A walk through H: Hitchcock

08 February 2013

'Hitchcock', out today, seeks to inject life and meaning into one of its eponymous figure's masterpieces... But how, and why?

Hitchcock is a conceptually slender and creatively stillborn dramatisation of the banal hoo-hahs that apparently plagued the making of Psycho (1960), one of the ten or so masterpieces directed by Alfred Hitchcock. In an age in which text apparently doubles as autobiographical clue, this hammed-up, limp-wristed, tell-all non-event plays out like a pre-packaged matinee showing at Your Local Independent Cinema, catered to the gullible few who ought to know better during the downtime between Quartet and Song For Marion. Hitchcock made thrillers, don't you know, and here's what inspired his genius... A word of warning, though: Psycho this isn't. As that canny but difficult-to-live-with master of suspense says at one point in the film offensively named after him, "It just sits there, and fails to come to life."

As John L. McLaughlin's script - adapted from a Stephen Rebello book - has it, the dramatic appeal of Psycho's production is multi-fold: it pushed censorship boundaries with its suggestions of sex, nudity and violence; on set, as well as directing the film at hand, Hitch ("hold the cock") had to negotiate an old pervert's attraction to elusive fantasy blonde Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), while off set, long-suffering wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) enjoyed reciprocated flirtations with sleaze-bag hack Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston); but the fundamental pressure from the outset of the film's production was the fact that, due to its content, Hitchcock's employers Paramount wanted nothing to do with it, and so the director had to fund the film himself by mortaging his plush home and adjoining swimming pool (Alma just loves the latter). It's hardly Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991), or Lost in La Mancha (2002).

Swimming against the unbeatable tide of myth as well as the fact that Psycho itself had already outlived one "remake" (Gus Van Sant's 1998 effort) even before the suggestion of a making-of had been pitched, Hitchcock's title is telling of its overall angle: the real thrust behind Psycho was the man himself, and - at a time of film-funders' misplaced obsession with the trivial and the private - the professional/personal relationships he had with those around him. Here, said relationships are with agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg, criminally underused); leading lady Leigh; an imagined Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life serial killer who partly inspired Psycho, who pops up intermittently to lend Hitch advice between the latter's midnight visits to the fridge; and wife Alma - whose inevitable drift toward illicit affair is both cause and effect of Psycho's production. No mention of Hitch and Alma's daughter Pat - who has a credited appearance in Psycho - but plenty, inexplicable suggestions of a childless marriage.

As it develops, of course, Hitchcock himself becomes a child. Wanting it both ways, he charms Leigh in Alma's presence, and pays little attention to his wife's explicit disapproval, only to then lead Psycho into a lifeless cul-de-sac in her increasing absence. After collapsing with stress in his office, reconciliation and a reunited front accommodate a re-edit (Psycho's editor George Tomasini's presence in this film is a blink-and-miss affair; the larger suggestion is that without Alma's input, Hitchcock's film was a certified goner). Incarnated by Hopkins, Hitchcock is an eye-rollingly prostheticised caricature, complete with silhouetted profiles, puffed-up lips and a beyond-camp impersonation, all of which reinforce his legend. It doesn't help that in the early scenes especially, the film appears doubly familiar to those who'd already seen the trailers, whose nutshell narrative didn't so much reconceptualise the film's key scenes as play them out verbatim.

Following last year's reissue of Hitchcock's silent films and the critical attention and re-evaluation given to his career as a whole, McLaughlin and director Sacha Gervasi's film is the second project in quick succession to tackle the making of one of the director's films alongside his notorious penchant for an unconsummated and unreciprocated extra-marital fling; the other was Gwyneth Hughes and Julian Jarrold's TV affair The Girl. That film concentrated on Hitchcock's professional relationship with Tippi Hedren during the making of The Birds (1963), the film that directly followed Psycho, and which is cued here by a to-camera wink involving the actual appearance of a crow - when perhaps a mere dollop of bird's shit might have been more appropriate.