Friday, December 7, 2012

Hitchcock: Not an entirely good eve-ning

Hitchcock (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for violent images, sexual content and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.7.12

2012 has been a banner year for Alfred Hitchcock.

The London Symphony Orchestra debuted composer Nitin Sawhney’s innovative score for a sparkling new print of 1926’s silent suspenser, The Lodger — regarded as the first true “Hitchcock thriller” — at London’s Barbican Center on July 21. 

Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins, left) guides Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and
Anthony Perkins (James D'Arcy) through an early scene in Psycho, as Marion Crane
and Norman Bates have a mildly flirtatious conversation that will trigger the awful
events to come.
1924’s The White Shadow — a silent melodrama long thought lost, on which Hitchcock served as scripter, assistant director, editor and art director — was found (mostly intact!) in mislabeled film canisters by a researcher at the New Zealand Film Archive, and has been lovingly restored and posted online, for all to enjoy.

And the past month has seen not one, but two quasi-biopics set during Hitchcock’s prime in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

That sort of attention can be a mixed blessing, particularly when the first of these projects — The Girl, which debuted Oct. 20 on HBO — was little more than character assassination. Toby Jones may have been persuasive as Hitch, but Gweyneth Hughes’ tawdry script plumbed truly deplorable depths, while clearly overstating the degree to which the director’s infatuation with Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller) became unhealthy and sadistic during the making of The Birds.

Happily, the newly released Hitchcock is a more palatable brew. Scripter John J. McLaughlin — working from Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho — doesn’t have any axes to grind, and he also benefits from the genuinely fascinating, behind-the-scenes back story.

Psycho was a landmark production in all sorts of respects, from the shrewdness with which Hitchcock outmaneuvered the censorious Hays Office — one of the early artistic assaults that illuminated the growing irrelevance of that body of ultra-conservative bluenoses — to the film’s brilliant marketing campaign, which kept people out of their showers for weeks, just as Jaws would keep them away from the ocean in 1975.

Hitchcock benefits from several great performances, starting with Anthony Hopkins’ dignified depiction of the Master of Suspense, and Helen Mirren’s feisty reading of his wife and longtime creative collaborator, Alma.

They’re merely the tip of the iceberg. James D’Arcy’s portrayal of Anthony Perkins, who starred as Norman Bates in Psycho, is so authentic that it’s startling; at times, D’Arcy seems more like Perkins than Perkins himself. Scarlett Johansson is similarly striking as Janet Leigh, who winds up taking that fateful shower in a scene that has been imitated and spoofed countless times. Johansson doesn’t try for mimicry as much as D’Arcy, but she definitely conveys the way Leigh walked, acted and struck a pose; close your eyes slightly, to silhouette D’Arcy and Johansson, and it genuinely looks and sounds like Perkins and Leigh rehearsing a scene.

Hitchcock also has a strong sense of the era, thanks to Judy Becker’s meticulous production design, Julie Weiss’ costume design, and the art and set decoration by Alexander Wei and Robert Gould. Hollywood loves to make movies about making movies, but this one feels right; it plants us firmly in the late 1950s, thanks to cars, clothes, cigarettes, California beachfront property, tony Beverly Hills mansions and the Universal Studios backlot, where a fleabag motel and the creepy, cornice- and pilaster-laden Bates house were constructed for Norman and his mother.

It’s frustrating, then, that with so many top-notch elements in play, first-time feature director Sacha Gervasi frequently derails his film with an ill-advised narrative device that not only brings things to a grinding halt at inopportune moments, but feels as if it had been imported from some low-grade horror flick. As Hitchcock himself said, on many occasions, he wasn’t about horror; he sought to deliver suspense. Big difference.

Events kick off with the completion and release of 1959’s North by Northwest, the glossy, all-star adventure thriller that reinforced Hitchcock’s reputation as one of America’s master showmen. This image was further cemented, on a weekly basis, by television’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which had debuted in 1955 and been among the nation’s Top 25 favorite TV shows for four consecutive seasons.

Hitch could have made any film he wanted, and the execs at Paramount — to whom the director owed one more picture, on contract — eagerly hoped for another North by Northwest. But the always restless and contrary Hitchcock, who hated to repeat himself, was mindful of the financially successful low-budget horror films being made by American-International, Hammer and other smaller studios.

