Title card: Cartoon profile of our narrator.
Theme plays: Funeral March of a Marionette.
The famous silhouette appears to the right of the screen and steps towards center screen, superimposing itself over the cartoon.
Slide to right. Medium shot of narrator in his trademark black suit and tie, carrying a shovel over his shoulder and holding a lantern, obviously having just finished a little night time excavation. He sets the lantern down on a convenient motel style counter, brushes some dirt off his suit, then notices the audience.
Oh. Good evening.
Tonight's subject is murder.
I beg your pardon. I misspoke. Tonight's subject is marriage.
I grant you, sometimes it is hard to tell the difference.
Our story does include a murder, the brutal stabbing of a beautiful young woman while she is taking an innocent shower. But our interest in this horrific crime lies mainly in its effect upon a marriage.
The marriage in question is between a couple working in the motion picture industry.
She is an elegant, attractive, witty screenwriter of a certain age whom many in the know credit with her husband's success as the director of what are popularly know as thrillers.
He is an undoubted genius but a temperamental and difficult personality who feels slighted by the Hollywood establishment. He feels they don't take his sort of picture seriously. As I've stated, his specialty is thrillers, usually featuring a macabre murder and a psychologically distressed hero or heroine, in the vein of a great auteur whose name may be familiar to you and whom he resembles somewhat in voice and silhouette.
From time to time this husband even takes to acting like Alfred Hitchcock.
Oddly enough, his name is also Alfred Hitchcock.
Making matters even more bizarre , his wife is named Alma Reville, which happens to be the name of the famous Alfred Hitchcock’s wife.
Our play asks several intriguing questions. What if our Alfred set out to make a movie very much like the other Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece of horror, Psycho? What if while preparing to make this picture he became obsessed, not just with the real-life murders on which his Psycho is based but with the real-life serial killer and amateur taxidermist who committed these heinous crimes. What if the killer became his new imaginary friend and he started holding conversations in his mind with him. And, finally, what if our Alfred began to fantasize about committing a murder himself with his prospective victim being his wife, the loving but lately and suspiciously distant and distracted Alma?
We shall attempt to dig into these questions shortly, right after this instructive message from our sponsor.
And we’re back.
It’s me. Lance Mannion.
Or as Alfred Hitchcock might say it, LAHNCE. MAHHN-yun.
It was me up there too. You probably knew that.
Gotta admit, it was a pretty good Hitchcock impression, wasn't it?
Nowhere near as good and as thoroughly inhabited as the impression Anthony Hopkins does in the movie Hitchcock.
Might be as true to life though. You’ll see what I mean when I get down to business.
Down to business.
Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, is a likable but slight serio-comic take on a very important year in the life of the great director Alfred Hitchcock when he was working against all kinds of odds to get Psycho made. It settles down into a fairly straight-forward and realistic biopic, but it starts out as if it might be going in a very different direction and for its first half-hour really does seem to be working its way towards being a What if? story about how Hitchcock lost his marbles during the making of Psycho and became a character in one of his own macabre thrillers.
What if Hitchcock wasn’t just about Alfred Hitchcock? What if it was an Alfred Hitchcock movie?
What if a movie director like Alfred Hitchcock had snapped during the making of one of his movies? What if his fascination with murderers became an identification with a specific killer that led to his becoming a killer? That’s a movie Hitchcock might have had some fun making himself, although he’d have cast someone like Ray Milland or James Mason in the role of the director. What if the movie we’re watching wasn’t about making a movie like Psycho but was itself like Dial M for Murder or Suspicion with a little bit of The Trouble With Harry thrown in for fun?
But then (adopting Hitchcock voice again, but just for a second), I regret to say the filmmakers lose their nerve and matters proceed with regrettable normalcy and a distasteful fidelity to actual events.
Hitchcock does ask all those those What if? Questions I What if?-ed above, but then treats the asking as something dramatic enough in itself. Any answers are those we dream up on our own and they go towards understanding character. They’re backstory and subtext but not plot points.
The actual plot is simple: Alfred Hitchcock starts coming unglued while trying to make Psycho and two smart, decent, large-hearted women, his wife and his leaading lady, do their best to hold him together, the ungluing not being a Hitchcock movie sort of psychopathic breakdown but a case of ordinary depression brought on by stress, fear of failure, middle-aged ennui, and, possibly, a too strict weight loss program.
As it is, Hitchcock is an amiable autumn romance about a pair of creative and eccentric people who wake up one day to the realization that their youth is long gone, their best days are behind them, and they haven’t much to look forward to but whatever pleasure they can derive from each other’s company, which given that he seems intent on living out his days as a big baby, may not be a lot.
Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville had one of the great collaborative marriages of all time. Hitchcock said that if there was such a thing as the “Hitchcock Touch,” it had four hands, his and Alma’s. By 1959, when he began working on Psycho, they had been making movies together for thirty years. He trusted her opinion, he almost always took her advice, he relied on her ear, her eye, and her hands. They each regarded the other as the best film editor in the industry. Those who worked with them knew that a word from Alma was as good as a word from Hitch himself. There’s a scene in the movie when Alfred falls ill and can’t make it to the set to direct a crucial scene and Alma strides in and takes over to no one’s complaint and everyone’s relief.
In real life, there were a couple of days when Hitchcock was home sick with the flu and his assistant director and the crew continued without him, which they could do because he had everything so well prepared. He planned his movies in such detail that he claimed to have always felt as if he had already made each picture before the first day of shooting and the actual filming of the movie practically an afterthought. Alma was intensely involved in all that planning and while it would be an exaggeration to call her his co-director, it isn’t an outrageous one.
In 1979, in his speech accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute Hitchcock said:
It would tax your endurance, and mine, to recite the names of those thousands of actors, writers, editors, cameramen, musicians, technicians, bankers, exhibitors...and a variety of other criminals who have contributed to my life.
I beg to mention by name only four people who have given me the most affection, appreciation and encouragement...and constant collaboration. The first of the four is a film editor, the second is a scriptwriter, the third is the mother of my daughter Pat, and the fourth is as fine a cook as ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen...and their names are Alma Reville.
Hitchcock’s director and screenwriter Sacha Gervasi and John J. McLaughlin accept as givens certain things I’m not sure all film historians and Hitchcock biographers accept as givens:
The existential, psychoanalytical, almost expressionistic and intensely personal Vertigo had been a flop. Hitchcock followed up with North by Northwest, a huge hit that saved his career and reputation. But the general critical opinion is that he did it by returning to the tried and true and that’s how it’s going to have to be for him from here on out. He has nowhere else to go, nothing new to say, and the best he can do is to keep repeating himself.
Hitchcock was drawn to Psycho because it was shocking, transgressive, subversive, and potentially a huge hit for all the wrong reasons. Audiences would come to be horrified, disgusted, disturbed, and titillated. He wanted to make the movie because to do it right he would have to push boundaries, break rules, and defy expectations. And, as the movie has him saying, he wanted to do it without high-priced movie stars to pretty things up so audiences and critics would not make any mistake about who was responsible for the picture’s success: They would know Psycho wasn’t a Cary Grant movie or a Jimmy Stewart movie or a Grace Kelly movie. It was wholly an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
Finally, Psycho was a risk on several fronts---professional, personal, and financial---and Hitchcock felt he needed to take those risks to re-inspire and re-energize himself as an artist.
From what I’ve read, I think a lot of this in What if? territory. But the real What if? at the center of the plot is What if, at this very critical time in their joint career, the Hitchcocks suddenly and inexplicably felt they couldn’t rely on each other anymore?
Hopkins’ is one of three heroic and larger-than-life Oscar-touted performances this awards season by actors impersonating famous people.
Daniel Day-Lewis managed to will himself into becoming Lincoln, transforming himself through expression, voice, carriage, and conviction.
Bill Murray appears to be suggesting Franklin Roosevelt more than trying to imitate him, counting on the audience’s imaginations to take the hint and “see” FDR where he really isn’t.
Hopkins as gone the route Meryl Streep took to bring Margaret Thatcher to life last year, using himself as the canvass on which to paint a life-like portrait of his subject with make-up and prosthetics.
It’s not as exact a portrait as Streep’s was of Thatcher---the eyes are wrong, for example, wide-open and staring instead of hooded and hinting of a dark mischief---and it comes off as more of a caricature. But that’s probably because the Hitchcock we’re familiar with was a caricature, invented by Hitchcock for advertising and television as a mascot, like Tony the Tiger and the Pillsbury Doughboy, to sell the brand.
This isn’t a flaw in itself. The problem is that Hopkins’ performance is all by itself in style and tone. There are no other caricatures on screen with him.
As great as I’m sure Daniel Day-Lewis would have been all on his own, his portrayal of Lincoln is more alive, more vivid, more real for his being surrounded by other fine actors delivering heroic and larger-than-life performances of their own, notably Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field, but also Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant, David Strathairn as William Seward, and the hilarious trio of James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson as Seward’s political operatives. They balance and give context to Day-Lewis’.
