Hitchcock


Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock.

Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock.

(2012) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Danny Huston, Jessica Biel, Toni Collette, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Wincott, Richard Portnow, Michael Stuhlbarg, Kurtwood Smith, James D’Arcy, Ralph Macchio, Kai Lennox, Tara Summers, Wallace Langham, Paul Schrackman, Currie Graham, Melinda Chilton, Mary Anne McGarry. Directed by Sacha Gervasi

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most decorated and respected directors in the history of movies. We are familiar with him as a man mainly through his television show and his dry sense of humor, his cameo appearances in his own movies such as Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Strangers on a Train. Few know that as he finished another triumph, North by Northwest, he was aching to redefine himself. He managed to do that with a little movie called Psycho.

Hitchcock (Hopkins) and his wife Alma Reville (Mirren) are reveling in the acclaim for his latest picture. Like the wives of many great men, Alma contributes a great deal to his success although she has been content to remain out of the limelight. However, Hitch’s colossal ego and womanizing has frayed her patience to the breaking point. She assumes he will take on another suspense film for which he has become justly famous.

However, her husband yearns to stretch his wings somewhat which doesn’t bother you – when she discovers that his next project will be based on the Robert Bloch novel Psycho she is horrified. The movie is about a serial killer (who is in turn based on Ed Gein (Wincott) who has been haunting Hitch’s dreams of late) which in that era was unheard of. Until then, movies took the point of view of those who chased killers, not of the killers themselves and particularly not those who were clearly insane.

But as usual, Hitchcock gets his way. However, the studio shares Alma’s concerns. Hitchcock is forced to finance the film himself with Paramount acting only as a distributor. He sets out to assemble the cast which will include Anthony Hopkins (D’Arcy), Janet Leigh (Johansson) and Vera Miles (Biel). The latter Hitchcock had worked with before – until she had dropped out of the production due to her pregnancy, incurring the wrath of the director and he didn’t mean to let her forget it.

Because Hitch is paying for this, things are done on the cheap. Black and white film stock in an era of color. Filming on the Universal lot rather than Paramount’s because studio space is cheaper there. First-time screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Macchio).

But while something amazing is taking shape onscreen, things are in chaos at home. Alma is not just feeling taken for granted, she’s feeling downright ignored. Her contributions, normally appreciated and vital, are being virtually unheard. She is feeling somewhat obsolete, particularly as Hitch pays more attention to Leigh. Alma begins to develop a relationship with budding screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Huston) which drives Hitch crazy with jealousy. Still, as the film comes towards completion, will the movie vindicate the director’s vision – and will it be enough to save his marriage?

History shows that it did and Hitch remained married to Alma until his death in 1980. Psycho remains to this day the most profitable black and white sound film ever and in some ways is the film most identified with Hitchcock. As I mentioned in my review (see link above) this is the movie that ushered in the modern horror genre in many ways with the serial killer POV, the death at an early stage of the film of a lead character, excessive violence (although it seems tame today) and the psychosexual aspects of murder.

But this is a film about that film so we must talk about Hopkins as Hitchcock. Hopkins is one of the ablest actors of our time, having mastered characters both villainous and kind. He assays the character of Hitchcock with the use of a fat suit (Hopkins had just completed a weight loss program and was loathe to gain a significant amount of weight to take on the part of the portly Hitchcock) and an uncanny mimicry of the director’s mannerisms. Does he capture the essence of Hitchcock? I think so, insofar as we know what the essence of Hitchcock is.

There’s the rub, in fact. No disrespect to Hopkins, Hitchcock was and remains an enigma in many ways. He was a very public figure but we never really got to know the man. Sure, there are lots of biographies that talk about his obsession with his leading ladies (that were nearly always blondes), his difficult relationship with his mother, his tyrannical style as a director, his flirtatious nature which most people today would say bordered on sexual harassment. However there is precious little information direct from the source – Hitchcock disliked talking about himself except in very broad terms. Most of the more intensely personal information that Hitchcock ever revealed was in an interview by French director Francois Truffaut years later. Hopkins gives a game try but he’s hampered from the get-go.

Mirren is a different matter. She has as much onscreen personality as any actress alive, perhaps the most of any. She’s like a hurricane bearing down on a peaceful fishing village and as Alma nags Hitch about his weight and drinking, expresses her opinions about the risks he’s taking with their savings and his career or quietly standing off to the side in his shadow, Mirren makes us understand that she was a formidable woman indeed and every part as necessary to Hitchcock’s success as the director himself.

We see a bit of the filming of the movie – oddly the iconic shower scene gets very little time here – but then again this isn’t really a nuts and bolts primer about the making of a movie. It’s about how movies get made and in particular this one, which followed a somewhat torturous path to completion. Film buffs will probably be curious to see this but might be disappointed. For one thing, it misses out on some interesting aspects, like Hitchcock submitting an anonymous bid to Bloch for the rights so he could low-ball the author. For another, it does fudge on history although one of the items that critics have been disparaging the most – Alma’s relationship with Cook – is actually true, verified by correspondence between the two.

I found the movie to be an entertainment more than a historical document. As the former, this is a winner. Although I never believed for a moment I was watching the Master of Suspense at work, I felt like I was watching how he might have worked and I am satisfied I got some insight into his creative process. However, as the latter, I don’t think this stands up nor do I think it was meant to. There is enough here to be informative as to how the movie came together and we see some aspects of Hitchcock but again I don’t think we get a very complete portrait of the man. Then again, an hour and a half is really an insufficient amount of time to really get a complete picture of anyone.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating look at the creative process behind one of the most iconic films ever made. Mirren is a force of nature. Of interest to film buffs.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Really doesn’t give a lot of insight to Hitchcock the man. Fudges a little bit on history.
FAMILY VALUES: Some cinematic images of violence, a bit of sexuality and some language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scenes set in Hitchcock’s office on the Paramount lot were filmed in the late director’s actual offices, which are still there.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an amusing cell phone PSA.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $23.6M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shadow of the Vampire
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Darling Companion

Psycho (1960)


The scream that started it all.

