Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Review: "Hitchcock"

If Alfred Hitchcock hadn’t been a bona fide figure, Hollywood would’ve invented him. With his inverted-light-bulb physique and that pained slur of a monotone drawl, the great film director stood out both for his exemplary craftsmanship and his oddball image. In some ways his personal iconography has endured every bit as much as his movies.

“Hitchcock,” which puts the filmmaker under the microscope during the making of his landmark film “Psycho,” features a spot-on impersonation by Anthony Hopkins. Wearing an impressive body suit and extensive facial prosthetics to mimic the droopy mien of “Hitch” (as he preferred to be called), Hopkins evokes the spirit and personality of the man behind masterpieces like “Rear Window,” “North by Northwest” and “Vertigo.”

In this portrait, Hitchcock is both supremely self-confident and filled with obsessive fears about being a washed-up failure. At age 60, Hitch frets that his best days were behind him, that he is tainted by his association with television, and that he will never receive the accolades (i.e., an Academy Award) he feels are surely deserved.

But the movie, directed by Sacha Gervasi from John J. McLaughlin’s screenplay (based on a book by Stephen Rebello), goes further by exploring the relationship between Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville. And it’s in this journey that the film rises from amusing bauble to a full-throated and satisfying depiction of a great man and the unheralded woman who helped make him so.

Alma, played by Helen Mirren, dutifully performs the role of the loyal wife in public, but quietly seethes with resentment underneath. A talented editor and writer in her own right, she married a promising young director and made his career her own. Reville rewrote scripts, played the part of Hitch’s main sounding board and even (if this film’s depiction is to be believed) stood in for him behind the camera when his health failed.

As the story opens, Hitch is coming off the resounding success of "North by Northwest," but hasn't a clue as to what to make for his next picture. Some, including Alma, are quietly suggesting he retire with grace. Those calls become increasing urgent as he lights upon the gruesome story of Ed Gein, a serial murderer who chopped up his victims.

When the Hollywood press is repulsed by the topic, Hitchcock digs deeper. When Alma dismisses the story as cheap horror show, he is intrigued by the challenge: "What if someone really good made a horror picture?" he asks.

Realizing that his dream female star, Grace Kelly, is now unavailable due to having married into royalty, Hitch settles on Janet Leigh. As played by Scarlett Johansson, Leigh is a paragon of niceness and professionalism in a cutthroat business. At first she's ambivalent about Hitchcock, especially how he will handle the famous shower scene. But she eventually finds herself in his corner.

"Compared to Orson Welles, he's a sweetheart," she muses.

Her counterpoint is Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), whom Hitch had hoped to make a big star, but she rejected him to play the real-life role of wife and mother. It was part of his long fixation on "these blonde women of mystery" who regularly populated his films.

Hitchcock can't get the studio to finance "Psycho," so he ends up writing a check for $800,000 out of his own pocket. It threatens to bankrupt them, and Alma responds to being shut out of the creative process by collaborating with an old friend (Danny Huston) who's a little bit too familiar with the married "Mrs. Hitchcock."

Director Gervasi's only other film was the documentary "Anvil: The Story of Anvil," which looked at a washed-up heavy metal band. His switch to narrative storytelling is a seamless one, as he expertly plucks the audience's strings, much like composer Bernard Hermann's screeching violin strings in "Psycho."

At a crisp 98 minutes, "Hitchcock" is as taut as one of Hitch's own mystery thrillers.

3.5 stars out of four

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