By now, there have been so many books and articles written about the subtextual artistry of Alfred Hitchcock that his status as a legitimate artist is no longer in question. I’m looking at a number of these books on my shelf right now.
Some of the wisdom contained therein: James Stewart’s character in “Rear Window” “is the meeting point of creator, creation and consumer, a paradigm of the power relations in art” (Dave Kehr). Or “The films made by Hitchcock long for the moment when motion stops, spirit freezes, and the body sinks into the composure of a tableau” (Peter Conrad). Or “’Vertigo’ not only reflects accurately the experiences of many people; it also comments on the metaphysic of film, and on its power to affect the psyche” (Donald Spoto). And finally, “His is the only contemporary style that unites the divergent classical traditions of Murnau (camera movement) and Eisenstein (montage)” (Andrew sarris).
This may not sound like thrill-a-minute reading for many casual moviegoers, but this is the Hitchcock I’ve grown up with – the cerebral maestro celebrated by perceptive critics.
Of course, there was another Hitchcock – the portly, Barnumesque showman who inserted himself into his pictures, reveled in grisly murders and beautiful blondes, and spoke with delightfully macabre mirth before episodes of his television series, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” In short, a mere entertainer – which is the way most of America viewed him during his lifetime. If he is spoken of now in the same breath as Bergman, Kurosawa and Godard, it’s only with the hindsight of time.
Hollywood’s recent treatment of Hitchcock has lingered, unfortunately, only on the latter half of Hitch’s artist/entertainer duality. Earlier this year, HBO aired the excruciating original movie “The Girl,” a gossipy, trivialized account of his abusive relationship with “The Birds” star Tippi Hedren, and opening today across South Florida we have the bigger-budgeted “Hitchcock,” a splashy true-Hollywood yarn about the production of “Psycho,” with Anthony Hopkins in the title role. Like “The Girl,” its approach is light, airy, comic and accessible to a fault, nothing at all like the groundbreaking film whose making it dramatizes.
Director Sacha Gervasi based the movie on Stephen Rebello’s “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho,” and it covers many of the superficial bases: Hitchcock’s insistence on shooting a toilet for the first time ever in mainstream cinema, his voyeuristic relationship with his leading lady (Janet Leigh, well portrayed by Scarlet Johansson), and the unprecedented marketing push employed to generate word-of-mouth about his self-financed film (such as refusing to permit moviegoers to enter the theater once the film had begun). But there is never a sense that Hitchcock’s final product was anything more than an underdog audience favorite, a schlocky horror movie that just happened to connect with moviegoers. “Hitchcock” is a movie that plays to the old, pre-enlightened Hitchcock narrative.
The film fares better when narrowing its focus to the relationship between the director and his wife/collaborator Alma Reville – extraordinarily played by Helen Mirren as a long-suffering writer whose talent was forever overpowered by her husband’s considerable shadow. With bleary eyes sunken in fleshy chasms and a wrinkled brow a mile long, Anthony Hopkins is as much Anthony Hopkins as he is Hitchcock, injecting a bit of that high camp from his Hannibal Lecter sequels into his studied imitation. His Hitch is a petulant child with a severe drinking problem and flashes of perverse genius, while Mirren’s Alma is the picture of nobility; even while Hitchcock ogles his actresses through glory holes bored into the walls of his office, Alma refuses to return the affections of an obviously smitten suitor (Danny Huston) who might even be a stronger match for her. She comes across as the better partner and probably the better person in their fascinating power dynamic, which leads to a couple of cracklingly good confrontations. Hitchcock’s name may be the title, but this is Mirren’s film, and the more Alma is in it, the better it is.
“Hitchcock” is not averse to corn when it suits the story, however, and the eye-rolling moments of pop psychology and sentimental closures with which screenwriter John J. McLaughlin infects this movie almost negate its better moments. There are some particularly funny lines that are suggestive of Hitchcock’s dry wit – he calls a bunch of book pitches “sleeping pills with dust jackets” and quips that “plywood is more expressive” that a certain actor’s performance. But when all is said and done, I’d imagine that the real Hitchcock would call this breezy treatment of his life a jolly enough romp, with more than a hint of acrid sarcasm.