Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 02, 2012 12:16 pm 
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Anthony Hopkins is a fine actor, but Sasha Gervasi's new movie once again proves that nobody could play Hitchcock like Hitchcock. We have many examples of the latter's droll and buoyant self-portrayal in his film trailers and bookends of his TV series, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." Moreover Gervasi has betrayed the legacy of the great director by producing a motion picture about him that is without suspense, pacing, or editing skill. Taking a book about the making of Psycho as its basis, Hitchcock finds it necessary to turn it into a soap about marital issues (with Helen Mirren hamstrung in the blah role of the director's wife Alma) and a tired replay of that old theme about how geniuses are dysfunctional and nuts. Glitzy visuals and period cars, costumes and interiors and a sprightly turn by Scarlett Johannson as Janet Leigh aren't enough to save this turkey from the dust heap. Nothing much is revealed here of the real genius or the real work that went into Psycho and the rest of Hitchcock's oeuvre or the intelligence, consistent vision, and mastery of craft of the man -- or about the content and concepts of Psycho.

Feminists may like the depiction of Hitchcock's wife as a full partner whose writing and editing skills and input were essential to the director's movies, but it seems a bit of a stretch to claim that Psycho was dead in the water on completion and required Alma's re-editing to save it. James D'Arcy is adequate as Anthony Perkins, though he is depicted as exaggeratedly shy and humble and his homosexuality is crudely alluded to. Scarlett Johansson shines as Leigh, shown here to be one of Hitch's female stars he didn't browbeat, who parted with him on very friendly terms. Many other figures come and go, including Psycho costar Vera Miles (a buttoned-up Jessica Biel), a nerdy version of Hitch personal assistant Peggy Robertson by Toni Collette, and various not very distinctive versions of studio honchos like Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow).

The Psycho story as seen here is one of those trite, upbeat-finale "they said it couldn't be done" scenarios. Despite the success of the director's previous film North by Northwest and his being at the height of his fame, the studio bucks him every step of the way. The eponymous novel by Robert Bloch that Hitch wants to film verges on the horror genre, which the studio objects to, and there is a big struggle over nudity in the shower scene with censorship boss Geoffrey Shurlock ("That 70's Show's" Kurtwood Smith). Hitchcock must mortgage his house to fund the picture himself. After it's made the studio refuses to market it and opens it in only two theaters. The story then turns to Hitchcock's promotional skill, which comes through more clearly than his ability as a cinematic genius. Despite the studio's stonewalling and poor initial reviews (not mentioned) he makes Psycho a huge hit through publicity that makes the ending sound extremely thrilling.

The highlight and only real flourish comes with Hitch at Psycho's unofficial premiere, dancing around in the lobby ecstatically "conducting" the screams and audience roars of the shower scene, with its wonderful (and never equaled) screechy musical accompaniment. Hitchcock juggles various themes -- Hitchcock's compulsive gourmandising; Alma's chaste flirtation with another writer; the challenge of simply getting Psycho made and the director's imaginary middle-of-the-night self-doubts. There is even a wholly irrelevant, arguably tasteless running theme of Hitch's imaginary conversations with Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the serial killer whose life had partly inspired the Robert Bloch novel. There is too much here, and not enough. Everything is lightweight, but only with occasional wit. The pace is leaden, marred by the lack of one consistent driving theme. We are left with nice images of late Fifties Hollywood, the studio lot, the Hitchcock mansion, the toothy, made-up actresses, and nothing very much of significance about the movie director whose life and work have been more thoroughly recorded and discussed than any other's.

In Gervasi's movie, from John J. McLaughlin's screenplay adapted from Stephen Rebello's book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the director is seen as a crude, ill-controlled mass of animal urges, gorging, boozing, leering through peepholes. Hopkins is done up as Hitchcock in a fat suit and elaborate facial prostheses, providing one of those facsimiles whose very accuracy only prompts one to see how far off it is from the real thing. He gets the voice more or less right, but his performance is a series of stares, coy pouts, and stubborn postures, and the shrewdness and nimble intelligence -- and the authority -- don't come through. Gervasi's previous film was the interesting documentary of a failed rock band, The Story of Anvil, but that was no preparation for a sophomore effort as complex and different as this. Here is the sad irony of a film about one of the world's acknowledged greatest directors whose direction is flabby and uninteresting.

You may say that Alfred Hitchcock is a popular and commercial artist, but cinema is a popular and commercial medium. His approach to editing, to pacing, to suspense, was essentially simple, but also profound and sure. Truffaut claimed that the American critics disparaged Hitchcock and that the French Cahiers writers and he particularly in his book of interviews were responsible for the director's recognition as a master. Whether or not that is true, Hitchcock is now so recognized, and listening to Truffaut's recorded interviews with Hitch you will see how the American director's every word on his films is a master class in filmmaking as well as a revelation of his mind and personality more revealing than all of Gervasi's movie. Listen to those, watch Hitchcock's Psycho and his other movies, and avoid Gervasi's effort. You and the maker of Psycho deserve better.

Hitchcock began limited US release 23 Nov. 2012. It comes to the UK 8 Feb. 2012 and France 13 Feb.

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