Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Hitchcock Movie Review
There is a speech delivered by Helen Mirren in Hitchcock that begins bluntly and forcefully, before becoming one of those acting moments that gets played over and over again at awards shows. It’s a moment of performance that can so quickly and easily become overwrought, but then you realize that Mirren is an actress of incredible skill, subtlety, and professionalism that she won’t let her performance overshadow her character. She plays Alma Reville, the great director Alfred Hitchcock’s long-suffering wife and behind-the-scenes collaborator. She holds the film together and although Hitchcock is ostensibly concerned with the making of Psycho, that’s really just a backdrop for the way their marriage functioned and occasionally faltered.
Her big speech is delivered to Hitch in a blistering scene when emotions have finally come to a head with her frustrations with playing second fiddle to, and walking two steps behind, the world’s most famous director, and with his obsession with his blonde leading ladies. And he has grown suspicious of her friendship with Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), a family friend and writer who wants her help with a treatment of his book and perhaps a little something more if she’s willing.
Mirren probably has the toughest acting job in the film. She’s playing a real woman whom no one really knows much about and she’s playing opposite Anthony Hopkins as a man most people know at least a little something about. Additionally there’s Scarlett Johansson, sexy and formidable as Janet Leigh; Jessica Biel as Vera Miles; an absolutely wonderful Toni Collette as Peggy, Hitch’s longtime assistant; Michael Stuhlbarg as Hitch’s agent Lew Wasserman; Ralph Macchio as Joseph Stefano; and James D’Arcy doing what seems more like a cameo impersonation of Anthony Perkins. Hopkins has to tackle a fair amount of mimicry in bringing Hitch to life on screen. He’s well-padded to a suitable level of corpulence ad he’s got what I imagine must be very impressive prosthetic jowls. We know about Hitchcock the sardonic wit, but we know far less about his private life and this is where Hopkins really has the chance to show us something. He allows us to enter Hitch’s vulnerability, his fear that he’ll make a bad movie, or worse, that he’ll make a movie no one likes. We see him almost debilitatingly insecure to the point he becomes physically ill and Alma has to run the on-set crew so they don’t fall even further behind schedule on their self-financed movie. Hitch was certain that Psycho should be his next movie in order to do something different. What if a great director tackled the horror genre? Paramount was less certain and wouldn’t put up the money. So Hitch puts up his house and Alma, understanding wife that she is, agrees to go along whether he fails or not.
The movie rarely fails to be engaging. There are fantastic myths and legends surrounding the making of Psycho and the way Hitchcock habitually treated his leading ladies. Some of the movie comes across as if it’s contributing to legend, but John J. McLaughlin’s screenplay is adapted from Stephen Rebello’s book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, a notoriously well-researched treatise on the facts behind the making of one of the most famous films in history. McLaughlin keeps the story well within the limits of documented history, at least as far as the details of the filmmaking process are concerned. I have no doubt some the drama at the Hitchcock home is more than a bit embellished for dramatic purposes.
There’s the detail that Stefano, who wrote the Psycho screenplay, was in therapy dealing with issues regarding his mother. Anthony Perkins, in his initial meeting with Hitch about playing Norman Bates, reveals that as a child he wished his father dead, and then got his wish at age six. A lot of these moments are presented whimsically, with a wink toward legend. In fact, the tone of the movie parries, sometimes unsteadily, between humor, drama, and the macabre. It switches abruptly to dark scenes within Hitch’s mind in which he imagines conversations with Ed Gein, the serial killer who inspired the novel Psycho. I suppose that’s a style that befits the subject. After all, Hitch was a notorious wit and you can find subtle gallows humor in all his films. But director Sacha Gervasi never quite settles the film comfortably in one mode.
In spite of this, he manages to cobble together a fiendishly entertaining, and at times suspenseful, film from a non-fiction book. He succeeds at showing us how one of cinema’s most famous films was made and does it without ever showing any clips or even recreating shots (they didn’t’ secure the rights from Universal). Though the film’s title suggests the Master of Suspense is the centerpiece, it is really the relationship between him and Alma that drives the picture. In that regard, the film is warm, loving, and sincere with two masterful performances to draw us into its soft embrace.