Mark Reviews Movies



3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Sacha Gervasi

Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Danny Huston, Toni Collette, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jessica Biel, Michael Wincott, James D'Arcy, Richard Portnow, Kurtwood Smith

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violent images, sexual content and thematic material)

Running Time: 1:38

Release Date: 11/23/12 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 22, 2012

In the last half of 1959, Alfred Hitchcock was riding the wave of the commercial and critical success of North by Northwest. He was contracted to provide one more film to Paramount Pictures, and the powers that be insisted that the project be something along the lines of his last film—a surefire hit to close out their tenuous relationship (They certainly didn't want Vertigo to be their last Hitchcock film; remember, no matter how it's viewed today, that film just broke even at the box office). Hitchcock ("Hitch," he says; "Leave out the 'cock'") was in the midst of a successful gig as the executive producer of a television show with his name on it, earning a sizeable amount of money for introducing and concluding each episode (The film pulls the same bookend trick).

Some believed the TV show was a sign of the deterioration of the "Master of Suspense." One of those people very well could have been the great director himself. Hitchcock, a rightfully deferent—though not to the point of groveling submissiveness—account of the production of Psycho, sees the man as having an uncanny knowledge of many things. One subject he has an enormous fondness for is himself—especially what others think of him.

Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins, a fine imitation that still retains the actor's own essence—the cadence of speech, for example, is exactly right, though the tone is Hopkins') spends days scrutinizing the same reviews over and over again. When his two female stars retire to the dressing room for some gossip about their director, the man's unmistakable silhouette lingers by the door, and that's not the most invasive thing John J. McLaughlin's screenplay (based on Stephen Rebello's book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho) imagines Hitchcock doing regarding women. He stares out his window at pretty blondes walking past his office on the studio lot and, in one instance, becomes like the anti-hero of the film he's making when he lifts a picture frame to reveal a peephole, which looks into the dressing room, behind it.

The film creates another similarity between Hitchcock and Norman Bates, the quiet motel owner with a murderous streak and a wicked Oedipus complex, in that they both communicate with people who aren't present. For Bates, it is his dead mother; for Hitchcock, it's Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the infamous murderer and grave robber whose story has inspired a slew of books and movies based on parts of his story—including a novel by Robert Bloch that Hitchcock asserts will be the foundation for his next film.

That Hitchcock speaks to Gein—and, perhaps more importantly, that Gein speaks to him—says something about Hitchcock's sometimes strange sympathies. Do not forget, from the moment Janet Leigh's (Scarlett Johansson) Marion Crane exits Psycho in the shower (The development of that scene to its final incarnation—from the exact editing to the screeching score—becomes the film's central focus in the last act), Hitchcock has us rooting for Anthony Perkins' (James D'Arcy, eerily spot-on) Bates, a man who in our immediate view is at least an accomplice to murder after the fact. Hitchcock had a genuine appreciation for the macabre. The man had demons, but the odd psychological alliance with Gein perhaps suggests too much (though he does take quite a shine to showing the proper way to stab and slice a woman).

The film is far more enjoyable for the way it shows how Hitchcock formed and maintained his collaborations in the real world.  In the process of interviewing writers to pen the screenplay, he meets with Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio), and the conversation turns to psychiatry—namely that Hitchcock sees no need for it for himself. Stefano, on the other hand, says he has a daily appointment and that the conversation with his doctor usually leans toward his mother. When Perkins approaches Hitchcock with his concern that the role of Bates hits a little too close to home, what with his childhood fascination with his mother's clothes, it only solidifies his certainty in his casting.

The central relationship of the film—the one that exists in both Hitchcock's professional and inwardly troubled worlds—is the one between Hitchcock and his wife Alma (Helen Mirren, quiet but strong-willed). She is supportive of his work—never questioning her husband's decision to provide the funding for the film from their pockets (only reminding him when he complains about the lack of certain comforts to which he had become accustomed)—and protective of his health—scolding him whenever he reaches for food or pours himself another drink.

She recognizes Hitchcock's fascination with beautiful actresses (She calls him out for ogling Leigh at parties when he brings her up as a possible cast member) and might be a little more understanding—maybe even forgiving—of it if only he would talk to her about it. Instead, she finds refuge in working with Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), a writer who's worked with Hitchcock before and wants the chance to again to help his career. Hitchcock might seem romantically aloof with his wife, but it's more than a tinge of jealousy when he begins to suspect that Alma's relationship with Cook might be something other than a writing project.

The film presents us with two Hitchcocks—the confident craftsman and the insecure man—within the dual worlds he inhabits. When those characteristics bleed together, Hitchcock is at its most illuminating about its subject, and when Alma enters the picture in the final act in her full capacity as a partner to her husband at work as well as at home, the film really finds its stride as an examination of passionate people fighting tooth-and-nail for their artistic satisfaction.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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