Saturday, March 1, 2014

Hitchcock

2012's HITCHOCK features Anthony Hopkins, for at least the second time in his long career, playing an infamous, real life figure he looks nothing (or very little) like. Or sounds like, for that matter. In 1995 he portrayed the troubled president in Oliver Stone's NIXON, and despite the surface dissimilarities managed to be wholly convincing. I feel it was mainly Hopkins' skills in conveying the man's tortured soul, his frustration (much the way Frank Langella did in FROST/NIXON) that put it across. In HITCHOCK, he employs a similar mastery of characterization, carrying him over those dozens of moments we just can't forget the director's famous visage, his patented silhouette.

It also carries him through an otherwise bland movie. A theatrical release that down to its essences feels like a television movie, or an E! Hollywood tell-all docudrama.  With John J. McLaughlin's script essentially reduced to a soap opera, HITCHOCK too often plays like a slightly ambitious project made for the Lifetime network.

HITCHOCK follows the legendary director as he struggles to make his landmark 1960 film PSYCHO (and is based on Stephen Rebello's Alfred Hitchock and the Making of Psycho). Despite coming hot off the all-around success of NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Hitchcock is nagged by self-doubt, wondering if he is indeed past his prime and no longer relevant. Some members of the press wonder likewise.

He will also be haunted by recurrent visions of Ed Gein (in some disappointingly cheesy scenes with Michael Wincott, who plays the serial killer) as he begins to consider an adaptation of Robert Bloch's Psycho, which was inspired by the killer's grisly deeds. Hollywood studio honchos would rather Hitch select a "safe" project. Paramount has little faith in this new adaptation, forcing him to finance the movie himself. The Motion Picture Production Code is nervous, especially about that shower scene. The director's well known obsessions with his female stars further adds to a discordant shoot.

All of these elements will provide enough for those already interested in the subject, but are presented in the most flat, perfunctory manner possible. Director Sacha Gervasi demonstrates competence in directing traffic but displays no keen visual sense, other than bathing the proceedings in harsh lighting that makes the film really seem like a made for TV.

What really does in HITCHOCK is a subplot involving Hitchcock's wife (and collaborator) Alma, nonetheless played with sophistication and heart by Helen Mirren. She envigorates each of her scenes, especially those with interplay between husband and wife. Staid long-marrieds who sleep in separate beds and nag each other. You might call Alma a martyr, or even a saint, for tolerating her husband's schedule and pathological interest in his female stars, sirens like Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) and especially Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson).

If HITCHOCK had examined Alma and her eternal patience with more insight, we may have had a strong psychological drama to admire. Instead, the script spends much time on her budding attraction to screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) and Hitchcock's building jealousy - all handled with the skill of your average Harlequin Romance paperback.  To make things worse, those visions of Ed Gein (Hitch's subconscious?) suggest actions for the possibly cuckholded spouse to take. It's an unforgivable contrivance. And let's not mention the happy ending.

All of that is disheartening, and douses hopes that HITCHCOCK could've been a superlative biography. There are telling moments here and there, as when Miles, apparently Hitch's primary object of desire on an earlier picture, tells Leigh about her discomfort with the director, offering that he is at least "not as bad as Orson Welles." It made me begin to think of how I might've constructed a bio on Hitch, one that would focus primarily on Hitch's predilections, his lust/love/paternalism that in some ways echoes Boris Lermontov in THE RED SHOES. But I guess there are books out there you can read on the subject.

Those looking for behind-the-scenes, on-set nuts and bolts examinations of the filmmaking process may be similarly disappointed, though we get some interesting sequences as Hitch guides his crew, when Alma steps in to direct when her husband falls ill, and some hilariously candid assessments of how Hitch really feels about some of his actors, mainly the men like John Gavin. I've read that the director didn't think much of many of his casts, even prompting William H. Macy to explain what he was doing in the ill advised 1998 PSYCHO remake: it was a favor to Gus Van Sant, not because he worshipped Hitchcock.

By many accounts, Alfred Hitchcock was an asshole, albeit a brilliant one. Our society likes to celebrate them, be they entertainers, athletes, evangelists, CEOs. Surely an asshole like Hitch could've inspired a far better movie?

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