By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on Movies: Hitchcock
HITCHCOCK (Three Stars)
U.S.: Sacha Gervasi, 2012
1. THE STORY OF PSYCHO
Back in 1960, about 40 minutes into Alfred Hitchcock’s new movie Psycho, co- star Janet Leigh flushed the toilet, took off her towel and stepped into the shower in Room Number One of the Bates Motel — and the movies changed forever.
With its nudity, its slashing murders, and its other weirdo star role — nervous, stammering motel-keeper and dutiful son Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) — Psycho ushered in all the sleazy nightmare and B-movie scariness, taboo and macabre that had been hidden away in the ‘50s in drive-ins and second-run houses, embellishing them with an A-Movie cast and a master’s technique . Psycho changed how movies were made, but also how they were passed by industry watchdogs, how they were marketed and released, and even how audiences watched them. (Wily director Hitch took a cue from the exhortations to audience silence about the surprises in the French shocker Diabolique, and got the theaters to forbid audiences to enter Psycho midway through.)
And it changed what we the audience could expect from our highest-profile movies — which, in 1960, despite the greater liberalism of The Apartment and Elmer Gantry, was definitely not the shocking spectacle of a big star like the blonde and very attractive Ms. Leigh in a bathroom, doffing her clothes and stepping into a shower to face the shower head spray and composer Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable score: those shrieking violins that sounded like cries of horror or birds of prey.
The movies changed after Psycho and So did Hitchcock himself, as we’ve read in many biographies since and as we see in the compelling but not always satisfying new movie Hitchcock. directed by Sacha Gervasi and starring Anthony Hopkins as The Master of Suspense and Helen Mirren as his long-time wife and most important collaborator, Alma Reville Hitchcock. Based on the story behind the making and release of Psycho — as recounted in Stephen Rebello’s book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” — it’s one of the most detailed and admiring dramatic reconstructions of the making of a movie ever, and a truly bizarre, truly informative tribute to a great filmmaker, and what happened when he crossed over the line, making both a masterpiece and a scandal.
Gervasi’s movie takes us from the commercial and critical failure of Hitchcock’s 1958 Vertigo (now considered a classic, maybe even the classic), through the 1959 triumph of North by Northwest, and then through the difficult planning, preparation, frequent interference, sometimes troubled shooting and final release of what quickly became the biggest hit and most influential movie of Hitchcock‘s entire career.
The cast of characters includes not just Hitch and Alma and right hand woman Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette) and Hitch’s invaluable agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg), but the cast of Psycho, played by Scarlett Johansson (as Janet Leigh), James D’Arcy (Perkins), Jessica Biel (Vera Miles), Richard Chassler (Martin Balsam), Josh yeo (John Gavin); and Hitchock’s filmmaking comopany, inckluding Mirren as Alma, Ralph Macchio as screenwriter Joseph Stefano (later the main writer on TV‘s The Outer Limits), Terry Rhoads as black-and-white cinematographer John Russell; Wallace Langham as titles wizard and the shower murder storyboard artist Saul Bass, Richard Portnow as executive Barney Balaban, and Paul Schackman as the indispensable (but eventually dispensed with) composer Bernard Hermann, Even the ‘60d head movie bluenose and picture slasher Geoffrey Shurlock, is here, played by Kurtwood Smith. And so is Ed Gein, (played by Michael Wincott), the real-life grave robber and serial killer who inspired Robert Bloch’s original novel.
The movie is a tribute to Hitchcock and his art; in some ways it treats the creation of Psycho almost in the reverent way Carol Reed and Charlton Heston treated Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But it’s a deconstruction of Hitchcock (and Psycho) as well, following the example of tell-all books like Rebello‘s and like Donald Spoto’s “The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock“ and even of the last revision of “Hitchcock/Truffaut“” Francois Truffaut‘s classic interview/celebration with/of one of his favorite directors. In that last anguished hurrah, Truffaut described what he calls the bad luck of Hitchcock’s later post-Psycho career, including his tortured Pygmalion relationship with Tippi Hedren, the star of The Birds and Marnie, and the failures of both Torn Curtain and Topaz, followed by the partial comebacks of Frenzy and Family Plot. And finally, Gervasi and McLaughlin’s (Black Swan) movie is a very affectionate tribute to the woman behind Hitch from the ‘20s on: his wife Alma (as staunchly played by Mirren) — who here becomes the heroine of his story, even as he himself wavers between hero and anti-hero, misogynist and female-worshipper, exploiter and artist.
2. SATURDAY AFTERNOON AND SUNDAY MORNING
Back in 1960, when I was 13, my mother took us to an eagerly awaited Saturday afternoon showing of the latest movie by one of my favorite movie directors, Alfred Hitchcock. We had to hurry to arrive on time, because the movie was being shown with that special Hitchcock proviso that no on would be admitted after the movie began. Though I had yet to see most of his early shows, I loved Hitchcock’s films (Vertigo and North by Northwest were my very favorites). As we watched, I was suitably riveted and suitably shocked and suitably entertained — though I think my mother, also a Hitchcock fan, was both disturbed and shocked.
Later, as we walked out of the theater, into the sunlight of the Wisconsin resort city, Lake Geneva, I noticed a wedding finishing on the lawn of a church across the street — something I would have cause to remember the next day, Sunday at church. There, our affable pastor, Gerry Gillespie, began his sermon with an anecdote about the beautiful wedding he’d attended that Saturday, and his subsequent disappointment and dismay as he looked across the street and saw the “thrill-seeking” crowds pouring out of a matinee showing of that terrible, scandalous movie Psycho, from those terrible Hollywood fear hucksters, Alfred Hitchcock and company. Our church, I should say, The Gospel Tabernacle (later the Calvary Community) frowned on any movie attendance at all, much less a movie like Psycho.
I almost squirmed in my pew. Was he speaking about the showing we attended? Almost certainly he was. Had he seen us? Probably he had. At first I felt bad. But then I decided: What did it matter? I loved movies. I loved Hitchcock. I loved Psycho. Hell’s bells…No self-important preacher,, not even the affable Pastor G0\erry, was going to stop me from seeing a Hitchcock movie if I wanted. None ever did.
3. THE MASTER OF SUSPENSE
The Alfred Hitchcock we see in Hitchcock, is not always the genial, gentlemanly, darkly comic host of the popular 1950s TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents — where Hitch would introduce the shows (some of which he directed, always with Psycho photographer Russell), make rude remarks about the commercials, and tell dark little jokes in dark little sketches. Nor is he the more sober and solemn interviewee of his later years. The familiar mannerisms are there — the measured East End London accent, the deadpan countenance and owlish stare, the sense of letting the audience in on some macabre joke or wicked little secret. But we also see the more vulnerable, beleaguered Hitch, the one who needed Alma so much. These two performances — Hopkins as Hitch, Mirren as Alma, and also Johansson as Leigh — are the best reasons to see Hitchcock. Strangely, D’Arcy as Perkins (whose voice and mannerisms D’Arcy reproduces uncannily), is relatively slighted.
The problem with Hitchcock may be that the real climax of the story occurs later, during his relationship with Tippi Hedren in The Birds (as shown in the recent TV film The Girl.) We know something has changed during the making of Psycho, but we don’t quite yet know what it is. In any case, there’s something dissatisfying about Hitchcock, though that might only apply to those who are walking in midway here, without knowing the whole story.
Hitchcock was directed by Sacha Gervasi, who won several awards for his funny and compassionate rock documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil. Gervasi’s. His direction is clean and clear and knowing, and compassionate, but perhaps not funny enough, not scary enough either. He’s a good director, but he’s no Hitchcock. Then again, nobody is.