Dec 1, 2012
Or a sunny fairy tale about the genesis of Psycho, of all things. This enjoyable morsel by Sacha Gervasi (ANVIL! The Story of Anvil), improbably turns the story of how one of the greatest artists in the history of film made of one of the scariest movies of all time into a sweet little fable with a happy ending. If it wasn't for the two gigantic actors who portray Alfred Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, it could have bordered on the ludicrous. But it is a joy to watch Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren deliver the goods, separately and as a long lasting couple. Hopkins doesn't look anything like Hitchcock, and his cumbersome make up still doesn't make him look anything like Hitchcock, except for the girth. But his characterization is dead on. He is as hilarious as Hitchcock was in his eccentric "master of suspense" persona. For Alfred Hitchcock was a brand. He was as much of a genius in the creation of his own marketing as he was as a film director. Hopkins delivers the quicksilver wit, with extensive pauses between words and a full beat before striking the punch line, just like the original. He is a hoot. His Hitchcock is at once grand caricature and something smaller, more vulnerable, more complicated. A very controlling man, a huge child with enormous, but being British, equally repressed appetites (which explain the rounded figure), a famous director who found himself wielding enormous power, particularly over his female actresses. I don't know if its a trick of camera and makeup or if it is Anthony Hopkins who achieves a chilling distance in his gaze, but this aloofness, this feeling that Hitchcock was always an alien in Hollywood, makes the portrayal rise above caricature.
There is a lot that could be really hokey in the movie, like the sequences where Hitchcock imagines conversations with Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real life serial killer on whom the book "Psycho" was based. But Gervasi sustains a lighthearted tone, immeasurably helped by pretty solid casting. He gingerly mentions the dark aspects of Hitchcock's personality without really investigating them, but they are there, more as discomfiting quirks than as truly sinister traits: Hitchcock's obsession with his actresses (the mistreatment of Tippi Hedren in The Birds was yet to come); his emotional blackmail of Vera Miles (Jessica Biel); the way he supposedly got Janet Leigh (a good Scarlett Johansson) to scream her heart out in the legendary shower scene.
But the movie also belongs to the unsung hero in Hitchcock's life, Alma, his wife and creative collaborator, who apparently was in no small part responsible for some of her husband's most brilliant artistic choices, like insisting on using Bernard Herrmann's score over the shower scene, or suggesting he kill off the leading lady before page 30, a first in the history of film. Always toiling in the shadows, but a known secret inside the industry, Alma was a woman of her time, making herself and her talents disappear in favor of the big man. We are reminded that she was once his boss; by this stage, they had been making movies for about 40 years. They were old fashioned in their mores, yet adventurous and visionary as artists. There is a very poignant turn in Alma's story as she is seduced by a colleague (Danny Huston), only to discover that, like Hitch, he is only using her for her brilliance. Mirren then has a controlled, beautiful meltdown where she finally reads Hitch the riot act that almost elicited cheers from the audience. It is a beautiful speech, writerly wishful thinking, and she nails it with such force, grace and skill, it's a cri de coeur for all unsung females who support and even improve their partners' celebrated achievements, with little recognition. Or for all those average, yet valuable women who are eclipsed by more gorgeous ones.
Hitchcock is also, and most enjoyably, about making an independent movie. A famed director, at the peak of his career, finds himself trying to get a movie made that no one will touch with a ten foot pole. Even Hitchcock, who was at the time the most famous film director in the world, could not get financing for what was seen as schlocky material, anathema to casting megawatt stars like a Cary Grant or a Grace Kelly.
At the peak of his career, fascinated by the horrid Ed Gein story, Hitchcock decided to make a B-movie, with second tier stars, for a very low budget, which he financed himself. This was the genesis of Psycho, one of the most revolutionary films of all time. In the few scenes involving Ed Gein and his sleazy serial killer grotesquerie, it implies the genius of Hitchcock in turning a seedy story into an elegant, black and white masterpiece of horror. I wish this film explored more what made Hitchcock a great artist. I applaud that it gives Alma Reville her due, but it cheats Hitchcock of his own genius. We never really see him exercise the elegance of his creative thought, or his masterful craftsmanship.
I can't decide if Gervasi's lighthearted choice is cool or ridiculous, but it is great fun. Hitchcock is a triumphant comedy about a persevering artist, and a lot of the joy in it comes from relishing in hindsight the happy outcome of the story. We are all thrilled by Psycho, by the fact that Bernard Herrmann's music and that shower scene are now universal icons, by how Alfred Hitchcock, a prolific artist, continued making fresh masterpieces in his old age (The Birds, Frenzy), almost as if Psycho had given him a second wind.