by at least two decades, with big-screen thrillers such as Suspicion (1941).

Beginning in 1955, every Sunday night Dad was glued to our black-and-white Zenith with a round picture tube for the half-hour anthology program Alfred Hitchcock Presents on CBS. A year later, he began subscribing to the legendary director’s monthly Mystery Magazine

My father would have been happy to learn that there’s a plan afoot for a film based on the 1990 nonfiction book by Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. Anthony Hopkins reportedly is in talks to star as the portly filmmaker; Sacha Gervasi (Anvil! The Story of Anvil) might direct from a script by John McLaughlin (Black Swan). An earlier attempt to launch this project, with Helen Mirren playing Hitchcock’s wife Alma and Ryan Murphy (Eat Pray Love) at the helm, failed to come together for some reason.

If it hews closely to Rebello’s research, any cinematic telling of this tale could prove more grisly than Psycho itself. Joseph Stefano‘s 1959 screenplay is based on a novel with the same title published earlier that year by Robert Bloch, a Wisconsin author. He, in turn, had decided to pen his tome after reading November 1957 news reports about a series of mind-boggling mutilations and murders in a nearby rural town: The killer was Ed Gein, a hermetic loner with a bizarre attachment to his Bible-thumping mother, who died of a stroke in 1945. The previous year, his brother’s suspicious demise was purportedly due to a brush fire.


Ed Gein
According to the web site,, “Some local kids, peeking in Gein's windows, spread rumors that they had seen shrunken human heads in his living room. Ed laughed and explained that his cousin had served in the South Seas during World War II and had sent the heads (to him) as souvenirs.” Local officials never bothered to investigate. But after some local women disappeared, police discovered parts from at least 15 different bodies scattered throughout Gein’s farmhouse. He had even turned many of them into artifacts, such as lampshades, and supposedly was assembling a “suit” to pass as female in lieu of a desired sex-change operation. And worse. Some of the corpses were recently deceased cadavers resembling his mother that he had unearthed from local graves. He also reportedly was responsible for a string of murders that dated back to 1955, though eventually tried and convicted only for two of them. 

Although Bloch invented much of the Psycho book’s plot, he would eventually find out that his imaginative flourishes were not very far from the truth. For example, he envisioned Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins on screen) as a transvestite. Only after his novel was published did the author learn of Gein’s incomprehensible notion of living in the actual skin of his mother, whose bedroom he kept untouched

The Gein farmhouse
Over time, the Gein saga was adapted for a range of movies, including Deranged (1974), In The Light of the Moon (2000), and Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield (2007). His deeds were a model for Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. And recently, the movie Ed Gein: The Musical premiered in January 2010 in Menasha, Wisconsin. It's now out on DVD.

But a work of art that supplies historical context for Gein’s monstrous endeavors is Wisconsin Death Trip, a 1973 book by Michael Lesy. It’s a collection of newspaper clippings and bizarre photographs shot in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, where alcoholism, suicides, madness, arson, infants succumbing to diphtheria, smallpox, bank failures and supposed witchcraft plagued residents from 1890 to 1910. (British filmmaker James Marsh released a 1999 documentary covering the same material.) Out there on the forlorn Midwestern plains, settled by conservative – not just in the political sense – German and French immigrants, other hamlets in the state likely experienced similar chaos. The town of Plainfield, Wisconsin, produced Ed Gein. By 1978, Milwaukee had produced fellow cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer.

Psycho, Hitchcock’s 47th motion picture, wisely refrained from exploring the most depraved aspects of the Gein case. Nonetheless, the crimes committed by Norman Bates were extremely risky during those times of invasive censorship in the entertainment industry. The shower scene alone, in which actress Janet Leigh (as the ill-fated Marion Crane) is seemingly nude while being stabbed to death, sparked enduring controversy. Hollywood moguls worried more about her theoretical nakedness than the brutal means of the character’s demise. But the three-minute sequence also fostered a schism on the creative team. 

