For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Saturday, December 8, 2012



Hitchcock would scoff at Hitchcock.  

Melodramatic and thin, this biographical movie-within-a-movie—chronicling Psycho’s arduous production in 1959—is all bomb and no build-up.  Directed with TV-movie-blandness by Sacha Gorvasi and written with the cursory touchstone haste of a Wikipedia article by John J. McLaughlin (based on a book by Stephen Rebello), Hitchcock erroneously mistakes on-the-nose bluntness for sly suggestion.  For example: To intimate Hitchcock’s much-surmised obsession with his leading ladies there’s a scene of him drooling over their headshots like one of Pavlov’s dogs; to insinuate that his voyeurism wasn’t restrained to cinematography we watch him spy Vera Miles in her skivvies through a dressing room peephole.

Hitchcock not only takes liberties with rumors that have never actually been substantiated; it fails to recognize that the filmmaker’s allure has always been his ambiguity.  Even Hitchcock himself loved to perpetuate his own sleazy mythology, through interviews and iconic signifiers (like his chubby, profiled silhouette).  From his old suspense adage (“There’s no excitement in the explosion, only in its anticipation”), clearly Hitchcock understood the thrill of Mystery, especially when his reputation and oeuvre only deepened the enigma.  The common hypothesis espoused by critics is that Hitchcock lived through his viewfinder; when you watch an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, you’re seeing the world through his idiosyncratic gaze.  No matter how well made, a Hitchcock biopic can never capture the quagmires and contradictions of the real guy as effectively as the films themselves.         

Hitchcock opens curiously, not with the eponymous Brit, but with backwoods serial killer Ed Gein (the inspiration for Psycho) whacking his brother in the head with a shovel.  Then follow the felicitous notes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ opening theme, and the requisite “Good eeevening…” announces the arrival of Anthony Hopkins buried in prosthetics.  The lead performance, while admirable, is not a transformative embodiment; it’s a spot-on impersonation.  Fatally hindered by paltry screenwriting and direction, Hopkins has little space for emotional discovery.  Admittedly, he does channel Hitchcock’s more superficial quirks with aplomb—the plummy accent and the elongated syllabic diction.  As for the gallows humor, Hopkins spits morbid witticisms with a touch of playful venom. 

The success of North By Northwest in 1959 prompts Paramount to demand a facsimile.  Hitchcock’s even offered Ian Fleming’s spy novel Casino Royale.  But the director isn’t interested; he’s looking for something dark, devious, and more challenging.  He chooses an adaptation of Robert Bloch’s macabre bestseller, Psycho: And why not?  It’s got blood and gore.  It’s got nudity.  It kills off its lead halfway through.  The censors and studio heads are dreading Alfred Hitchcock’s (wet) dream project like a stabbing in the shower.  God forbid Paramount suffer another Vertigo, a masterpiece dismissed in its time!  Hitch is unassailable and finances the film by mortgaging his own Beverly Hills mansion.  He hires novice screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) on the cheap; he casts A-list actress Janet Leigh (Scarlet Johansson) as the doomed heroine and boy-next-door Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) as the owner and operator of the Bates Motel.

Johansson as Janet Leigh is the film’s amiable peach, its most fetching, come-hither asset.  Then there’s Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), one of several notable actresses who swear to this day that Hitchcock sought to ruin their careers.  Miles is written as the intoned voice of the postmodern critical community, sharing now platitudinous insights: “You know Jimmy Stewart’s character in Vertigo?” she tells Leigh, “That’s really Hitchcock, only younger, slimmer, and better looking.”  Thanks, Vera.  Did you get that from Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius?  In a preparatory meeting, D’Arcy portrays Perkins like he’s Norman Bates, all fidgety boyishness.  The unconscious implication is that Perkins was merely playing himself, which shortchanges one of the greatest performances in history.     

The plot follows Psycho through its production—shower scene included, though Scarlet Johansson stays decent (sorry, everybody)—and its brilliantly marketed release.  As his dramatic center, Gorvasi chooses Hitch’s troubled marriage to Alma Reville (steely Helen Mirren), his partner and confidante.  The script dramatizes their relationship with a strained gravitas that struck me as false representation—counter to their reputed civility.  Due to the filmmakers’ misjudgment, Mirren and Hopkins can only feign profundity and oversimplify the legendary pair’s lifelong personal and professional synergy.  At best, Hitchcock is an amusing “making-of” jaunt about the struggle of the auteur in the studio era, but it’s never sharp enough to cut.  As I said before, if you really want to solve the mystery of Alfred Hitchcock, you’re better off just watching Psycho instead.

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