When a person first set out enjoying movies it is understandable the major draw is the genre in my youth it was science fiction and creature features that ruled the local theaters drawing us in each week. Then you might notice certain actors or, for most teenage boys, actresses that provided incentive to watch anything they happen to appear in. one on the milestones of maturation as a burgeoning cinephile occurs when you have nurtured sufficient appreciation for the artistry of process and start following the careers of the filmmakers. For me one of the most influential directors in those nascent days as a movie buff was the grand master of suspense and thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock. Like most I was memorized by ‘Psycho and captivated by ‘Strangers on a Train’ so that even at a fairly tender age I realized this was the work of a genius. My exposure to the works of Hitchcock occurred at the ideal time, just as I was attaining the literary foundation and in the focused period of teen obsession I began to devour his movies as they appeared on television. Now Blu-ray sets presenting his oeuvre occupy a section on my collection shelves devoted these masterpieces of film. I had a considerable amount of trepidation when I received a copy of the bio-pic ‘Hitchcock’ since was difficult to watch a dramatization of this directorial giant played out in the context of a movie. I realize by all accounts he could be cruel to his actors demeaning even the greatest of their craft to extract the performance he demanded. I guess what took a while for me to consider this movie in this format comes down to a simple fact; I’d rather spend time experiencing an Alfred Hitchcock film than write about a film providing a sliver of his life.
The foundation of this movie was Stephen Rebello's non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho directed by Sacha Gervasi. His only prior credit was a documentary concerned with a successful heavy metal band. I tried to console myself that it would be better for a relative newcomer without experience in the genres perfected by Mr. Hitchcock would afford the movie the opportunity to present a reasonably object look at the man during the creation of his most famous film. While this objective was achieved at least in part after watching the movie it was obvious that you cannot depict this man without an understanding of the types of movies he reinvented, I realize this if a non-fiction work, based on the essence of the known fact with extrapolation of many of the details. Mr. Gervasi captured the novel, which is a must for Hitchcock fans, but it left the nagging feeling of falling short of presenting Hitchcock as a master of cinema.
The movie begins in 1959, on the heels on the latest successful film by Alfred Hitchcock (Sir Anthony Hopkin), ‘North by Northwest’. Adding yet another hit to a long list of great films is tarnished when Hitchcock comes across a comment in the papers suggesting it was time for him to retire. The reason cited was the director was losing the shocking edge that was the defining quality of his earlier films. The proposal on the table was to turn Ian Fleming’s first novel about British spy, James Bond, ‘Casino Royale’. Eschewing this Hitchcock wanted to shock the audience by infusing his unique technics of suspense into a horror film. Such a departure from his usual themes would surprise his fans and provide the personal satisfaction of expanding the scope of his artistic vision. For a story Hitchcock looked to the heinous crimes of serial killer Ed Gein as loosely the basis of the novel ‘Psycho’ by Robert Bloch. The concept does not ignite the same degree of passion with his collogues most disappointingly his wife and artistic collaborator, Alma (Dame Helen Mirren). Unable to secure the full support of the Paramount studio Mr. Hitchcock devises a means to start principle photography. Against the current wisdom of the era a film director avoided any work in television. This was a period of intense rivalry with the cinematic community looking down at television as an inferior medium. Hitchcock pioneered his own path by broadcasting his own anthology series, ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’. With his own financing he leveraged the existing infrastructure of the series; sets, equipment and crew, and ‘Psycho’ began filming.
There was enough drama and intrigue developing behind the scenes than on set. Accusations of Hitchcock’s lascivious reputation and perchance for young blond stresses set people wondering about an affair between Hitchcock and his leading lady, Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson). This did not sit well with Alma on either a personal or profession level. Some of the scenes were considered so intense and shocking by the sensibilities of the time that the Motion Picture Production Code representative, Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith) threatening to derail crucial scenes in Hitchcock’s vision. The drama continues when Hitchcock collapses from over exertion and is bed ridden. Alma had to step in helming the film during his absence. A significant portion of the movie focuses on the relationship between Hitchcock and Alma specifically the numerous suspicions of infidelity. Surprisingly although turbulent the couple was surprisingly strong in their mutual devotion. The initial cut of the film was panned by the studio until the addition of the famous musical score by Bernard Hermann.
The film suffers from the over indulgence of soap opera melodrama. I fully realize this was the point of the story and admit it achieved that goal but I also cannot shake the feeling that the most fascinating aspect of this time period was overlooked. As a lifelong fan of Alfred Hitchcock I was aware of the use of the television infrastructure and self-financing. His eye for the young women in leading roles is legendary as was is underlying dedication to Alma. What seemed to be glossed over was the degree of tribulation that the production faced. This is one of the pivotal films not only in the artistic expression of cinema but a turning point in the mainstream acceptance of horror as a genre. Hitchcock was a trailblazer who considered the studio’s a somewhat necessary evil but ultimately had to do things his way. It was unthinkable to kill off the leading actress in the first reel but that only added to the surprises in store for the audience. It is interesting as it stands but doesn’t capture the true essence of the events. That came closest to being achieved by the formidable leading cast. Sir Anthony and Dame Helen have such an all-pervading command of acting that they can fully embody their characters. Their individual performances are wondrous but when they share the scene an undeniable synergy envelopes the set creating something remarkable.