Editor's Note: Mitch Salem is currently attending the AFI Fest and has sent this review from there. Unfortunately, because of Matthew Marko's recent departure and Mtich's attendance of the festival, I am not sure if we will have reviews of Flight or Wreck-it-Ralph posted today, but I hope to have that situation figured out soon. I'm also sorry for the lack of images, but having problem that is being fixed. Thanks for understanding.
The American Film Institute’s yearly festival opened last night with the world premiere of the fittingly movie-centric Hitchcock. In choosing the film, AFI celebrated another occasional Hollywood tradition: the tendency to make two unrelated films on the same subject in a brief period of time. In recent years we’ve had respective pairs of movies about comets headed for earth, volcanoes, Snow White, and more to the point, about Truman Capote. This time, Alfred Hitchcock is the subject of both HBO’s very recent The Girl and now the theatrical film Hitchcock, and although one might think Hitch, with 80 years and over 50 full-length films to his credit, could be the focal point of many very different stories, both these films essentially tell the same one. The Girl was about Hitchcock’s filming of The Birds and Marnie in the early 1960s, the director’s sexual fantasies and his sometimes sadism related to their beautiful star, and his odd but seemingly functional marriage with the writer and film editor Alma Reville. Hitchcock deals with the making of Psycho, which was his immediately preceding film, and treads over very similar emotional territory. (The close of Hitchcock even features a jokey promo for The Birds, which plays in this context almost as marketing for HBO’s drama.)
Of the two, Hitchcock provides a more compassionate and fully-rounded portrait of the man (played by Anthony Hopkins here and by Toby Jones in The Girl). His marriage, treated as a somewhat creepy curiosity in The Girl, is more believably complicated in John J. McLaughlin’s script, which is based on Stephen Rebello’s 1999 book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho.” Helen Mirren’s Alma, with considerably expanded screen time, makes more emotional sense than Imelda Staunton’s did. While this Hitchcock is somewhat bewitched by Janet Leigh (played by Scarlett Johansson) and there are signs of his coldness to Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), it’s nothing like his almost psychopathic physical attacks against Sienna Miller’s Tippi Hedren as depicted in The Girl. Alma, rather than being an almost Mrs. Danvers-like enabler for Hitch as she is The Girl, has her own life in this film, with her own frustrations and ambitions. Beyond that, the mere fact that the Hitchcock production secured the rights from several of the Psycho actors, also including James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins (The Girl portrayed Hedren alone), gives the behind-the-scenes story more depth and detail, and the reconstruction of Hitchcock’s showdowns with his unenthusiastic studio and the shocked industry censorship board, along with his exhaustive, self-designed marketing of Psycho, are fascinatingly recreated.
For all that, Hitchcock, while entertaining, feels undernourished. Alma’s relationship with writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), either a fictionalized or fictional character, is merely soapy, and the way it plays out weakens the latter part of the movie. In Hitchcock as in The Girl, there's precious little of Hitchcock's on display. This is especially disappointing in Hitchcock, since Psycho is one of the most brilliantly manipulative thrillers in history, and one that arguably changed the course of modern popular entertainment. Hitchcock has it that Psycho was a bomb when first screened for the studio and then saved by Alma in the editing room, which seems exaggerated for the purpose of building Alma up as a character, and instead diminishes Hitchcock. (The movie does give Hitch a marvelous scene toward the end, though, reacting to the audience response to the film.) There’s an ill-advised running motif of Hitchcock having dreams and fantasy conversations with the real-life mass murderer Ed Gein, who was the original inspiration for Norman Bates–it draws attention to itself without in any way broadening out knowledge about Hitchcock.
The script for Hitchcock gives Hopkins more shading to play with than The Girl gave Jones, but Hopkins’ performance is the lesser of the two, with the feel of a stunt celebrity impersonation, acting by way of mannerism and fake gut. Mirren is very fine as Alma, and she gets the movie’s big scene late in the story as she attacks Hitch for his selfishness–one can easily imagine it in an Oscar reel, even if the scene itself feels contrived. The surprise of the movie may be Scarlett Johansson, not an obvious choice to play Janet Leigh, yet at some moments miraculously like her–Johansson doesn’t get to do much, but the movie registers a lift whenever she’s on screen. Biel and D’Arcy are less notable as Miles and Perkins.
This is Sacha Gervasi’s first work as a fiction director (he helmed the documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil) and he does a smooth job, if one lacking in personality, keeping the movie flowing forward for its 97-minute length. Although he toys with Hitchcockian stylings from time to time, and Danny Elfman’s score has its share of amusing Bernard Herrmann-esque flourishes, Gervasi wisely doesn’t push Jeff Cronenweth’s photography or or Judy Becker’s production design to fetishistic extremes.
An unintentional irony of Hitchcock is that in its efforts to be more sympathetic to the great filmmaker, and to provide an ending that neatly ties up the story’s conflicts, it suggests that by the time Psycho opened and became a hit, Hitchcock was a less emotionally disturbed, more sedate man–yet we know from The Girl that this wasn’t the case, and in fact his treatment of Tippi Hedren seems to have been worse and more unbalanced than any of his other “Hitchcock blondes” received. That’s a sign of the overall superficiality of Hitchcock. Hitch, though, was himself nothing if not a crowd-pleaser, and he might well have been the first to appreciate his very own Hollywood ending.