Monday, December 17, 2012
This review is also available in a revised and slightly truncated version at InRO. Below is my original version:
There seems to be some sense that critics have responded unfavorably to Sacha Gervasi’s “Hitchcock” because someone has dared assault ‘our’ (that is, critics) sacred cow. There might be some credence to this claim if “Hitchcock” wasn’t simply an average, run-of-the-mill-mediocrity. Indeed, it’s difficult to muster even some incredulousness in the face of such a simple… bore.
Ostensibly detailing the creation of “Psycho”, from initial idea to selling it (or not) to a skeptical studio, from self-financing to marital discord through editing woes all the way to release, and subsequent success, this story would seem the stuff of interesting drama. And yet Gervasi’s endeavor, along with screenwriter John J. McLaughlin, working from Stephen Rebello’s ‘Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho’, just sits there, devoid of interest. It is certainly some kind of bitter irony that a story detailing one of the great films of all time is itself so monumentally inconsequential. One could ask who exactly this film was made for – those who are familiar with Hitchcock and his work are the most likely to take issue with the film’s many, many liberties, while those with little (or no) knowledge of Hitch, if one could even get them to watch the film in the first place, would be left with little (or no) understanding of what the ‘big deal’ is. Michael Atkinson puts it nicely: ‘The biopic is in many ways a kind of cinema that ferments and thrives on some of its audience's least reasonable instincts. It represents a form of gossip-and-sideshow spectacle that has little, in the end, to do with film, filmmaking, acting or, most of all, narrative. It is no small matter to ask, as movie viewers, why we're watching a particular piece of narrative cinema.’
In what must have seemed on paper as the height of clever self-reference, the film begins with Anthony Hopkins introducing the proceeding movie as if it were an episode of the television program “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with breaking the fourth wall, with Hopkins addressing the audience directly and making droll jokes about Ed Gein and his various crimes. I suppose the whole thing is supposed to set a tone, a kind of playful banter, which wouldn’t be entirely inappropriate regarding a showman such as Hitch. Still, the film varies so wildly from scene to scene that one wonders if even the filmmakers knew if they were making a comedy or not. Hopkins talks to an imagined spectre of Gein throughout the film, in what Glenn Kenny has described as ‘serial killer burlesque’; it’s an absurd rhetorical device that serves mainly as a tool for obvious exposition. Later, when Hitchcock falls ill during shooting, the film presents it as some kind of cumulative explosion, the pressure of his life finally convalescing into literal breakdown as spirit-animal-Gein prods Hitch into delirious fits of jealousy. Hitchcock was, in fact, suffering from a simple flu of some sort.
It’s during this flu-episode that Helen Mirren as Alama Reville is, in the context of the film, finally given her day in the sun. Tending to her ill husband, she’s informed that the set is in shambles, that they are hopelessly behind schedule and that further delays are costing the Hitchcock’s reams of money (the fact that they have mortgaged their home to partially self finance “Psycho” is apparently true). Alma marches onto set and immediately wrangles the crew, determined to get some work done. To drive the point home, there’s some business with some extras in the background literally staring at each other slack jawed, apparently besides themselves that this woman could come on set and command it like a general (or – gasp – like Hitchcock himself. Subtext alert). There’s certainly an interesting book to be written about Alama’s contribution to her husband’s work. She has some kind of credit on something like more than 20 of his films, and there’s no doubt that she was a key collaborator. But “Hitchcock” stacks the deck too much in the other direction. There’s no evidence whatsoever that she directed anything during Hitch’s illness, and there is ample evidence that Hitch, once better, simply re-shot most of the footage at a later date anyway. Gervasi does no favors to Alma, feminism, or the historical record by fabricating her contributions to Hitch’s oeuvre while ignoring the very real work she must have done, simply by virtue of that real work being less dramatic. It should also be noted that Hitchcock himself was very effusive and open with praise for his wife. He speaks about her with much regularity in ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’, at least eleven times by my count, behind only David O. Selznick, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant and James Stewart (and tied with Janet Leigh, for the record).
It’s also distressing to see Gervasi use the famous shower sequence as another facile expression of Hitch’s supposed mental state, as he has Hopkins personally pantomime stabbing Scarlett Johansson’s Janet Leigh over and over again. Bill Krohn supplies evidence that the shower sequence was shot over a period of several days separated by weeks, with and without Leigh, and that various pick-up shots were filmed as Hitch assembled a rough cut and decided what was and wasn’t working. Certainly, Gervasi needn’t show such nitty gritty detail in an admittedly popular entertainment, but further obscuring the facts of the sequence to turn it into a wobbly metaphor for an imagined character flaw is, frankly, beyond the pail.
Indeed the film seems determined to linger over every supposed salacious detail, any and all possible deviances Hitchcock purportedly indulged in. Hopkins-as-Hitchcock is constantly leering at blonde women, with other characters occasionally dropping the film-crit term ‘Hitchcock blonde’, as if they were retroactively analyzing him. Character flaws become over-simplified cause-and-effect arm-chair psychology: a hard day at the office and a fight with Alma cuts to Hitch furiously wolfing down can after can of pate. Get it? Because he’s a fat man, as if such an insight adds anything to our collective knowledge of the director or what fueled his work.
I’ve barely mentioned the work of Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johannsen, James D’Arcy and others. Frankly, there’s not much to say, as all indulge in the most simplistic characterizations that likely bare little resemblance to the actual people in question. I’ll reiterate, complete factual fidelity isn’t any kind of pre-requisite towards my liking or disliking a project. But these performances border on the cartoonish. D’Arcy, for instance, does a fantastic impersonation of Norman Bates, but ignores the fact that Anthony Perkins was an actor, a skilled performer. The film “Hitchcock” would have us believe that Perkins was, essentially, Bates, with no differentiation between performer and role. The less said about Ralph Macchio’s brief appearance as screenwriter Joseph Stefano the better.
Ultimately, the truly great directors left us their own autobiographies inscribed in their bodies of work – Nick Ray and his doomed romanticism; John Ford and his contradictory celebration of the individual versus encroaching society; Howard Hawks and his stoic sense of humor, and solidarity, in the face of an uncaring and unflinching universe. We can do much better by Hitchcock then indulging in this awards bait mediocrity – we can revisit, and celebrate, his films. Thankfully, they are sufficiently adequate to survive this momentary blip on the pop culture landscape, a movie as sure to be forgotten as the next Oscar ceremony in which it is sure to be ignored.