The first thing I liked about Hitchcock (Fox Searchlight, 11.23) was the way director Sacha Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin embraced the dry, droll attitude that Alfred Hitchcock adopted and exploited while hosting his anthology TV show in the ’50s and early ’60s…that jaunty, slightly perverse commentary thing. Perfect. Just right.
The second was the mixing of occasional dark Ed Gein fantasies within the narrative, which didn’t add up but provided a slight air of macabre. The third was a sense of general intrigue — you knew right away that Hitchcock was up to something more than just rote storytelling. And I loved the ending.
The main problem, I feel, was the curious but interesting decision to focus only partly on the making of the legendary Psycho, which everyone on the planet assumed would be the thing since the film is based on Stephen Rebello‘s “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho.”
Fort a good half of the emphasis (and this is where things get dicey) is on the strained relations that arise between Mr. Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife-partner Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) when she decides to work on a writing project with the younger, somewhat libertine-ish Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who’d co-written the scripts of Hitchcock’s Stage Fright and Strangers on a Train. Alma has been Hitch’s devoted partner, supporter and artistic collaborator for decades and she wants a vacation — a little writing excitement on her own. It’s not sexual infidelity at all — it’s creative infidelity. And it really gets Hitch’s goat.
It’s odd that Alma would decide to “cheat” with Cook, as it were, just as her husband is beginning work on what they both believe is the most financially risky project of his career — a grisly black-and-white murder drama that Hitchcock is largely financing through his own Shamley Productions, but more precisely from the mortgaging of his Bel Air home. But Alma does it anyway. Her rallying cry could be “now is the time to go off and stretch my independent creative legs! When my husband’s back is against the wall!” But as I sat and watched and kicked it around I started to say to myself, “Why is Alma’s little writing project on the side and Alfred’s consternation…why is the movie spending time on a little domestic issue that nobody in this theatre gives a damn about?
I sure didn’t. It was fairly well-handled for what it was, okay, but it was a mistake. I could feel the vibe around me — people weren’t engaged. I was there to re-experience the ups and downs of making a great film and to have fun watching the acting-out of all the stories I’ve read and heard about for years. I’m the kind of guy the filmmakers are looking to please, no? A knowledgable film buff looking for a good geeky time. But no — we’re basically given a kind of truncated Cliff Notes version of the making of Psycho. A scene here, a bit there, a familiar backdrop or prop or costume, several Hitchcock quips and bon mots about this scene or that actor. And a lot of dialogue about financing. And three or four discussions with obstinate people who don’t get it.
As far as I can discern there were two reasons why a film everyone thought would be about the making of Psycho is only partly about that. The first, I’m guessing, is that Gervasi, Laughlin and their producers, Montecito’s Tom Pollock and Ivan Reitman, decided that they had to deliver more than just a historical procedural. They had to create something with an emotional core or flow to it, and therefore something different and unexpected. I said before that I respect the attempt — I just didn’t care about Alma and Alfred’s relationship issues that much. Except, that is, for that one great scene when Alma tells Hitch off — Mirren’s big stand-out.
But the real reason, I suspect, is that Hitchcock pretty much had to focus on the Alfred-and-Alma stuff because they were legally boxed in by the Hitchcock estate. (Which is controlled, I gather, by Hitchcock’s 84 year-old daughter Pat and perhaps others in the family). I was told at the Hitchcock after-party that the Hitchcock estate didn’t want what they believed were negative portrayals of Mr. Hitchcock’s manner or nature, and so they legally prevented the filmmakers from (a) shooting recreations of any shots in the original Psycho, (b) using footage from the original film, and (c) using the still-standing Psycho house and Bates Motel set on the Universal lot.
What this boils down to is that Hitchcock in effect has an invisible antagonist. Unseen, off-screen, never alluded to and not visually suggested in any way, but an antagonist all the same. I don’t know but I strongly suspect that without the roadblocks thrown down by the Hitchcock family, more of Hitchcock would have been about challenges and thrills of creating Psycho and probably, I’m guessing, a better film overall.
I was bothered, by the way, that Gervasi didn’t try harder to duplicate the marquee design of Manhattan’s DeMille theatre when Psycho opened. Special logo art was created for the DeMille marquee; in Gervasi’s film the marquee is a traditional one with red and black letters hanging on metal frames.