Good evening, indeed
‘Hitchcock’ offers a funny and informative night at the movies with the Master of Suspense
By Carl Kozlowski 11/29/2012
Virtually every famous public figure has two lives: the one the public thinks it knows, and the real one carried out behind closed doors. For anyone who’s ever read a tabloid or glanced at TMZ online, it’s all too obvious that the lines blur way too often these days — but in the heyday of the studio system, star-making era that ran through the 1950s, everyone’s image was tightly crafted.
That included director Alfred Hitchcock, the British genius who earned the title of “Master of Suspense” for releasing a seemingly endless string of timelessly entertaining films for decades. On the surface, he was a corpulent man with regal bearings (famous for telling audiences “Good evening” in his onscreen TV and film addresses) and a darkly sly sense of humor. But beneath that carefully crafted veneer, Hitchcock made bizarre and unwelcome advances on a string of blonde female stars while maintaining a lengthy marriage to Alma Reville.
Alma, however, was much more than a simple wife relegated to obscurity. Rather, she was Alfred’s most important creative partner and influence, weighing in on nearly every creative decision he made, despite earning writing credits on only some of his films. And in the case of his classic 1960 horror film “Psycho,” it was a string of her decisions — including on editing and the music score — that saved the picture from disaster.
That unusual partnership is the focus of the new film “Hitchcock,” which brings the couple to vibrant life through a combination of perfect makeup and immersive acting by Anthony Hopkins as Alfred and a performance of demure yet steely grace by Helen Mirren.
Director Sacha Gervasi, who’s making his fiction feature-film debut following the highly entertaining documentary “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” in 2009, brings a saucy wit and a wicked sense of adventure to the screen in telling the story of how “Psycho” went from being the serial-killer script so gorily ahead of its time no one wanted to finance it to one of the most indelible hits in film history.
The film is bookended by Hitchcock addressing the actual viewing audience with a sly wit setting up the phase his career was in at the time of “Psycho.” Hitchcock loved to appear onscreen, whether in “Where’s Waldo?”-style quick cuts as an extra for people to find in a crowd, or in his film trailers and TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” in which he would introduce each week’s tale of suspense, made in the style of the popular series “The Twilight Zone.” Therefore, the bookending is perfect in setting the film’s tone as an offbeat look at a specific era of his life rather than a dry, full-life biography.
We find that Hitchcock made “Psycho” in response to his having had a rare box-office flop a few years earlier, and amid heavy industry questioning about whether he could keep up with a new generation of filmmakers. Therefore, with a heavy desire to prove himself once and for all, Hitchcock found the most transgressive screenplay he could find — about a cross-dressing, mommy-loving maniac based on real-life killer Ed Gein — and insisted that he would film that script or nothing else.
In fact, he was so determined to break taboos and redeem his popularity that he ultimately funded the entire $800,000 production cost himself in exchange for receiving 40 percent of the film’s gross earnings. Testing his marriage by putting his house on the line and by his obvious yet unrequited sexual obsession with his female lead, Janet Leigh, Hitchcock was metaphorically spinning a million plates at once on set while engaging in witty battles with Alma at home.
Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin (adapting a biography by Stephen Rebello) do an ace job of presenting the funny tensions on set with the more serious ones at home. Unlike the utterly bloated and stodgy “Lincoln,” this movie moves fast yet hits its points with a welcome depth and offers up two likely Oscar nominees in Hopkins and Mirren, who completely lose themselves in their on-screen personas.
Whether you are in the mood for a zippy history lesson, want to see towering performances or are just eager to learn how the first true horror movie of the modern era managed to break through tired taboos to scare us for decades to come, this film is for you.
Just like many of the great director’s classic films, “Hitchcock” should stand the test of time. n