Despite great performances from a stellar cast, Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock muddles between biopic, a making of and a troubled marriage drama.
American Psycho by Alexa Dalby
In typically Hitchcockian fashion, Hitchcock starts with a red herring for the audience. It’s one of the film’s least obvious devices. Hitchcock could have been called Mr and Mrs Hitchcock or Alma and Alfred. It’s a slimly plotted, rather shallow film about an important director that barely shows him directing. Instead it focuses on his relationship with his wife and creative collaborator Alma Reville during the production of his iconic Psycho.
Anthony Hopkins, unrecognisable beneath a mountain of face-numbing prosthetics and a fat suit as Hitch (“Call me Hitch. You can hold the cock”), catches the mannered precision and schoolboy desire to shock of Hitch’s speech. But though his Hitch is a portly peeping Tom, the film only skims over his sexual obsessions as they influenced his films. Instead, his jealousy of Alma (a crisp and spiky, besuited Helen Mirren) and his self-delusion about her association – presumed blameless or even nonexistent in reality – with screen writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) drives the plot. What could have been a fascinating film about a great director at an artistic turning point making a game-changing masterpiece is scripted (by John J McLaughlin – Black Swan) as the story of a marriage. Though, if that was its focus, as a seemingly sexless, and rather unusual and interesting one, this wasn’t really explored either.
The trigger for Hitch’s new direction in making Psycho is presented as his being made aware of his shifting status in the new Hollywood. At the successful premiere of North by Northwest in 1959, he’s asked by a reporter, “You’re sixty. Shouldn’t you quit while you’re ahead?”. He’s given the schlock-horror pulp-fiction novel ‘Psycho’ by Robert Bloch and – ting! – “What if someone made a good horror film?”. When Paramount refused to finance it as being beneath them(!), Hitch and Alma mortgaged their mansion to finance it themselves, gambling everything they had on its success.
The importance of Alma’s creative collaboration with Hitch throughout his career has been relatively unsung till now, but it’s foregrounded in this film. As they discuss at the breakfast table the shock value of killing off Psycho’s leading lady halfway through,“Oh, no, that won’t work!” Alma exclaims. (Pause) “Kill her off thirty minutes in.” And the rest is history. As well as Alma’s involvement on editing and script, when Hitch falls ill, the film shows her taking over direction temporarily to avoid ratcheting up production costs. Psycho’s star Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson, luscious but low-key throughout) doesn’t react to Hitch and his notorious obsession with his actresses, especially blondes, maintaining an impermeable though polite distance from her director. His suppressed frustration is symbolised in the filming of the infamous shower scene as – when her acting fails to satisfy him – he seizes the knife himself and slashes violently in her direction to terrify her for real for the camera.
Other figures appear as cameos: Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), the actress whose career Hitch apparently deliberately ruined; a tortured and twitchy Anthony Perkins (British actor James D’Arcy, uncannily like him); and Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette), who was in fact the agent who first gave the book ‘Psycho’ to Hitch. To safeguard his and Alma’s investment, Hitch controlled how Psycho was distributed – another first. He devised an innovative promotion plan with a manual for exhibitors warning them that the film was so shocking “there may be riots” – thereby making it irresistible. Audiences had to swear not to reveal the ending, and one of the best scenes comes as Hitch lurks in a cinema foyer as the newly released film plays, biding his time to the shower scene, listening at the door, orchestrating the soundtrack to himself, waiting to hear if the audience screams in the right place. It did. And then exited suitably shell-shocked.
The film is based on Stephen Rebello’s book about the making of Psycho, but as has already been commented, only loosely, it contains a number of inaccuracies and distortions. It’s directed by British director Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil) and is shot in clean California colours, rather like a West Coast episode of Mad Men. In fact, it could have been a TV movie. It’s not that Hitchcock is an outright bad film, it’s quite enjoyable in a Sunday evening kind of way. Although it’s a bit plodding and its device of Hitch’s recurring hallucinations of Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein, on whose story the book ‘Psycho’ was based, to visualise his state of mind is a clumsy bit of amateur psychology, and a mistake. It’s just ironic that for a film about a master of suspense, it’s all too obvious. The dialogue is right on the nose all the time: it telegraphs all the plot points one by one, as if it’s aiming at a row of sitting ducks. Rather as the bird perched on Hitch’s shoulder in the closing scene presages the subject of his next movie.
Hitchcock is released on 8th February 2013 in the UK