Bottom Line: Hitchcock is a film you should see…from the beginning!
Directed by: Sacha Gervasi
Alfred Hitchcock: Anthony Hopkins
Alma Reville: Helen Mirren
Also Starring: James D’Arcy, Jessica Biel, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Wincott, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette
“When I saw it condensed and edited in a way that only Hitchcock could do it, it was so frightening to me that it made me realize that it’s an extremely vulnerable position we’re in, while in a shower. … I just couldn’t get back in a shower after that.” –Janet Leigh, recalling the “shower scene” from Psycho
Open the curtain. No, not too fast! Cut! Take two. Open the curtain. That’s better. Now pan right. No, not too far! Cut! Take three. Open the curtain. Good, now pan right…and…action!
Biographies are notorious for their titles. It’s difficult enough to shove an entire life into two hours. The only two options with shoving an entire life into one title are to a) title based on what’s appealing and easy to remember; or b) title based on full honesty, regardless of whether anyone will actually remember the title. Would The Aviator have been such an irresistible film if it were “The Aviator/Filmmaker/Billionaire/Narcissist/Perfectionist/Playboy”? Would anyone have watched The Iron Lady if it were, “Into the Mind of Margaret Thatcher during Her Years of Dementia”? Behold Hitchcock, a title that makes those misnomers seem tame. This isn’t a biography about Alfred Hitchcock. It spans over merely a few months, yet it covers several fascinating topics. The complete title that was not offered: “Alfred Hitchcock, Alma Reville, Ed Gein, the Blondes, the Production Code, and All of Their Monstrous Obsessions that Led to a Timeless Classic”. Try remembering that.
Hitchcock sets up in 1959, chronicling the production of Psycho. As soon as Hitch has his hands on Robert Bloch’s pulp novel on which that landmark thriller is based, he develops an obsession with getting it out on the silver screen. But there’s too much in the way of his newly found dream. He insists everyone to see it from the beginning, and no one to leave the theater before the end. Many are worried it will be just like Vertigo—panned by critics and audiences alike. Let’s not forget, Ed Gein inspired the story from cover to cover. This was the farmer who murdered two victims out of sheer impulse, dug up his mother from her grave, and used her as the source of his insanity. No moment of Psycho presenting/suggesting sex, violence, nudity, toilets flushing, transvestitism, or incest has ever made it past the Motion Picture Production Code, and they aren’t willing to make an exception.
Hitchcock certainly is not as didactic as most biopics. What we have here is more of a black comedy, presented through the life of an important personality. Believe it or not, Hitch did have a sense of humor, as is the catalyst for amusement. He’s a self-centered, avaricious, obese, bumbling director who needs everything in order, no exceptions. Meanwhile, he had trouble taking anything seriously. Considering that every meeting with the Production Code was bookmarked with his wisecracks, it’s a marvel this ever earned an American release. Without spoiling anything, that eventual outcome is due to his wit, as well. During the latter half, Hitchcock evolves into a rather deep, intense psychodrama (no pun intended). This is where the focus shifts more toward his wife, whom he treats possessively, often substituting her with his blonde, female leads.
It’s no accident that Anthony Hopkins was chosen to portray Alfred Hitchcock. There are many faces that can transform into Hitch’s by means of cosmetics, but it’s natural for Hopkins. Better yet, he shocked us decades earlier with his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, a more recent Ed Gein-esque story that makes an eerie, twisted thriller like Psycho seem classy. His familiarity gives the role a highly mysterious overtone. Hitch’s wife, Alma Reville, is portrayed by Helen Mirren, who never holds back in strengthening her role; as far as Scarlett Johansson, however, she hardly has to work. As Janet Leigh, she’s almost portraying herself—giddy, beautiful, and smart. Above all is James D’Arcy. Not only does he look like Anthony Perkins, he sounds like him, and almost becomes him. Constantly fidgeting and stuttering, boyish and sketchy.
I mean not praise Hitchcock as if it were the actual Psycho, back from 1960. It’s just as effective, but it’s not a classic. What sets the two films apart is the writing. Screenwriter John J. McLaughlin abides carefully by Hitch’s timeless maxim: “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” The film is but an hour and thirty-eight minutes in length. Unfortunately, the screenplay is almost bereft of pacing. Often times, it feels like a three-hour feature. There’s a dark, albeit charming idea of suspense presented in the tale, an adaptation of Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho; in addition, Psycho itself is taken into a fascinating atmosphere by rising director Sacha Gervasi. But if this were not an onscreen memoir of the man who practically forced me to love film, it wouldn’t be nearly as memorable.
Now close the curtain. Slowly, and set against “Funeral March for a Marionette”. Fade out and…that’s a wrap.
Postscript: Another film about Alfred Hitchcock, entitled The Girl, was made for HBO this past year. It takes place during the making of The Birds; Toby Jones plays Hitchcock.