Friday, November 23, 2012


It’s possible that I’m not the best judge of Hitchcock.

It’s a movie about the making of Sir Alfred’s 1960 classic Psycho, which is, truly, one of my two or three favorite movies. It has a fine cast, including a number of extremely attractive actresses, two of them—Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel—decked out in Psycho costumes. It’s set in an elegant recreation of Hollywood swank, circa the late ‘50s.

For all of these reasons, I enjoyed it. But I don’t know that even all of them together quite make it a good movie. Hitchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi, from a script by John J. McLaughlin based on Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, is fun to watch, but somehow I couldn’t quite find it convincing.

The main reason, I think, lies with the title personage. He’s played by Anthony Hopkins, padded and plastered to resemble the great man, to little avail. Powerhouse though Hopkins is, he couldn’t make me believe he was Alfred Hitchcock, or even simply forget he’s not Hitchcock, which might have been enough. It isn’t his fault—I don’t think any actor could. I haven’t seen the HBO movie The Girl, about the making of The Birds, but I hear Toby Jones doesn’t really swing it either.

The word “inimitable” is thrown around a lot in show business, but beyond the level of an easy Rich Little impression, Hitchcock really is inimitable, at least for someone of my generation. His canny on-camera self-promotion made him indelible to Boomer-era TV viewers and moviegoers. Nobody looks like that—for all the heroic efforts of the make-up folk, Hopkins looks more like late-vintage Rod Steiger than Hitchcock—nobody sounds like that, and nobody, I think, is really likely to capture that same grave drollery of manner. Hopkins gives a sometimes funny, sometimes touching portrait of a weird repressed middle-aged guy, but not of this particular weird repressed middle-aged guy.

Similarly, Hitchcock overplays its hand in dramatizing the making of Psycho. That film, as hardly anyone needs to be told, is Hitchcock’s modestly-budgeted, brilliantly-crafted California-gothic about Norman Bates, a sweet young motel manager who has an unusually close relationship with his mother—lethally close, to any strangers who encroach on it. It was adapted from a lurid little novel by Robert Bloch, which was in turn loosely based on the much grimmer real-life exploits of Wisconsin psychopath Ed Gein in 1957.

Hitchcock was slumming a bit when he took on the project, no doubt, challenging himself to make a profitable low-budget shocker, using the crew from his TV series, instead of the glamorous, romantic Technicolor thrillers he’d been turning out for the last decade or so. It’s doubtful he could have guessed he was making the movie for which he’d be best remembered.

Gervasi's film, on the other hand, tries to generate dramatic urgency by creating the sense that Psycho was a make-or-break crisis point in Hitchcock’s career. Much is made of Hitchcock’s own investment in the project, though the practical minded Mrs. H (Helen Mirren) points out that the peril to their fortune is along the lines of having to buy domestic rather than imported pate de fois gras. Gervasi and McLaughlin even resort to showing Hitchcock’s dreams haunted by the specter of Ed Gein (Michael Wincott). This feels like an overwrought reach.

So Hitchcock comes to life, mostly, in incidental episodes, and in the cast—James D’Arcy absolutely nailing the small role of Anthony Perkins, Toni Collette, ravishingly chic as Hitchcock’s right arm Peggy Robertson. Biel looks great as Vera Miles, and Johansson really did her homework as Janet Leigh, perfectly capturing Leigh’s pursed-lipped, mock-perplexed cock of the head (I did wonder, though, why Leigh and Miles ever needed to be on the set on the same day).

It could be argued, however, that Sir Alfred isn’t the the true title character of Hitchcock anyway. The film’s best element is Helen Mirren as Alma Reville Hitchcock. The good lady had been the director’s editor and screenwriter/script-doctor in the old days, and was still his most trusted adviser. In Mirren’s sharp, jumpy turn, she’s a clear-thinking, patient sort, but flustered and emotionally hungry from her husband’s neglect, and susceptible to the seductions of the screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston).

Mirren’s vibrancy turns Hitchcock, at its best, into a mild comedy about a sexually frustrated middle-aged married couple; the fact that they were responsible for Psycho becomes a secondary matter. Yet Gervasi and McLaughlin do virtually claim for Alma an uncredited hand in the Psycho screenplay. While they go quite a bit farther with this suggestion than Rebello’s book does, there can be little doubt of how much he owed her (he was always fulsome in his praise of her). If the movie does nothing more than drag Alma’s role in the Hitchcock story out of her husband’s formidable shadow, it’s served a worthwhile purpose.

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