The word “thriller” has a different meaning in the US than it does elsewhere in the English-speaking world. And an English expatriate director and a psychopathic mass-murderer are to blame.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s native England, the word “thriller” still means anything that thrills. A mystery or a whodunit is definitely still a thriller and Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap has been running in the West End for 54 years and, even in Canada, was the longest-running show in Toronto, from 1977 to 2004. Yet similar Broadway fare like Stephen Sondheim and Jules Furth’s The Doctor is Out (or Getting Away with Murder) lasted only seventeen performances in 1996.
In the US, however, since the 1960s, “thriller” has been synonymous with the word “horror”. Before 1960 this was not the case and virtually everything Alfred Hitchcock did, from his arrival in 1939, was called a “thriller” (albeit of the “suspense” variety). But today suspense has been dubbed “psychological drama” and while Suspicion (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), The Paradine Case (1947), Rope (1948), Stage Fright (1950), Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953), Rear Window (1954), The Wrong Man (1956) and Vertigo (1958) qualify, Foreign Correspondent (1940), Saboteur (1942), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and North by Northwest (1959) are (or have become) “action adventures”, Rebecca (1940) and Dial M For Murder (1954) are “mysteries” and the remaining films (can you name them?) are “oddities” – at least for Hitchcock.
Psycho (1960) changed everything.
I recently spent time at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, reading Samuel Taylor’s screenplay for No Bail for the Judge.
This project was to have been Hitchcock’s last Paramount film, under a multiple picture contract which began with Rear Window but would end instead with a small black-and-white production by his Revue television crew.
No Bail for the Judge could have been a beautifully crafted Hitchcockian gem. Hitch planned to shoot in VistaVision and Technicolor, with Audrey Hepburn and possibly Cary Grant (with whom Stanley Donen pastiched Hitchcock with 1963’s Charade), or maybe Richard Burton or Laurence Harvey, plus Hitch’s favourite Englishman, John Williams, as the amnesiac judge wrongly accused of murdering a prostitute. The cast was never finally established, but the script was considerably more advanced than say Mary Rose or Kaleidoscope/Frenzy (which I have also read).
Screenplays are typically in the 100-120 page range, but Hitch’s were blueprints and, at a massive 180 or so pages, No Bail contains many Hitchcockian camera moves and the like, which, to another director, give a very clear indication of what the project might have looked like. And it was quite wonderful – somewhere between say To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest – at least the equal of the 1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Briefly it is the story of a judge, falsely accused of murder, whose barrister daughter enlists the help of a minor thief to infiltrate London’s underclass and clear her father. In keeping with the Henry Cecil novel (which I’ve not read), it contains some surprising and quite wonderful humour, particularly the meeting between the heroine and protagonist, who claims to have the same front-door key and a similar address, to explain the locksmith stealing her father’s stamp collection. And there is a trial in the magistrate’s court with suspense-humour as a group of street girls (the judge’s daughter included) try and get the protagonist off the hook as a procurer, but will be “cut” by their pimp if they succeed. True to this sort of Hitchcockian moral dilemma, he manages to get himself off without a word from the barrister heroine.
But, most surprising, neither the script nor a detailed treatment by Taylor in the same collection contains the rape scene that is supposed to have caused Audrey Hepburn to resign (and Hitchcock to abandon the project). I understand there may be a later version of the script not in this collection and certainly the ending needed work (more in a minute). But there are other anomalies.
As I recall, “Mr H” (as I called him) said the project never got beyond a treatment, yet Samuel Taylor claimed the script as a writing credit. The treatment in the Herrick Library is dated 10 April, while the script (clearly typed by a studio typist – this is before the era of computers or even Xerox) is dated five days later on 15 April – almost an impossibility as a typing exercise alone.
Nobody writes a screenplay in five days, so I’m taking an educated guess and suggesting Hitchcock allowed Taylor to write “his” version of the screenplay, then dragged his feet issuing it, while they collaborated on a revised treatment which he issued a few days earlier than the script.
Re the supposedly contentious rape scene, it is perhaps clearer in the treatment that the heroine is forced to have sex with the villain (the playboy son of a titled lady who is in fact running London’s prostitution ring). But both versions of the scene in Hyde Park end with specific reference to moving in on the back of his head and seeing nothing.
In 1959, Audrey Hepburn (who apparently had some personal problems following a miscarriage) may have characterised this as a kind of rape, but there is no violence implicit, other than the fact the villain pulls her toward him with a necktie (the murder weapon used on the prostitute who was blackmailing his mother). In the next scene, in the car driving away from Hyde Park, Audrey’s character looks rueful but unhurt. And later she tells the now despondent protagonist that it was her choice and she’ll do it again if necessary to save her father, taking the morality of Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) and T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) from Notorious considerably further.
The finale of the screenplay is at a party in the villain’s mother’s home. The son gets drunk, confesses and falls with a chandelier to his death, whereas in the treatment he is trampled to death at the Epsom Derby. Neither has the patina of Hitchcock, but I’m certain he could have resolved this before shooting. But instead he abandoned the project. Why?
