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'Psycho' Writer's Widow: 'Hitchcock' Full of Lies and Mistakes

Marilyn Stefano, widow of screenwriter Joseph Stefano, takes action against the portrayal of her husband and his work in the film "Hitchcock."

LOS ANGELES, CA -- Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano's widow and son are in settlement talks with Fox Searchlight Pictures over the depiction of Stefano in the current film Hitchcock, which they claim wrongly credits Alfred Hitchcock's wife with Stefano's ideas and work on the classic thriller.

Marilyn and Dominic Stefano of Agoura Hills have hired legal counsel to represent Joseph Stefano’s estate in seeking compensation from the studio.

“Fox Searchlight’s actions … have caused, and will continue to cause, financial damages to our client and to his intellectual property interests and injury to our client’s legacy in connection with Psycho,” attorney William Sobel wrote in a letter to the studio in October.

Negotiations between lawyers for Stefano’s estate and the studio are ongoing. Sobel and Fox Searchlight spokeswoman Lauren Hochberg declined to comment on the status of the talks.

Hitchcock, now in theaters, is about the relationship between the legendary filmmaker, played by Anthony Hopkins, and his wife, Alma Reville, played by Helen Mirren, during the filming of Psycho.

In the official trailer, Hitchcock asks Reville if she is intrigued by the idea of having the heroine killed halfway through the movie. “You shouldn’t wait until halfway through; kill her off after 30 minutes,” Mirren’s character replies. (Go to 1:33 in the attached video.)

That scene in particular angered Marilyn Stefano, and it is cited by her attorney in his letter to the studio.

“In fact, it is well-documented in numerous publications that our client [Joseph Stefano] conceived the … idea, and the film falsely attributes our client’s work product and ingenuity to Mr. Hitchcock’s wife,” Sobel wrote.

Marilyn Stefano, who was on the set for the shooting of Psycho’s infamous shower scene, said she was "appalled" by Hitchcock and its “lies” and “mistakes” in the depiction of her husband, of the famed director and others who were involved in making the film, which was released in 1960.

"How on earth did Sacha Gervasi get to direct this film?" Marilyn said. "So many mistakes, errors, changes of facts and lies."

Hochberg said Gervasi was traveling and unavailable to comment.

Joseph Stefano adapted the Psycho screenplay from the novel by Robert Bloch. He also went on to produce and write episodes of the television series The Outer Limits, Psycho IV: The Beginning and other films and TV shows. He died in 2006 at the age of 84.

Credit Where It's Not Due

The movie's depiction of Joseph Stefano and its portrayal of Reville suggesting that the Marion Crane character, played by Janet Leigh, be killed early in the film, has so angered Marilyn that she wrote her criticisms in a letter to Agoura Hills Patch.

“The script written by my husband was what turned an ugly, trashy little book into a movie watched and studied by every film class in the world, I dare say,” Marilyn wrote. “But to claim that Alma revised it, and came up with the idea of killing the heroine off within the first 30 minutes, is such an outrageous lie that it infuriates me. It's taking credit from the real writer, whose dialogue is printed and quoted by so many, without crediting anyone but the great Hitchcock—and now the great Alma Reville.”

“Shortly after Joe and Hitch meet [in the movie],” Marilyn wrote, “Hitch tells Alma he had Stefano write out the first few scenes, asks her to read them and she tells him—“Hire him.” … There’s no way Joe would have started writing any of the script without first being hired—which he was at the end of that first meeting—he would have gotten in trouble with the Writers Guild that doesn’t allow auditioning.

“They have a scene where Peggy, Hitch’s assistant, actually says that the credit should be: Written by Joseph Stefano and Alma Reville! (Alma says: “The people who matter know. That’s all that counts.”)  Strangely, this little scene is not in the script the studio sends out for writing nomination. Did they ad-lib it?”

The Opening Scene

Marilyn told Patch in a previous interview that her husband had his famous first meeting with Hitchcock in 1959, shortly after reading Bloch’s book, which only introduces Marion Crane as she's checking into the infamous Bates Motel.

"He was on his way to the meeting at Paramount when he wrote the whole opening scene to the movie in his head," Marilyn said. “Joe wanted to develop more of a back-story for the character, so when she dies the audience misses her.”

Hitchcock was so impressed that Joseph got the job on the spot, she said.

More Criticisms

Marilyn had other criticisms of the film:

Joseph, played by Ralph Macchio, is portrayed as being nervous and disheveled, late for his first meeting with Hitchcock, and prone to talking about his personal psychoanalysis with the great director.

“[Joseph] always dressed elegantly,” Marilyn wrote. “He was not intimidated by Hitch or anyone else, so he wouldn’t have been nervous. And he was eager to talk about the movie, not analysis, and certainly not that he’d been in analysis so long—that might have made Hitch worry that he was too unreliable and unstable to hire.”

