2012 was a big year for Alfred Hitchcock; all of the projects and plans were exciting, two movies, DVD box sets, more.. As a major fan of the iconic director – my website, thornhillatthemovies.com gets its name from the character played by Cary Grant in “North by Northwest” – anytime my idol is recognized is cause to rejoice. The first project, “The Girl” is an HBO Film based on actress Tippi Hedren’s experiences making “The Birds”. The more I heard about this film, the less I wanted to see it. During a press conference promoting the project, which apparently takes a very critical look at Hitchcock’s strangeness and proclivities, she talked about his mental and physical abuse, his harassment, and the terrible experience making the film. About a month later, an interview by Robert Osborne with the actress was featured before a special one-night screening of “The Birds” in movie theaters. In both instances, she is getting paid to talk about what a terrible experience she had. The thought of this just turns me off, much like so much reality television. Why perpetuate bad memories and experiences and put them in the public eye? What good does it do after so much time has passed? The only reason is to make money and put you in the spotlight. Anyone who knows anything about Hitchcock knows he was a strange man with some darkness and we know the broad strokes about the filming of “The Birds”.
“Hitchcock” directed by Sacha Gervasi (writer of “The Terminal”) and starring Anthony Hopkins as the Master of Suspense, Helen Mirren as his longtime wife and collaborator, Alma Reville, Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins, Jessica Biel as Vera Miles and Toni Collette as Peggy Robertson, Hitchcock’s longtime assistant, is another story entirely.
From the moment the trailers first started playing in the multiplex, two things were clear; “Hitchcock” would concentrate on the filmmaker’s life while making “Psycho”, a turning point and very important time in the filmmaker’s life and it would have a certain ‘tongue-in-cheek’ quality the filmmaker himself would appreciate and embrace.
These are the best aspects of the film.
For a filmmaker who worked fifty plus years and created some of the most memorable films ever, a feature length film could and should never cover his entire life or career. It’s smart for “Hitchcock” to concentrate on a relatively short period of time, giving us as much insight and detail as possible.
“Psycho” represented a turning point in the director’s career. Still reeling from the critical and box office failure of “Vertigo”, a very personal film, the director turned to subject matter he knew well and made “North by Northwest”, which was a huge hit. And the studios wanted more of the same. But Hitchcock was bored with the formula and wanted to make something that would provide a challenge. When he found the inspiration, a true-crime book called “Psycho”, no studio wanted to make the film with him, so he made it “on the cheap”, shooting the film in black and white, with many crew members from his television show and paid for it himself. When the film was completed, he made a deal with Paramount, a deal which would ultimately make him even wealthier and, in a way, ensure his legacy. “Psycho” represents a turning point in his cinematic style and his attitude toward the business of filmmaking.
If you go to YouTube and search ‘Hitchcock’ and ‘Psycho’, one of the options you will be able to see is Hitchcock’s original trailer for “Psycho”. They didn’t call him the Master of Suspense for nothing. He decided that no one should be admitted to the theater after the film started. Why? To build curiosity and suspense for the shocking twist about thirty minutes in. For the trailer, he wanted to do something different and decided to stay away from clips. Hitchcock was easily the most famous and recognizable director of the time, he was a star, a selling point, so he takes us on a tour of the set, visiting the Bates’ house on the hill, the motel’s office and room #1. Inside the room, he points at the shower “Oh, you don’t want to even think about what happens in there.” That type of thing. It is very clever and very tongue-in-cheek. One of the trailers for “Hitchcock” features Hopkins in character, sitting in a recording studio, presumably doing a radio ad. Instead he begins talking about how cell-phones and texting during the film can make you go “Psycho”. It’s a very clever nod to the filmmaker’s own promotions and a memorable way to get the word out about this new biopic.
There are some good and some bad things about “Hitchcock”. Basically, the bad things are that the film doesn’t really go into enough detail or go far enough.
