Sunday, November 25, 2012

Wielding a Butter Knife: Hitchcock

If you're going to direct a film called Hitchcock, you'd better have a name like Spielberg. Otherwise you're just asking for it. Sacha Gervasi might as well wear a "KICK ME" sign. His second feature film chronicles the life of perhaps the greatest filmmaker of all time, which is at least a double-whammy: first, the odds are against a Hitchcock biopic being anywhere near as good as even a modest Hitchcock movie; second, there's a strong chance that Hitchcock's many admirers aren't going to be especially generous when it comes to accepting Gervasi's artistic license, presuming they're willing to recognize him as an artist in the first place.

That includes critics, for whom cinema is religion, but it's by no means limited to them. After all, Alfred Hitchcock was more than the director of some of our favorite movies. He was a personality, playfully introducing segments of the TV show bearing his name and popping up on the silver screen in anticipated blink-and-you'll-miss-'em cameos. There's a natural tendency to want to believe that charming personalities are charming people, and that great artists have great character. But it isn't always so, as we have been recently reminded by accusations against Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash (which might be false, but there's a lot of smoke there), or Joe Paterno before that, or, way back, Michael Jackson, and so on. Established legends aren't always honest ones, and even in cases when we know better, we rarely really know.

All of that said, Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin have a responsibility to be, well, responsible, but they needn't coddle their subject, nor stick to convention by worshipping at Hitchcock's feet. What they must do is make a good movie. And if Hitchcock is "good," it's only because it isn't awful — at least it's no worse than your typical biopic that's rife with oversimplification to fit real lives into a traditional dramatic structure. Hollywood gives us movies like this every year, and often our enjoyment says more about our familiarity with the subject matter than anything else. Generally the more ignorant we are going in, the better. And that's who Hitchcock is made for: not the Hitchcock historian but the novice, for whom the portrayals of Alma Reville's influence on her husband's art will qualify as Big News.

Performances tend to be crucial in movies of this ilk, and in Hitchcock the acting is adequate across the board. In the lead roles, Anthony Hopkins slips inside Hitch's jowls better than I expected, managing to keep a colorful personality from becoming outright caricature, and Helen Mirren nicely suggests Alma's emotional insecurities without sacrificing her well earned professional confidence; there's never any doubt that Hitch respects his wife's cinematic instincts as a true collaborator, not just a spouse. Meanwhile, Scarlett Johansson fills out Janet Leigh's bra and James D'Arcy nails some Norman Bates mannerisms in his portrayal of Anthony Perkins, as McLaughlin and Gervasi track the development of Psycho — the Hitchcock movie that's notable for its production (Hitch financed it himself, for distribution by Paramount, and then shot it on Universal's lot), its marketing (Hitch famously ordered that no one be allowed to enter the theater after the start of the picture) and its success (it was the most profitable hit of Hitchcock's career — and a great movie). The Psycho production offers a good peephole view of Hitchcock's determination, vision and savvy. But as with most biopics, things get dirty when McLaughlin tries to jam a complete psychological profile through such a narrow access point.

Extending beyond its source material, Stephen Rebello's Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (an interesting, quick read, by the way), Hitchcock not only implies that the storied director felt a sort of kinship with Ed Gein, the real-life murderer whose crimes loosely inspired the Robert Bloch book upon which Hitchcock's film is based, but that he also put some of himself into Norman Bates. Like Norman in Psycho, Hitchcock is seen here spying on a disrobing woman (Jessica Biel's Vera Miles) from a peephole carved into his office wall. And while the former makes for an impish narrative device (Gein, played by Michael Wincott, repeatedly appears as a counseling apparition for Hitch), the latter might be the only time Hitchcock truly offends, because the peephole bit isn't mere insinuation or speculation but an outright accusation — manufactured trivia that I presume is baseless. (If there are reports or rumors to the contrary, someone please let me know.) The real problem with Hitchcock, however, is the melodrama constructed between Hitch and Alma — she resentful that he gets so wrapped up in his projects and infatuated with his sexy movie stars; he ticked off that she's secretively collaborating with a flirtatious hack writer (Danny Huston, nauseating as ever). I'm not here to suggest that such conflict didn't exist in their marriage, because in this case the truth is incidental: within Gervasi's film the marital conflict comes off like a shopworn cliche.

