In the space of two days I was accosted by two trailers for two different films based on the life of Alfred Hitchcock. The first was for a HBO TV movie called The Girl, based on the making ofThe Birds. It stars Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren and Toby Jones as the master of suspense. The second trailer was for a Sacha Gervasi film simply titledHitchcock. It focuses on the making of Psycho with Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh and Anthony Hopkins as the legendary director. While the HBO film was shown in October we must wait until February next year to see Hopkins play the plump director. It seems Hitchcock is in vogue at the moment.
The first time I saw Psycho I was fifteen and had an idea in my head to start a collection of Hitchcock films on VHS. The only two videos I had were Psycho and The Birds. When I watched Psycho for the first time I was alone at night with the lights off. The next morning and many mornings afterwards I found great difficulty taking a shower.
Psycho was not an easily made movie. It was Hitchcock’s masterpiece, which of course meant that it was a bumpy road to the final cut. Hitchcock was in an airport when he came across a book by Robert Bloch called Psycho, a 1959 novel based very loosely on Ed Gein. Hitchcock’s Psychodemanded that the viewer keep up with the film, as the lead role is killed off some forty seven minutes into it.
Psycho is without doubt an iconic film. The Bates house, which is instantly recognizable, was in fact based on an Edward Hopper painting called “The House by the Railroad”. But even before any iconic images are brandished across our eyes, we must first throw open our ear canals to that infamous score. Bernard Hermann’s score plays its most crucial role during the shower scene. Hitchcock initially wanted the shower scene without music, just silence. Try watching the shower scene with the volume turned down and you will see what I mean when I say that it just wouldn’t work without the screaming strings of a high pitched violin.
Hitchcock’s hold on Psycho reached right out to cinema goers. He produced a six minute trailer for it in which he toured the set of the Bates motel playing up to the fear of the viewer. Being a self-obsessed director even his trailers made for mini movies. Hitchcock instructed how cinemas should screen his film and that by strict order no one be left in after it begins. Even today the ghost of old Hitch might tell you how to watch it on Blu-ray!
Psycho received four Oscar nominations including Best Director, but like many a great movie made before and after it, won none. But the real reward is that we still talk about Psycho today, that some even feel the need to make a feature film about it.
Following Psycho came another iconic Hitchcock film which made it into my rather small video collection. The Birds was released in 1963 and based somewhat loosely on a story written by Daphne du Maurer in 1952. Hitchcock’s version was set in the Californian coastal town of Bodega Bay which, for no reason, falls victim to violent birds who could scare even Norman Bates. The Birdsis noted for its utter, naked terror, but it is also noteworthy for one of Hitchcock’s greatest cameos. He was infamous for his cameo appearances in his own films but his best was in The Birds where the round figured Hitchcock is seen walking out of a pet shop with two small dogs.
The Birds became much more of an ordeal to make than Psycho was. Tippi Hedren ended up being hospitalized due to exhaustion mid-way through filming and is it any wonder why she was! Hitchcock instructed that live birds be tied to Hedren’s clothes by long nylon strings, and in one scene she suffered a bloody cut on her face by one of the feathered thugs. Rod Taylor, who played the male role in the film, would later state that on Hitchcock’s orders the birds were fed a mixture of whiskey and wheat. The result of such a mixture would give the birds an unsettling look as they hung around like a gang of thugs full of malice and dangerous thoughts.
Unlike Psycho, The Birds has no musical score, only the terrible squawking of the crows and seagulls and the screams of their victims. The lack of a score actually works for The Birds as it makes it more realistic and much more creepy.
The film finishes on an unsettling note. “The End” never appears, as was standard in films of that era. Hitchcock insisted that the terror remains long after the final credits have rolled, and I can confirm that the terror does endure, as I still have reservations about taking showers in hotels and I always run the other way whenever a bird flies too close for comfort.
Lily Murphy is 24 years old and comes from Cork city, Ireland. She graduated last year from University College Cork with a B.A in history and politics. She can be reached at Lilymurphycork@gmail.com