Hitchcock (Blu-ray / DVD)
Directed by Sacha Gervasi
Distributed by Fox Home Entertainment
When it was first announced that author Stephen Rebello’s wonderful behind-the-scenes tome Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho was being adapted to film, this writer was ecstatic. As a massive Psycho fan and admirer of Rebello’s book, I was excited to see a dramatization of the events that surrounded the creation of one of my favorite films. But still, a lingering question continued to nag throughout the film’s production and marketing – just how would the filmmakers behind Hitchcock manage to turn Rebello’s wonderfully detailed yet dramatically bereft book into a satisfying cinematic experience in its own right?
Short answer: they didn’t. Now, don’t misunderstand, I would actually count myself an admirer of the film I’m about to review (some issues aside).
However, though the film is a modest success as an enjoyable motion picture, it fails miserably as a faithful adaptation of Rebello’s work (or as a presentation of real events). Rather, Hitchcock uses its source material as a mere jumping off point, which it then alters with plenty of apocryphal detail and dramatic contrivances. The result, while dodgy as can be, is an enjoyable and affectionate look at one of cinema’s masters at work on one of his most enduring films.
Opening just after the release of North by Northwest, Hitchcock finds the eponymous director (Hopkins) at a crossroads: at 60, he can choose to continue making the types of lavish thrillers that he is known for, or he can attempt to stretch himself as an artist and take on material that will test his mettle and shock his fans and critics. When he comes across Robert Bloch’s newly released horror novel Psycho, he knows he’s found his next feature. To make this grisly, pulpy book into a film, Hitchcock must battle shortsighted studio heads, his own team of supporters, and even his wife Alma (Mirren), who reluctantly agrees to support her husband in spite of her better judgment.
As viewers, we are made privy to Hitchcock’s process, including: having his assistant Peggy Robertson (Collette) acquire the property and buy up all existing copies to prevent its twist ending from reaching the masses; crafting the script with writer Joseph Stefano (Ralph The Karate Kid Macchio, in a damned good but all too brief turn as the screenwriter); and, of course, the casting his film’s leads. While far too little time is spent with Anthony Perkins (D’Arcy) and Vera Miles (Biel), an ample portion of the film is devoted to Hitchcock’s relationship with Janet Leigh (Johansson, really great here). And while Hitchcock battles the typical pressures of mounting a film production, so too does he battle his own demons – his girth, his jealousy, and his own misgivings about his abilities. A large portion of the film finds Hitchcock believing that Alma may be carrying on an affair with Whitfield Cook (Huston, playing the type of charming sleazeball that is his stock-in-trade), one of Hitchcock’s former screenwriters. It is the drama that stems from Hitchcock’s suspicions and the relationship between he and Alma that the film is most concerned with (lest you think this film is more of a by-the-numbers filmmaking procedural).
In spite of my apprehension about the film once I realized where it was going, Hitchcock mostly works. The film is beautifully shot, wonderfully scored (by Danny frickin’ Elfman), and acts as a loving homage to one of film’s greatest directors while not overly whitewashing some of the man’s more dubious traits. Director Sacha Gervasi deserves credit for keeping the film light and fun, but suitably dark and dramatic when it needs to be.
And the acting! Hopkins is wonderful as Hitch, ably adopting the man’s more recognizable mannerisms without letting his performance become a mere caricature. He is at turns funny, mischievous, occasionally creepy, and often moving. As Alma Hitchcock, Mirren is superb, giving us a portrait of a remarkably strong woman who is likely due more credit than we can know for many of her husband’s accomplishments. As noted, Johannson is great, evoking the spirit of Janet Leigh though she looks little like her. But! While their performances are perfectly solid, neither Jessica Biel nor James D’Arcy manage to capture the essences of the people they’re portraying, especially the latter. D’Arcy is certainly a good actor (check him out in the very creepy and newly released In Their Skin), but no matter how many times the director and D’Arcy’s fellow actors have told us that his impression is uncanny, this writer never once bought him as Anthony Perkins.
Also worth noting is Michael Wincott, who portrays Ed Gein, the Wisconsin farmer whose graverobbing and murderous exploits inspired Bloch’s book (along with Texas Chainsaw’s Leatherface and Jame Gumb from The Silence of the Lambs). I’ve often found Wincott to be an underrated actor, always putting in fantastic performances but rarely getting the amount of work this writer feels he’s due. But unfortunately, though Wincott is quite good here, it is his portion of the film is also the most troubling. The film plays with a device that has Hitchcock speaking to Ed as though he were his shrink, taking notes on Hitchcock’s troubled state of mind and guiding him (badly) throughout his troubles. Sometimes Ed appears to Hitchcock, sometimes Hitchcock appears on Gein’s property to chat with him. Sometimes these are treated as dream sequences, sometimes…not? It’s a neat idea, and a smart way to get into Hitchcock’s head, but this subplot never quite works. For one, the sequences are presented in such a way that they might muddle the Gein story to those not already familiar with it. In addition, there is never really a payoff to the relationship between the two men. Sure, Ed is only meant to be a figment of Hitch’s imagination (one believes), but the entire lack of a resolution between the two is unfortunate. Chalk it up as a smart invention, executed poorly.
Disappointing, also, is how little Psycho there is in this “making of Psycho” movie. As noted, the bulk of the film revolves around the relationship between Hitch and Alma, but dammit! Did we have to spend so little time concerned with the making of one of best films of all time? All of the big moments are checked, yes – shower scene, Mother’s reveal, Arbogast’s murder, peeks of the motel and Bates Mansion. But, aside from Hitch’s reasoning behind taking on the project in the first place, there’s never a feeling that the movie being made is vital to the story being told. I understand some rights issues were likely involved, but it’s a shame that film fans couldn’t have glimpsed more of that classic film’s making.
That aside, 20th Century Fox has done right by Hitchcock with its Blu-ray release. In addition to sporting a beautiful transfer with fine detail and gorgeous, vibrant colors, Hitchcock hits disc with a fantastic audio presentation and an surprising amount of bonus features for a title that was essentially dumped into a limited amount of theatres during its brief run. Included as extras are: a deleted scene featuring more of the initial shrink session Hitch has with Ed Gein; Becoming the Master, a fun featurette that explores the makeup and acting techniques used to transform Hopkins into Hitchcock; Obsessed with Hitchcock, a thirty minute making-of doc that is a fun as it is scattershot; some neat behind-the-scenes footage shot by Gervasi with his cell phone; an amusing PSA Hopkins recorded as Hitchcock, giving a warning to all the rude bastards who might consider texting during the film presentation; a set of five brief featurettes covering various aspects of the film’s production and its subject matter; the theatrical trailer (thank you); and an audio commentary with Gervasi and Stephen Rebello, which will be a must-listen for fans of the film (and Hitchcock fans in general).
Overall, a damned impressive release for a pretty solid movie. If you’re a fan of film’s namesake, you’ll probably be well-advised to just go ahead and give the title a blind buy. If you’re a fan of Psycho - well, then, temper your expectations but go ahead and give the film a rental, at least. Casual viewers? It’s not a must-see, but give Hitchcock a shot somewhere down the line. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
3 1/2 out of 5
4 out of 5