An essay about struggle.
I can see myself falling down a Hitchcock-shaped rabbit hole if I’m not careful. With a desire to let one film lead me to another as I write these essays, and with Hitchcock responsible for having directed in excess of 50 movies, it would be all too easy to tunnel my way through his warren.
I had wanted to watch the TV movie from 2012 called The Girl, but sadly that film is only available on channels that I don’t possess. So instead, I settled for Hitchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi.
(As this essay unfolds I’ll refer to the film as Hitchcock and the director as Alfred, so as to prevent confusion).
I think on this occasion the introduction to the plot is fairly self-explanatory, essentially it’s a biographical insight into the world of one of cinema’s most well-known suspense and thriller directors. Paying particular attention to the pinnacle of his career; the release of his film ‘Psycho’. As with all of my movie reviews, however, I don’t stop at the surface content. This film is a dichotomy of two lives; Alfred and Alma.
At first, you don’t realise how significant Alma is to the story, and I believe that to be utterly intentional.
Alfred was a dominant character of a man, thus Alma’s presence at the start of the film was immaterial.
Gervasi had set the scene faultlessly.
She had bypassed my consciousness completely, instead, I was drawn into wanting to understand Alfred, after all, it is he whose name is synonymous with fame and fear. It is he who has the reputation, the legacy of work, the contribution to the film industry…
… and of course – the synonymic association to the shrill sound of violins screeching, with an accompanying visual of a shower curtain.
Who was this man? The rotund, aging, and suited gentleman, who looked like he could have been Churchill’s cousin.
Now, I only have Gervasi and Hopkins’ interpretation to work with here (Anthony Hopkins played Alfred in the film) but he seemed like a self-important, pompous, and arrogant individual, who’d demand, belittle, and insult those around him. He was frustrated, both creatively, professionally, sexually, and existentially. But, by objective contrast, he was an intriguing man, with an intriguing mind. He was a visionary, with an obscure imagination. He was curious, passionate, and determined. I believe he was a scared man too, fearful of losing the things that he deemed important. He feared losing himself, and he feared losing Alma. I believe these fears were so unbearable for him, that he spent his time in the many other chambers of his mind. He kept himself distracted from his unwanted thoughts of loss by focusing on things that most of us couldn’t fathom thinking about as a source of comfort; psychosis, murder, necrophilia, paranoia, decapitation, mutilation – the dark list knew no bounds. Alfred’s mind was most definitely a restless place. So consumed by his own existence, he himself would forget about Alma, hence her lack of presence as we were becoming acquainted with who he was.
Alma, an extra in Alfred’s story.
I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps love and closeness were feelings he struggled to stay with too, far more comfortable with the likes of lust, infatuation, and voyeurism. Alma had aged with him, she was no longer the object of his desires. She was crucial to him yes, the essential framework that kept him buoyant, but not the enticing fantasy that she’d once been. She’d become the scenery, the backdrop, the insignificant, yet essential structure of his continuance.
Gradually it became clear that Alma was in a state of displeasure, and this meant something, she too meant something.
With Alfred being the lead role in her life, her existence was consequential to his state of being. If the person in the limelight isn’t happy, that misery makes its way back down the queue of people behind them. She hinged on him because he was front and center, she wanted him to be happy, not least so that she could be. You see the heaviness, the oppression, the longing for him to be okay, for then, and only then would things improve for her. She tolerated as much as she could bear, she supported and she encouraged – even turning against her own sense of appropriateness, in order to do so. She brought loyalty and commitment despite feeling abandoned and unappreciated. She did all that she could do to ride the wave of his frustration, in the hope of him imminently reaching a more satisfied state. There was a desperation to her endurance. Desperate for Alfred to find satisfaction, for then she too might survive.
