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Hitchcock: A Real Psycho Drama

by Ethan Alter November 23, 2012 6:00 am
<i>Hitchcock</i>: A Real <i>Psycho</I> Drama

So far Alfred Hitchcock biopics are batting 0-for-2 this year, with Fox Searchlight's anemic Hitchcock opening in limited theatrical release on the heels of HBO's crummy The Girl. Thanks largely to its skilled ensemble cast -- including Anthony Hopkins as Hitch, Helen Mirren as his wife Alma and Toni Collette as his long-suffering assistant, among others -- this film isn't quite as unpleasant and misguided as its small-screen predecessor, which strained to turn the Master of Suspense into one of the obsessive creeps that populated his movies. Hitchcock, which was directed by Sacha Gervasi (the guy who made that Anvil documentary a few years back), also deserves credit for paying more attention to its subject's formidable skills as a filmmaker, whereas The Girl seemed inordinately interested in his clumsy stalking of his leading ladies. Indeed, the narrative thrust of the movie concerns Hitchcock's own fears and doubts about his career as he seeks to reinvent himself in an industry that prefers the status quo. In a way, Hitchcock aspires to be another -- a self-aware portrait of an artist at a crossroads, unsure of which road to take next.

Too bad it's so ham-fisted about it. Written by John J. McLaughlin and based in part on Stephen Rebello's book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, Hitchcock is the kind of biopic that's profoundly -- and almost proudly -- inauthentic in its presentation of history, filled with cheeky jokes and references designed to flatter the audience's superficial knowledge of the era (like when Janet Leigh, played by a bland Scarlett Johansson, cracks a joke about the difficulty of working with Orson Welles on Touch of Evil) or verbalizing ideas that historians have applied to the person or era only in retrospect (as in a scene where Vera Miles, played by an even blander Jessica Biel, informs Hitchcock that the glamorous blondes idealized in his movies don't exist in real life). Gervasi deliberately calls attention to the artificiality of the proceedings by opening and closing the movie with a shot of Hitchcock talking directly to the camera a la his appearances on his old TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents and by including several hallucinatory encounters between the director and serial killer Ed Gein, whose notorious case inspired the novel Psycho that so captivated Hitch.

Psycho is one of Hitchcock's most iconic films today, so much so that people often forget what a risky venture it was for him at the time. If Hitchcock does little else right, it at least efficiently contextualizes the film for a modern audience, illustrating why it was an important movie both for Hitchcock and the movie industry at large. For the director, it represented a drastic departure from the high-concept action blockbusters he had been making up to that point, a film that broke many of the rules (most notably killing off the lead actress a half-hour into the film) that he spent much of his career playing by. It was for this reason -- along with the movie's high quotient of censor-unfriendly violence and sexual content -- that his employers at Paramount refused to pay for it, forcing Hitchcock to make it on his own dime. (The studio did end up distributing the film, though, an early case of an independently-financed feature being booked into theaters by a major studio.) The story behind how Psycho came to be -- as well as the impact its unexpected and unprecedented success had on Hollywood -- is almost as compelling as the film itself and the best scenes in Hitchcock are the ones in which Hitchcock that he's not skilled enough to pull this movie off. In those moments, Hopkins's Hitch seems less like an extended caricature and... well, human.

But Hitchcock isn't the filmmaker that Hitchcock is ultimately most interested in. The real star here is Mirren's Alma, who has been posthumously recognized as the director's most important creative collaborator. Throughout the movie, the couple is presented as professional equals, with Alma contributing story notes and dialogue to the screenplays and playing an integral role in the editing room after Psycho's flat preview screening. But in search of dramatic conflict, Gervasi decides to put their personal relationship center stage, positing that their marriage was fraught with tension, resentment and the looming possibility of adultery. Hitchcock's fascination with his leading ladies is by now well-known, but Gervasi also gives Alma a potential paramour in the form of dashing screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wrote Strangers on a Train and Stage Fright. Although the pair did apparently have a close working relationship, the romantic tension is the invention of the film and boy, does it feel false and forced, much like every marital spat between Alfred and Alma. Look, it's not out of bounds for a filmmaker to speculate on the private lives of public figures, especially in the context of a dramatic film that's not aspiring to be a documentary. But these particular scenes from a marriage are written on the level of a soap opera and even pros like Hopkins and Mirren can't elevate the material. Where The Girl was simply a bad movie, Hitchcockis more of a missed opportunity: a biopic that respects its subject with idolizing him, but mistakenly feels compelled to embellish a life that's already interesting on its own terms.

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