The Watchers

The Watchers

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Review: Hitchcock (UK Cert 12A)

The story behind the making of Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock's classic horror/thriller, is as interesting as the finished product. Based on the book by Stephen Rebello which chronicles the entire process, from conception to finished product and beyond, Hitchcock is director Sacha Gervasi's first non-documentary feature film (after Anvil: The Story Of Anvil). 

The opening scene sets the tenor for the film. Wisconsin mass-murderer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) kills his own brother. After the fatal shovel blow happens, the camera pans across to see Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) standing there with a cup of tea. He then delivers a cheeky speech straight down camera. This blend of drama and wit permeates the film, making a likeable if slightly insubstantial drama, akin to My Week With Marilyn.

Anthony Hopkins gives a sterling performance as Hitchcock; Hopkins is a gifted mimic and has Hitch's rolling accent down to a tee. There are hints of his 'darker side' (explored more fully and unflinchingly in The Girl)- voyeurism,  his 'fantasy romances' with his leading ladies, his tendency to emotionally manipulate his actresses to get the desired result- but these faults never tip him over into being fundamentally unlikeable. Psycho was a massive gamble for Hitchcock and, as such, the stress and anxiety are there in spades. The prosthetic make-up is just brilliant too. The moment when he's outside the movie theatre and is almost conducting the screams of the audience during the shower scene is absolutely brilliant.

Helen Mirren is also just sublime as Alma Reville, Hitch's devoted wife and collaborator. She bears a lot with exceedingly good grace- her husband's infatuations, the people who look past her and through her (despite everything she's done to help Hitch get where he is)- but her performance is never martyred, never suffering. Indeed, one of the main plot points is whether she will have an affair with the silky Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston, turning on the smarm), a conflict that's never really a threat. Her quiet demolition of Hitch when he declares she should be giving him her 'full support' is a brilliantly written and played scene: she never gets hysterical, she keeps it under control but lets him know in no uncertain terms what she does for him.

There is uncanny casting for the cast of Psycho, so hats off to Terri Taylor (casting director) for getting so close to the original. Perhaps the best is James D'Arcy as Anthony Perkins. Whilst he bears more than a passing physical resemblance to the late Mr Perkins, D'Arcy's brief performance evokes the actor fully. Scarlett Johannson gives a brilliant performance as Janet Leigh and there are scenes when she's shooting the car scenes for Psycho where I had to do a double take; the hair and make-up team have also done a sterling job. Good too is Jessica Biel as Vera Miles; Miles and Hitchcock had a famously fractious relationship after she dropped out of playing Madeleine in Vertigo due to being pregnant. She gets a couple of meaty scenes not only with Hopkins but also with Johansson, warning Leigh not to get to close to the maestro.

Other decent performances are Toni Collette as Hitch's secretary Peggy Robertson, quietly aghast at the content of the movie but still standing by her boss. Michael Stuhlbarg is also great as Hitch's agent Lew Wasserman, standing up to the studio boss when Hitch is determined that Psycho will be his next picture. Kurtwood Smith is good as head of the censor board Geoffrey Shurlock who clashes with Hitch over some of the content of the film (most notably the flushing toilet, a first for American cinema) and there's a nice one-scene cameo by former Karate Kid Ralph Maccho as screenwriter Joseph Stefano.

The film does take a few mis-steps in places- most notably the use of Gein to show Hitchcock's inner feelings. The killer- inspiration for Norman Bates, Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Buffalo Bill in The Silence Of The Lambs- appears to Hitch in dream sequences and even acts as his psychotherapist at one point. Whilst the scenes are used to show Hitch's internal feelings, I couldn't help but feel that a better screenwriter would have found a way around it. A cardinal rule of creative writing is show, don't tell. Sadly, John J. McLaughlin doesn't always do this and the film suffers a little because of it.

The other mis-step is the length of the film. At a positively svelte 98 minutes, the film nips along at a fair old pace. But I wanted more. More information about the actual making of the film, the nuts-and-bolts process, some of the stories (the blood in the shower scene). More about what the actors felt about what they were doing- there are hints that Perkins had a very similar relationship to his mother that Bates did (without the corpse-stealing and transvestism, of course), so that would have been interesting to explore. What the film has done is made me want to read the book it's based on, so that's no bad thing.

You don't really need any prior knowledge of Psycho before you go in, but it'll enhance the experience if you do. All said, a handsomely-made piece, impeccably acted throughout, a wonderful glimpse of behind the scenes of a classic film. It left me wanting more.

Rating: 4 out of 5


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