A subtle splitting began to occur; the respective struggles they both faced. A crack began to form. Alma, longing to be seen by her husband. Alfred, longing to be seen by the world. For Alma, Alfred’s attention would have been more than enough, for Alfred there was no way that one woman’s attention could have ever be sufficient. Alma had long known this to be the case, and unequivocally supported his career in film, to ensure that he was exposed to the scale of audience that he so desperately craved. Yet there were gaps. For anyone in the film industry, there are times between films when you don’t know if you’ll be seen again. The agonising months of waiting for a deal, waiting to be signed, waiting for approval, tormented by the possibility that one may become invisible. Too close, far too close to Alfred’s fear of loss. The ultimate loss of himself, so irrelevant that no one might want to look anymore. No one interested in what he had to say, or share with the world.
Their individual desperation to be regarded as significant, unfolding in perfect synchronicity.
Alfred, hell-bent on finding his blockbuster script, Alma, yearning to emerge as the leading lady in her own story. Alfred stumbled across Pshyco, Alma stumbled across Whit, and suddenly they’re both tiptoeing on the edge of possibility. Will Alfred get his best-selling movie, will Alma get her man? Both twisted, tangled, in thought, struggling to turn a fantasy into reality.
Psycho – a book loosely based on Ed Gein, an American ‘psychopath’. A man bereft at the loss of his mother, who murdered and decapitated women, dug up graves, dismembered bodies, and used them to make items for his home, clothes to wear, and masks to embody that of a woman he craved. Alfred, blissfully aware of how disturbing this was, revelling in how he could shock the world if he could bring this story to life. Enthralled at the thought of etching himself into the minds of the many, forevermore. Giving life to a story so dark, that he’d never be forgotten. His deepest urge fulfilled, his greatest fear abolished. Perfection.
Whitfield Cook – a screenplay writer, a fellow movie professional, a man eager too, to realise his potential. Everything that Alfred was, and all that he was not. Handsome, endearing, courteous, but more, more than anything at all, interested, interested in her. Alma, excited, awoken, alive. Enchanted by the prospect of being desired, adored, and yearned for. Delighted by the possibility of being someone’s everything once again. Her deepest urge fulfilled, her greatest fear abolished. Perfection.
These two struggling individuals, both assessing whether or not their respective finds, could indeed be their respective answers.
Alfred aware of Alma’s shift, Alma aware of Alfred’s shift. Shared knowing that they’d both stumbled across something, both dubious about how their independent and conjoined lives might begin to unfold as a result of the discoveries made by their counterpart. Trying to be the reins on the other, whilst losing a grip of themselves.
Alfred taking wild financial risks to fund the film, which he was adamant he was going to produce, despite every industry professional attempting to shut him down. Alma taking wild moralistic risks, that she was adamant she was going to pursue, despite knowing it went against every marital value she’d ever held. Alfred trying to steer Alma away from Whit, Alma cautiously pointing out the pitfalls of Alfred’s plan. Eyes on the other, yet both void of control. An electric energy surging through their marriage; would it be resuscitated or would it be annihilated?
Alma pulling too hard, and too frequently on Alfred’s reins. Her murder now emerging as his fantasy.
Alfred pulling too hard, and too frequently on Alma’s reins. Her lust for murdering their marriage growing deeper by the day.
The more Alfred’s fixation on Psycho developed, the more Alma’s fixation with Whit developed, and the more they began to struggle. Their yearning for fulfilment expanding.
Their relationship; a hell they were beginning to despise. Their fantasies; their new worlds, their salvation, their escapism, their everything.
Alfred, conducting as a movie director, more outrageously than he ever had before.
Alma, flirtatiously seducing a man, more outrageously than she ever had before.
The struggle for control, escalating out of control. Alfred, openly misogynistic with his actresses in the presence of his wife. Alma, openly revealing her engagements with Whit from within their marital home.
Alfred in the car with his leading lady. Alma in the car with Whit. Alfred crossing the line of professionalism, Alma crossing the line of fidelity. Alfred so engrossed in his movie, Gein now living in his head. Alma so engrossed in her crush, she’s now staying at his beach house. Both of them unsure of how their fantasy will unfold, both of them scared, but both hoping for something better than their present reality.