The cast is good and they seem to relish the opportunity to play these famous people. Hopkins does a very good job as Hitch. Wearing a body suit and the suit and ties the director made famous, he adopts the man’s mannerisms and speech patterns. Anyone who makes films like “Vertigo”, “Frenzy”, “Psycho”, “Rear Window”, “The Trouble with Harry”, “The Birds”, etc. and makes them as well as Hitchcock did, has to have some darkness, some weirdness. And Hitchcock certainly had both, which has been well documented. Hopkins and Gervasi portray some of these points, hint at some and avoid others entirely giving the portrayal an interesting depth you only wish went a little further. He stares out of his bungalow window at a blonde woman who walks across the lot at the same time every day. Both Peggy and Alma know about his desire for blondes, so they seem to accept his longing stares. He casts Vera Miles (Biel) as Marion’s sister, a brunette, to use up her contract and provide a slap on the hand for some of her personal choices. But they could have gone further, explored and explained more making the performance great.
This is the first time in a while Hopkins has actually portrayed a character. In so many recent films, he seems to be simply reading his lines or doing another riff on Hannibal Lecter. This is sad because Hopkins is such a great actor and it is difficult to watch him do less than great work. In this film, he dons a body suit and make-up to help transform into the director. But he also adopts the distinctive speech patterns and mannerisms of the famous icon. The portrayal is more real and interesting than a lot of his recent work. It is also a little irreverent, and something you think Hitchcock might have given his stamp of approval..
The relationship between Hitch and his wife, Alma (Mirren) is also nicely illustrated. The film gives us a glimpse at Alma’s lifelong role as a silent creative partner - they first worked together on silent films in the ‘20s - .providing input into every aspect of the creative process from choice of material to editing. Mirren does a nice job of illustrating her fatigue and weariness of her involvement.
Mirren also has the opportunity to portray different aspects of her role as a wife to one of the most celebrated, famous men in the world. She modestly enjoys what the fame and money brings them, but also tries to keep centered and grounded. At times, she even seems to wish she could live a simpler life. But when the film’s budget spirals out of control, and her lifestyle is threatened, she becomes aggravated and testy. Mirren is a great actress and this is good work. But there is a layer missing that would make it great work.
Scarlett Johansson plays Janet Leigh and James D’Arcy (“Cloud Atlas”) plays Anthony Perkins, the stars of the film within the film. Both were rising, if unspectacular, actors when cast by Hitchcock. Remember, he was footing the bill, so he wanted people who were cheap. And each portrays their ‘greenness’ to the whole idea of Hollywood. Johansson has more screen time and more opportunity to paint shades of the naiveté Leigh might have had. There is a nice scene depicting Leigh and Perkins on the set, walking towards the camera. Perkins comments how this film will be a nice change of pace for them both, from all of the romantic fluff the studios usually cast them in. It will make them sit up and notice. This is a telling moment because Perkins would become typecast and his most memorable and successful roles would always be as madmen, crazy people and really intense and driven characters.
Toni Collette is good as Peggy Robertson, Hitch’s longtime secretary and collaborator. There is a hint of the influence she had on the director’s career – if Alma was the final word, Peggy was the first – but again, it just doesn’t seem to go far enough. One reason is that she simply doesn’t have enough screen time.
I wish Gervasi had dug a little deeper. There are a few moments when we watch Hitchcock observing Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the man who would become the inspiration for Norman Bates, as he performs some of the terrible acts that would provide inspiration for “Psycho”. Hitchcock stands nearby, watching, commenting to us about the action, as though he is reading the book and picturing these scenes in his mind. But we don’t get an idea of why this material was so inspirational to the director. Unless it was purely for the shock value.
The tongue-in-cheek nature of the film is good, and fitting, and the details the filmmakers provide about Hitch’s life and filmmaking method are interesting. But balance between the two is never achieved and results in an uneven, marred portrait of the Master of Suspense.