Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Brief synopsis: The movie delves into the height of Hitchcock's genius and madness while writing, adapting, and filming Psycho. While it isn't the broad look at the man I had been expecting, it's a fascinating journey through his creative process, Hollywood of the 1950s, the issues of sexism in the movie business, and his relationship with his wife, Alma. With sumptuous art and costume design, an understated soundtrack, and masterful performances from the cast, it itself was a work of art.
Since production stills first started making the rounds many months ago, the physical transformation of Anthony Hopkins in the role of Alfred Hitchcock has created remarkable buzz. The makeup and prosthetics, whose crews do indeed deserve praise, were only a minor part of that transformation, however. More notably was how spectacularly Hopkins acted the role, utilizing everything from the pitch of his voice to the odd quirks of the man's face, right down to the physical mannerisms of an entirely different variety of man. This was no rosy-tinted look back on a beloved Hollywood figure. More than once I felt mildly uncomfortable watching a man who genuinely looked in poor health, discomfort, and constantly plagued by the fey temperaments of a creative mind. Hopkins pulled off a remarkable balancing act of untamed genius, spoiled child, bruised ego, and thwapped puppy. His Hitchcock was as believable and three-dimensional as you could ever hope for.
The only actors who could keep up with his scene-gobbling presence were the truly outmatched female leads. There's nothing to say about Helen Mirren unless the words stunning and class act are generously applied. Despite the title, this movie was as much about Alma Reville as it was Alfred. Generous attention was given to her role in making Hitchcock who he was, which I'll touch on in more depth in a moment. Scarlett Johansson didn't need to win me over -- I've been in her camp since Girl With a Pearl Earring, and think she is an incredibly versatile talent for how singularly recognizable she is -- but she did so anyway. She fit so well into the role of 50s starlet that it felt like I was really watching Janet Leigh. She had that same classy, sophisticated, Movie Star aura you see in actresses of that time. Not to be overlooked is Toni Collette, who played Hitchcock's assistant Peggy Robertson, and Jessica Biel portraying Vera Miles. The limited amount of screentime these women were given was truly a shame, because they brought both power and provocativeness to their respective roles. Both immaculate professionals, strong minds, steeled against Hitchcock's many flights of madness, and wholly realized characters. I could not have been more surprised at such a well-rounded cast of women in a movie where I was prepared to divert all of my attention to the lead actor. But then, I wasn't prepared for a movie that touched on such a broad narrative of the 50s, either.
Briefly I will mention Danny Huston, who continues to pop up everywhere, and who continues to own every role I've seen him in (though, it continues to be difficult not to immediately think of Arthur Burns, as his portrayal of the famed outlaw in The Proposition was so bloodthirsty for your remembrance); James D'Arcy did an incredible, albeit brief, job capturing Anthony Perkins; and surprise!Ralph Macchio as screenwriter Joseph Stefano! Oh, Danny Larusso.
The story picks up right after the commercial failure of North By Northwest, and follows Hitchcock along his journey hunting for something new, something different, for his next film. I had been expecting a look at Hitchcock's process, an insight into his creative mind, and a jaunt down memory lane through the production of Psycho. All of which was provided -- Whitfield Cook delivered a line I cannot remember precisely enough to quote, but in essence said, "He's not an easy man to live with, but it's worth it to be in the presence of such a creative genius." A sentiment that not all would agree with, but which distills the one and a half hour movie down quite succinctly. Hitchcock was stubborn about seeing to it that Psycho would be his next film despite opposition from the studio, producers, the Board of Censors, and even his own friends. He was maudlin and morose when people didn't understand his vision. He was fixated with his leading ladies -- his "Hitchcock Blondes" -- and the shocking true life events he was re-imagining. He was often possessive of Alma, jealous of her relationship with Whitfield Cook, and unthankfully blind to how much support she truly gave him both on and off set. But he loved her endlessly, as he loved his casts and crews; he created fearlessly, reimagined the whole world of movie-making, and truly earned his title of the Master of Suspense. Hopkins' portrayal was mesmerizing and memorable.
What I hadn't been expecting was how deeply the film would delve into the topic of sexism in the industry. Alma Reville was a singular talent who was always overshadowed by her husband's presence. The labor of Psycho from failure to success followed the failures and successes of their marriage, and Alma's involvement in his creative process. It was further highlighted by how Hitchcock treated his leading ladies, often resenting them for choosing to have families, marriages, and lives outside of what he envisioned for their future. As if it was a direct betrayal after all he had given them. It's a fascinating glimpse at Hollywood of the 50s, one that's not distorted into a caricature or a mission, neither for nor against. An unblinking look at how the industry conducts itself. And, in the end, a look at how the relationship between Alfred and Alma worked, both professionally and privately. It highlighted honest strength and talent in Janet and Vera as well, and in the end Helen Mirren truly stole the show. It was such a pleasant and interesting surprise.
There were elements that didn't work so well, of course. Throughout the making of Psycho, Hitchcock often held discourses with Ed Gein (the serial killer on whom Norman Bates was based). It's true enough that most creative minds do "talk" to their characters; it's part of the process of picking apart their motivations and understanding how they truly tick. The way it was handled felt a little heavy-handed, however. It was always when Hitchcock was at his most maudlin, and hinted at secret desires he himself had to commit the same sort of acts. It felt a little played out, and ended up more tedious than interesting. The direction, too, made a number of nods to Hightcock's style -- the pan in, the close zoom, the rickety quick edits and splicing. I can't quite decide if they were trying to emulate his style -- in which case they failed miserably -- or simply allude to it as part of their storytelling narrative. Given such, I can't tell if I liked it or hated it. It often felt abrupt, and not in the good way.
Which brings us to the production values, which were the real stars of the film as far as I'm concerned. What I loved the most, and I do mean absolutely loved to the point that I could toss away everything else I've said and just leave it at this, is the art direction and set design. Hitchcock's adoration for incorporating red into his work was never outright addressed, but in scene after scene there were subtle splashes of it everywhere. The flowers in the vase in the undertoned hall, vibrant red. The color of Alma's bathing suit, red. Even the end credits were red. The movie overall was beautifully set; the costumes were sumptuous, the sets were detailed, the makeup was perfect. Everything was understated, clean, but muted. Save for those splashes of red. I believe a good art director can be the true storyteller of a movie. This one -- and I include all who were involved in set, costume, makeup, editing, cinematography, design -- was very good.
Danny Elfman was credited to the soundtrack, however most of the compositions had Joel McNeely listed as composer. Whether Elfman simply did the arrangement or wrote the score, the partnership between he and McNeely -- two of my favorite composers -- was perfect. We saw an understated but exquisitely chosen music selection from beginning to end that really highlighted the film wonderfully. I can't want to hunt down the soundtrack.
In the end, the film was really beautifully done by all departments involved. The actors had a truly supportive crew backing them, and that's what made Hitchcock a great film. It wasn't the best film I could have imagined, but I was very pleased, and I would recommend it to fans of Hopkins, Mirren, Johansson, and Hitchcock alike. The only thing I'd warn against is moderately pulpy filming choices; the old knife-thrusted-directly-at-the-camera trick was employed, along with the quick back and forth cuts between close-ups, lending to that abrupt feeling I talked about above. I generally approve of the nod they gave to Hitchcock's style -- some of the long pans and artistic shots were really quite lovely to watch -- but the pulp was a little abrasive on the senses. It's not enough to really warn someone off this film, however. If you want a great peak into 1950s Hollywood film making, or a closer look at the creative madness of Alfred Hitchcock, then you really must pick up Hitchcock. And I'd love to hear your thoughts.
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