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Non-Review Review: Hitchcock

As a bit of a film fan (and a bit of a Hitchcock fan), Hitchcock had me interested. After all, Hitchcock’s Psycho is arguably among the most important films ever made, both creating an entire subgenre (“the slasher”) and imbuing it with artistic credibility at the same time. The production of Psycho was not only a huge gambit for Hitchcock, but it was also an incredibly difficult task for the auteur to accomplish. Hitchcock was sixty when Psycho was eventually released. It’s easy to imagine a director at that age resting on his laurels, and Hitchcock really works when it explores the drives of the talented film maker, willing to look at the implications of those drives and how the same things that made him one of the world’s greatest directors may also have made him a less-than-nice person.

Hitchcock occasionally gets a bit too cluttered with domestic drama, but it features two strong performances and a fascinating true story. It might not be as exceptional as it could have been, but it’s still a damn fine exploration of movie history.

Alma matters?

Alma matters?

It seems that every bio-pic or historical feature must explore the protagonist’s romantic relationships. One of the biggest problems with the admittedly troubled Iron Lady was the fact that it spent so much time insinuating Margaret Thatcher was a terrible wife and mother, rather than exploring her impact on politics foreign and national. Hide Park on the Hudson is less concerned with one of American’s most important and defining presidents than it is with family dynamics.

And so Hitchcock focuses on the marriage between Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville. It makes sense, I suppose, to include a focus like that. After all, casting the superb Helen Mirren must feel like a waste of budget if you aren’t going to give her anything with which to work. And people are so preoccupied these days with personalities’ personal lives that it makes sense to pry into the inner workings of a relationship that must have been – given what we know of Hitchcock – incredibly difficult.

The unkindest cut of all...

The unkindest cut of all…

However, the problem comes when you try to shoehorn that into a story about the making of Psycho. Hitchcock presents us with domestic turmoil between Alfred and Alma, which means that the film forces itself to resolve the problems in that context. By the end of the film, by the time Psycho is in theatres, we must have a final word on the relationship between these two people. Real life doesn’t work like that, but that’s okay. These sorts of films are never too confined by “real life.”

The problem is something that emerged quite recently, but casts a tremendous shadow over Hitchcock’s personal life, and which couldn’t have undermined Hitchcock if it tried. The actress Tippi Hedren recently came out with various accusations and suggestions about the director – which formed the basis of another Hitchcock-based film last year, The Girl. These accusations and insinuations suggest that Hitchcock was actively fixating on Hedren during the production of The Birds.

Sounding off...

Sounding off…

Since The Birds was made directly following Psycho, it seems like the focus on Alfred and Alma’s relationship here is a little pre-emptive. It would be like making a biography of Winston Churchill’s political career and calling it a day in 1939, without a hint of irony. It’s hard to boil down the complexities of any marriage into a two-hour film, but Hitchcock suffers because – by virtue of its terms of reference – it simply couldn’t possibly cover everything. Or even the truly vital bits.

As a result, the scenes between Alfred and Alma seem a little awkward, and the decision to focus the film on their domestic drama seems a little trite. It also seems to suggest that the core material – the production of Psycho – was not enough to sustain a narrative like this. I would disagree with that, but I’m a film buff. I love this sort of stuff. I eat it for breakfast. The history of the production of a film like Psycho is a subject that is immensely fascinating to me, and – at its best – Hitchcock does an excellent job explaining how such a story can be so compelling.

Getting Hitched...

Getting Hitched…

If you asked a casual movie-goer what Psycho was about, they’d probably cobble together a plot summary featuring words like “shower”, “motel”, “knife”, “Norman”, “murder” or “slasher.” And, on the most basic level, it was an adaptation of Robert Bloch’s novel, drawing from the crimes of Ed Gein. (Gein, incidentally, also inspired The Silence of the Lambs.) However, that isn’t what Hitchcock would argue it was about.

Understandably the studios are reluctant to support the adaptation. One executive asks, “Is this still a picture about a queer killing people in his mother’s dress?” Hitchcock’s agent swiftly dismisses the idea, and clarifies the situation for everybody in the room. “What this picture is about is the reputation of Alfred Hitchcock.” That’s a pretty compelling narrative, even if it’s a fairly conventional one. An old warhorse gets tries to prove that he can still keep pace with the younger generation nipping at his feet, a creative force refusing to be hemmed in by the expectations of those around him.

You can call me Al...

You can call me Al…

Indeed, quite a lot of Hitchcock seems rather pointed, and perhaps more relevant today than it was in 1960. When Hitchcock first pitches Psycho, the suits are less than enthused by the prospect of something so… out there. One asks, “Can’t you do something like North by Northwest but this time instead of for MGM?” Hitchcock laments, “They just want the same thing over and over.” It appears that very little has changed, living in a world where it seems there’s relatively little creative risk encouraged or supported, in favour of retreads and conventional ideas.

