It is common knowledge that Alfred Hitchcock had a problematic relationship with women, something which has been historically documented in biographies and by former staff. ‘Hitchcock’ which opens November 23 in San Francisco delves into the personal history of the British director during the making of the cult horror film ‘Psycho’ (1960). Sacha Gervasi’s biopic has a different slant on it all, and would have us believe that Alfred was jealous of his wife Alma, and that it was really up to his leading ladies to keep him in place – like Janet Leigh did.
Alfred Hitchcock paid for the controversial ‘Psycho’and it’s publicity and it was distributed by the reluctant Paramount. The Danish American Scarlett Johansson plays the California starlet Janet Leigh, the leading lady of ‘Psycho’ – Marion Crane. Johansson gives a memorable performance, but she is just a little too giddy, evoking more Marilyn Monroe than Janet Leigh who would disguise her powers of perception and vulnerability by appearing innocently voluptuous. In ‘Hitchcock’ Alma thanks Leigh for being “professional”, in other words for not throwing herself at Hitchcock. This implies that all the other leading ladies before her must have, thereby letting him off the hook for stalking them. The hole drilled in the wall of the set for Norman Bates is used to spy on Vera Miles (Jennifer Biel) who let him down by getting pregnant and not being able to star in ‘Vertigo’. Hitchcock boasted that he had the power to make women stars, something that he felt deserved their reciprocity through sexual favors.
Anthony Hopkins plays the master director, and Helen Mirren, his wife Alma Reville. Hopkins occasionally lapses into quick-paced monologues that evoke his role as Hannibal Lector. If you have heard Hitchcock, you know he spoke slowly and distinctly with a dry wit. Yet Hopkins will more than likely get Oscar attention for playing the heavy-set director because despite his diction, it’s hard to know he is under there.
There is more than ample screen space about Hitchcock and his wife. Alma Reville helped Hitchcock to complete ‘Psycho’ but a considerable part of the film shows how Alma stole away during the production to write with screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) who worked on Hitchcock’s ‘Stage Fright’ (1950), and ‘Strangers on the Train'(1951).
Where the film was made, how Marion Crane’s car was sunk in a swamp, and the studio settings of Norman Bate’s home and motel are subjects that still arouse curiousity, but there is just one scene with Marion Crane’s car in the studio. Instead ‘Hitchcock’ seems to be settling a score on how innocuous Hitchcock actually was – just a cute man of 60 with normal insecurities and an eating disorder. Watching him consume several tins of fatty foie gras late at night in a refrigerator raid or eating celery sticks is far from being the intimate details about the making of ‘Psycho’ that the film seems to promise.
On the plus side of ‘Hitchcock’ is the dramatization of Ed Gein (played by Michael Wincott), the model for Norman Bates in Robert Bloch’s novel ‘Psycho’, and how details of the serial murderer dance in Hitchcock’s head as he conceives his next picture. There has got to be another film about Ed Gein’s interest in the first person to have gender reassignment surgery, Christine Jorgenson, and his wish to have the same operation. How this translates on film in ‘Psycho’ is as worthy of study as the famous shower scene. The fact that according to psychiatrist Dr Richman (Sam Oakland), “Norman no longer exists” is truly open to interpretation.
‘Hitchcock’ is based on a novel about the making of ‘Psycho’ by Stephen Rebello. It is perhaps about that but the main focus is on the principal stars – Hopkins, Mirren and Johansson an Hitchcock’s personal relationships with wife Alma, Vera Miles and Janet Leigh offscreen and onscreen. They are excellent of course in playing themselves playing major Hitchcock stars and they bankroll the film, which explains why some of the interesting characters in ‘Psycho’ are shadows. Hitchcock shares with ‘The Girl’, the recent HBO biopic about Tippi Hedren, that Hitchock exerted maximal control in terrorizing Janet Leigh to get what he wanted onscreen. With Vera Miles, we learn that Hitchcock was an offscreen ‘peeping tom’.
The shower scene and how it was unique for its time in the stabbing of Marion Crane is the major portion of the film that gives us an inside view of behind the scenes, such as the problems of getting it past censorship and how editing created emotion in the spectator. However, this isn’t new, nor is the film score added by Bernard Hermann after protest and Janet Leigh’s eye moving after she was supposed to be dead (caught by Alma Reville).
James D’Arcy who brilliantly plays Anthony Perkins has limited screen space, as does Toni Collette as Hitchcock’s secretary have barely enough screen space to constitute being a character. Ralph Macchio does a brilliant job as ‘Psycho’ screenwriter Joseph Stefano who turned down scripting ‘The Birds’, but he is only on for seconds. For novelty, it might have been interesting to learn something new, such as about the actress who does the voice of Norman Bates, seasoned veteran Jeanette Nolan. Hitchcock might be better suited for young audiences who know little about ‘Psycho’ even if this is little detail to how he created the self-sacrificing Marion Crane. Is there some reason why this film wasn’t released two years ago on the 50th anniversary of the making of ‘Psycho’?
As far as biopics on Hitchcock, Grace of Monaco is in production with Nicole Kidman set to play Grace Kelley in 2014. This is a subject long overdue.