Hitchcock’s secret weapon becomes a star

Norman Bates and his mother were pretty effective at eliminating motel guests. But it was Alma Reville who really killed off Janet Leigh in the shower scene of Psycho.

"They were watching a cut of the film," the actor and producer Norman Lloyd recalled, referring to Reville and her husband, Alfred Hitchcock. "And Alma said, 'You can't—Janet Leigh swallowed once when she was dead in the bathroom.' It was one frame. No one spotted it except Alma."

Hitchcock, who died in 1980, is getting a lot of attention this year. His 1958 masterpiece Vertigo displaced Citizen Kane as the No. 1 film of all time in Britain's influential Sight & Sound poll. Two new features—Hitchcock, on the making of Psycho, and The Girl, an HBO film that examines the unmaking of the actress Tippi Hedren—have Hitchcock at their centre.

But it is Reville who is finally getting some overdue public attention. She played an indispensable role in the making of her husband's movies, as a story consultant, script editor, continuity person and overall sounding board. When the Hitchcocks met in 1920s Berlin, she was already a rising star at Ufa, the German film studio. As Mrs. Hitchcock, Alma Reville became the quintessential unsung heroine. But now, being played by two prominent actresses (Helen Mirren and Imelda Staunton) she is being ushered out from behind the curtain.

"It's time someone heard about her," said Mary Stone, one of the three daughters of Patricia Hitchcock, the only child of Alfred and Alma, who died in 1982.

Mirren plays Alma as a woman running out of patience with her husband's notorious obsession with blondes and flirts while having an affair of her own, with Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), a writer with whom she had worked.

Mirren admits that her character's illicit romance was cooked up. Much of Mirren's familiarity with her character came from Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man, the biography written by Patricia Hitchcock with Laurent Bouzereau. Mirren pointed to Patricia Hitchcock's book as the loftiest compliment to Alma Reville. "She was the child of Alfred Hitchcock and chose to write a book about her mother."

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