“Hitchcock” — a Movie Review

I came to the biopic Hitchcock (2012, based on Stephen Rebello’s novel Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho) with a disposition to enjoy it. I’m a huge fan of Hitchcock films but knew very little about the significant creative collaboration with his wife Alma Reville (played by Helen Mirren). And watching this movie on 123 movies made me a huge fan of this movie.

Hitchcock captures a chapter in the auteur’s life when he had just completed the successful North by Northwest (1959) and is looking for his next project. Several studios had received, and dismissed, the idea of a film version of the novel Psycho. Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) initially thinks he will also pass on the project, but while reading the novel, he becomes fascinated by the book’s subject who is loosely based on notorious Wisconsin killer, Ed Gein. The hitch is swept up by the grotesque themes of the novel and this film does a wonderful job of cross-cutting the fantasy interactions Hitch has with the killer with scenes of Hitchcock’s relationship with his wife and with various studio execs, actors, and his staff. After being turned down by his home studio to finance Psycho, Hitch convinces Alma that they should mortgage their house to fund the film and his wily agent strikes a creative distribution deal for the film with Paramount Studios.

Hitch’s staff, studio execs, and the press think he’s crazy to try to turn this brutal story into a film. Truth is, he has become a bit crazy-in the way a creative idea can possess genius. His pseudo-relationship with the Psycho killer continues through the production of the film as he imagines talking with and witnessing the atrocious acts of Gein.

Hitch’s relationship with Alma is one of personal and professional familiarity-nagging, shared meals, business talk, and even love. But Hitch pays more attention to his work, or rather lack of work, than to Alma. Enter a mediocre screenwriter recognizes Alma’s considerable talents as a writer/editor and who desperately wants Hitch’s imprimatur on his clumsy screenplay. The writer (played with adequate smarminess by Danny Huston) wins Alma over with the flattery that Hitchcock withholds in their day-to-day lives even while flaunting his well-known obsession with blondes. Scarlett Johansson is a knock out as the voluptuous Vivien Leigh who Hitch flirts with throughout a dinner meeting (Alma looking on), and in a later scene, we see him fantasizing over the photographs of former leading ladies: Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, and Eva Marie Saint.

As Alma gets more involved with the screenwriter’s project and the production of “Psycho” suffers technical and financial setbacks, Hitch seems to come unhinged. His jealousy is an odd counterbalance to his own sexual dark side; his genius counterbalanced by his over-the-top rants and tyranny on the closed set of his film. When shooting Vivian Leigh’s closeups in the iconic shower scene, Hitch screams about the inadequacy of a knife-wielding stand-in, bounds from his director’s chair and grabs the blade himself stabbing at a now authentically-frightened and shrieking Leigh. Apparently a crazy director with a butcher knife is even better than method acting.

Alfred is never moderate in his passions for wine, food, fame, and women but one senses from the numerous shots of the twin beds in the bedroom he shares with Alma that passion rarely plays out in marital obligation. The growing distance between Hitch and Alma drives her closer to her own burgeoning fantasies about her screenwriter friend and Hitch to further madness. Well into the film Hitch’s imaginary murderer-friend is still haunting him and feeds his paranoia about an affair between Alma and the writer.

Mirren is a marvel in this film and Anthony Hopkins is almost always on point in his portrayal of the mercurial director. There is but one misstep for me. In a scene where Hitchcock tries to prompt his leading lady’s acting with a spiraling, mean-spirited narrative, Hopkins seems to revert to Hannibal Lecter giving Clarice Starling her comeuppance by pointing out her humble farm origins of lamb slaughtering. Hitchcock Director, Sacha Gervasi would have been wise to avoid the close up of Hopkins’ snarling lips during this scene so it wouldn’t invoke comparison.

Johannson is solid and believable. The supporting cast of Toni Collete as Hitchcock’s assistant and actor Kurtwood Smith as the supercilious head of the film industry’s censorship bureau, adds great fun to the film. Careful watchers may even recognize former child actor, Ralph Macchio who plays the role of Psycho’s screenwriter.

If you love Alfred Hitchcock films, as I do, you will be satisfied with this movie. If you are a Helen Mirren fan, you will be mesmerized again. And if you like Psycho, you probably already have the novel and the book on which this offering is based. Hitchcock won’t disappoint.

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