No Pain, No Gein
Whatever’s been said of Alfred Hitchcock the man; that he was cruel, malicious, a misogynist, a pervert, a sadist; plus a few negative things; few will dispute that Hitchcock the filmmaker was a giant: one of the most significant celluloid practitioners of the 20th century. Such a man, you may think, is worthy of a well-rounded filmic biography; a treatment that bares all the hallmarks of its subject’s work: psychological shading, depravity, style and mordant humour. Well right you are, but after years of waiting for such a movie (Hitchcock’s been fertiliser since 1980), a period that tells its own story with regards to the numerous problems in mounting a sufficient tribute, not to mention one that wasn’t afraid to go into the nooks of the Hitchcock story where one may find blood and blow flies, we’re finally presented with, well, Hitchcock: a movie that wouldn’t have sustained its eponymous protagonist for thirty minutes.
In a sign that Sacha Gervasi, here making the leap from documentary to something markedly less authentic, may be overwhelmed by his subject, the movie, like the recent Lincoln biopic, chooses to maintain a narrow depth of field: focusing on a short but significant moment in its subject’s life. For Hitchcock this is deemed to be the making of Psycho, a movie that no one had the confidence to fund and was thought by many, including at first the ‘cock’s wife, Alma, to be dead in a ditch. “Doris Day should do it as a musical”, she sneers, and the MPAA, those killjoys who in 1960 were suffering from a rotten case of Hays Code, were being prescriptive about its content before a single frame of film had been shot. “The only thing worse than a visit to the dentist is a visit to the censor” says Hitch, and so it remains.
Yet somehow, history records, Psycho, via a combination of self-funding, canny misdirection and chutzpah, made it and became arguably Hitchcock’s signature release. Does this make for an engaging backdrop? Is it a moment in the man’s career that has enough to illuminate the character at its heart? Yes and no. We’re presented with Hitchcock in extremis; a man fighting to maintain his reputation and concerned that his powers may soon wane (as indeed they did from Marnie onwards). For added interest there’s a chance to glimpse behind the curtain at the making of one of the most infamous black comedies ever made. Hey, don’t talk to me about genre definitions, that’s how Hitchcock saw it. Mouth-watering prospects both, yet Gervasi’s treatment is perfunctory and a tad too jaunty for its own good. Comparisons with his subject are crushingly unfair and futile but fuck it; Hitch would have told his own story with a lot more flair, psychological insight and deadpanning than this. Man and biographer have seldom felt so incongruous.
There’s an attempt, though superficial and ham-fisted, to ape a typically Hitchcockian plot; giving the movie some self-reflexive spunk. Gervasi throws up a marital potboiler in which Hitch is cast as one of his own wronged spouses, haunted by dreams of the serial killer Ed Gein (on which Robert Bloch based his novel) and convinced that his wife is carrying on with Danny Huston’s good looking writer, Whitfield Cook (Whitfield being an excellent name for a good looking writer). It’s a diverting wheeze.
Hitchcock’s mortal remains are long gone: now he’s a style, a body of work, an attitude. If the task wasn’t beyond the bulk of today’s stylists (though some could certainly have a go, as Robert Zemeckis showed with What Lies Beneath), an option may have been to film the bulk of the bulk’s life this way, but such a technical, mercurial endeavour is beyond this director. Instead, he gives us domestic melodrama and Technicolor backdrops.
And what of Anthony Hopkins as the man with the infamous paunch? The one time Hannibal Lecter has Hitchcock’s mannerisms off pat, plus most of his voice (though it probably sounded better to his own ears) but just occasionally the drawl veers into Hopkins’ own, breaking the illusion – it’s as if Hitch has recently returned from a long holiday in Wales. In scenes of domestic grief with the reliably solid Helen Mirren, here employed to rehabilitate the long-suffering Alma’s historic reputation, he sounds like an angry Michael Caine. Caine missed out on the lead role in Frenzy, but it’s good to know he’s made it into a Hitchcock movie at last, if indirectly.
Ultimately Hitchcock is a disappointment; a film too slight and straight-laced to be worthy of its subject. “A nice, clean, nasty piece of work” is how Hopkins’ stand-in describes the superior film within the film. Gervasi’s movie is just nice and clean and that’s not nearly Hitchcockian enough for a film that carries the name.