Hitchcock isn't all bad. It's fun to watch Hitchcock battle the censorship board (moviegoers who've grown up in the Jackass era will be stunned to learn that a toilet could be such a taboo appliance) and to try to untangle his feelings for his actresses: did Hitchcock cast beautiful women, and frequently put them in sexual or suggestive situations, because he knew it made for good cinema and enjoyed fucking with the censorship board, or, as with Steven Spielberg's many cinematic references to the childhood trauma of his parents' divorce, is it fair to assume that some of Hitch's personality made it into his pictures? Hitchcock implies the latter, and although the peephole scene oversteps, Hitchcock's filmography and rumors of his hot-and-cold relationships with his stars are enough to justify more exploration (including speculation) than Gervasi's film dares to pursue. Certainly, if Hitchcock had made a movie about a filmmaker with possible skeletons in the closet, he'd have opened the door and looked around. Of course, he'd have also made obsession look much more interesting.


Craig said...

Does the film mention the "Psycho house," by any chance? I ask because, at Kent State University, where I previously worked for six years, a legend has evolved over the last 40 years that the house in the movie was based on a spooky house in the town of Kent where, in 1970, the SDS radicals lived. James Michener, in his terrible book on the 1970 shootings, reported this as fact, and it's had remarkable staying power, even though the Archives has letters from both Hitchcock and Robert Bloch (who wrote the original novel) emphatically stating that the Kent house had nothing to do with the one in the movie. Anyway, just wondering if this film reprinted the legend, as it were.

Craig said...

I should add that, yes, I'm aware "Psycho" came out in 1960, not 1970. The house had been there for decades beforehand. Michener was probably using the rumor to link the SDS people with a scary movie.

Jason Bellamy said...

Not only do they not touch it, the only shot we see of the house is a very distant one. And, unless I missed something, they imply it's on the Paramount lot. Have to say, the house and Bates Motel are missed "characters" in this one. Then again, if the movie had just taken a nostalgic tour of the old sets, it would have opened itself up for criticisms like, "If I wanted to spend time in the Bates Motel, I'd watch PSYCHO." Still, it could have effectively used an on-set "behind the scenes" approach. Instead, this is kind of behind the behind-the-scenes, if you follow me.

Craig said...

Another tidbit, where I currently work: the White mss includes a letter from Alfred Hitchcock to lit critic Anthony Boucher (aka W.A.P. White) thanking Boucher for leading him to Bloch's novel. "I suppose you're wondering why I sent you the champagne," Hitch wrote. "You see, it was your review that led me to buy the rights to Psycho." Not terribly cinematic, but there it is.

Sam Juliano said...

"If you're going to direct a film called Hitchcock, you'd better have a name like Spielberg."

hahahaha Jason! How true, and I am fully anticipation this flavor of ilk when I keep my promise (Ugh!) with a friend to see it tomorrow night at a Manhattan theater. You do seem to make a very telling point when you opine: "...things get dirty when McLaughlin tries to jam a complete psychological profile through such a narrow access point," but you at least confirm something I needed to hear in the affirmative to justify my upcoming screening, when you issues solid enough praise for Hopkins' performance. As always a fabulous essay!

Joel Bocko said...

Did you catch the Showtime flick? Or was it HBO? Apparently that one is more factually-based, and a bit better, though neither of these films came out smelling like roses. (Haven't seen either yet myself, though I'm sure I'll catch them on Netflix.)

Jason Bellamy said...

Sam: This will sound like a backhanded compliment, and, yes, in a way it is, but one of the strengths of the film is its running time. If they'd stretched this baby out to and Important Length of 2+ hours, man, it would have worn out its welcome. But it comes in at 98 minutes, so it moves right along and then it's over before we can get too worked up about it.

Joel: Haven't seen it, and only just learned of it. Is that a recent thing? I'm confused about when it came out. I won't rush to watch it, but I'd be interested.

Sam Juliano said...

Your last point is excellent Jason! Lucille and I did get to see the film last night at 7:30 at Union Square. I would label it as a kind of guilty please. Hopkins nailed Hitchcock most of the time, but he flubbed him in a few instances. The film was modestly enjoyable, and I enjoyed the censorship battle sequences, and the audience's over-the-top reaction to PSYCHO, which if seen today would be very small potatoes. Ha!

Heather Madden said...

James D'arcy is excellent casting - he really does look like Anthony Perkins.

Looking forward to seeing this film enormously when it opens in Britain early next year. 2012 really has been Hitchcock's year; The Genius of Hitchcock retrospective at the BFI, VERTIGO being voted the greatest movie of all time and now two movies about him.