The scream that started it all.

(1960) Horror (Paramount) Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, Martin Balsam, John Gavin, John McIntire, Simon Oakland, Frank Albertson, Patricia Hitchcock, Vaughn Taylor, Lurene Tuttle, John Anderson, Mort Mills, Ted Knight, Jeanette Nolan (voice), Virginia Gregg (voice), Kit Carson, Prudence Beers, George Eldredge, Sam Flint. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Six Days of Darkness 2014

Some movies transcend the genres they’re in. The Searchers is a Western that is greater than its genre. Saving Private Ryan is a war movie that sets the standard for its genre. Horror movies have a lot of films that are bigger than their genre. Arguably, the one that might make the most impact among mainstream film audiences is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

When it came out the year I was born movie audiences really hadn’t seen anything like it. Back then there were no ratings, just the Hays code that all movies had to adhere to. Psycho skirted those codes without violating them, a neat trick. It did it so well that many remember it as being more violent than it was and even remember the red hue of the blood despite it being filmed in black and white. It was a game changer and it set the stage for how the modern horror movie is made, for better and for worse.

Marion Crane (Leigh) is a secretary at a financial institution who is tired of being single. She is deeply in love with Sam Loomis (Gavin) but he lives in California, she lives in Arizona and he is barely able to make ends meet. There’s no way he could possibly take care of her.

After a lunch time rendezvous with her lover, she is given $40,000 of Tom Cassidy’s (Albertson) money to deposit. Instead, she snaps and drives off with it, hoping to run away to California and use her ill-gotten gains to start a new life with her man.

However, she is too tired to drive there all in one session, so she stops for the night at the off-the-beaten-path Bates Motel. There the innkeeper Norman Bates (Perkins) rents her a room and has a sweet but increasingly creepy conversation with her. Afterwards, she retires to her room for the night to wash the road off of her and get a good night’s sleep.

However things go horribly wrong and her sister Lila (Miles) hires a private investigator (Balsam) to check up on her baby sister. There is something going on at Bates Motel. Something terrible. Something deadly. It’s much like the Hotel California; you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.

Financed by Hitchcock himself and made at for what was even at the time a pittance, it remains Hitchcock’s classic horror movie. Now, he is the Master of Suspense – not the Master of Horror – and he is best known for films like Vertigo, North by Northwest and Rear Window but many people think this was his finest hour. It certainly is one of his most visceral films, even if by suggestion more than the actual showing of blood and carnage.

There is a scene in which a woman takes a shower that has become iconic. During the course of the scene she is attacked in the shower by what appears to be an old woman. The naked screaming woman tries to protect herself but is stabbed repeatedly in the shower and is mortally wounded. The sequence takes only 45 seconds but took a week to shoot and is as masterfully edited as any sequence in film history. It is sudden, shocking and completely unexpected. It turned horror conventions on their collective ears and paved the way for the opening sequence of Jaws among others. That it happens ten minutes into the movie completely changes the movie’s direction – and yet fits into the story seamlessly.

Based on a novel by Robert Bloch (who famously once said “I have the heart of a little boy; I keep it in a jar on my desk”) Hitchcock got the rights for a paltry nine thousand dollars and turned the story which was meant to be a kind of pulp horror story into a classic film.

Perkins entire career was defined by this role which he would reprise in future films, all of which were made after Hitchcock’s death. It would typecast the young, handsome actor for pretty much the rest of his life, but characteristically he didn’t resent being typecast in it and remembered the making of the film fondly up until his own death in 1992 (Central Florida movie fans may not be aware that he attended Rollins College at one time).

Leigh was also a presence in a brief but notable role. It is her performance that helped convince John Carpenter to cast her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in Halloween. Talk about far-reaching influences, right? In any case, the Master of Suspense kept the tension up to maximum throughout the movie from the moment Marion Crane drives off with the cash.

Most people have seen Psycho on television or on home video. It is one of those movies that when seen on a big screen is even more remarkable. If it plays in an art house or revival theater anywhere near you, it is worth your while to seek it out, even if you’ve seen it before on television. It was meant to be seen on a big screen despite the intimacy of the setting. It has inspired a shot-by-shot remake by Gus van Sant and a hit television series on A&E. It remains for many the quintessential horror movie, one that even after half a century is still scary as hell.

WHY RENT THIS: Suspenseful and if you don’t know the twist, shocking. Career-defining performance by Perkins. Leigh brief but memorable. One of Hitchcock’s all-time greatest.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: While extreme for its day is pretty tame by modern standards.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexuality and violence, once again tame by today’s standards but shocking in 1960.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Hitchcock’s last film to be shot in black and white, and also his biggest box office success.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The two-disc 2008 release as well as the 2010 Blu-Ray release includes newsreel footage of the movie’s premiere and the special rules regarding latecomers, two different versions of the notorious shower scene including one without music (the way Hitch intended it originally), an audio interview of Hitchcock by French director Francois Truffaut,  a discussion of Hitchcock’s legacy including interviews with modern filmmakers who owe their careers to the Master of Suspense, and a full-length episode from the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $32M on an $806,947 production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (Purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hitchcock
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Fury