Sunday, December 23, 2012

Hitchcock (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


"Good Evening, ladies and gentlemen." So begins the familiar first bit of dialogue from "Hitchcock" Sacha Gervasi's (This is Anvil: The Story of Anvil)  handsome biopic of the beloved film director.

The film focuses on Alfred, his wife Alma, and the production of the classic "Psycho". Anthony Hopkins does wonderfully as the famous Hitchcock as does Helen Mirren as the arguably greater or at least equal force  (in both art and life) being his wife, technical troubleshooter and creative guardian, Alma Reville.

Stylistically, "Hitchcock" takes a cue from AMC's tv series Madmen. Hitchcock drinks like a fish and Alma drinks too. There is much emphasis on money and luxury dinners. The cars are cream-colored and the dresses are creamier. At first glance, this might seem another example of style over substance.

The director stands rigid like a pale root in the garden. Even the Los Angeles sun is swallowed up in the dark suit. He is without an idea and he wants something iconoclastic, no usual  suspense stories where morality has the upper hand. Then by chance, he happens to see a clipping in his office about the serial killer Ed Gein mentioning the  horror novel Psycho by Robert Bloch.

Hitchcock is hooked.

Paramount won't finance "Psycho" thinking the film will be a box office turkey, given its emphasis on incest, flesh-skinning and grave-robbery. After all, Hitchcock has been the standard for sophisticated suspense.

The director and his wife agree to put up the money personally and to mortgage the house. What follows is an analysis regarding the  domestic life of  Alma and Hitchcock in the style of an "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" episode. This is an interesting idea. We see a fussy confining Alma who keeps a tight sable hold on the nearly impassive director who is inwardly perverse and amoral in his imaginations. Hitchcock has a very real lust for his  "icy blonde" leading ladies, specifically Grace Kelly and Kim Novak which is a perpetual source of great vexation.

It comes as no surprise then when asked  about Psycho's Marion (played by Leigh) that Alma suggests to Hitch "Why don't you kill her off in the first half hour?"

This was previously unthinkable for a film, let alone a Hitchcock one, as was the inclusion of a toilet accompanied by a flush.

The film moves quickly. It is smartly  shot and seldom misses a beat. Hopkins delivers a smooth respect to the great director, while still keeping his own  personality intact, the mixture of coldness and frivolity that is a frequent ingredient in many of Hopkins' roles. There is a scene in which Hopkins as  Hitchcock conducts the audience like an orchestra and dances manically about behind closed doors, which is in perfect rhythm and worth the price of admission, as is his near perfect Robert Benchley/ Hitchcock humor. Helen Mirren is surprising and bold as Alma, a person who is shadowy on the outside but very outspoken without.

Scarlett Johansson is authentic as Janet Leigh who has the twin traits of sensuality and a professional cool which are essential qualities for a 'Hitchcock Blonde'.

The only top heavy wobble in the film  is the flashback inclusion  of Ed Gein himself (Michael Wincott) as he putters around with the corpse of his mother, gets in bed with her and talks to Alfred in the manner of psychiatrist. These flashbacks are too much of a contrast to the stylish tone of the film and come off as overdone kitsch. Wincott doesn't offer anything intriguing and slows down the domestic tension between Alfred and Alma. Instead of  the exchanges with Ed Gein, why not Norman? There is one terrific  meeting  with Hitchcock and Anthony Perkins (James D'Arcy), then mysteriously, the character of Perkins is all but dropped. "Hitchcock", the film would have benefited with more scenes pairing Hitchcock and Perkins, given the groundbreaking history of the film.

Yet, despite its television-like bookend conclusion that seems a bit too pre-packaged, "Hitchcock" is a tongue in cheek Pop Art memento of a man driven by his movie. And while it is more  about Alma and Alfred than about a project  in crisis, it still beguiles and satisfies.

Who can argue with Anthony Hopkins as The Director in his trademark suit as he sits by the pool wearing black sunglasses as he wistfully fingers a Wisconsin leaf? Hopkins as Hitchcock or vice versa can make a single stalk of celery both comical and menacing.

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