Trying to justify their conservatism, the executive argues, “The truth is, Hitch, every time you want to do something ‘different’ like The Wrong Man or Vertigo, someone loses money.” The mention of Vertigo by screenwriter John J. McLaughlin seems rather pointed. Despite the cold reception it received at the time, and despite the fact it lost someone money, it was named as the greatest film of all time last year by Sight & Sound.

Sweet thing...

Sweet thing…

Hitchcock also explores something of the elitism in film production – the notion that some concepts or ideas are inherently superior or inferior. It’s a vital issue for any film about Hitchcock to touch upon. Hitchcock is, after all, a director who was unfairly dismissed in is time, accused of producing trashy and disposable diversions, only much later reappraised as an auteur. He never won a competitive Oscar. Here, Hitchcock suggests that it is perhaps due to the fact that he’s British, but it also seems rooted in his artistic choices.

Horror, in particular, is a much maligned genre. It’s easy to understand why, as it is a genre that can be produced cheaply and en masse for public consumption. There’s all manner of none-too-subtle overtones and undertones that go hand-in-hand with the genre, and it has a long history of association with schlock and gore. And yet, despite that, many of the most important films have been horrors. Consider the important of Nosferatu or any of the early Universal films, before the properties were ran into the ground.

The world's a stage...

The world’s a stage…

“What if somebody really good directed a horror film?” Hitchcock asks, rhetorically and without modesty, early in the film. That’s a fascinating idea, and part of what made Psycho so fascinating. It was a pulpy and trashy narrative, but it was told by a true master of the form. It is a cinematic masterpiece, but it’s very hard to get past the prejudices about high and low culture. Hitchcock, at his best, didn’t abide such distinctions.

In a nice moment, referring to his show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the director suggests that Hollywood laughs at how a great man has “lowered” himself to work in a medium they consider beneath them. “They think I’ve lost my touch, Lew. My association with television has cheapened me.” Like a lot of the best moments in Hitchcock, it seems like the director couldn’t have produced a more pointed line. It seems ridiculous in the era of Mad Men, The Sopranos and The Wire, but there was a point where television was seen as “beneath” talent. It was the involvement of people like Hitchcock that eventually and gradually elevated the form.

Maybe a little watered down...

Maybe a little watered down…

The movie also does a fascinating job with Hitchcock himself. It acknowledges the man’s obvious talent, but it also concedes that he probably wasn’t the best man to work with, let alone to share a life with. “You may not be the easiest man to live with,” Alma concedes, “but you know how to cut a picture better than anyone.” Sometimes Hitchcock is a bit heavy-handed with its lead character (suggesting he invited serial killers to live inside his head), but sometimes it works just right.

A decidedly creepy moment has Hitchcock explain the use of peephole to Anthony Perkins, revealing that the director himself has a lot of experience with them. At another point, Alma takes a moment to thank Janet Leigh for handling Hitchcock so well. “Janet, you’ve been very… professional. It hasn’t gone unappreciated.” The film avoids getting too tacky or too sensationalist when it comes to Hitchcock and his leading ladies. It implies a lot rather heavily, but it doesn’t state anything too dramatic or too controversial.

Dammit, Janet...

Dammit, Janet…

It’s clear that the director’s relationship with women was less than healthy, but Hitchcock wisely avoids focusing on the excesses and getting caught in the more dramatic stories and rumours about his conduct. Anthony Hopkins is great in the role. Much like his superb turn in Nixon, Hopkins doesn’t lean too heavily towards impersonation. He doesn’t do an accent so much as he mimics the director’s speaking patterns.

You won’t really be convinced you’re looking at Hitchcock, but Hopkins earns your trust and the suspension of your disbelief. He also does an excellent job tossing off those fantastic Hitchcock witticisms, while still showing us the heart of the character. Mirren is similarly fantastic as Alma, and the pair work their hardest to make the domestic drama compelling. It still feels like the focus on the relationship between Alfred and Alma is a misstep on the part of the film, but the pair work well enough together that we can forgive it.

It's a scream...

It’s a scream…

I really liked Hitchcock. It’s not flawless. It’s light, but then it’s a movie about the production of a horror film, not a story about world hunger or the meaning of life. That said, it could do with a bit of tightening up. In particular, the domestic subplot feels a little too much like a conscious grab for a “human interest” angle that suggests a lack of faith in the primary narrative. It’s a shame, because that primary narrative is actually pretty fascinating and compelling. It’s very interesting stuff, and a fascinating exploration of one of cinema’s great (if controversial) figures.

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