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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014

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In Movies & TV

How much of "Hitchcock" is about Hitchcock?

"Hitchcock" - fact or fiction?


Last weekend, I got the chance to check out "Hitchcock," the much-anticipated big-screen biopic about the master of suspense and the creation of "Psycho," one of his most famous films. It's a fun and brisk look inside the filmmaking process, as well as the life of one of Hollywood's most famous figures. As with most biopics, however, the first question that popped into my head as the credits rolled was, "How much of that was real?"

Well, it just so happens that a Hitchcock biographer, Patrick McGilligan, works and lives in this very city. McGilligan wrote "Alfred Hitchcock: Life in Darkness and Light" in 2003 and currently teaches a class at Marquette University on the famed auteur. I sat down with the local author to discuss "Hitchcock" and to differentiate between Hitchcock facts and Hollywood fabrications.

The film: Hitchcock has a fascination with Ed Gein, as the film repeatedly shows Hitchcock communicating and interacting with the Wisconsin murderer in his dreams.

In reality: Fiction. While Gein did serve as the loose basis for Robert Bloch's novel, "Psycho," according to McGilligan, Hitchcock didn't really follow or care about the notorious case. In his research for his biography, McGilligan didn't find a single interview or production note mentioning Ed Gein. Hitchcock was fascinated by serial killers but mainly ones from his childhood in England, especially Jack the Ripper.

The film: Hitchcock has a testy relationship with "Psycho" co-star Vera Miles. Hitchcock even calls the actress "utterly thankless" at one point.

In reality: Factoid. Though Miles herself never gave interviews, McGilligan noted that Hitchcock was "tremendously disappointed" in Miles. After casting the actress in the premiere episode of his television show, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," he tried to turn Miles into his latest star. Miles, according to McGilligan, was a "non-star type of actress" and didn't fit into all of Hitchcock's plans for her, which included the leading lady role in "Vertigo." As a result, by the time "Psycho" came around, "perhaps Hitchcock had less fondness than usual for Vera Miles or her character," McGilligan said.

The film: Alma Reville and screenwriter Whitfield Cook begin writing a script together at a secluded beach house. The two become very intimate, with the womanizing Cook attempting to lure Reville into an affair.

In reality: Fiction. "Poor Whitfield Cook," McGilligan lamented. Cook, who wrote "Strangers on a Train" and "Stage Fright" for Hitchcock, was a long-time friend of the family and "a very estimable figure," according to the author. It is true that Reville and Cook had a brief, "probably platonic affair" during the filming of "Stage Fright," but that was in the late '40s, an entire decade before "Psycho."

Even then, Cook's journals hint that he was unsure of taking his relationship with Alma to a sexual level; the one time the two got close to having sex, they were interrupted by a phone call from Hitchcock himself. After that moment, Cook began to distance himself romantically from Mrs. Hitchcock, and he became pretty removed from the director's creative circle around 1952.

So yes, there is a grain of truth in Alma's secret affair in "Hitchcock," but its timing and the depiction of Cook (played by Danny Huston with a villainous smarm) are far from accurate. Cook was no womanizer; in fact, McGilligan notes that his journals suggest he was gay.

The film: During the filming of "Psycho," Alfred and Alma's marriage was strained and pushed to the limit by Alma's relationship with Whitfield Cook, as well as by Alfred's flirty behavior with his actresses.

In reality: Pure fiction. Stephen Rebello's "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of 'Psycho'," the film's source material, does not even mention Cook, whose relationship with Mrs. Hitchcock is discussed in McGilligan's book. And while Hitchcock had a reputation as "being flirtatious with actresses," it never led to notable marital tension as he was "completely professional" on set with his female leads.

"There's no evidence of a serious tiff between Alma and Hitchcock at any time," McGilligan added. "It's just screenwriting. It's pretty hard to make a movie about a happy couple."

The film: In order to help fund "Psycho," a film nobody wanted Hitchcock to make, Alfred and Alma mortgaged their house and put almost all their money behind the film.

In reality: Fact and fiction. It is true that it wasn't exactly Paramount's dream film for Hitchcock, which wanted him to continue making classy romantic spy thrillers. "Everyone tried to talk him out it," McGilligan added.

Paramount certainly didn't want it, so Hitchcock said he'd finance the film and drop his usual director's salary of $250,000. However, at no point did Hitchcock have to mortgage his home in order to make "Psycho" work. The word mortgage doesn't even show up in "The Making of 'Psycho'."

"It's just a screenwriting device," McGilligan concluded.

The film: Hitchcock had trouble getting "Psycho" past the Production Code censors.

In reality: Fact. Before the film even began production, the censors were worried about "Psycho." Hitchcock, however, was skilled at tricking the censors into letting him keep what he wanted. He and writer Joseph Stefano put in scenes they knew would go too far in order to distract the censors from others, and during the final negotiations, he bargained successfully to keep the shower scene the same, as well as the opening bedroom scene.

"'Psycho' ended up helping to break the back of the Production Code," McGilligan noted.

The film: Hitchcock sent out pamphlets and precise directions on how theaters were to run "Psycho."

In reality: Fact. Hitchcock insisted that theater owners not allow people into the theater after the film started, as well as required them to hire guards to enforce his admission rules. His booklet also asked for 30 seconds of blackness after the film ended to cement "Psycho" into the audience's mind, and when the lights came up, for theater owners to shine spotlights with a colored tint on the departing customers' faces.

"Of course he couldn't actually make sure theaters were doing these things," McGilligan said, "but it added to the publicity, the hype and the mystique of the film."

In the end, is "Hitchcock" an accurate portrayal of the famed director's life? Yes and no, but director Sacha Gervasi's film doesn't intend to be a strict retelling of Hitchcock's life. It's entertainment, and even with the factual inaccuracies, McGilligan believes the auteur would've enjoyed the movie.

"He would've been vastly amused by these concoctions," McGilligan said. "He enjoyed controversy, even when it was negative. It added to his mystique."

Perhaps the master of suspense said it best: "Don't worry, it's only a movie."



Theaters and showtimes for Hitchcock

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