Film 4: Wednesday 27 May, 10.55pm
Thornton Wilder’s small town murder story Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is routinely trotted out as Alfred Hitchcock’s own favourite among his prodigious output. Hitchcock denied that was the case in his extensive interviews with French film-maker François Truffaut: “If I’ve given that impression it’s probably because I feel that here is something that our friends, the plausibles and logicians, cannot complain about. The psychologists as well.” In fact, Hitchcock was especially fond of the minor 1956 comedy The Trouble With Harry (BBC2 Saturday, 2.35pm) and Vertigo, a 1958 commercial flop that displaced Citizen Kane in 2012 as the greatest film of all time in the BFI international critics’ poll. Hitchcock followed Vertigo with the consummate crowd-pleaser North By Northwest, his biggest box office hit until it was replaced by the film that shocked audiences and critics alike in 1960: Psycho. A film that Hitchcock had enormous difficulty getting made. Paramount didn’t want to touch it with a bargepole, refusing to stump up for the rights to Robert Bloch’s pulpy bestseller. The studio agreed, reluctantly, to handle distribution alone. So Hitch made it on the cheap, shooting in black and white with his regular Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV crew. Anthony Perkins owed Paramount a picture, Janet Leigh took a pay cut. And, against the odds, Hitchcock made a film that’s as close to perfection as the art form has ever achieved. A continuous masterclass in misdirection, it’s a macabre joke that takes the audience by the hand, tightening its grip as it leads us up the garden path. Or, more precisely, to the swamp behind the Bates Motel. That’s where, after nervously absconding with office funds, Janet Leigh ends up under the watchful gaze of proprietor Anthony Perkins, pleasant, amenable and as barmy as his mad mother (heard but barely seen). Miss Leigh is Marion Crane, Perkins is Norman Bates. Her name evokes birdlike grace, his name echoes ‘normality’. But he’s a bird of prey. The casting is crucial. It’s no mistake that Leigh’s boyfriend John Gavin bears a passing resemblance to Perkins. When they face each other over the motel check-in desk, it’s like watching two sides of the same coin – one polished, one tainted. Cold, calculating and incredibly cruel, Psycho is the clearest example of Hitchcock’s sardonic sense of humour. The stolen money remains his most brazen MacGuffin. “I don’t care about the subject matter,” he told Truffaut. “I don’t care about the acting. But I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the soundtrack and all the technical ingredients that made the audience scream.” He fought with Bernard Herrmann over the music (Hitch favoured jazz) but we should forever be thankful that England’s greatest film-maker conceded ground to the maestro. Indeed, the only opening titles credit as big as Hitchcock’s name is Herrmann’s. The music is as critical as the casting. It’s the deal sealer. Imagine the shower scene without it. Now imagine a remake. In Technicolor. Gus Van Sant’s notorious nearly shot-for-shot curiosity was a pointless exercise in homage. It’s not just that the story claimed to be taking place in 1998 (to be an authentic reproduction, it has to be set in 1960). It’s more to do with the casting. Anne Heche’s thin and reedy voice is no match for Janet Leigh’s lightly seductive tone while Vince Vaughn couldn’t hope to capture the cadences of Anthony Perkins’ distinctive and eternally creepy speech patterns. Physically, Vaughn is all wrong too. He’s soft and fleshy where Perkins was all angular awkwardness, like a stricken bird. Viggo Mortensen fared little better as Sam Loomis. In the original, bland matinée idol John Gavin was a typically subtle piece of Hitchcock casting – he looked enough like Perkins to suggest, disquietingly, a distorting mirror image. Mortensen, if fact, would have been better cast as Norman, with someone like Dennis Leary (who looks a bit like Mortensen) as the boyfriend. Despite slavishly following Hitchcock’s camera movements, Van Sant left his signature on the film by inserting hallucinatory frames into the two murder sequences. Another mistake, but it was at least his own. Final word to William H. Macy who, two years after playing the hapless car dealer in the Coen brothers’ Fargo, took Martin Balsam’s role of the persistent detective Arbogast: “Boy, was that a bad idea!