Alfred discovers the script; the one that Alma’s been ‘helping’ Whit to write.
Whist Alma’s in Whit’s house savouring him, in the deafening silence of the middle of the night, when the land of film is fast asleep, and his wandering mind is wide awake, he makes his way to the fridge and savours the contents. The reality of losing Alma has become too apparent to ignore. He’s home alone without her, in the knowledge that she’s there; away with him. Struggling with the unbearable thought of what this could mean, he turns to food, an alternative distraction to cure the moment. His pattern of emotional avoidance now clearer than ever.
Upon her return, and with an inability to detach from reality, Alfred confronts her. “The script is stillborn.” He says, with callous and dark phraseology. He shows Alma with absolute clarity of feeling, what he thinks about Whit. An indirect attempt to scream that he is hurting, that he is dying inside, that he simply can’t bear to lose her. She bites back and references how intimately vacant he’s been. Embroiled with a torturous awareness of their shared pain, Alfred heads to their pool to expel some of what he’s unable to contain. He takes hold of a pool net and violently attacks the leaves in the water. A pool full of dirt, a pathetic attempt to rectify the mess. A sheer frustration at the impossibility of the situation. He’s too late in the season to clear the leaves, is he too late to save his marriage? As his awareness expands, you wonder if he’ll implode at the magnitude of his struggle.
Back in the studio, working on his movie, filming the infamous shower scene, and Alfred’s internal rage is spiralling. Something snaps, he launches himself out of his director’s chair and he trusts himself onto the set, grabbing the knife as he moves towards the leading actress. He pictures everyone he feels rage for as he ferociously and repeatedly thrusts the blade towards her.
Shirll, and terrified screams leaking from her mouth.
Alfred providing an example of how he wants the scene to look. Onlookers, appalled by the psychotic rage. Alfred, a hair’s breadth between fantasy and reality.
Alma meanwhile, back at the beach house enacting a scene from Whit’s script, creatively immersing herself in feelings of sexual fantasy, just moments away from her crescendo when the phone rings.
“Alfred’s collapsed.” The caller explains.
Alfred has murdered her moment.
Alfred’s timing, Alfred’s directorship; perfect, masterful, magnificent, exquisite.
Alma rushes home, above everything she remains committed to him, and his work.
In his sickbed, and he’s still attempting to try and direct his film. Alma recognises the need for Alfred to complete his masterpiece, and likewise, she recognises his need for rest. She insists on helping him. Adamant that she knows best; overriding him and taking on his director’s role in a composed and assertive way.
Alfred returns to his thoughts of Gein, who he’s internalised as some kind of mentor, therapist, and guide. A form of conscience if you will, although being led by the projection of a psychotic murderer is a disturbing thought in of itself. The mental image of Gein encourages Alfred out of bed, so that he can address his wife’s inappropriateness. How dare she take the lead!
“All men are potential murderers, and for good reason.” You can’t help but assume he’s referencing women. Women are the reason. Women are the blessing and women are the curse.
A woman can elevate a man in an instant. A woman can destroy a man in an instant.
Alma seeks clarity,
“Alright! What’s this all about.”
Alfred confronts her about the traces of sand he’s found in their home, implying he knows about the beach house.
She begins with defence.
He expresses feeling unsupported.
She explains, and definantly clarifies the extent of which she has supported him, despite the endless accusations and criticisms.
“Condsider this a reminder, I’m your wife, not one of your actresses.”
Alfred has a quiet moment of reflective realisation.
He’s confused, he thought he understood women.
One of his actresses points out that the fantasy doesn’t exist.
Meanwhile Alma returns to the beach house. She finds Whit making love to another woman.
Alma realises that as much as a man can elevate a woman in an instant, a man can crush a woman in an instant.
