December 4, 2012

Hitchcock (12/04/2012)

Lettergrade: C-

I'm as big a fan of the films of Alfred Hitchcock as anybody who reasoned that a bachelor's degree primarily made up of film survey courses was a surefire way to pave the way for a bright and prosperous future, but I can't say that Sacha Gervasi's new movie Hitchcock really does either the man or his work justice.

Ostensibly, this is a movie about the trouble Hitchcock had making what would be one of his signature films, 1960's Psycho.  It also, I suppose, attempts a psychological profile of the man himself - of his various kinks and obsessions - and ventures to explain some of what motivates him.  The most screen time, however, probably goes to the film's sort-of love story between Hitchcock and his wife/creative partner Alma Reville, whom the film asserts was the key to and secret behind Hitch's amazing success.

Of those, I think the film fails a bit on all counts but the last one.  It is full of fine performances, don't get me wrong, but the whole thing feels a bit "surfacy"… as if we're getting a good deal of trivia and reenactment, but not a lot of enlightenment.  Anthony Hopkins plays Hitchcock, and although he looks the part with help from a fat suit and some Howard Berger prosthetics, he never truly stops feeling like the caricature that my generation may know from catching reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on Nick At Nite.

Hitchcock could be the most talked about and heavily studied filmmaker in our brief history of cinema, and therein might be the problem.  More than any filmmaker I can think of, Hitchcock's motivations, kinks and obsessions are clear by simply watching a few of his key movies.  Although Psycho is probably the film he's best remembered for, it's tough to make a case that it's the most interesting one he made or that it's the one which is the most revealing of psyche.

The film alludes to Alma's distress over her husband's obsession with a certain type of blond actress, but this is something that began to show itself well before Psycho was made, and which got a hell of a lot creepier a little later in his career.  Jessica Biel (as Vera Miles) says at one point late in this new movie, "You know that poor, tortured soul Jimmy Stewart played in Vertigo? That's Hitch, only younger, slimmer and better-looking."  Vertigo, released two years before Psycho in 1958, stars Jimmy Stewart as a private detective who falls in love with the woman he's keeping a tail on.  After she dies, he eventually meets another woman who happens to look a lot like her, and gradually tries to turn her into the woman he's lost... giving her similar clothes, having her style her hair the same way, etc.  The two films Hitch made after PsychoThe Birds and Marnie... both starred Tippi Hedren, who Hitch had plucked out of relative obscurity and attempted to turn into his "ultimate" leading lady.  Historians note that during the production of Marnie in particular, Alma was heard apologizing to Hedren for her husband's behavior on more than one occasion, and Hedren has been pretty vocal about her dislike for Hitch in the years since.

So if we're talking about Hitchcock as a picture that's supposed to adequately detail this aspect of Hitch, I would argue that the scope is a bit too narrow.  I must say that it does not work for me as an informative history of the making of the classic film either.  After 1959's wildly entertaining North By Northwest, Hitchcock thought it might be interesting to make a horror picture using a more sparse, star-free aesthetic.  Paramount, which still had Hitch under contract, didn't want to make it, so the Hitchcocks mortgaged their house to pay for the production themselves, utilizing many of his collaborators from Presents (rather than his normal feature film team), and shooting the picture on a tight schedule.  All this is interesting, but is seeing a dramatic reenactment of this stuff more interesting than reading the trivia section on  I would argue that it isn't.  And you know… whatever difficulties Hitch had in making this movie, he was still a big marquee-name director who was near the high point of his enormously successful career, working within the studio system.  It's hard to think of this as much of an underdog story.

The movie consistently feels like it's "not enough."  The hiring of Joseph Stefano to write the screenplay is reduced to a brief, awkward job interview, followed by a close up on a script page informing us that he got the job.  Shockingly, Stefano is played by a totally unrecognizable Ralph Macchio (of The Karate Kid and My Cousin Vinny fame!).  If his character is present in the background of later scenes, I sure didn't notice him.  Similarly, the editing and scoring of the picture are blown through at warp speed.  At one point, a few lines are exchanged between Hitch and "Benny" about whether or not there should be music during the murder scene in the shower.  An informed viewer might quickly understand that this is composer Bernard Herrmann and the piece of music that wound up in the scene is probably one of the most famous and imitated in modern film music, but the scene is over before there's much time to think about it.  I suspect touchstone moments like this will be somewhat lost on those who do not already know a little about the making of Psycho.  And if you do know a little about the making of Psycho, I have to wonder what much of this movie is saying that you don't already know.

Screen time is frittered away detailing an association that Alma may-or-may-not have had with a writer named Whitfield Cook, who tries to persuade Alma to help him revise his novel into something that Hitch will make into a movie... while Hitch himself watches from the sidelines growing increasingly suspicious.  Numerous other sequences have Hitch imagining conversations with Ed Gein, the real-life serial killer profiled in Robert Bloch's "Psycho" book, loosely used as the foundation for the screenplay.

I'm unsure if either of these things have much basis in what Hitchcock and his wife were really going through during the making of Psycho, but even if that stuff did happen, I question how the film makes use of it.  If Alma's relationship with Whit did exist, wouldn't it be more interesting to see it only from Hitch's perspective (that is, from the point of view of a jealous husband watching his wife quasi-flirt with another man across the parking lot) than it is to sit through lengthy scenes of Alma and Whit working on his screenplay together?   We'd be robbed some damn fine acting from Helen Mirren, sure, (really, she's the most interesting thing about the movie by far) but isn't the film's title Hitchcock and aren't we supposed to be seeing a story about him?

The supporting cast is quite stellar... especially Scarlett Johansson who does a pretty uncanny Janet Leigh impersonation and James D'Arcy who has Anthony Perkins' look and mannerisms down pat.  Michael Stuhlbarg plays Hitch's agent (and future MCA mogul) Lew Wasserman, and Toni Collette steals a scene or two as Hitch's long-suffering personal assistant Peggy.

The real heart of the picture, though, is clearly Mirren.  I suppose that overall you could say that this is a picture about Hitch and Alma falling apart and then coming back together again.  That's fine for a fictionalized movie, maybe, but anyone who knows a little about the real Hitch and Alma know that her frustration dramatized by this movie would continue on for years to come.  This movie kind of suggests that all is resolved once Psycho comes out and becomes a big hit.

Certain key bits of Hitch's dialogue feel like they were probably taken from statements that the director is known to have said (or to have thought) throughout his career.  Sometimes he's rude, sometimes he's dismissive, and sometimes he's a little harsh, but there's always a lilt of devilish glee there - perhaps with a little more malevolence in Hopkins' portrayal than was present in the genuine article himself, who had a somewhat kinder and dopier face than that of his counterpart here.  Nevertheless, for a supposedly biographical picture that bears his name, I feel like it leans a little more heavily on bumper-sticker quotes than on substance.  Maybe there wasn't more much more to Hitch in private than the slightly goofy TV host who underlined words like "fieeeeendish!" and never missed an opportunity for a pun, but I suppose I find it hard to believe that the guy's behavior when he was in his bathtub at home wasn't that different than how he acted and spoke when he was on television.

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