“After a scene with Scarlett [Johansson, playing Janet Leigh], she goes into a dressing room to be fitted, and Hitch goes into his office, which evidently is right next to that dressing room, takes down a painting and stares at her through a peephole. In his office?? Since when are the two [rooms] next to each other on a set? Tacky and stupid!"

“They show Hitch first reading the book, with the cover clearly showing the slashed letters, which were designed for the film, so he was reading a book that wasn’t designed yet."

“Though he’s shooting at Universal-Revue [Studios], Barney Balaban (the head of Paramount) comes onto the set demanding to see footage, even though he’s not financing the picture and has no right to even be at the studio."

“I found the picture mean-spirited, with lots of negative things to say about well-known people merely to make people laugh,” Marilyn wrote. “It painted a portrait of this brilliant, one-of-a-kind director/producer as a greedy, malevolent, totally self-centered man who was incapable of showing appreciation and support for anyone….

"Of all the directors Joe worked with, Hitch and Marty Ritt [The Black Orchid] were the very best, the most generous and so self-assured that they liked to have the writer involved…."

Marilyn said that after Hitchcock got to know Joseph and her, he shared his expertise in wine and food with them. Hitchcock also asked if he and Alma could come to a Christmas party they were hosting.

"When they arrived at our house, he planted himself in the bow of the piano that faced the entry door," she wrote. "When people walked through that door, the first person they saw was ALFRED HITCHCOCK!....

“It’s partly out of these fond memories that I’m angry and appalled that they would treat Hitch with so little respect. So I’m speaking up for him—in addition to being upset about their attempts to tarnish my husband’s great contribution to this classic film that still fascinates people.”


Richard Core contributed to this story.

william cook January 10, 2013 at 12:40 AM
Totally agree - without Mr Bloch, there would not have been 'Psycho'. Some might say, myself included, that without Psycho (the book), there would have been no movie and quite possibly a different career ahead of Mr Hitchcock and Stefano.
Ted Newsom January 30, 2013 at 05:45 PM
As a 30-year vet of scribing scripts, articles and lord knows what else, I have to second Mr. (Ms.?) Mayr's comment. I do understand Mrs. Stefano's point, though whether or not JS comes off as badly as all that, I don't know yet. But the story, the beats, the characters and the payoff were all there in Bob Bloch's novel. Having adapted existing material myself, I see Stefano's choices and editorial decisions, and most certainly the dialogue, as wonderful and correct. But the book provided the basis for every one of those choices. And the original book's cover? The PSYCHO letters are indeed split, just like the poster & credits always credited to Saul Bass.
Ted Newsom January 30, 2013 at 05:59 PM
Quite true, it's a good twist-- on an existing framework. If Bob Bloch's "ugly, trashy little book," was such a piece-o'-shit, why buy it in the first place? Why hire him to write episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS...? Why would William Castle, Amicus and STAR TREK bother with him? The movie PSYCHO would not exist without Joseph Stefano's script. His script would not exist without RObert Bloch's novel. As to her other factual objections, sure, it's bllshtt to credit Alma Reville with co-writing the script-- but she was indeed a tremendous influence on all of A.H.'s work. Yes, it's absurd to think A.H.'s office was next to a dressing room, but for goodness' sake... if you WERE going to do that scene, how WOULD you set it up? Follow Hitchcock waddle the quarter-mile from his office to the sound stage, walk through the grips and cables and lights and press his eye up to a hole in Janet Leigh's aluminum dressing room trailer? As Hitchcock always said, "Film is life with the dull parts cut out."
Adelaide Kimball January 30, 2013 at 06:04 PM
Thank you Steven DeRosa, for your clarification of Joe Stefano's approach to the main characters (starting with the girl's story) and the huge impact it made on the story development. I knew and admired Joe professionally and personally, I know and admire Marilyn as well. As an archivist and historian, I am always disappointed and sometimes appalled when movies about true events and people take gratuitous and frivolous liberties with their subjects in the name of entertainment. Sadly, the version that fills the big screen catches our imaginations and eventually becomes the truth to most people thereafter. I am heartened by Marilyn Stefano's stand for ethics and integrity, not just to protect Joe's reputation, but those of the other people involved in Psycho. Bravo to those who are still willing to champion the truth. Adelaide Kimball
Kermit T April 15, 2013 at 04:57 PM
I don't understand those who are saying "it's just a movie". I applaud Mrs. Stefano for defending her husband. I had high expectations for this movie and in truth while watching it I simply came away with the feeling the screenplay was written as a feminist ploy to show how great Alma that it was she who was the real genius instead of Hitchcock. Not a single man in this movie comes off looking good, strong or normal, but all the women come off looking quite wise and strong. correction Hitchcocks agent comes off okay but that might only be as a wink to everyone's agent who stars in the movie.

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