MOVIE REVIEW: Hitchcock
HITCHCOCK-- 4 STARS
As a big movie fan, I've always been curious how actors and filmmakers tackle the sometimes difficult subjects they do to make the movies they make. It can't be just another performance and quirky character to play a killer or examine the motivations of being evil. Specifically, I've always wondered how filmmakers and actors successfully separate the emotional psyche of the material from their own. How far is far enough to be accurate and compelling? How far is too far? Where do you draw the line? How do they keep themselves from having some of that evil and badness not follow them home, so to speak? In the great words of Robert Downey, Jr. in Tropic Thunder, "you never go full retard." Kidding aside, it's an aspect of movies that has always fascinated me.
To this movie fan, there is no greater overall example of this in movie history than Alfred Hitchcock. He is quite easily one of the most daring directors of all-time. His resume of complicated thrillers and works of twisted subject matter is a marvel to me. I can't imagine that his work didn't follow him home from time to time. Much has been written and told about the quirks, perversions, and tendencies that became the persona of Alfred Hitchcock, but I wonder how much of that was for show and how much was the real man. Played with gusto and panache by Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins, the new film Hitchcock hopes to give us a look at both the persona, the man, and the woman that loved him through and through during the time of what would be his greatest achievement.
After a first-person fourth wall introduction from Hitch himself, we meet the "Great Director" (Hopkins) coming off the smashing success of North by Northwest, his breeziest and most approachable film to date. At the age of 60, the press feels like North by Northwest is his peak and that decline with age is likely next. The studio powers that be, including Paramount Pictures boss Bob Balaban (veteran character actor Richard Portnow), want a repeat easy sell comparable to that Cary Grant-led espionage piece. His agent, Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg from Lincoln), as always, is out to get him the best deal in town.
Never leaving his side, is his stalwart wife Alma Reville (Academy Award winner Helen Mirren, who's a shoe-in for another nomination), who is always in the position of influencing and guiding her husband. She's his most trusted critic, the one he seeks for counsel every creative step of the way. No matter the need, she's second in command. Through good and bad, Alma sticks with Hitch, despite some outside advances and creative inspiration from a long-time friend, writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wants to make a screenplay together with Alma and maybe even Hitch to direct the treatment.
When Hitchcock encounters Robert Bloch's 1959 novel Psycho, loosely based on the Wisconsin-set real-life murders of Ed Gein, he can't get the inspiration and poignancy of the story out of his head, complete with imagined visions and conversations with Gein (Michael Wincott) himself. He is determined to make Psycho, with material sure to be challenged by audiences and censors alike, his next picture. The studios bale on funding the disturbing story. In turn, Hitch and Alma mortgage their house to finance Psycho themselves, putting his reputation and their livelihood on the line to bring his vision and inspiration to live.
From there in Hitchcock, we are treated to a wonderfully created behind-the-scenes look at the journey it was to make Psycho. Director Sacha Gervasi (in his feature film debut) did not have permission to use any old footage or imagery from the original film, so the behind-the-scenes movie making stands in with great detail. Featured players Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), Anthony Perkins (James D'Arcy), and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) become the core cast that Hitchcock brings together to pull off the movie. Along the way, we see the challenges of budget issues, delays, censorship issues, artistic integrity, affairs, and conflicts, both on and off the set. At the center of it all, is the relationship between Hitchcock and Alma and how stressful this complete effort becomes on their marriage.
Whether or not Academy Award winners Anthony Hopkins or Helen Mirren actually look like or sound like Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville is unimportant. The same goes for Johansson, D'Arcy, and Biel to smaller degrees. Hopkins didn't look like Richard Nixon either for Oliver Stone's Nixon and still put his all into his characters. His dramatic makeup stops being a distraction very quickly. He's even better than Nixon and in top form here in Hitchcock. Both veterans give outstanding award-worthy performances. The strongest aspect of Hitchcock is how those two continuously set each other up with their lines and conversations. They are a cinematic tennis match of wit, anguish, subtlety, and repartee. Hopkins and Mirren make it look like a dance.
Written by John J. McLaughlin (co-writer of Black Swan) and adapted from Stephan Rebello's non-fiction tome Alfred Hitchcok and the Making of Psycho, the movie expertly dances through its many layers of movie-making magic. The film balances its darkness with its cheekiness extremely well. The drama never swings too deep and the comedy never turns farcical. While it's not on par with the hot streak of other November releases (Skyfall, Flight, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi), Hitchcock is a very good show and easily one of the better offerings for this holiday season.
LESSON #1: BEHIND THE SCENES OF MAKING MOVIES--Hitchcock does a superior job in showing the behind-the-scenes peaks, valleys, struggles, and victories to making a movie. While it's up to us to decide what's true and what's exaggerated for this film, the legend of Psycho's controversial beginnings and creation is well told here.
LESSON #2: BRINGING SUPERIOR TALENT TO AN INFERIOR GENRE-- When Hitchcock decides to follow up the breezy espionage adventure North by Northwest with the scandalous Psycho, studio heads and movie moguls dismiss the move saying that the material is deplorable and beneath him. They call the story fit for the B-movie horror slate and say respected artists like Hitchcock should be above that material. Hitchcock's reply is how good could horror be when put into a real artist's hands. He takes it as a challenge instead of a step down. He was desperately drawn to the shock and risk involved in this different and dark creative endeavor. He dared to be different. Psycho, as we know, went on to prove him right and great filmmakers since have dabbled in giving the horror genre a try ever since.
LESSON #3: TAPPING YOUR DARK INNER RECESSES-- While attempting the dark and violent material of Psycho wasn't a challenge, channeling the movie's emotional scope was the real mountain. As we see in the Michael Wincott scenes, Hitchcock realizes that getting to the roots of Gein's motivation also brings forth his own inner darkness and perversions. In every layer of acting and performance, that mental transference is one of the dangers of getting too into character or too connected to the material. That detail may bring method and authenticity, but it can also bring madness and costly risk.