Whit’s first response, to ask her not to tell Alfred. Alma is outraged, realising she’d been a means for him to get closer to Alfred this entire time. If she’d been singing his praises, Alfred would have been more likely to help Whit produce his film. The crushing realisation that she’d meant nothing.
Alfred then discovers that after jumping through every conceivable hoop, Paramount think his film is horrendous.
Alfred’s agent tries to soften the blow. He tries to massage his ego, he tries to make it better.
Whit tries to soften the blow. He tries to massage her ego, he tries to make it better.
Late at night and Alfred is sat at the kitchen table, looking through photos of old memories. Alma pulls some strength from deep within and goes down to join him. They manage between them to call a truce. They agree to work on the film together – to make it perfect. Their creative differences are quickly evident, a passionate and healthy divide for the greater good.
Paramount, once again, argues that the film is not appropriate for release. Far too many rules broken for it to be exposed to the public. The seal – denied.
Alfred makes one last ditched attempt to rescue his masterpiece. He offers a proposal.
“Keep the shower scene, untouched, and you can have full control over the opening sex scene.” He says to them. By expressing his respect for Paramount, they afford their respect to him. They left him to determine the final cut. With the seal granted, Alfred’s agent is filled with excitement,
“Now we lead the lambs to the slaughter.” He said. Was he referring to Paramount or to the public audience?
No sooner had they had their moment of elation, did Paramount swoop in and take it all away again. They were only willing to release the film in two movie theatres. The film was cutting-edge for its time. It was more graphic, more violent, more twisted, and more horrifying than anything that had ever been released before. They wanted the release to be a contractual tick in a box. They wanted to move past this moment as quickly as they possibly could. Air the film discreetly, quickly, and unassumingly, hoping that it would remain something unknown in the archives of movie-making history.
Alfred had entirely different ideas. The two screenings of the film were his only chance of launching this movie into the mainstream. It was now or never. He needed a grand-scale plan to make a grand-scale impact. He wasn’t going to let Paramount stand in his way. He’d invested everything into this film, and he was going to do whatever it took to make sure that it was a success.
He set about producing a manual for the two theatres that had been given the rights to screen it. It was everything he could think of to cause a stir. Ways in which he could spark intrigue, generate rumours, get people talking, fascinate people; make his mark. He knew that humans have a morbid fascination with the gruesome and macabre, and he wanted, no, he needed to exploit that in order to turn his fantasy into a reality. There were no second chances, it was all riding on this. He was going to etch himself into people’s minds, whatever it took.
Sure enough, he created his stir. People flocked to see his film. The queues formed, the auditorium filled and the film began.
Alfred, stood behind the door, desperately waiting for the reactions.
It was all on him now. Had he produced the masterpiece that he had so vehemently believed in?
As the people began to scream in horror, Alfred began to dance in pleasure.
Their fear was now his success.
As everyone left the theatre, traumatised by what they’d witnessed, Alfred was congratulated. The buzz was electric.
Shocked people everywhere.
Everyone talking about what they’d just seen.
People in awe of Alfred’s creativity; his professional bravery.
Corporates, mentally calculating the wealth that could be amassed by this film.
Alma. Simply relieved, that Alfred got what he’d wanted.
Alfred, beaconing Alma to stand with him, wanting the celebration to be theirs. Finally able to appreciate her, after 50 years of loyalty.
“And that’s why they call me the master of suspense!” He remarked, characteristically distastefully.
Psycho was Alfred’s greatest professional achievement.
Alma and Alfred kept their house with the pool.
Alfred entered back into a professional drought. His next period of waiting.
The final scene of the movie sees Alfred stood at the bottom of his garden, speaking directly to the audience,
“I hope something comes along soon.” He says.
As a crow lands upon his shoulder, before flying away again. (Homage to ‘The Birds’, his next professional undertaking).
A further six films.
A Lifetime Achievement Award.
And a speech where he said,
“I share my award, as I have my life, with her.”
Despite everything, their bond prevailed and their struggles continued; this is who Alfred was.