In the old days Hollywood didn't worry about accuracy when it made movies about its own. Film biographies of Buster Keaton and Lon Chaney misrepresented entire careers, inventing characters and ignoring others. Of course, the films were meant to be judged in terms of their overall spirit, while providing great roles for actors like Donald O'Connor and James Cagney. A movie about real moviemoviemaking could be pretty boring; an exception may be the reasonably accurate and entertaining My Week with Marilyn. Some cult horror fans were put off by Tim Burton's 1995 Ed Wood because it fabricated a great deal about Wood and Lugosi, turning the "worst director in film history" into an oddball comic role for Johnny Depp. Defenders would say the movie is a twisted, affectionate comedy about talentless but optimistic filmmakers everywhere.
Last Oscar season we were given Hitchcock, a clever, fast-paced and frequently witty telling of the filming of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. It can boast a terrific cast and great production values. It's only attracted some criticism for, well, behaving like a Hollywood biography. Although everyone in the world now deems himself a movie expert, those that have really studied old pictures like Psycho remain a tiny minority. But many more have heard the gossip and rumors about ol' Hitch being obsessed with some of his leading ladies. HBO not long ago screened another Hitchcock quasi-bio, about his treatment of Tippi Hedren during The Birds and Marnie. Most film fans, however, seem not to be bothered about Hitchcock's "interesting" distortion of the legendary film director..
Director Sacha Gervasi's movie illuminates a secret side to Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins), a film director with very original frustrations. As 1959 rolls around Hitch has found plenty of success yet is unhappy that his industry still hasn't acknowledged him as a real film artist. He's expected to keep making thrillers with a slightly comic edge. Looking for new film material, Hitch's wife and longtime quiet collaborator Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) is lobbying for a thriller novel by her friend Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) when the director stumbles onto Robert Bloch's horror novel Psycho, based on the serial killer Ed Gein. "What if somebody really good makes a horror film?" muses Hitchcock, and he's soon working on a deal with his agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg). actress Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) is hired for the film, along with Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), who Hitch feels was disloyal to him. Alma identifies young star Anthony Perkins (James D'Arcy) as an excellent choice for Norman Bates, the Ed Gein character.
But the director encounters a number of problems. Because no studio will fund the film, Hitchcock decides to bankroll it himself and release through Paramount, where he owes a picture. Hitch falls back into his obsessive behavior pattern with Janet Leigh, much to Alma's chagrin. She in turn helps Whitfield adapt his book, even though the writer gives hints of being romantically interested in her. Hitch now feels betrayed Alma as well. He fantasizes, or dreams, about actually talking to Ed Gein, whose beyond-the-pale atrocities now seem related to the director's morbid sense of humor.
Despite probably being too involved in film history for maximum general appeal, Hitchcock is undeniably entertaining. The film recounts a lot of trivia about the making of Psycho, and manages to make a lot of it interesting and funny. Anthony Hopkins' makeup gives him the distinctive director's general likeness, but his superb acting is what sells the illusion. Hopkins is a better Alfred than he was Richard Nixon, and he was remarkable as Nixon. We know Hitchcock through the playfully droll TV persona he projected in his movie advertising, always kidding about murders and mutilations. Hitchcock behaves as if Hitchcock were like that in real life. He's a spoiled, petulant man kept in balance by the more rational Alma. Many scenes capture Hitchcock's sense of ironic wit. When Lou Wasserman complains that Paramount head Barney Balaban's parents were insignificant grocers, Hitch explains that he came from the exact same background. When writer Joe Stefano (Ralph Macchio) says he's out of sorts because of his shrink and his mother, Hitch's face lights up -- he's found his man.
Helen Mirren's Alma is a refreshingly bright character. She's a professional's professional that (the movie asserts) should be considered the co-auteur of her husband's films -- she even rewrites all the scripts, (Joseph Stefano's heirs have taken grave exception to this impression). Mirren is still sexy as hell, which helps with the scenes of romantic temptation. We doubt that Ms. Reville was quite as vivacious as presented here, but Alma must have had a lively sense of humor to get along with her husband. I'd easily believe that a lot of patience was also useful.