But few of the other characters from real-life in Hitchcock are familiar enough to have been recognizable as caricatures even if they’d been caricatured in the movie. In fact, two of them, the actresses Janet Leigh and Vera Miles (played realistically by Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel with little attempt at impersonation beyond getting the hair and make-up right), are shown in Hitchcock actively and intelligently resisting Hitchcock’s attempts to turn them into caricatures---caricatures of Grace Kelly, that is.
James D’Arcy does an uncanny impersonation of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Unfortunately, this turns into a smearing of Perkins. For I’m guessing copyright reasons Hitchcock, except for the shower scene, doesn’t include any recreations of scenes from Psycho so we don’t see Perkins playing Norman “on screen.” What we’re given is something that belongs in that What if? Hitchcock movie I imagined above. What if the star of Psycho had been a psycho? D’Arcy plays Perkins as if Perkins took the part to do what the real life Anthony Perkins took the part not to do---play to type. Let’s just say Hitchcock’s Perkins understands Norman’s mommy issues a little too completely.
The only other times Hopkins shares scenes with an actor playing it as cartoonishly as he’s playing it himself---and when I say cartoon here, think Tim Burton not Pixar---are with Michael Wincott lurching in from that What If movie as Hitch’s imaginary confidante, the murderer and inspiration for Norman Bates Ed Gein.
This doesn’t stop Hopkins from delivering a generally emotionally compelling and realistic performance. I’m not sure how real it is though.
As the movie has it, Hitchcock was stretched to the breaking point by the risks and challenges of making Psycho. It doesn’t present him as a master craftsman in control of his material and his art. In real life, Hitchcock did want to make something different with Psycho, but he also wanted to make something good and he knew exactly how to go about that. In reel life, Hitchcock is possessed by the material and Psycho seems to get made by sheer force of whim, will, and nerve. Hopkins’ Hitchcock has moments of calm, where we see his shrewdness, his mischief, his wit, and his craftiness as a director, a businessman, and a showman, and he has one wonderful scene in the lobby of the theater where Psycho is premiering, standing outside the closed doors of the auditorium and simultaneously re-enacting scenes from the movie, conducting Bernard Herrmann’s score, and directing the audience’s reactions. But more often we see him carried away by his demons, borderline hysterical when he’s not petulant, sorrowful, self-pitying, self-indulgent, and glum.
Fortunately, this version of Alfred Hitchcock is sold to us and saved from total caricature by Hopkins’ leading lady and co-star, the wonderful Helen Mirren, who, as Alma Reville, plays off of Hopkins in his fat suit and bad dentures just as if she’s playing off Hopkins in his beard and armor as Odin in Thor---she takes him and takes him on as if he is really what he’s made up to be. She plays Reville as a strong and intelligent artist in her own right who refuses to be bullied or dismissed by the man she adores and the artist she most admires without ceasing to either adore or admire him.
Johansson and Biel give complementing performances as daughter-figures with conflicting ideas on how to deal with a father-figure who is losing his bearings and developing unfatherly feelings for both of them. Biel is openly rebellious and challenging. Johansson is always tactful, her perpetual smile saying, “I know what you think you’re seeing and I’m flattered but…” as she continually finds gentle but emphatic ways to remind him that she is somebody else’s wife and a mother and theirs is a professional relationship.
As Lew Wasserman, Hitchcock’s worried but ever-loyal agent, Michael Stuhlbarg, who, by the way, has one of those balancing roles in Lincoln as a Congressman torn between his conscience and his constituency, does a nice job of backing up Mirren in the taking the caricature seriously department.
Danny Huston plays novelist and screenwriter Whitfield Cook, Alma’s good friend, sometime collaborator, and possible lover, as the kind of perpetually boyish aging charmer so openly and obviously on the make professionally and sexually that you can’t help liking him for it. Alma can’t seem to help it, at any rate, another instance of the movie What if?-ing without answering itself.
Toni Collette just doesn’t get enough to do as Hitchcock’s longtime right-arm, Peggy Robertson, but she manages to imply a lot through her black-framed cat’s eye glasses and the implications are hilarious.
And Ralph Macchio has a delightful comic cameo as Psycho’s screenwriter Joe Stephano who gets himself hired by inadvertantly revealing in his job interview that he has serious mommy issues of his own.
Hitchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi, screenplay by John J. McLauglin, based on the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello, starring Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Biel, Toni Collette, Danny Huston, Michael Stuhlbarg, James D'Arcy, and Michael Wincott. Now in selected theaters. If you’re in our neck of the woods, you can catch it at the Downing Film Center.