It’s halfway through the 1960s and Alfred Hitchcock is on the decline. His latest features of Marnie, a critical failure and Torn Curtain, an ambivalent flop, have seen the grand filmmaker’s name reach its lowest ebb in his illustrious career. At this crisis point, Hitchcock intended to make his most daring, stylistic and risky project yet. A project so dark, deep and adult, it would have blown Psycho out of the water. Filled with necrophilia, murder, rape, acid baths, bodybuilders, the RAF and serial killers, Kaleidoscope was going to be Hitchcock’s adult masterpiece.
Hitchcock aimed to reinvent himself in a big way. The director’s artistic evolution had seen his fascination in the darker recesses of the human condition reach tipping point. Psycho had shown an insight into the mind of the sociopathic yet Hitchcock wanted to go further. Hitchcock, to his mind, had always been one step ahead of the game and so to achieve this once more he had to delve into the world of violence, sex and murder.
Hitchcock’s interest in the matter itself first manifested itself in 1959 in his unproduced project No Bail for the Judge, which would have starred Audrey Hepburn, Laurence Harvey and John Williams. The plot saw a respected judge blamed for the murder of a prostitute, and his barrister daughter searches for the real killer. The Breakfast at Tiffany’s star withdrew as soon as she read the script as she discovered her character would be brutally raped in Hyde Park and then slowly strangled with a necktie.
The pre-production for Kaleidoscope began when the director’s long time assistant, Peggy Robertson, began discussions to entice Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, into writing the original story for Hitchcock. With a deal tentatively struck, Hitchcock registered the original idea to the Writers Guild on 9 November 1964 where he earmarked the murders committed by John George Haigh and Neville Heath as the key figures of inspiration. However Bloch soon found the characters too disturbing to develop any connections with them, and left the project soon after.
Two years later, screenwriter Benn Levy got involved and sunk his teeth straight in. The story revolved around a handsome, gay bodybuilder Willie Cooper (inspired by Heath) who lures young women to their deaths. The narrative would see the New York police set a trap for him, with a policewoman posing as a potential victim. As The Guardian states, the script was based around three crescendos dictated by Hitchcock: the first was a murder by a waterfall; the second murder would take place on a mothballed warship; and the finale would take place at an oil refinery with brightly coloured drums. Film historian Dan Auiler explained how “the opening twenty minutes had one of the most brutal murders that’s ever been imagined for an American screen”.
Hitchcock adored the wickedly dark prospect of Kaleidoscope. In discussion notes between Hitchcock and his wife, Alma, the director’s focus and vision is clear. When discussing the murder of one of the lead women, he remarked: “Actually we can mark the body with streaks but never go close on them. His pants are on. His fingers are on her throat. He goes downstairs, picks up his coat and puts it on. I suppose we don’t dare have him put her clothes on her body? He doesn’t care about covering her identity”.
Hitchcock was not just trying to push the thematic boundaries of film; he intended to experiment with innovative filming techniques such as hand-held filming, point of view camera work, and natural light. Having been enraptured by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, he felt he had fallen behind the Italians. Hitchcock’s biographer Patrick McGilligan wrote: “Watching one Antonioni, he sat up straight at the sight of a man all in white in a white room. ‘White on white!’ he exclaimed. ‘There, you see! It can be done!’”
His enthusiasm for the project, however, was matched by very few outside of his inner circle. Even François Truffaut, one of Hitchcock’s closest friends, having read through the script, immediately admitted his unease about its aggressive themes of sex and violence. The French auteur argued that Psycho blended those themes with the narrative of a mystery and psychological suspense, yet with Kaleidoscope, the murderer would be the central protagonist, even the ‘hero’, of the piece; something the audience would be unwilling to accept.
Despite Hitchcock’s pledge that the film could be produced for under $1 million mainly through utilising a cast of unknowns, Universal/MCA vetoed the film. For such a shocking project, it may not come as much of a shock. However, Alfred Hitchcock was the leading directorial star of the company where he had made his greatest successes. In fact, Hitchcock had not heard the word ‘No’ since David O Selznick opposed him over Notorious in 1946. Even then the director won overall.
In the end, Hitchcock cannibalized the less extreme elements for his 1972 film Frenzy, which eventually turned a $10 million profit. However the failure of Kaleidoscope always rankled Hitchcock. It was going to be his one last revolution for the world of film unleashing a new brand of vérité style for European cinema. Sadly, all that remains are an hour-long tape of silent footage and a fascinating idea of what could have been.