Around the periphery are some great character turns. Scarlett Johansson is picture perfect as the sensible, practical Janet Leigh. James D'Arcy is extremely convincing as Anthony Perkins, especially considering how little screen time he's given.
The problem is that Hitchcock is the one director that fans know best, or think they know best. Exposť books about The Master of Suspense scour his psyche for evidence of dark and twisted motives, complexes, manias. Defenders dismiss all that as hooey and exaggeration, But the jury is still out -- in terms of opinions expressed in print, Hitchcock's collaborators and employees seems divided into equal camps of Alfred lovers and Alfred loathers. Hitchcock plays a cagey game with his. It goes all out with the "Alf is a closet psycho" theory, while simultaneously painting his obsessions as cute, quaint.
Hitchcock has two kinds of questionable content. The first are simple misstatement of facts, much of which can probably be chalked up to legal restraints. Note if you will that no mention is made of Universal, MCA (even though Wasserman was heavily involved with both) or Hitchcock-trademarked icons, like his famous profile sketch-doodle, which is probably copyrighted. Hitchcock's daughter Patricia is not mentioned in the film and, even though she played a sizeable role in the movie Psycho. The movie makes it seem as if Psycho were filmed at Paramount, to the point of using matte painting of the Bates' house exterior set. As the millions of folk that have taken the Universal Studio Tour well know, the film was shot at Universal City. The movie tells us that the Hitchcocks mortgaged everything to make Psycho. If Hitchcock authority Stephen Rebello says so, I'm not the one to argue, but it seems hard to believe that a man with a huge studio salary, profit participation in a string of big film hits, a hit TV series and a popular magazine franchise is in danger of losing his house. The man staked his career and livelihood with every new picture he made for 35 years. Is Fois gras from Maxim's that expensive?
The second kind of content makes fans edgy because it re-characterizes the beloved and revered Hitchcock as less of an artist, and more of an unbalanced pervert. At first a few small things seem "off", and then the show begins to invent themes and personality traits wholesale. Hitch reportedly said shooting films was the boring part of the process. Actors said that his sets were businesslike, and that he expected his actors to perform without his constant emotional assistance. In this account Hitchcock practically goes out of control on the Psycho set. He verbally assaults Janet Leigh to get a reaction for a driving scene, shocking some of the crew. Unhappy with Leigh's tepid response in the shower scene, he takes the butcher knife in hand to personally mime Norman's attack. Stabbing at her, Alfred looks certifiably insane. Well, it's dramatic, isn't it?
Hitch harasses poor Alma and mildly humiliates her when in the company of attractive women. This is credible, as many people have recounted stories of Hitch's sometimes offensive manners. When bored at work, Hitch peeks through the blinds at the babes walking between offices. But the film also presents him as a pervert voyeur, using a peephole into his actress's dressing room. Is there any evidence for this? The movie's game is to equate the director's psychology with that of his deranged anti-hero Norman Bates.
For the film's most creative/questionable touch, the screenwriter gives Hitch a recurring fantasy in which he communes with old Ed Gein, the abominably creepy serial killer. Hitch watches Gein dispose of bodies up on his remote Wisconsin farm. Whether this is meant to represent Hitch's actual dreams (he does wake up from one) or is just a thematic affectation, it seems an opportunistic mistake. Hitchcock was undeniably complex, but we're not ready to concede that he was some kind of monster. The director's admirers recognize the man's morbidity as a show, a part of his carefully cultivated public persona. Yes, Hitch loved dirty humor and reportedly loved to play extravagantly cruel jokes on people... but so what? To the casual viewer, Hitchcock makes the director out to be a very disturbed man. He didn't just make good movies, he was a consummate cinema artist ... a fact that really doesn't come through.
