Friday, February 1, 2013

‘Hitchcock’ (2012) directed by Sacha Gervasi

Appropriately, it opens with a murder.  We’re on the Wisconsin farm of serial killer Ed Gein, who proceeds to viciously bonk a man on the head with a shovel.  As the victim floppily collapses we pan up to an incongruous figure salivating at the violence before him.  It’s Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins), who welcomes us to an exploration of his creative process and his darker obsessions.

Set in 1959 ‘Hitchcock’ finds its subject at a crossroads.  He’s enjoying the financial and critical success of ‘North by Northwest’, but the perceived failure of ‘Vertigo’ still haunts him.  He’s frustrated by the pressure to make more blockbusters, and so, to general dismay becomes fixated on Robert Bloch’s lurid book ‘Psycho’.  Hitchcock wants show audiences something new and shocking, and he sees ‘Psycho’ as the perfect vehicle. 

Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock
His instincts are dead-on, but then we already know that.  Therein lies one of the major problems with the film; it wants to create a state of tension about whether ‘Psycho’ is going to be a hit or not.  We see studio bosses worrying about their reputations, forcing Hitchcock to mortgage his house and fund the production himself.   This strains relations with his wife Alma (Helen Mirren), all of which cranks up the pressure on an increasingly stressed man.  This attempt to raise the stakes never quite works as the success of ‘Psycho’ is never in the slightest doubt.  Frankly, if you make a suspense-free film about ‘The Master of Suspense’ then you’ve misfired somewhere.

Anthony Hopkins is absolutely brilliant as Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a performance that occasionally tips over into caricature, but Hitchcock revelled in consciously exaggerating his public image.  Hopkins convincingly shows us Hitchcock wearing a variety of masks; the showman, the auteur, the obsessive and ever-so-briefly, the psycho.  This last one is a bit problematic.  Firstly because Alfred Hitchcock was, as far as I know, not actually murderous (the insinuation that he might have been is faintly insulting).  Secondly, if you tease that a character played by Anthony Hopkins is an erudite, English upper-class murderer you’d better know what the hell you’re doing.  The film just about navigates these murky waters successfully and Hopkins’ performance fully embodies Hitchcock’s physicality and personality. 

Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh
The flip side to the eccentric Hitchcock is his down-to-earth, practical wife Alma.  Alma was, by all accounts, an incredibly astute and talented woman, but here she has the thankless role of being saddled with the task of not only trying to convince her husband not to make ‘Psycho’, but also of flirting with the idea of having an affair with a slick and slimy Hollywood scumbag.  It’s a testament to just how good Mirren is that despite this she keeps us rooting for Alma throughout the film despite this.

The ups and downs of the Hitchcock marriage provide much of the drama, which means that the production of ‘Psycho’ is treated as more of a backdrop.  This focus is frustrating because the film is at its best when we’re delving into how Hitchcock’s production methods and interactions with cast and crew.  Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins are compellingly played by Scarlett Johansson and James D’Arcy, but sadly we don’t get to see too much of them.  The film is at its best when we watch Hitchcock at work in the studio, and realise we’re watching cinematic history being made.  Watching iconic scenes take shape sends a shiver up your spine, most notably  when we follow a length of steaming black rubber pipe that snakes sinisterly through the set, abruptly terminating in a gleaming silver shower head.

 All of this imagery is ominously effective, perhaps too effective as I found myself wishing I was watching ‘Psycho’ instead.  ‘Hitchcock’ is a perfectly serviceable and fun film and director Sacha Gervasi has successfully made the leap from documentary to dramatic film-making.  The problem is that the psychology of Alfred Hitchcock has been already been covered much more comprehensively in film by the man himself in ‘Vertigo’ and indeed, in ‘Psycho’.  Perhaps the best you can say about ‘Hitchcock’ is that it’s an excellent encouragement to go and watch some classic cinema.

*** / *****

'Hitchcock' is on general release from 8th February.

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