Sunday, November 25, 2012

Hitchcock

Hitchcock:
Alfred Hitchcock would probably be happy that he’s finally
getting his close-up, but I don’t think he’d be thrilled about the
way it’s being framed. In the recent HBO film The Girl,
Hitch is depicted as a sadistic tormentor of Tippi Hedren, the
blonde model who rebuffed his sexual advances after he cast her in
his 1963 movie, The Birds. Hedren, who first related this
story to Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto 30 years ago, continues
to affirm its accuracy. 
On the other hand, the director we meet in the new
Hitchcock is a cuddlier version, a droll joker. The movie
is essentially a light comedy with odd fantasy trappings. Although
it’s based on Stephen Rebello’s carefully researched 1990 book
Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, it doesn’t have
the instructional sinew of a bio-pic; it’s a sketch, an extended
anecdote about the great man and his great movie, and it’s worth
seeing for its two stars.
Anthony Hopkins doesn’t much resemble Hitchcock, even under a
heavy rigging of prosthetic enhancements (chief among them the
imposing belly with which he navigates every scene, like a cruise
ship on a portable sea). But he exudes an unlikely, elfin charm.
He’s not exactly the Hitchcock we can still see entombed in the
great YouTube mausoleum, but he obliquely suggests that jowly
gentleman. And Helen Mirren brings a bracing resilience to the role
of Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s longtime wife and collaborator.
Mirren’s Alma is a full partner in her husband’s creative
undertakings—at one point even stepping in to direct a part of
Psycho. The real-life Reville was a writer, editor, and
sometime director who began working with Hitchcock on his first
feature, in 1925, and Mirren shows us flickers of the frustration
she must have felt at having to live in Hitchcock’s shadow with
little acknowledgement of her substantial contributions to his
work.
The movie is set in 1959. Hitch is basking in praise for his
latest movie, North by Northwest, but is already casting
about for a new property. He thinks he’s found it in
Psycho, a sensational horror novel by Robert Bloch.
Nobody’s very happy about this choice, least of all Paramount, the
studio where Hitch is trying to set the new movie up. Horror is so
low-rent, he’s told—and he’s been misguided before. (North by
Northwest
may be a hit, but his previous film,
Vertigo, was a box-office dud.) Hitchcock, however, is
determined: “What if someone really good made a horror
movie?” he says.   
Director Sacha Gervasi establishes the movie’s peculiar tone
right at the outset: We see two hayseeds digging in a nighttime
backyard, and then we see one of them slam the other on the head
with his shovel. Then, in the manner of the old Hitchcock TV show,
the camera pans over to the tubby auteur himself, in his black suit
and tie, poised to deliver a gruesome bon mot.
The homicidal hayseed is Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the
celebrated ghoul who had been arrested only two years earlier at
his Wisconsin farmhouse, which was found to be crammed with bones
and organs, a head in a bag, and much epidermal upholstery. Gein
had been the inspiration for Bloch’s book, and he keeps putting in
appearances here, dragging around corpses and whatnot, as Hitch
goes about mortgaging his home in order to get Psycho made
the way he wants. (Shooting in black and white was an audacious
move, as was the narrative impudence of killing off his leading
lady, Janet Leigh, 30 minutes into the film.)
Meanwhile, Alma is getting restless. She’s fed up with her
husband’s obsession with the cool blondes he casts in his pictures
(Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint), and she has been quietly
rendezvousing with Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), a suave
screenwriter who needs her help with his latest script. When Hitch
gets wind of these meetings, the movie takes on a familiar
Hitchcockian vibe of swelling paranoia. Director Gervasi also mixes
in a number of visual allusions to the master’s oeuvre, the most
obvious being an overhead shot of a staircase in the Hitchcock
home—so like the one in Psycho, at the top of which the
nosy investigator Arbogast has his first and last encounter with
Bernard Herrmann’s famous skree-skree-skree slasher
theme
The movie is distinctively eccentric and often quite witty, and
it tells us a lot about how Psycho got made. But aside
from a passage about shooting the bloody shower scene (to which
Hitchcock personally applies himself) and some resonant rear
projection in the picture’s early driving sequence, it doesn’t
really show us much. (Legal constraints, possibly.) And
while James D’Arcy has a funny moment as Anthony Perkins—who brings
an icky regard for his own mother to the role of nail-biting Norman
Bates—Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh and Jessica Biel as Vera
Miles (who played the sister of Leigh’s character in the film)
aren’t given a lot to work with, script-wise, and they register
only blandly in the proceedings.
Hitchcock may be too grand a presence in the filmmaking pantheon
to be treated in the whimsical manner that he is here. Surely
there’ll be many admirers who feel that way, and given the movie’s
very un-Hitchcockian conclusion, one can imagine the master himself
being among them.