Grade: B (RENT IT)
2012 HAS NOT been kind to Mr. Hitchcock. Thirty-two years after his death at eighty, the so-called Master of Suspense has suffered the wrath of HBO’s “The Girl,” based upon actress Tippi Hedren’s spiteful recollections of working for him on the set of 1963’s “The Birds.” Hedren remembers the man who made her career as little more than a sadistic Svengali who couldn’t keep his hands to himself. The famous telephone booth scene in which the birds of Bodega Bay bear down on her character Melanie Daniels like kamikaze pilots was, according to Hedren, an opportunity for Alfred Hitchcock to traumatize and bloody her. But who can say for sure? A he-said-she-said is far from fair when one of the disputants is dead and gone. Hedren is not alone in decrying Hitchcock’s treatment of his actors – he infamously treated them like cattle – but she hasn’t just bit the hand that fed her; she chewed it off.
That’s precisely the problem with another act of revenge: Sacha Gervasi’s “Hitchcock,” a behind-the-scenes take on the making of 1960’s “Psycho” and the marriage between Alfred (Anthony Hopkins) and Alma Reville Hitchcock (Helen Mirren). It’s as cruel to its subject as last year’s “Iron Lady,” in which another British icon was reduced to a demented old bat, and “Hitchcock” renews the allegations of “The Girl” involving the director’s obsessive control over his leading ladies, his marital aloofness, and dipsomaniacal perversity. As an earlier incarnation of Hedren, Janet Leigh is played – or very nearly mimicked – by Scarlett Johansson who nails the actress’s pursed lips and demure tilts of the head. Jessica Biel, as Vera Miles, is one of Hitchcock’s discarded muses who warns Leigh that Hitchcock will attempt to direct her on and off the sound-stage. If Hitchcock found himself fixated on the blond likes of Leigh, Grace Kelley, and later, Hedren, he also found himself possessed by the 1959 pulp novel by Robert Bloch and basis for “Psycho.” He wakes wife Alma in the middle of the night to make her read a hair-raising passage and, forced to finance the film himself, appears willing to stake his long and illustrious career on making his most shocking film yet. He certainly reaped the rewards: we watch Hitch watch an audience watch the indelible shower scene and scream with horror. Laura Mulvey, eat your heart out. Hopkins, in a prosthetic nose and tumescent waist-line, is superb in the role, and like “Lincoln,” “Hitchcock” is a less than perfect biopic that stays afloat only because of its actors and one-liners.
Unfortunately, Gervasi’s film hardly goes off without a hitch. Scenes in which Hitchcock imagines Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life basis for Norman Bates, as an imaginary friend (or foe) are preposterous and irresolved. Even Anthony Perkins isn’t safe; he’s caricatured as a closet homosexual, which, of course, he was, but his importance is squandered when he’s represented, on Hitchcock’s casting couch, as a gay cliché. As Lady Hitchcock, the director’s confidante and collaborator, Mirren is also superb, but we don’t get a real sense of her motivation nor what she wants from a dalliance with fellows screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). All dolled up, she asks Hitchcock, unflatteringly squeezed in a bathtub with a wine glass in hand, how she looks and he replies only with “Presentable.” We get that she is unfulfilled romantically – the pair sleep in separate beds – but beyond that, we don’t really know why the Hitchcocks stay together and the film weirdly leaves out the fact that the couple had a daughter and that Sir Hitchcock was, based on his granddaughter’s account, a loving family man and not the schizophrenic control-freak this film portrays him to be.
Watch out Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Allen, and all ye who enter the Hollywood walk of directorial fame: they’re coming for you and your little wives too.