'Hitchcock' Review: Shakespeare's Superior Sister

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If you know Alfred Hitchcock as The Master of Suspense ™, or as academia's All-Star Auteur, Hitchcock may bum you out. But if you know him as the TV personality and MC of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," this may represent such a fall from grace. Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil) has transformed Stephen Rebello’s book "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho" into an episode of Hitchcock's TV show, replete with the edge softening and shallowness required for broadcast. Why he, or screenwriter John McLaughlin (Black Swan) used this book as opposed to the more accepted (and more poetic) “The Moment of Psycho” by David Thompson, is beyond me, though they do install a few flourishes to connect and conflate inspiration and reality, which is certainly a Thompson hallmark.

Hitchcock, (absurdly portrayed by Anthony Hopkins) eats emotionally, gets neurotic when he’s not on a project and can't be convinced to choose a more tasteful project than the recent bestseller “Psycho.” His strategic capacities incomparable, he tells his assistant (Toni Collette) to buy every edition of the book on shelves so people can’t read the ending before the film’s out. Already we’re cued into a Hollywood that’s extinct, one less obsessed with cross promotions than with the viability of one product and one industry at a time. Everyone hates Hitch’s idea and his wife, Alma (Helen Mirren) has a superior project in mind, one that’s sophisticated, suspenseful and written by a friend’s hot husband (Danny Huston). So when the studio tells Hitch they won't finance Psycho and Alma (Mirren) tries to get him onto another script, husband and wife start to struggle with imaginary infidelities and the niggling cruelties germane to working in movies. Hitch ogles Janet Leigh (an absurdly cast Scarlett Johannson) in front of Alma and she excuses herself; Alma comes home with sand on her clothes, and Hitch points fingers and eats three tins of imported pate. The pathology is mundane (excusing the pricy details) and still aggravatingly on the nose.

Alma is her husband's right hand and the brains behind his provocation operation. She’s disciplined, sharp and when Toni Collette tells her she should get more credit she says, “the important people know.” Hitch, one of the “Dead White Men” of the Film Canon (the list of “masters” from movie history) wants to incite audiences and attract attention. The approbation he seeks is promiscuous—the sort that leads to fame. He did, after all, make cameos in all his films to establish film as a director’s art and let the world know who’s the man. It was a fun gimmick too—see how his strategy cuts many ways? Meanwhile, Hitchcock is confused: it spends more time trying to strike a balance between Mirren and Hopkins than expounding on the story of Shakespeare's Sister, or rather, Hitchcock's Wife.

Hitchcock demonstrates no understanding (unique or otherwise) of the perspective of its subject, or his films. Gervasi treats the shower scene like 15 seconds of butcher knife and screaming when anyone’s who’s studied the film knows the "shower scene" is a misnomer that ends with a car in a bog and takes around 20 minutes. The scariest part isn’t our protagonist dying, it’s us searching the screen for someone to cling to and only finding the killer. Hitchcock is called a "master" because he understood quite a lot about what intrigues us so deeply we'll get dirty to learn more. In a particularly revealing moment, Anthony Perkins (James D'Arcy) asks Hitchock why he's looking through a hole in the wall at a naked Marion (Johannson). In the film, this is an unsubtle hint at Perkin's sexuality. But Gervasi may as well be asking the ghost of Hitchock because he doesn't know either and it's got nothing to do with liking boys or girls.

Since British cinema journal Sight and Sound voted Vertigo #1 in this decade’s critics poll (ousting Citizen Kane for the first time in 40 years) the time is right for Hitchcock biopics, but indifferent, partially educated ones…there’s no good time for those.

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