Wednesday, November 14, 2012


DISCLAIMER:  In the interest of full disclosure, pertinent in exploring a feature film revolving around Alfred Hitchcock, it should be stated on the record the Master of Suspense is one of my personal favorites.  At an early age, I felt a shiver and gleeful revelry toward his filmmaking, his signatures, his style.  For even at an early age, whether consciously or not, I was acutely aware of watching a Hitchcock film-- his personal authorship of his films that permeated across every frame, every scene, every little nuance and gesture.  As I'm sure is the case with many other budding cinephiles, Hitchcock is an easy in for the pure rapture of filmmaking, one so that if caught at a young and impressionable age will likely remain strong for life.  Even without being aware of the technician, the craft or the artistry, there's a certain hold that can come under way even in his most seemingly benign efforts.  One that evaluated and soaked through the tides of time become deeper and penetrable images forever soaked into memory.  With this being said, I enter a film like Hitchcock with some resolve that may make it nearly impossible to sever the profound personal effect his filmmaking took hold of me.  In the nature and style that Hitchcock himself was a witty self promoter and flourished his many films with encoded personal desires, I felt it necessary to get that off my chest.

Speaking of witty self promotion, Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock opens with a clever nod introducing his to our tale of intrigue.  Based on the book, "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho," by Stephen Rebello, the film chronicles the turbulent making of the grand slasher film that in more ways than can ever be counted (or dissected by ninety-eight minutes of celluloid) changed the face of popular movie making.  As the opening title cues, creating an aura that's fitfully awesome as it is expected, the tone is nearly established.  This is going to a bouncy, fluffy trifle providing a broad assessment of the man, his genius, his process and his furtive, if slightly brittle, relationship with his wife and confidant, Alma Reville.  Gervasi achieves a playful inventiveness and a nicely pre-packaged sense of fun in recreating Psycho, through it's rough venture as an idea to the finished product to his uncanny release pattern.  There will likely be a rousing chant and firmly planted smile on the faces of the Hitchcock and Psycho devoted as Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is pitching his latest-- a grisly, edgy and maddeningly violent take on the Ed Gein murders-- to the befuddled Paramount executives who really just want another North by Northwest, as well as the censors board (Psycho was the first film to feature a toilet, and that's a big deal), who rigidly proclaim no such film will ever see the light of day. 

There's certain documented truth to the circumstances. Hitchcock was at the height of his career at the dawn of Psycho, and the film was a notoriously tough sell, enough that the financing and the making of the film were ultra-indie to his standards.  The fun occurs really on the elements of which anyone jazzed about Hitchcock will likely already know by heart.  The casting of Janet Leigh (played with commanding fragility by a nearly channeling Scarlett Johansson) and Anthony Perkins (James D'Arcy), the shooting of the infamous shower scene, the inventive publicity show orchestrated by Hitch as Paramount was trying to dump a potential disaster.  This stuff is likely film geek porn, and lots of smiles are surely in store.  Yet it's also incredibly shallow, and about as revelatory as a behind the scenes extra on a Psycho DVD.  Part of the problem lies in the overly broad stylization that Gervasi, the director of the charmingly nimble documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil making his feature debut, maintains-- it's just right of cartoon, but just left of reality.  It starts with Hopkins himself, who is quite good at miming the rotund filmmaker's famous figure and charms with the droll speak, but it's a desperate crowd pleaser's Hitchcock, one with little attempt at really exploring a humanity inside the legacy.  That is until it isn't.

The making of Psycho is nearly put aside to concentrate in the troubling mid section of the private life of Hitch and Alma (Helen Mirren.)  Either cobbled together by conjecture, fabrication, disparate threads of reality, of whatever, it derails the fun, superficial momentum built up at the beginning.  Turing the tale into a grand love story provides lots of nice moments for the esteemed and highly pedigreed actors to do good work, but has a stained glow of nearly being a side attraction.  We want to see Psycho.  Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin (Black Swan) do a greater disservice in brief asides that try to force Hitchcock to explore his own inner demons, especially in hokey dream sequences where Ed Gein is his analyst.  Light and peppery showbiz fun is fine, but the pot appears overcooked with Hitchcock, draining it of its high calorie art house junk food allure.  Mirren, to be fair, is compelling and devours her dialogue (a mixed bag that alternates between clever and ill-advised) with an aplomb that floats somewhere between scene-stealing, bloated histrionics, and perfectly natural.  And while historians can dissect the truth to their relationship-- Alma is believed to have deeply influenced and shaped the work of his films-- there's an awkwardness to the clunky execution and how it fits into the overall world of Hitchcock.

Yet this may be the prickliness of the inner Hitchcock loyalist coming out, as a fan who relishes the world inside and out of one of the best films every made, but also wants to keep a certain distance and keep the experience sacred.  The breeziness of the best patches of Hitchcock, in tune with the drippy frothiness of last years My Week With Marilyn, play with an ease that may make for a great night at the movies.  The inside-Hitchcock gossip (for instance, his distaste for Vera Miles, played by Jessica Biel, who became pregnant shortly before the filming of Vertigo, whom Hitchcock primed great things for, or the back and forth fight over the weather the shower sequence should be accompanied to music), and old-school Hollywood backdrop are catnip for staging engagingly nostalgic cinema.  But there's a play to the rafters approach that sometimes comes closer to camp than mere homage, and the purists at heart might to taken out at these things, while the uninitiated likely won't even be a part of the joke.  That's the mixed bag of Hitchcock.

What does rouse rivetingly well is the joyful, and likely untrue, moment of Psycho being screened for the first time, as a seemingly nervous Hitchcock peers onto the crowd as the famous shower scene is about to play.  The buoyancy of Hopkins humming along to the famous shrieks is the most heartfelt moment in the picture.  C

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