Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Getting Hitched

Put together a list of your Top 10 all time film directors. Don't worry, I'll be here when you get back.

Now I'll say a name I bet is on almost every one of those lists: Alfred Hitchcock. A legend of the horror and suspense genres (where legends are remarkably rare), the director is responsible for many of the greatest movies of all time; The Birds, North by Northwest, Vertigo and Rear Window are all renowned classics. But his most famous work, the one for which he is chiefly remembered, was one of his last, the 1960 horror masterpiece Psycho. In it, Hitchcock changed the faces of both horror and Hollywood and laid much of the groundwork in which his fans and contemporaries have followed in droves since its inception. Now Hollywood delves into its own dark shadows in Hitchcock, the pseudo-biographical story of Hitchcock, Psycho, and the struggle to create one of the most enduring thrillers of all time.

"Good evening."
After releasing the brilliant North By Northwest in 1959, the legendary Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is going through both career and personal crises. He's sixty years old and beginning to worry if he has reached the peak of his talents, and is desperate to discover his next project, to prove to himself and studios that he can still work. He finds that inspiration in Robert Bloch's novel Psycho, itself based off of the heinous crimes of real-life killer Ed Gein. Forced to mortgage his home to self-finance the picture as major studios don't want to take a risk on it, Hitchcock also is going through a period of conflict with his wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), a former film editor and his biggest supporter who nevertheless aches to get back into a business that seems to respect her talents more than her husband does.

"Quick show of hands: who here did NOT work on Total Recall?"
What perhaps surprised me most about Hitchcock was how well rookie director Sacha Gervasi balanced two disparate conflicts: that between the director and the studios who did not want to make his next movie, and he and his wife Alma. You certainly get the idea how Hitchcock was a trouble-making individual, with obsessive tendencies that often made him appear standoffish or aloof, and he always liked to do whatever he thought he could get away with. An unhealthy fixation with his leading ladies also raises the stress levels between the embittered director and his wife, whose own forays into screenwriting for old friend Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) manage to raise his own suspicions. Hopkins and Mirren are both top-notch performers, and their interactions (or lack thereof) make for some wonderful storytelling, as each tries to dominate the scene and manage to settle into a contested draw. Hopkins will of course garner most of the attention thanks to his pitch-perfect mimicry of Hitchcock and his perfectly-shaped fat suit, but Mirren is of course the sum of her multiple talents. She manages to take a generally unknown woman from Hollywood's past and turn her into the perfect embodiment of what it takes to be Alfred Hitchcock's better half.

"Cut here, and here... oh, and a little exercise wouldn't kill you."
Unfortunately, I could have used a little more on the filmmaking aspect of the movie, which Gervasi steps away from to give more attention to the interactions between his stars. Though the director takes pains to show Hitchcock acting like "a perfect gentleman" towards leading lady Janet Leigh (Scarlet Johanssen), I would have loved more than the occasional behind-the-scenes drama, especially with the snubbed Vera Miles (a surprisingly underused Jessica Biel), the timid Anthony Perkins (James D'Arcy) and a bevy of actors that includes Toni Collette and Michael Stuhlbarg fighting for screen time. Little and less are said about Hitchcock's crew, with the one exception of the man who engineered the shower scene music. One question I had was whether Hitchcock truly imagined killer Ed Gein as his spirit guide (a perfectly creepy Michael Wincott), and whether he was ever haunted by his subject matter in the past. It certainly would have explained his personality and his manic obsession for getting Psycho onto the big screen.

The scene 14-year-old boys have been waiting for.
But despite any seemingly lost information, this is a movie that benefits greatly from it's leading pair. Hopkins and Mirren are fantastically well-suited to one another, the screenplay rife with fun and funny bits that will draw you deep and deeper into the world of Hollywood filmmaking. While I wish they had done less whitewashing in painting the famed director in a good light (he had a history of sexual harassment and other difficulties on the set), it doesn't hurt the film as a whole. You can point to Gervasi's experienced crew as a sign for why the whole thing turned out so well, as Jeff Cronenweth's (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) cinematography, Pamela Martin's (Ruby Sparks, The Fighter) film editing and Danny Elfman's music play a huge part in the final product. But it's still Gervasi's show, and he proves that he can make an entertaining movie when given the chance. Not just a lead actor/actress love-fest, this is definitely a movie you should be watching in preparation for the upcoming awards season.

1 comment:

Richard J. Marcej said...

Just saw this this Saturday (it FINALLY came out to the suburbs) I enjoyed it, though I'm prone to like historical films and films about filmmaking, so I am it's intended audience. I agree with your assessment of the strong leads, Mirran & Hopkins. How about Anthony Hopkins BTW, he's portrayed Hitchcock, Nixon and Hitler!

AS an added bonus, when I got home later that night I watched "Psycho" again. Kind of fun watching the classic after viewing the making of.