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It’s been quite a year for Alfred Hitchcock, hasn’t it? His film, “Vertigo,” a box-office bomb when it was released in 1958, was voted the greatest film of all time by the 846 critics, distributors and academics commissioned by Sight & Sound magazine, supplanting “Citizen Kane,” which had ruled atop that prestigious list for decades. Then HBO premiered its movie, “The Girl,” about Hitchcock’s obsession with Tippy Hedren, his star of “The Birds” and “Marnie.”
If “The Girl” focuses on the girl and was a drag, “Hitchcock” focuses on Hitchcock and is fun. It begins and ends fun anyway. Near the end, Mrs. Hitchcock, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), tells her husband (Anthony Hopkins) that they’ve been “maudlin” with each other for too long. Indeed. That’s the problem with “Hitchcock.” It, like Hitchcock himself, has a maudlin middle.
Why are the Mr. and Mrs. maudlin? Because after 30 years Alma is suddenly upset by her husband’s obsessions with his leading ladies, the so-called Hitchcock blondes, including Madeleine Carroll, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, and now, here, Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson). To get back at him, she succumbs to the attentions of hack-writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who adapted “Strangers on a Train” for Hitchcock (apparently poorly), and who is now working on a project called “Taxi to Dubrovnik,” which, in real life, was published as a novel in 1981. At a beach cottage, she agrees to collaborate on it with him. She likes the way he flirts with her. She likes the attention he pays to her. Attention must be paid. But her absence distracts the great man from his work, the film “Psycho,” for which they, the Hitchcocks, are mortgaging their house. It also distracts him from his obsessions, such as peeking through the blinds of his Paramount office at the would-be Hitchcock blondes walking by. Instead, Hitch becomes obsessed with Alma.
Even before Alma began disappearing up the coast, though, Hitch hardly seems obsessed with his leading lady. He doesn’t stare at her 8x10 glossy the way he does with Grace Kelly’s. He doesn’t spy on her in the dressing room through a peephole, as he does with Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), prefiguring, of course, Norman Bates’ own voyeurism in “Psycho.” He isn’t upset with her, disappointed in her, the way he was with Miles, whom he was going to make a star in “Vertigo,” until she betrayed on him, cheated on him you might say, by getting pregnant. He doesn’t maul her in the backseat of a limo as he does with Tippi Hedren in HBO’s “The Girl.” You know what he does? He shares candy corn with her in the front seat of her Volkswagen. Cute. So what’s Mrs. Hitchcock’s problem? That’s the real disconnect of the movie. It doesn’t answer one of the main questions of drama: Why now? If anything, everything points to it not being now. Everything they own is riding on “Psycho.” Shouldn’t Alma be riding with it? Instead of succumbing to the fatuous flirtations of Danny Huston?
The wrong man
Worse, Alma’s sad beachfront needs distract us from what may be a better movie. Because while Hitchcock is acting the perfect gentleman with Ms. Leigh, or the cuckolded husband with Alma, he is having imaginary conversations with none other than Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the Wisconsin mass murderer on whom Norman Bates is based. That’s pretty creepy. Ed Gein is to Hitchcock here as Humphrey Bogart is to Woody Allen in “Play It Again, Sam.” He gives him advice. He taunts him to action. Ed Gein. Yet Hitch remains toothless despite it. He remains a charming but naughty waddler of a man. It seems you should go one way or the other: deeper into the similarities and differences between Gein and Norman and Hitchcock (and us, by the way; they keep leaving out us, the movie audience, the true voyeurs, as Hitchcock never did); or maybe you replace Gein-as-counselor with Norman Bates, who, being fictional, would be lighter, and fit better into the overall tone of the movie.
Instead, it’s a movie of distraction. It’s a movie that keeps skimming surfaces.
In a way, it’s about how the French were wrong after all. Hitchcock wasn’t an auteur the way they said. He needed Alma, and he needed Bernard Hermann’s score (Wirt! Wirt! Wirt!), and he needed all the other talent around him, not least Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. But mostly he needed Alma. He owns up to this at the premiere of “Psycho.” Alma, who is used to staying a few paces behind the great man, is here called forward to share in the acclaim, and they have the following conversation that sums it all up rather neatly:
Alfred: I’ll never find a Hitchcock blonde as beautiful as you.
Alma: I’ve waited 30 years for you to say that.
Alfred: And that, my dear, is why they call me ‘The master of suspense.’
It’s a charming bit that I didn’t believe at all.
The movie begins and ends similarly, with Ed Gein murdering his brother with a shovel in 1941, and the camera panning over to, yep, Alfred Hitchcock, who, in “Alfred Hitchcock Presents…” fashion, speaks to us directly about Cain and Abel, and brotherly murders, and the connection between Gein and “Psycho,” and what we’re about to watch. It’s the macabre served with a wink. The movie ends happily, with Hitchcock in front of his southern California home, which, with the success of “Psycho,” he gets to keep, and wondering over his next project. He’s looking for inspiration. “I do hope something comes along,” he says. At which point a crow settles on his shoulder. “Good evening,” he says to us.
Now that’s fun. Hopkins is fun. He’s less one-note than two-note, but both are fun notes.
Mirren is good, too, but most of her notes—her various carping, her hope for an affair with Danny Huston—are not fun, and at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie.
It’s a shame because I liked almost everything else in “Hitchcock”: the battles with Paramount head Barney Ballaban (Richard Portnow); the battles with censor Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith); Hitchcock’s conversations with legendary agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg), who deserves a movie of his own. I liked all of this backset intrigue. I left the theater with a smile.
But the movie is a little like Alfred Hitchcock, the man, divided into thirds. We got a bit of the head (the dry wit), and a bit of the lower depths (the peeping voyeurism; the Scottie Ferguson dress-up games), but too much of that overweight, maudlin middle.
December 2, 2012
© 2012 Erik Lundegaard