The kids have only had a smattering of Hitchcock films over the years (I can recall watching 39 Steps and North by Northwest with them, so they still have a long, long way to go). Even so, it seemed like watching 2012’s Hitchcock, which tells the story of the making of the director’s famous horror hit Psycho, would be something Ben would appreciate.
Hitchcock was late in the Hollywood stage of his career when he decided to take a risk and make a film based on Robert Bloch’s best-seller inspired by the notorious Ed Gein murders of the 1950s. Gein was the first serial killer since Jack the Ripper to gain pop-culture icon status, inspiring a number of horror blockbusters – including Silence of the Lambs and Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The studio, which just wanted more installments of Hitchcock’s “innocent man mistakenly caught up in intrigue” shtick, weren’t interested. But “Hitch” and his wife Alma Reville were ready to go back to their roots and do the unexpected, as they had done earlier in their careers. And so, one house mortgage later, Psycho was financed and ready to cast.
Speaking of cast, Anthony Hopkins – even in a fat suit with distracting facial prosthetics that always seemed at risk of melting off – pulled off the old master’s intonation and mannerisms. And Helen Mirren as his equally talented partner was riveting as her husband’s equal, even if the script upped her historic role in the making of Psycho (allegedly at Mirren’s request).
As much as I enjoyed the chemistry between the two stars, and the energy modern Hollywood always gins up when making movies about its own past, some key blunders made the film much less than the sum of its parts.
To begin with, by focusing on the strained relationship between Alfred and Alma, the bio-pic created the impression that Psycho was driven as much by Hitchcock’s psychological fragility as his craftsmanship. A scene (I’m guessing fictitious) in which Hopkins grabs the knife in order to create Psycho’s famous shower murder on his own (all the while imagining he’s eviscerating his wife’s imagined lover and the various Hollywood studio types standing in his way) reinforces the notion that Psycho is the product of the director’s id.
But, as aficionados know, the key to Hitchcock’s directorial success was his absolute control over every aspect of the filmmaking process, a mastery which allowed him to manipulate his cast and crew to get what he wanted from them – not be manipulated by them, or by the pressures of production schedules.
I was also disappointed by how much of the making of Psycho wasn’t in the movie. Sure, there was the aforementioned shower scene recreation, and a few other brief moments where you got the feel of being on the set of an old time Hollywood production. But nothing gave viewers the sense that being on the set of a Hitchcock production was anything special. Hitchcock’s ability to leverage his own brand to create buzz was also alluded to late in the picture, but only for the sixty or so seconds needed to explain why Psycho was a hit despite indifference from its studio-distributor.
The film also uses two narrative devices – one in which Hopkins interacts with the real Ed Gein (actually actor Michael Wincott playing Gein) and one which recreates the droll openings and closings Hitchcock began and ended episodes of his TV series with – both of which were incompatible with each other and with the rest of the picture.
As you can tell, it is only film snobbery that forces me to point my thumbs down on a homage that should have been more homagey (is that a word?). Ben – might you have anything kinder to say?
Ben replies: Not much kinder, I’m afraid. I am not particularly familiar with Hitchcock but I still found this 2012 miss a bit disappointing. The biopics I’ve seen have all followed the delivery-room-to-the-funeral-ceremony formula. I though this film might be better because it chose to focus on a short period of time in Hitchcock’s life, especially one so iconic, but it was also disappointing in that respect. Notably; the filmmakers made the Oscar-baity decision to cast Hollywood stars as every famous name involved with Psycho, including Hopkins, Mirren, and Scarlett Johansonn and James D’arcy as Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins respectively. Good acting on the part of the great Anthony Hopkins, but other a bit a waste of a biopic.