As a keen student of Hitchcock, the “master of suspense”, and his oeuvre, I suspect I am at a disadvantage in reviewing this biopic, eponymously entitled Hitchcock, and not simply by virtue of knowing the full story of the making of the masterpiece Psycho, and elements of the complex and symbiotic relationship between Hitchcock and his wife Alma – not least because they had to stump up the finance to make the movie when Paramount Studios got twitchy.
Of course, Psycho is now an old favourite but at the time it was a dangerously subversive and innovative tale that caused the notoriously risk-averse Paramount and Geoffrey Shurlock of the MPAA to suffer palpitations: graphic horror, suggestions of nudity, and dagger through the heart of the rules of dramatic storytelling – killing off the anti-herione and star 30 minutes into the movie. A hot potato indeed for 1960, but the saving grace came with audience screams and laughter; the movie was a huge success, the biggest of Hitch’s career, and the rest is history – but arguably because, as a natural showman he built a mystique about the film that might not otherwise have existed:
“We won’t allow you to cheat yourself. You must see PSYCHO from the very beginning. Therefore, do not expect to be admitted into the theatre after the start of each performance of the picture. We say no one — and we mean no one — not even the manager’s brother, the President of the United States, or the Queen of England (God bless her)!”
Making a biopic is a business fraught with endless difficulties, since to be successful you have to juggle balls and spin plates that rarely apply to fiction:
- Harnessing real events into a dramatic movie, often by adapting a biography
- Historical accuracy of events and times, although sometimes with the help of fictional devices
- Accurate recreation and depiction of real places with mind-numbing attention to detail
- Acceptable impersonation of the key players for look and sound
- Creating credible fictional dialogue that sounds
- In some cases, frame-by-frame recreations of real life footage
- And so on…
Easy it ain’t, but there are examples good, bad and indifferent of how you might go about it. I always thought Attenborough‘s Chaplin to be an outstanding example of how it can work, while My Week With Marilyn appears to have focused on quality of reproduction to portray a fairly slight tale. Lincoln was too stodgy and weighted down, where Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll was too scatty. La Vie En Rose was badly cut and dashed back and forth to no obvious benefit, but Topsy Turvy hit the right note throughout.
If I had to characterise by association, Hitchcock would be most like My Week With Marilyn, which is not to say it is a bad film in any way. Like many of its ilk it employs a dramatic device to enable us to hear the thoughts of the leading protagonist – in this case Ed Gein, whose Wisconsin murders proved the inspiration for Robert Bloch‘s original novel Psycho.
In fact, I would commend director Sacha Gervasi for the splendid job in bringing to the big screen a worthy movie and to the attention of younger members of the audience one of our greatest directors and one of his classic movies. Perhaps my expectations were too great, that the script could bring out greater insights of the maestro than a little jealousy of Alma writing a script at the beach house rented by her friend Whitfield Cook, the problem being that the actual making of Psycho is such a well-known story that revelations are hard to come by – though thankfully it does add a few lashings of Hitchcockian humour along the way. Perhaps this version can best be described as affectionate rather revelatory. Hollywood is always keen to remember one of its own favourite sons.
The attraction of making a movie about Hitch was not lost on the acting profession either, since Gervasi has gathered together a top notch cast centred around the towering talents of the two knights and Oscar winners of the British acting industry, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Dame Helen Mirren, who had apparently never acted on the same picture before but give every appearance of having done so for decades. Here they are the royalty, commanding the stage. Add to the mix the likes of Scarlett Johansson (a dead ringer for Janet Leigh and almost certainly a modern Hitchcock blonde, were the maestro still alive and making pictures), Toni Collette, Jessica Biel and Danny Huston and you get the idea. Nice too to see these actors playing characters we know well – Leigh, Vera Miles, Anthony Perkins, Saul Bass, Bernard Hermann and a who’s who of studio execs, agents, crew and others.
Of the list above, each point has been exhaustively researched to be authentic in every minute detail. Every aspect of the life of Hitch and Alma (née Reville) has been lovingly recreated as realistically as anyone could wish possible without making a drama out of a crisis. Indeed, the primary weakness of the movie is that the drama seems forced and if anything underplays how important Psycho was to Hitch and his career, remortgaging their house apart. It is far more a character study than a plot-driven, which some audiences might find less than satisfactory. If it fails to elicit an emotional response, perhaps in this regard it has failed to adhere to Hitch’s own advice for achieving a good movie:
“Always make the audience suffer as much as possible”
But at what is by today’s standards a slight 94 minutes it has followed another rule:
“The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”
So then, what of the cream of the crop – do they rise to the occasion? While Mirren is appreciably taller and slimmer than the real Alma Reville, her mannerisms and behaviour towards her husband are subliminally perfect – so minutely acted you barely observe them, yet right to the finest degree. This is beautiful acting for not being histrionic or requiring vast emoting. That is not to say Alma does not make her presence felt – she has a sharp tongue and is not afraid to use it to put her husband in his place, and in the final analysis he recognises her importance not merely as his wife but as his collaborator. Mirren captures this professional aspect totally in a scene where Hitch is ill and Alma goes to the studio to knock heads and ensure the movie stays on track.
By comparison, Hopkins delivers a slightly more laboured performance, almost at times stylised. Clearly he is not as huge a carcass as was Hitch, but by a combination of prosthetics, padding and posture (he does lot of leaning backwards in order to appear more corpulent) he looks a reasonable fit for the great man. To be fair, a total body double impersonation is not always necessary, particularly if you have the personality and can communicate the inner workings of the mind, as shown to brilliant effect by Frank Langella as Nixon in Frost/Nixon.
However, Hopkins picks up on the deliberately exaggerated English drawl to perfection, and indeed the timing; he has copied the walk or rather the waddle; he identifies Hitch’s obsession with the technical minutiae of film-making; ditto the off-hand way with actors, the obsession with blonde leading ladies, the cigars, the food and drink, the revelatory facial movements – everything is observed…
Hopkins looks comfortable within his own skin, but without ever truly convincing you he IS Hitchcock rather than actor playing Hitchcock (this makes an interesting compare and contrast to the version of Hitch Toby Jones created in a recent TV drama, The Girl – which is better?) To be fair, Hopkins gives us a more than adequate performance, while not quite sending shivers down the spine, as did his Hannibal Lecter, for example.
So, plenty of good things on show to justify the price of the DVD, and the reputation of Hitch to add guile and interest, even if the content would not make you scream in the movie theatre. But even Hitch could not complain about the clarity of this movie:
“If it’s a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on”
Even with my hearing I had worked that out!
PS. This reminds me that I should watch Psycho again and write my own review, benefitting from 53 years of hindsight. In fact, here it is!!