Hitchcock: offering banal fluff about Hitch’s marriage, ignoring complexities behind the making of “Psycho”

Sacha Gervasi, “Hitchcock” (2012)

Fifty years after Alfred Hitchcock released his film “Psycho”, both director and movie alike remain subjects of fascination for many people throughout the world. Now Sacha Gervasi has offered his version of what was happening in Hitchcock’s life during the making of “Psycho”. Alas and alack, Gervasi’s eponymous movie gives us fluff about the state of Hitchcock’s marriage to Alma Reville and her contribution to Hitchcock’s success. There is actually very little in the film beyond the usual banal excuses about taking risks as to why Hitchcock felt compelled to adapt Robert Bloch’s novel “Psycho”. Instead of some serious insight into Hitch’s motivations and decision to make “Psycho” in black-and-white film, we are treated to a needless sub-plot that involves Alma and the script-writer who wrote the screenplay for an earlier Hitchcock film “Strangers on a Train”.

The film is neatly bounded in two scenes of Hitch (Anthony Hopkins)  presenting the film to the audience as though it were another episode in his famous 1960s TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. The early part of the movie when Hitch, flush from the success of his latest hit “North by Northwest”, starts scouting for a new film project, finds it and then tries to get funding for it from Paramount Studios, whose head Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow) is aghast at the idea of a film based on the life of a notorious serial killer, is very interesting for what it says and highlights about how artistic creativity and integrity are too often squashed by commercial considerations. The studio and censorship agency featured in the film think they alone know what the public desires. Initially Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) also opposes hubby’s determination to make “Psycho” but both she and Paramount Studios relent when Hitch decides to self-finance the film. The process of hiring actors for the various roles takes place, Paramount Studios gives Hitch the studio lot and technical crew he needs, a script-writer is found to adapt the Bloch novel, and away Hitch goes.

Feeling under-appreciated and tired of treating her husband like a baby because he refuses to give up his bad habits and exercise, Alma is attracted to the idea of working with her friend Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) on a screenplay. This work takes her away from Hitch and “Psycho” and causes a rift between her and him when he suspects her of having an affair with Cook behind his back. Predictably “Psycho”, when completed, turns out rather badly and soon the Hitchcocks are facing financial ruin. Then Reville discovers that Cook has been romancing another woman behind her back. She promptly flies back to Hitch’s side, agrees to help him on the post-production process of “Psycho” and – well, whattaya know? – “Psycho” ends up slaying the cinema audiences in the aisles.

A second, more insubstantial sub-plot also underlies “Hitchcock”: this is Hitch’s private world in which the serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) carries out his gruesome murders and mutilations of various women in Wisconsin state in the 1950s with Hitch imagining himself actually at the scene of several of these crimes, watching Ed do his grisly work and hearing him talk about it as well. This part of the film frankly isn’t needed and could have been left on the cutting-room floor. Ed’s contribution to “Psycho” comes across as very vague and we also learn nothing about his background and the psychological and physical isolation of the man and how that influenced his thinking and behaviour.

The marital rollercoaster of Hitch and Alma makes for entertaining viewing and gives Hopkins and Mirren opportunities to enrich their characters (though Hopkins with all his padding seems uncomfortable) but ultimately it is very banal and superficial, and turns the two into just another middle-aged couple in mid-life crisis. Alma mothers Hitch and he deliberately behaves like a petulant child: big deal. Part of the problem is that Mirren all but steals the show from an overly made-up Hopkins: one could cast her as a stolid, pasty-faced and overweight peasant babushka in a faithful remake of a Soviet tractor musical and she would still look like a far too sexy 60-year-old. Indeed, the first shot we see of Mirren in “Hitchcock” is in bra and slip, just as the first shot of Janet Leigh in “Psycho” itself was done in bra and slip. The mundane probability is that Reville, while important to Hitch in his work, was not an equal partner as “Hitchcock” suggests. If she had been even half as sixty-something siren-like as Mirren, she and Hitch would have had more children other than just their daughter Patricia who inexplicably is whitewashed out of the film in spite of landing a small role in “Psycho” as Marion’s secretary colleague in the real estate office.

The other actors bravely hold up their own: special mention goes to Toni Collette as Hitch’s long-suffering bespectacled assistant and to James D’Arcy for nailing Anthony Perkins in an audition scene in which he puts his hand between his legs and massages his thigh (same as what Perkins himself did in a scene in “Psycho”). Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel look like startled rabbits about to be made roadkill by a semi-trailer at night with headlights on in their respective roles as Janet Leigh and Vera Miles but they otherwise perform competently. Probably the only actor who really lets down the side is Huston who is one-dimensional as Cook.

The film feebly tries to explore Hitch’s supposed obsession with his leading ladies and his puzzlement over why they always “betray” him (with the insinuation that they do so because he is too controlling) but glibly resolves the issue by reconciling him and Alma, his true “Hitchcock blonde”. The reality is much more complex: the film attaches too much attention to the apparent “blonde” obsession and ignores Hitch’s sympathy for women, the way they are treated by society and are expected to sacrifice themselves and their individuality for marriage and child-bearing. There is nothing said about Hitch’s hostility towards authority figures and the way he portrays the police force as indifferent, incompetent and sinister in “Psycho”.

“Hitchcock” could have said far more about Hitch’s battles with Paramount Studios and the censors, and what these say about the social and political climate that prevailed in the United States in the late 1950s / early 1960s. At a time when Stephen Soderbergh is reported to have found Hollywood unwilling to finance his biopic about the US entertainer Liberace because the movie is – wait for it – too gay (duh?), “Hitchcock” could have been an interesting commentary on how talented film-makers are often forced to take quite dangerous personal risks and improvise ways of subverting studio restrictions and censorship rules, in the process turning out quite remarkable works.

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