When I saw that a biopic about Hitchcock and the making of Psycho was about to be released, I was uncontrollably excited! After all, it was Hitchcock’s work that lit the fire of cinematic passion in my heart. My sister, who happens to be seven years older than me, loves Hitchcock films. She is particularly enamoured with Vertigo, arguably Hitchcock (Hitch) ‘s most genius treatment of the psychopathology of sexual obsession and control. The Birds was another family favorite. My mother, brothers, and sister once lived in Valley Ford, a town just a few miles from Bodega Bay that has the distinction of housing the film’s infamous “Fawcett farm”. And yes, Bruce and I did go see it when it was recently rereleased in theaters for one night.
I can remember being no older than five or six and watching a documentary on TV about the making of Psycho. I can’t really remember the time in my life when I didn’t know about Janet Leigh’s famous swallowing of a contact lens as she lay dead on the floor of the shower. When I got married, I was lucky enough to snag a partner who loves Hitch’s movies even more than I do. Around the time that Hitch’s birthday comes around every August, Bruce always pulls out these classic films: Rear Window, Rope, Vertigo, Marnie, Spellbound, Notorious, The Birds, Psycho, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North By Northwest, Shadow of A Doubt. We’ve watched these movies so many times, I’m surprised we haven’t (pardon the pun) worn a hole through them.
I am also kind of obsessed with the ways golden age Hollywood is portrayed in film. Factuality is not important to me. I just like to analyze what the films are doing. So, lucky me! Genius Tony Hopkins (a high school crush of mine) plays the creepiest director in history. Not to mention Helen Mirren as his inimitable wife. How could they lose?
Bruce and I saw it last night and here’s my mythie take on it.
Hitch was called the master of suspense. Everyone knows that. Everyone who knows anything about him knows that he was obsessed with murder, suspense, and the macabre. He was interested in Freudian psychology, and he clearly loved to explore the deepest darkest recesses of the mind. He loved to shock audiences with what was possible in the realm of human behavior.
Psychologist and PGI godfather, James Hillman, made an interesting documentary in 2005 (Surfing LA) in which he explored the archetypal nature of the city of Los Angeles. He suggests that there is something about Los Angeles that is underworldly, that the energy of the place–from the geography to the violent history of the city to the presence of the film industry and the darkness that seems to surround it–makes it the entrance to the underworld. It seems fitting that this master of macabre storytelling would make his home the City of Angels during its golden age.
Hitchcock explores a time when this master filmmaker seemed about to fall from his golden pedastal. The film begins with a member of the press asking him why at sixty years old he doesnt just retire while he is ahead. The viewer can see the anger brewing inside of him. He searches for his next project, and when it does it is an adaptation of Psycho, a novel based on the true story of psychotic murder Ed Gein. Hitch descends into madness as the character of Norman Bates begins to resonate with him. The anger that Hitch feels toward everyone in his life is turned interior, as he lives it vicariously through Norman.
All of these details are fascinating, but it was the mythic associations of the characters of Hitch and his wife Alma themselves that had me really interested. I wondered to myself: Is there a pattern from classical mythology being played out in this relationship? If so, what is it?
As per usual, I turned to Greek mythology, and it became clear to me that there was indeed a series of motifs from Greek mythology being played out in the story of the making of Psycho, and probably in the truth of Hitch’s life.
According to the Encyclopedia Mythica (pantheon.org):
Hephaestus, the god of fire, especially the blacksmith’s fire, was the patron of all craftsmen, principally those working with metals. Known as the lame god, Hephaestus was born weak and crippled. Displeased by the sight of her son, Hera threw Hephaestus from Mount Olympus, and he fell for a whole day before landing in the sea. Nymphs rescued him and took him to Lemnos, where the people of the island cared for him.
To gain revenge for his rejection by Hera, Hephaestus fashioned a magic throne, which was presented to her on Mount Olympus. When Hera sat on the throne, it entrapped her, making her a prisoner. Hephaestus eventually released Hera after being given the beautiful Aphrodite as his bride.
The god of craftsmen, and poets, and, I would suggest that is applies to filmmakers as well, the archetypal energy of Hephaestus is present in Hitch, the archetypal craftsman and poet. Hitch lives deep in the bowels of the cutting room, making, shifting, editing his way to greatness. Like Hephaestus, he is considered ugly–overweight, bald, and (ehem) not tall. Also, like Hephaestus, he is metaphorically wed to Aphrodite, as he is cursed to live an obsession with the blond Hitchcockian woman of mystery, who is always guaranteed to scorn his form.
By contrast, like Hera, his wife Alma is presented as being the queen of the “Hills.” It becomes clear that Hitch would be nothing without her. And, if fact, he says as much to her at one point during the film. She is a genius editor, writer, and intuitive producer. She is involved in every aspect of the project from the cast choices to the camera angles. She is the mother of his creation, and their relationship reflects the possessiveness, perversion, and obsession of a Freudian Oedipal relationship. She is consistently frustrated by his destructive “ugliness.” She spends much of the films pushing him away and pursuing her own well deserved goals.
The Alma of this film longs for her own work. She believes she will find it in a new collaborator, but in the end, she is called back to her work with Hitch, and through that return he is forced to recognize that, well, she’s more powerful than he is, and that he loves her.
When Alma tells Hitch that she has waited thirty years for him to tell her that she is more beautiful than any Hitchcock blonde, he tells her: “And THAT, my dear, is the reason they call me the master of suspense.”
Ultimately, Bruce and I both found this film to be a fascinating portrayal of this pivotal period of Hitchcock’s career. Hopkins and Mirren shine. Scarlett Johansson inhabits Janet Leigh, and James D’Arcy’s portrayal of Anthony Perkins is at once incredibly unsettling and sympathetic. Fine holiday fun for a pair of Hitchcock nerds. We loved it!