Sunday, December 16, 2012


Making Everyone a little Psycho

Making a movie is a boring enterprise.  Boring and thrilling at the same time.  Lots of sitting around, wasting time, waiting for the crew to be ready for that moment when you can't waste any time, the adrenaline is pumping, and things have to go right...over and over and over again until they do.

For Alfred Hitchcock, the thrill of movies wasn't in the filming (which lots of directors like because it's so social and a "rush"), or in the editing (where so many directors "find" their films), it was in the planning, the story-writing and the story-boarding—making the blueprint for the film that could be followed easily and by-the-numbers.  The best parts of his movies were not in performances (although they could be great*), but in the ideas that shape the film and make it worth watching...and worth watching again.  Watching that process, however, would probably not make a very compelling movie.

The trials and tribulations of the making of his landmark horror film Psycho was detailed in Steven Rebello's fun little read "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho," and are now derailed in Hitchcock, a fictional adaptation of the book, which has as much to do with the events of making Psycho, as the film Psycho has to do with the book it was based on, which, truth to tell, Hitchcock never read.**

Well, few people have read Rebello's book, either (which is a shame, really) and so the chief "scenarist" James McLaughlin (who wrote Man of the House and co-wrote Black Swan...hmmm) and director Sacha Gervasi (who co-wrote The Terminal for Spielberg and whose only previous film was the documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil!) have "written to silence"—as so may of the actual participants are dead—relying on "conventional wisdom" rather than facts to make their odd little combination of docu-fantasy.  Partially, this is because when it comes to movie-making (as opposed to life) truth is duller than fiction, but it is also more complicated and takes longer to explain and so we depend on a futzy short-hand to get to the point faster.  "Conventional Wisdom" in Hollywood is the same as "Based on a True Story."

Oh, don't get me wrong.  There are instances where the facts are there: Hitchcock's wife and collaborator Alma Reville did spot the "blink" (actually it was a throat swallow) in the pull-out from Janet Leigh's face after the murder (requiring a cut to the shower-head) and the "nudity" (which was solved with a black bar at the bottom of the screen); resistance was high to Psycho which Hitchcock chose to fulfill his contract for Paramount Studios—they did want something like North By Northwest, which made a lot of money for M-G-M—but not so much when Hitchcock revealed he was going to do it "for cheap" with his television crew—it's always about return for investment; he did come up with the brilliant advertising campaign for the film (like he'd previously done with his other films); much is made of the financial failure of Vertigo*** (ironic as it's—this year—considered "the greatest film ever made") as well as Hitchcock's insecurities and frailties (which were legion and they're all up there on the screen in his movies) and there are dribs and drabs of trivia sprinkled throughout the film.  But, they are far out-weighed by what is wrong.

What's wrong with this picture?  Oh, where to start?
What it gets wrong would fill another book by Rebello.  The film's obsession with Ed Gein—that is more attributable to author Robert Bloch than Hitchcock—feels wrong and wrong-headed, more to do with the screenwriter's issues than the subject's (I doubt that Hitchcock had the elaborate Gein fantasies that are imagined here).  The emphasis of Alma's collaboration with writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston)—who contributed to one good Hitchcock adaptation, Strangers on a Train, and one bad one, Stage Fright—is blown completely out of proportion from a mere consulting gig.  And the twist of the knife is the Hitchcock pathology, especially his treatment of women (the "Hitchcock Blondes," the grey suits, the make-overs, the favorites—Kelly and Bergman) despite the fact that Hitchcock always gave the more interesting parts and special attention to his actresses ("Hitch always threw the picture towards the girls" was Cary Grant's summation), not only for himself...but also his audience.

But what Hitchcock valued was loyalty. So he'd work with the same craftsmen over and over again out of loyalty, out of trust, out of convenience—past collaborators were one less complication to worry about.  And if they failed to deliver, he wouldn't work with them again, without a word of explanation as he hated confrontation.  "He was a coward," as Suzanne Pleshette opined.  Of course, he was.  His movies are naked displays of his phobias, foibles and fantasies.

And the films endure, because his frailties are just like ours.

Hitch is no longer alive to defend himself, but quite a few collaborators are. One wonders why Pat Hitchcock, Alfred and Alma's daughter, who usually runs defense for the Hitchcock Family Legacy, is silent while so many the current gaggle of films—this one and HBO's "The Girl"—are starting to piss on his grave.  But, then, the evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.  So, let it be with Hitchcock.  His films are a testament to both good and evil, and our ability to rise above.  The films have lived on, decades after the man, and show no signs of falling out of fashion.  That's his lasting legacy.

For fans of the director, there is no such thing as bad news, but this movie truly is.  The performances are winning, though, as Scarlett Johansson occasionally convinces you she's studied up on Janet Leigh's mannerisms, although James D'Arcy plays Anthony Perkins as if he was playing Norman Bates and there was more to the man than that (reflecting the film's focus on rumor and gossip, rather than facts), we don't know what Alma Reville was like, as she stayed mostly behind the camera, but Helen Mirren's performance is fun and winning.  Anthony Hopkins' Hitchcock, however, is problematic—although it's not entirely his fault.  Hopkins is a brilliant mimic, and his own rich voice disappears in the deliberate cadence and sibilance of Hitchcock's own.  But (like much of the film), the portrayal is a bit too dependent on Hitchcock's public persona as a droll dead-pan.  This Hitchcock never smiles—perhaps it would have cracked the elaborate make-up Hopkins must wear to even resemble the director—and is entirely too mordant and lines up with "conventional wisdom" about the man, a view that, as Hitchcock himself cultivated it, he's a little responsible for.  As such, the portrayal comes across as a bit one dimensional, and one-sided.

One could get exercised about these things (and I obviously have), but as Hitchcock himself would say, "'s only a mooo-vie."

Just not a very good one.  The best that can be said about Hitchcock (the movie) is that Alma's influence and great work is now a part of conventional wisdom, instead of the director's best-kept secret.

Hitchcock is a Cable-Watcher.

Yeah, that Hitchcock could be a tyrant on the set, alright...
Hitchcock's Best-Kept Secret: the incomparable Alma Reville

 * Hitchcock was often misquoted as saying "Actors were cattle" as if they were just a commodity to be "herded," when what he SAYS he said was that actors "should be treated like cattle."  Friend and Hollywood cut-up Carole Lombard responded by setting up two bovine pens on the set of Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), one for her and another for her co-star Robert Montgomery.

** In his near-definitive interview book "Hitchcock/Truffaut," Francois Truffaut spends a lot of time—too much time, really—going on about how lousy Robert Bloch's novel, "Psycho," is, and Hitchcock dismisses his comments by saying "I never read it.  I read the studio synopsis (the plot summary by studio "readers"), and the only thing I was interested in was the shower sequence and killing off the star half-way through the movie..."  

*** Funny thing.  Tippi Hedren has made what my father used to call "a big stink" about Hitchcock destroying her career after the financial failure of Marnie—never working with her again—and supposedly bad-mouthing her to other directors, producers, and all of Hollywood.  But, after Vertigo "tanked" at the box-office, Hitchcock never worked with James Stewart again, feeling like it was partially Stewart's presence in the film that caused the poor turn-out.  Stewart very much wanted to work on North By Northwest, but Hitchcock made every effort to lure his old collaborator Cary Grant out of his on again/off-again retirement to star in the film.  It was all part of Hitchcock's own ambivalence about hiring "name" actors for "his" projects, as often the dictates of producers and studios did not match the needs of the part.  But, again, that takes a long time to explain...and so we get stuck with "conventional wisdom."

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