HITCHCOCK is a love story about one of the most influential filmmakers of the last century, Alfred Hitchcock and his wife and partner Alma Reville. The film takes place during the making of Hitchcock’s seminal movie PSYCHO.
The nature of film direction is that it is essentially a practice, a craft or an art hidden from public view. For example, unless one is a film fan, knowing the identity of the current holder of the Best Director Oscar (Michel Hazanavicius) is a trivia question at best. The film going public tends to see a movie based on who its star is and what the trailer says the story is. Having said this, there is probably greater public awareness of the existence of movie directors now than there used to be; Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are household names.
However, back in the 1960s Alfred Hitchcock was even more famous than Lucas and Spielberg. He was as famous as the star actors in his movies. His television show ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS made him instantly recognisable the world over. He created a genial version of himself; a portly avuncular figure with a macabre sense of humour. Various biographies since have portrayed him as a peeping tom, a scopophilic, and a manipulative misogynist who wanted to control the “ice queen” blondes who were cast in his films. The Hitchcock we see in HITCHCOCK has more in common with the puckish character who introduced his television show.
Director Sacha Gervasi and writer John J. McLaughlin have based their story and portrait of Hitchcock on Stephen Rebello’s well-regarded Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. Rebello’s work is a painstakingly detailed and gossipy account of a turning point in Hitchcock’s career. He was 60 years old and had achieved a box office success with a number of films including his latest, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, however creatively he felt that he had become stale and predictable. Interestingly, Rebello’s book, written in 1990, characterises Hitchcock as a filmmaker who shies away from psychological examination of his movies, yet the book itself never delves particularly deeply into Hitchcock’s psyche. HITCHCOCK is Gervasi’s first narrative feature. His first movie was the award-winning documentary ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL. Writer McLaughlin was one of the writers of BLACK SWAN. The fact that this team have rejected the darker view of Hitchcock and have chosen what some will see as a whitewashed version of his character is a curious choice.
Rebello’s book makes it clear that Hitchcock sensed there was a change in the public mood and that he was searching for screenplays that reflected this. He thought audiences and the young in particular were ready for harder, more sensationalist subjects. Hitchcock wasn’t a writer himself, so he sought out good writers he could work with and strong material he could have adapted to create the world of his movies. Robert Bloch’s book Pyscho was very loosely based on the recently revealed activities of serial murderer Ed Gein. The facts were horrific and had leaked into popular imagination through newspaper reports. Bloch’s book was a horror-thriller that both attempted to exploit the real life crime story and yet dilute this reality for 1950’s America.
Hitchcock embarked upon making PSYCHO against the advice of many of his Hollywood colleagues. His wife Alma Reville was also not keen on the project. Hitchcock often sought out her expertise on books and screenplays and she was not impressed by Bloch’s source material. Hitchcock couldn’t persuade any studio to back the movie, so hit upon the idea of funding it with his own money, thus breaking the cardinal rule of movie making.
The drama of Alfred and Alma’s personal finances being placed at risk is a large part of HITCHCOCK. The ageing filmmaker’s reputation was at stake also. Could he make this borderline subject matter into a viable box office movie? Alma and Alfred’s relationship is also examined in a superficial way. Gervasi via Rebello makes it clear that Alma was also creatively an important partner in Alfred’s life. As expected, the performances of the two leads are good. Hopkins knows how to keep you watching. Mirren portrays Alma as a switched-on woman who is constantly disappointed by a brilliant but undisciplined husband. Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel are passable as Janet Leigh and Vera Miles respectively.
HITCHCOCK is an entertaining film with a narrow focus on a subject that will be of interest to many. It doesn’t go deep and it offers informational tidbits rather than psychological insights. The film is in Australian cinemas now. I rated it 6/10.