Little is said in John Russell Taylor’s official biography and, as stated, Hitchcock denied the existence of the screenplay (and had apparently wanted Ernest Lehman to write it). So, as a director, I infer it didn’t feel right to him. Filmmaking is an act of willpower and one must hold out against a constant barrage by naysayers. But if losing a key piece of casting or feeling the script wasn’t up to snuff were a reason to abandon a project, he could have walked away from many other projects (Vertigo among them). So I’ll guess again that it is entirely possible Hitchcock agreed with my summation of the piece (somewhere between To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest) and, especially at a time he was trying to elevate his status, especially in the critical stakes (competing as he was with young turks from Europe), this just didn’t feel like the right project. And Audrey Hepburn simply let him off the hook.
As a courtroom melodrama, No Bail would have been far superior to The Paradine Case and certainly glossier in Vistavision and Technicolor than Billy Wilder’s black-and-white Witness for the Prosecution (1957), the success of which had doubtless sparked interest in this book and its London setting. But it was very much of its time. And especially if Hitchcock wanted to push the envelope with an unscripted rape scene; perhaps he sensed he was moving towards shocking the entire world with a scene in a shower.
Such an avant-garde move from a man of sixty is pretty astonishing (so much so he would be vilified by critics at the time). Supposedly Hitchcock found a copy of Psycho at an airport and told his personal assistant Peggy Robertson to buy it (he was after all publishing a mystery magazine and had a weekly television series). As a director reflecting on this choice 47 years later, I have to say that even knowing (as we all do) how he did it, I would argue Robert Bloch’s book, with its largely internal monologue, is all but unfilmable. And the shower murder even today is a virtual cinematic impossibility. Bullet hits are easily concealed in clothing and, even on the head, there is hair to conceal the explosive “squibs”. But knife wounds on a naked female, with water washing the blood away … And bearing in mind this was not yet the era of the “R” certificate. Ingmar Bergman and Brigitte Bardot had only just given us a peek at the female breast and nudity was an even bigger hurdle to overcome than the violence. So, mixing the two just had to bring the Hays Office (now run by a man named Joseph Ignatius Breen) down on Hitchcock’s neck. Montage was the only possibility and here Hitchcock’s talent for self-promotion went into high gear.
He put it about (and people believe to this day) that the knife never touches the body, yet look at the still in François Truffaut’s book (presumably the rubber torso Mr H said they made for him and he never used). He told Breen at a screening he couldn’t have seen breasts as a male had been used to double Janet Leigh (bear in mind Breen could not take the scene away and examine it on DVD). In fact, a voluptuous stripper name Marli Renfro was used; take a look at her breasts full frame (admittedly out of focus) behind the shot of the hand reaching for the shower curtain (again in the Truffaut book). Such was the power of Hitchcock’s publicity machine that, even after his death, I didn’t see this until Psycho’s original assistant editor ran it for me when we accessed the original negative for the opening of the sequel.
It is not, however, the technical bravura of the shower scene (the most famous use of montage after Eisenstein’s Odessa steps) which makes Psycho the masterpiece it has become. I say “become” because Vertigo was proclaimed his “masterpiece” at the time, in artwork and publicity he must have had a hand in. Whereas at the time Psycho was perceived as anything but, the negative critical reaction to it was so savage that colleagues had to take Hitchcock on a tour of nearby cinemas to let the queues raise his spirits. After the critical and box-office failure of Vertigo two years earlier, he must have wished he had done something safe and glossy, like No Bail. But we would have lost the icon that not only heralded, but has come to epitomize that most turbulent of decades the 1960s, probably more than The Beatles, James Bond, Xerox and “the pill”.
For me, what continues to elevate Hitchcock’s little black-and-white divertissement is the characterization of Norman Bates.
Robert Bloch told me he was writing a sequel in 1980, when we were joint speakers at a Science Fiction convention in Melbourne Australia. I was sufficiently enthused by the idea I had my agent pursue the rights until we discovered Revue (producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents) had purchased the sequel rights and, hence, Universal already owned something not even written. A year or so later, veteran producer Bernard Schwartz called me with the news Universal had dropped the idea after reading “galleys” of Bloch’s book. Bernie read to me from the “coverage”: Norman strangles a nun with her rosary, then, donning her habit, scales the prison wall. I never heard or read any more (indeed when Tom Holland and I developed our Psycho II we were specifically forbidden to do so, in case Bloch ever brought some sort of legal action).
Bloch’s Norman may have been faithful to the monstrous “Eddie” Gein. The account of the atrocities in his Wisconsin farmhouse when police raided it in November 1957, looking for the female owner of a local hardware store, have already fuelled a whole sub-genre. Psycho, the many Texas Chain Saw Massacres (1) and The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) all derive in some measure from this and the grizzly discoveries, now well documented on the net, undoubtedly provide a rich lode for set decorators on more recent fare like Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek (2005).