To give Hitchcock a human-interest storyline, the screenwriter has invented a thread of marital discord in the House of Hitchcock. This 'will Alma be unfaithful' subplot brings in a lothario screenwriter who cozies up to a director's wife -- a 60 year-old woman -- as a ploy to sell a script. Having been in the business for thirty-five years, I think Alma would see Whitfield's game coming from a long way off. But that's not the point, exactly. Is there any evidence that Alma Reville was ever anything less than 100% devoted to her Alfred? Is it fair to portray her as a potentially wandering wife, just to juice up a movie? Alma doesn't deserve that.
Anybody can do this kind of inventing, even blockheaded movie reviewers. Knowledgeable fans are aware that the villain in Hitchcock's I Confess is a foreigner who abuses his meek and subservient wife, also an immigrant. He attacks her when he thinks she's turning him in. And guess what this poor woman's name is? Alma. It would not be difficult to write a 'version' of the Hitchcocks in which the director secretly abuses a masochistic Alma Reville, mentally torturing her when his movies don't do well, projecting his vices onto her and accusing her of all kinds of terrible crimes? Not enough? Make Alma's a sick-o as well, encouraging Hitch to press his unwanted advances on his leading ladies.
This is of course total BS. It's kind of interesting that Hitchcock does the exact opposite of old Hollywood musical biographies once did. They had to tone down and whitewash the bios of pop songwriters and composers, removing unsavory problems and sexual orientations.
Questionable judgment aside, Hitchcock is a peppy show with interesting characters and a satisfying story arc. It even invents an anachronistic "gotcha!" moment for Hitch, when he stands in the lobby outside the first-engagement New York showing of Psycho, savagely air-conducting Bernard Herrmann's musical knife-slashes as the audience inside bursts forth with screams, followed by nervous laughter. The interpretive dance bit seems too demonstrative for A.H., and too athletic as well. Hitchcock sometimes flashed broad smiles unseen on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and he could also break out with a jolly laugh, as heard from time to time on the Francois Truffaut interview tapes. But dance around like Robin Williams? In reality, I'm not sure that Mr. and Mrs. Hitchcock were anywhere near the New York opening of Psycho.
I recommend Hitchcock anyway, to enjoy its humor while pondering its mingling of fact and outright fantasy. Did I mention Toni Collette as Hitch's secretary, or Kurtwood Smith as the perpetually irate Production Code censor? They're perfectly cast. But I also must confess that I'm a little sad that 50 years from now, the amusing fantasies depicted in this movie may be accepted as the way things were.†1
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's Blu-ray of Hitchcock looks great. The transfer and sound are immaculate. Danny Elfman's score doesn't stand out and is completely overshadowed as soon as a hint of Bernard Herrmann's music appears. The screenplay does put across a number of fascinating details about Psycho, such as the fact that composer Herrmann scored the shower scene with those slashing violins over Hitchcock's protests.
Director Gervasi and author Rebello spend most of their commentary track expressing their happiness with the picture and its dream cast of actors. EPK-style featurettes cover various aspects of the show - the music score, the back story of Hitch and Alma, etc..
Fox's deluxe package comes with a separate DVD disc and instructions for downloading a digital copy or connecting with the spirit world in the "cloud".
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hitchcock Blu-ray rates:
1. Other howlers and growlers: Winchester 73 is recognized as a great movie, no matter what the film's Lew Wasserman says. Also, Alma Reville walks onto the Bates House set to discover that the crew has been unable to film Hitch's shot of Arbogast being killed on the stairs. She takes a look at the script and says, "We'll do it with a process screen". That would require re-setting up on a process stage, which needs to be booked, planned, set up and tested in advance. Heck, Hitchcock's films were so meticulously pre-planned that his cameraman and assistants probably could do a shot like that on their own... and actor Martin Balsam would surely have been ready to perform it a week in advance as well.
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