Janet Leigh in Psycho
Were the groundbreaking camera angles (almost 80 of them!) and jagged editing dreamed up by the Master of Suspense or his graphic designer Saul Bass? Both claimed auteurship for years afterwards. At the very least, the latter man (also responsible for the opening credits and poster) certainly created the template with his 48 storyboard drawings that depicted the attacker only in silhouette, the shower curtain being torn down and the segue from the bathtub drain to Marion's lifeless eye. The black-and-white cinematography, which Hitchcock thought would soften the impact, actually heightens the sense of horror because it’s starker. Some audience members reportedly fainted, vomited or ran from the theater. Many vowed never to shower again.

Although Paramount initially distanced itself from the project, thinking the book too repulsive, Hitchcock reached into his own pockets for financing and filmed with his TV crew to keep costs down. The studio continued to have input as the distributor of the lean-mean, low-budget film, however. While Psycho is set somewhere in the American West, probably California, a Universal-International lot served as the location.

Bathtub murder in Les Diaboliques
The fact that this was 1960, the beginning of a new era, is significant. The director apparently felt his familiar style in such sumptuous classics as Rear Window had been marginalized by more modern fare, like the rough-around-the-edges Les Diaboliques. He scrutinized that 1955 movie, according to Rebello, and was stunned by its success: ”How could Hitchcock help but feel superannuated when the ‘joltier‘ (Henri-Georges) Clouzot and Les Diaboliques won the prestigious Delluc Prize in France for highest achievement in originality?”

The desire for reinvention was evident. “By necessity, Psycho would mark Hitchcock’s break with his movie-making past and put the industry on notice that a sixty-year-old directorial workhorse could shock and innovate with the best of the youngbloods,” Rebello writes.

Whether or not he was truly in the league of youngbloods, Hitchcock – a mere eight years older than Clouzot, who helped inspire the French New Wave – remained a cultural force to be reckoned with. In comparing composer Johannes Sebastian Bach to Hitchcock, Brian Da Palma once observed: “He wrote every tune that was ever done.” Even though a Time magazine critic suggested Psycho “has traded in his uncomplicated tenets of terror for a new outlook that is vague Nouvelle Vague,” rather than return to the mainstream thriller mode of yesteryear the British-born filmmaker’s next effort was what Rebello calls “another offbeat shocker.”

Tippi Hedren in The Birds (1963)
With 1963’s The Birds, humans were as fearful of winged creatures as they had been of any lodgings run by a guy named Norman three years earlier, when Psycho introduced ordinary things that unsettle us in the realm of make-believe. Of course, none of those fabricated atrocities can begin to compare with the real-life deeds of ordinary citizens like Wisconsin’s Ed Gein. Hitchcock later deemed the 1960 release “one of the most cinematic movies I’ve made...a clear example of the use of film to cause audiences to respond emotionally.” Three sequels (the third, a TV movie made in 1990), a 1998 remake by Gun Van Sant and a never-ending array of cheap imitations don’t even come close.

At the 33rd Annual Academy Awards ceremony in April 1961, Psycho was nominated for several Oscars art direction, set decoration, supporting actress (Leigh), best director but lost in each instance, an enormous disappointment to Hitchcock. “He thought the industry looked down their noses at him,” screenwriter Joseph Stefano is quoted as saying in the Rebello book. Nonetheless, wherever he landed in the Hereafter, Hitchcock should be proud that his earthly legacy outshines that of Clouzot and most other classy horrormeisters.

My father, the other Alfred, should be proud that he had a key to the Bates Motel.

My father, the other Alfred

 Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Susan,

    Loved your well written article! I ask for one quick revision though..."Ed Gein, The Musical" is actually a movie instead of a theatrical production. I wrote it and play the titular character (Ed). Please feel free to listen to my upcoming interview March 20th on NPR and XM Satellite's "To the Best of Our Knowledge" I follow the eccentric auteur/director John Waters. Thanks for the mention Susan!

    Warmest regards,
    Dan Davies