HITCHCOCK – The Review
Alfred Hitchcock’s fixation with the icy blondes who populated his films (Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, and most infamously, Tippi Hedren) is well-documented, but less-known are the details of the director’s 50-year marriage to his story editor Alma Reville. The new film HITCHCOCK explores the relationship between Hitch and Alma with Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren in the roles and sets it against the filming of their terrifying 1960 classic PSYCHO. With this movie-buff’s dream premise, this cast, a smart script by John McLaughlin (BLACK SWAN), and a sly score by Danny Elfman, you’d think this project could direct itself but they handed the reins to newcomer Sascha Gervasi, whose only previous film was the rock doc ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL (read my review HERE). The result is a film that falls short of the greatness I think it could have achieved if a more visionary director like Tim Burton had been dealt this material, but it’s still well worth seeing.
After the success of NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Hitchcock was enticed by the success of low-budget black-and-white horror movies and against the advice of almost everyone, he was determined to make one. Much of HITCHCOCK is about the pressure the PSYCHO project puts him under. He mortgages his home to finance the film and finds himself drawn to the film’s leading lady, Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson). The movie opens with Hitchcock talking directly to the camera as if he’s still hosting Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He’s standing next to legendary Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott - a freaky dead ringer), the basis for Norman Bates, who’s just committed a murder. HITCHCOCK includes several of these fantasy encounters between Hitchcock and Gein with the killer giving the director inspiration as well as gruesome murder advice including the proper way to slice and dice a woman. These scenes, which recall Norman Bates talking to his dead mother, are like the film’s subject himself; dark and humorous, but the film too often strays from that sardonic, playful tone and ends up a mixed bag.
I think anyone over the age of 40 has stepped into a shower at some point and thought about that swirling drain, that translucent shower curtain and that look of death reflected in Janet Leigh’s eye and HITCHCOCK will likely make movie lovers want to screen PSYCHO again. They may see the film in a new light – through the eyes of the obsessed director this film profiles, but Universal Studios did not cooperate in the new film’s making. Re-creations of scenes from the original film are minimal, no dialogue from PSYCHO is spoken (though a passage from Robert Bloch’s source novel is quoted), and snatches of Bernard Herrmann’s iconic music is taken from a later recording rather than the original soundtrack. Even the re-created sets are subtlety different (there are different pictures on the wall of Norman Bates’s den). Perhaps they were avoiding copyright infringement but this lack of detail adds to the artificiality of HITCHCOCK. Still, the film works best when it does focus on the making of PSYCHO, which brings me to my biggest problem with the film. There’s a somewhat unnecessary subplot highlighting the relationship between Alma and dapper screenwriter Whitfield Cook (who cowrote STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and STAGE FRIGHT here played by Danny Huston). The film spends too much time with the two of them collaborating on a writing project at a lakeside house and hints at a romance that may or may not existed. Hitch suspects an affair leading to some marital spats but it stops the story, feels forced, and made this viewer wish they’d just get back to the PSYCHO stuff. None of it is in Stephen Rebello’s book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of PSYCHO, that the film is based on so it’s as if they had this Oscar-winning actress cast and felt the need to do more with her.
Anthony Hopkins, in a fat suit (and constantly eating) has all of Hitch’s vocal patterns and mannerisms down yet still manages to retain the actor’s own essence. There’s a terrific moment where he’s waiting in the lobby during the PSYCHO premiere, ear to the door, dancing and waving his arms like a symphony conductor to the audience’s screams that plays more like Hopkins hamming it up than something Hitch would have done, but it’s a glorious scene nonetheless. Though he’s shown peeping on an undressing Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) through a hole in his wall, the reputed lecherous side of Hitch is downplayed in favor of a more benevolent, likeable man (it’s HBO’s concurrent The Girl – with Toby Jones as Hitch – that focuses on this less pleasant, psychosexual side of the director – it’s an inferior film but makes an interesting companion piece to this one). Michael Stuhlbarg has some good scenes as Lew Wasserman, Hitchcock’s agent and later a studio bigwig as does Toni Collette as Hitch’s loyal secretary Peggy Robertson. The actor who just nails his part the best is James D’Arcy as Tony Perkins. In the scene where Hitch is first interviewing the timid young actor, it’s startling how much D’Arcy brings Perkins, and by proxy, Norman Bates, to life. I just wish there had been more scenes with him. The same cannot be said of Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh. Johansson delivers a fine performance but her lack of physical resemblance to Leigh is a distraction.
For the most part, I enjoyed HITCHCOCK, but it has to be said that the movie is a tad slight and feels rushed. Since we all know PSYCHO ended up being the biggest hit of Hitchcock’s career, it’s hard to get overly invested in his struggle. I wish I had liked it even more but the performances are excellent and the dialogue is clever, making it an enjoyable ninety-eight minutes.
4 of 5 Stars
HITCHCOCK opens in St. Louis today at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Theater