Movie Review by L.L. Soares
You would think that with a title like HITCHCOCK (2012), you’d be getting the story of a person’s life. In this case, one of the greatest directors who ever lived, and the guy who gave us everything from STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), to REAR WINDOW (1954) to VERTIGO (1958) and THE BIRDS (1963). But nope, it’s not a biopic. It focuses on just one year of the director’s life, 1959, when he was trying to make the movie, PSYCHO (1960).
Okay, PSYCHO is arguably his most important film, at least here in horror circles (and yes, even though we review all kinds of things these days, Cinema Knife Fight’s heart still beats in the horror genre), so if there’s a story there, it’s worth telling. But I couldn’t help feeling disappointed that this movie wasn’t more ambitious. I wanted to know more about Hitchcock than just one year of his life. I wanted to know where he grew up, how he got into the film business, how he got the ideas for so many great films. But we’re going to have to wait for that movie, and it most probably won’t have the title HITCHCOCK, since that’s already taken.
So, as the movie begins, NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) has just been released (another of my favorite Hitchcock films), and the director is wondering what to do next. He can’t seem to find the right project. Then he stumbles on the novel PSYCHO by Robert Bloch, and the rest is history, except it wasn’t as easy as you’d think. Nobody wanted to do this movie.
See, it starts with the inspiration of the book and the movie, Ed Gein, the Wisconsin serial killer who was big news in the 50s. It might be that the crimes were a little too fresh in the public consciousness of the time. And the case was beyond “sensational.” Gein didn’t just kill a several people, he also wore their skin, made furniture out of them, possibly practiced cannibalism, dug up his mother and slept in bed with her corpse, etc. But I don’t need to tell readers of this site about Gein. He’s pretty notorious, even now, as the inspiration of everything from PSYCHO to THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), DERANGED (1974) and countless others, as well as, more recently, a biopic of his own, ED GEIN (2000) starring Steve Railsback, who, you might remember also played Charles Manson way back in the 1976 TV-movie, HELTER SKELTER.
Gein was considered a little too lurid for the movies of 1959. This was in the days before splatter movies, after all. Herschell Gordon Lewis had yet to unleash BLOOD FEAST (1963) on an unsuspecting world. But, clearly, there would have never been a BLOOD FEAST if Hitchcock made that maiden voyage into extreme horror called PSYCHO. And you can argue all you want about PSYCHO being pretty tame by today’s standards, but back in 1960, it was the most extreme thing moviegoers had ever seen.
So his studio at the time (Paramount) wouldn’t touch it. Hitchcock then went to other friends in the business for possible funding, and they weren’t all that thrilled with the idea either (maybe it was the real crime scene photos he passed around at the party he threw to find backers?). Hitch ended up doing it for a low-budget (by his standards) and mortgaging his house to pay for it. If it failed, he would have been in dire circumstances. But, of course, we know the outcome, so the Master of Suspense’s story isn’t as suspenseful this time around.
Which doesn’t mean HITCHCOCK isn’t entertaining, because it is.
So why was Hitchcock so dead set on making this particular movie despite all the opposition? Well, the movie seems to suggest that the years doing his television show ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS (1955 – 1962) had made Hitch a little bit bitter about his career. As the show’s host, he was now a celebrity in his own right, not just behind the camera but now in front of it. And your loveable Uncle Hitch was starting to feel like he had sold out. Given up his artistic integrity to appear in America’s living rooms every week (no matter how lucrative it was). Reacting to this, he wanted to make a movie they would never have made for television, something with a true edge that was more than a little dangerous. Something to put him on top again as a director who could push his audience’s buttons and throw a scare into you. Hell, he probably saw it as a need to FEEL some excitement again as a movie director.
Once he gets the cash together, he makes a deal with Paramount to distribute it after he does all the work on his own dime. He then goes about gathering a cast, including big star Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johannson) to play a character who dies 30 minutes into the film; an actress he was previously obsessed with but who got pregnant before she could become his “star,” Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), reduced to a supporting role in PSYCHO for letting him down; and a very high-strung closeted gay man, Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy), with mother issues of his own, in the lead as Norman Bates. We get insight into the whole “cool blonde” obsession Hitch was famous for (which led him to cast that “type” throughout the years from Grace Kelley to Tippi Hedren).
And once the movie starts filming, the problems don’t stop. Paramount, personified by studio head Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow) wants to interfere and see if the film is marketable, and he keeps showing up on the set. And the censor bureau, led by Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith) fights him to the bitter end about what can be kept in to get the vital seal of approval that decides whether the movie is released in theaters at all.
