Like his fellow media artists Orson Welles and Andy Warhol, Alfred Hitchcock has become a character in the movies—“The Confessional”, Canadian director Robert Lepage’s 1996 fictional feature on the making of “I Confess” presaged experimental filmmaker Johan Grimonprez’s 2009 film-essay “Double Take”, the recent HBO docu-drama “The Girl” (about Hitchcock protégé Tippi Hendren), and now the Fox Searchlight release “Hitchcock” wherein Sir Anthony Hopkins portrays the portly Master of Suspense with lip-pursing gusto.
Of course, thanks mainly to his TV show, Sir Alfred was, even in his lifetime, something of a popular personality. The posthumous Hitchcock is more of a colorful personality disorder. Freely drawing on Stephen Rebello’s “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of ‘Psycho’” (even while fancifully embroidering Rebello’s saga and drawing on a psychological profile that has been pretty much known since the publication two decades ago of Donald Spoto’s massive biography), documentary filmmaker Sacha Gervasi’s movie means to be a jolly romp about an incorrigible perv who, obsessed with his advanced age (60), jealous of his devoted wife and collaborator Alma Reville (Helen Mirren, a trooper as always), and driven by his dark side (personified by the Wisconsin cannibal-necrophiliac Ed Gein whose murderous doings inspired the novel on which “Psycho” was based), sets out to defy studio convention and change cinema history.
Scripted by John J. Laughlin (whose credits include that ripe guilty pleasure “Black Swan”), “Hitchcock” walks the viewer through the making of “Psycho,” seeking to flatter the cinephiles in the audience with amusing in-jokes. “Am I making a terrible mistake? What if it’s another ‘Vertigo’?” Hitchcock frets while, fresh from her motel-menaced role in “Touch of Evil,” Janet Leigh (a rather too knowing Scarlett Johansson) tells her co-star Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) that “compared to Orson Welles, [Hitchcock] is a sweetheart.” Convinced that “Psycho” will be a disaster, Paramount boss Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow), mutters “Thank God, we have [the Jerry Lewis vehicle] “Cinderfella” for the [Christmas] holidays.” Actually, “Psycho” was released by Universal during the summer of 1960 after a brilliant publicity blitz organized by the director himself.
To have been among the fortunate few who did see “Psycho” cold was a once in a lifetime experience. The critic William Pechter described the unique atmosphere of excited dread with spectators united before the screen in fearful anticipation. Audiences responded as though trapped on a roller coaster ride through the spook house. According to Rebello’s account, “ticket holders standing in line grilled the patrons who poured out of the theater, laughing, outraged, shaken.” Asked about the movie’s ending they were told, “You gotta see it for yourself!”
Making much of Hitchcock’s genius for manipulation and reliance on Alma’s skill as an editor, “Hitchcock” is basically Hitchcock for Beginners. The movie has Hitch direct “Psycho”’s landmark shower scene wielding the knife himself and provoking Leigh’s screams of terror. The cheesy fun does get stale before the end (with the triumphant director lurking in the theater’s otherwise empty lobby “conducting” the audience’s screams) but it does makes the case for Hitch as an artist and “Psycho” as avant-garde.
Image: Fox Searchlight