But Hitchcock, playwright Joseph Stefano and Anthony Perkins’ portrayal of Norman Bates (admittedly using Bloch’s Freudian mother as a starting point) were altogether different from the book. And, it appeared, even Bloch did not grasp the sympathy that their Norman engendered.
For me, this is almost entirely a consequence of the parlour/supper scene so named by Hitchcock and labelled “important” in one of the longest trailers he ever produced (suggestive he was not; as composer Bernard Herrmann claimed, Hitchcock was so skittish about the film that he considered re-cutting it as a television episode). This scene, which motivates and engenders sympathy for a psychopath, is absent from almost anything in the genre since. And consider how easily it could be removed: simply dissolve from the shot of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) listening to Norman and his mother arguing to the shot of her adding up figures prior to showering. A line about her freshening up before going up to the house for dinner would help and I believe such a simplification at a script level would almost certainly have been insisted upon by modern executives. The characterization engendered in the supper scene is so absent from say the campfire scene in Wolf Creek. Actor John Jarratt says he worked on ephemera, like his character’s laugh, rather than attempt to work out what could possibly motivate such a character.
I used the word “genre” in relation to the subsequent plight of the thriller above advisedly. The “slasher” sub genre did not begin until John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) some eighteen years later. But as Hitchcock’s Psycho has progressively come to be perceived as the modern Oedipus Rex, and arguably the great study of the underbelly of the American psyche, so Hitchcock’s legacy with this one picture has skewed the entire meaning of the “thriller” genre of which Hitchcock was undisputed “master”.
M. Night Shyamalan (affectionately known to his peers as “shamalamadingdong”) has been heir apparent in recent times, still riding the wave of The Sixth Sense (1999). I will presume, however, to suggest Mr H would have reacted as I did to that film: Shyamalan telegraphed his twist ending with the omnipotent overhead shot as Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) waits for the ambulance. Perhaps this was deliberate, but I’m certain Mr H would have called it “bad technique”, just as he excised the shot (seen in the trailer) of Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) making eye contact with Det. John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart) in their first scene together in Vertigo. I note, too, that the “sting in the tail” approach to the genre was not something Hitchcock adopted in his features – indeed, he overturned the twist ending of the novel on which Vertigo was based – with the arguable exception of Psycho (clearly conceived and executed as an outgrowth of the television shows). Arguable because Norman becoming his mother could be seen as a outgrowth of character rather than strictly a plot twist.
I am often asked to explain what constitutes Hitchcockian suspense (as opposed to other kinds) and this is probably as good a starting point as any. Norman Bates is both the villain and the hero of Psycho. Technically, of course, “mother” is the villain and dutiful son Norman the only identification figure we have after the departure of Marion.
But Janet Leigh’s heroine is somehow so tainted from her seedy assignation in Phoenix, through the stealing of the money, lying to a cop and high-pressuring a car salesman, that nobody has ever questioned Hitchcock’s passing judgement on her character at the moment in the car, when she smirks at the voice-over reference to her “fine soft flesh” – so soon to be torn asunder. Consider, too, Vera Miles’ Lila, who as Marion’s sister ought to be the surrogate heroine. She has as many scenes, but is all but forgotten in discussion of the picture.
Vis à vis Hitchcockian suspense, consider the sequence where Lila heads up the hill to meet Mrs Bates, leaving boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin) to divert Norman. Much has been said about the morality of the moment where the car stops before sinking into the swamp, taking our first act heroine with it. But the moment where Sam gives Norman a pseudo psychological grilling (an echo of the supper scene), then is hit on the head by the comparatively diminutive Norman in his fervour to protect his poor (dead) mother, is one of considerable moral complexity and thus redolent of the master’s devilishly Jesuitical brand of suspense. Quite simply our sympathies are with all three characters. Lila is in danger from the banshee inhabitant of the house, but she’s a trespasser and (like her sister at that moment in the car) a smug one at that. Sam appears to have the physical presence to handle the diminutive Norman (the fine-boned Perkins was entirely believable in his first appearance in costume, silhouetted at the window, whereas Vince Vaughan was clearly a man in drag (2)), but quickly gets out of his depth playing amateur detective, then psychologist. Especially after we know the “twist” (and Psycho sustains the repeated viewings that The Sixth Sense cannot), Norman is the underdog in this scene. So, shocking as it is, when he enters the fruit cellar in costume it is a moment of triumph (look at his face).
These complexities were not evident in Samuel Taylor’s beautifully crafted screenplay for No Bail for the Judge. And though they may have emerged under the master’s hand, I suspect that, if Audrey Hepburn had not given Hitchcock a way out, the history of the motion picture, certainly the thriller genre and even that most memorable of decades, the 1960s, might all have been different.
This article has been peer-reviewed.
- They include The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Tobe Hooper, 1986), Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (Jeff Burr, 1990), The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Kim Henkel, 1994), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Marcus Nispel, 2003), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (Jonathan, Liebesman, 2006).
- Psycho (Gus Van Sant, 1998).