Consider, as Hopkins’ Hitchcock muses to his longtime production assistant, Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette), how much better a first-class, low-budget shocker would be if he directed it.

And thus the die was cast, Hitchcock getting his way via ploys that would have been admired by a master tactician. Longtime agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) makes Paramount’s wary execs an offer they can’t refuse, mostly contingent on Hitchcock’s offer to finance Psycho himself. This causes some consternation on the home front, mostly when Alma’s cost-cutting measures interfere with his gourmand’s palette.

As Hopkins so endearingly explains, though, Psycho isn’t merely a means for Hitchcock to demonstrate his ability to efficiently helm a low-budget thriller. In one of many warm scenes between Hopkins and Mirren, the director evokes their early days in the 1920s, when no-budget films forced them to be quick, inventive and daring. Wouldn’t it be nice, he suggests, to recapture those exhilarating times once more?

The team of not-quite-stars comes together, with Perkins and Leigh joined by Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), the latter “punished” by Hitchcock for a previous transgression, when he casts her as Leigh’s dowdy sister, who comes looking for her sibling after she vanishes, without trace, during the drive to California. (Hitchcock had groomed Miles to star in Vertigo, and he got vexed when the actress became pregnant and had to drop out of that production.)

We also meet the production talents: young screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio), whose obsession with therapy cements his being hired; prickly composer Bernard Herrmann (Paul Schackman), whose slicing string section would add the cherry to the notorious shower murder; and graphic designer Saul Bass (Wallace Langham), who concocted the film’s unsettling title credits and storyboarded interior sequences such as the shower scene and the staircase murder of the private investigator played by Martin Balsam (Richard Chassler).

And then there’s Whitfield Cook.

Cook, as played here by Danny Huston at his smarmiest, was a modestly successful Hollywood screenwriter who had worked on Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and Stage Fright, in the latter case sharing scripting credits with Alma Hitchcock. These were to be his final big-screen credits; as the 1950s wore on, he found work only in second-tier television work.

In a subplot contrived solely for this film by McLaughlin — in other words, definitely not part of Rebello’s source book — Cook trades on his position as longtime family friend by attempting to entice Alma into an affair, which she apparently considers while being piqued by her husband’s infatuation with Leigh. McLaughlin appears to have extracted this extra-marital temptation from a stray comment in Patrick McGilligan’s biography of the director, which suggests that Alma and Cook had a fling in 1948: a detail rejected by rival Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto, whose own lascivious focus would have prompted him to exploit such a detail, if he believed it true.

Ironically, Cook spent most of his time writing and directing stage plays in the late ’40s for Alfred and Alma’s daughter, Patricia, a young actress who’d eventually be granted small roles in three of her father’s films: Stage Fright, Strangers on a Train and ... Psycho. How odd, then, that Patricia Hitchcock is nowhere to be seen in this film, either on the home front or during the re-created making of Psycho!

But the Whitfield Cook sidebar isn’t this film’s strangest detour. That honor belongs to Hitchcock’s imaginative channeling of Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the 51-year-old, small-town Wisconsin serial killer whose gruesome exploits prompted horror novelist Robert Bloch to write Psycho, the book Hitchcock later purchased — with an anonymous lowball “blind bid” that netted Bloch only $9,000 — for screen adaptation.

Numerous times throughout this otherwise captivating and firmly grounded docudrama, Hopkins’ Hitch finds “motivation” via imaginary (hallucinatory?) conversations with Gein. I cannot imagine a plot device that would more effectively rip us away from the story being told; it’s a dreadful miscalculation on the part of Gervasi and McLaughlin.

Far better, instead, to concentrate on their film’s finer moments. Both Mirren and Hopkins have choice scenes, hers coming when Alma delivers a wounded harangue to her clearly surprised husband, after he unwisely questions her loyalty. It’s a great speech, and Mirren conveys it brilliantly.

Hopkins’ transcendent moment, conversely, is completely silent; it comes as Hitchcock stands in the lobby of a theater showing the premiere of Psycho. He waits, calculating a key scene to the nanosecond, and then indulges in a droll little dance, his sweeping arms perfectly punctuating each collective shriek from the audience within. Pure visual poetry.

I wish Hitchcock more frequently aspired to that level of quality. Sadly, while Gervasi’s film is mostly engaging, these ill-advised lapses — which feel like the exploitative indie material Hitchcock intended Psycho to exceed, not emulate — leave a bitter and disappointing taste.

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