Somehow, Hitchcock is able to maneuver through all of these obstacles and get his movie made. His biggest supporters are his agent, Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg), his assistant, Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette) and, most of all, his extremely supportive wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren).
In fact, it’s perfectly acceptable to wonder whether HITCHOCK is really about the making of PSYCHO, or if that’s just the backdrop for a kind of love story between Alma and Hitch. When they met back in England, early in Hitchcock’s career, Alma was his boss. Then, as he became one of the biggest names in cinema, she stood by his side, his most fierce and loyal supporter. She rewrote the scripts, she helped decide casting, and she put her foot down when Hitchcock couldn’t make it on the set.
But there’s a conflict in HITCHCOCK, because she feels unappreciated and is getting a little sick of being the woman who hides in the shadows while Hitchcock gets all the glory. She wants to make a name for herself, and she thinks she might have found the right project to do it. Her friend Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who worked with Hitchcock previously (in real life he wrote STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and 1950’s STAGE FRIGHT), is always around, her closest companion, and he suggests they work together turning his most recent manuscript into a movie script. She sees their relationship as validation and a strong friendship, Cook might be seeing it at something a little more, and meanwhile, Hitchcock fumes, convinced that his ever-loyal wife is now cheating on him, and he’s feeling abandoned by his staunchest supporter.
Working on a movie that no one else believes in, feeling completely alone, Hitchcock forges on. Until the moment when he gets sick, and Alma has to decide just where her loyalties reside. Like I said, it’s a love story of sorts, so you know what her decision will be.
Of course, PSYCHO got made and became a humungous hit. Probably the biggest movie of Hitchcock’s career. But it is interesting to see how much of a struggle it was. There are dozens of times when it could have simply stopped production and never been made, and we all would have been poorer for that. Luckily, we didn’t have to do without this cinema masterpiece.
I found HITCHCOCK fascinating and highly entertaining, but it’s not a perfect movie by any means. And the biggest problem I have with it might just be Anthony Hopkins in the lead role as Hitch. The way he plays Hitchcock, it’s almost more like a parody than an impersonation. With his fat suit and bugged eyes, Hopkins appears to be in a perpetual state of constipation. Maybe there is some truth to this – maybe Hitchcock was one of these people who never felt comfortable in his own skin – but Hopkins plays it so cartoony that it’s hard to take him seriously at certain points in the film. When something that should be bad happens, you almost want to laugh when Hopkins responds in an exaggerated manner. It’s just very hard to take this HITCHCOCK seriously.
And remember me talking about Ed Gein earlier? Well, he appears throughout the movie as well. He’s a kind of hallucination that only Hitchcock sees, embodying his self-doubts and anxieties. Well-played by Michael Wincott, Gein is a spooky presence, but this kind of thing is always iffy, and it doesn’t totally work here. Despite Hitchcock’s insistence that there’s “a little bit of Gein in all of us,” I didn’t totally buy Hitch’s bond with the Wisconsin serial killer. It was a gimmick in the movie that seemed unnecessary to me.
The rest of the cast does a decent job grounding the film, especially the always-terrific Helen Mirren as Alma, even when she appears to be abandoning Hitch (even though you know her gripes are legitimate, you almost despise her for abandoning this highly talented but extremely needy man-child for the shallow Cook).
Two really great sequences involve the shower scene from PSYCHO. In one, Hitchock does the “stabbing” of Janet Leigh himself when no one else can get it right. The other involves Bernard Herrmann adding his classic music to the scene – when Hitchcock originally wanted no music at all. It’s amazing how much creepier the scene is with that terrific, screeching score (and shows us how invaluable a great film composer can be).
If there’s one regret I have, it’s that we don’t get to meet author Robert Bloch, the talented writer who gave us the novel, PSYCHO. There’s a scene where screenwriter Joseph Stefano (who also gave us the classic series OUTER LIMITS, 1963 – 1965) shows up in Hitchcock’s office and agrees to write the script (he’s played by Ralph Macchio, the original KARATE KID himself, and his cameo got some chuckles from the audience), but no sign of Bloch.
HITCHCOCK was directed by Sacha Gervasi, who also directed the entertaining documentary ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL (2008) about an influential heavy metal band that never got its due, and who also wrote such movies as THE TERMINAL (2004) for Steven Spielberg and HENRY’S CRIME (2010). Despite its flaws, HITCHCOCK is a mostly impressive debut for Gervasi as a feature-film director.
All in all, a good movie. But, if I could have taken Hopkins more seriously, this could have been a great film. In the end, it seems to fall short. Someone as important as Hitchcock seems worthy of something better.
I give it three knives.
© Copyright 2012 by L.L. Soares
LL Soares gives HITCHCOCK ~three knives.