Tuesday, September 16, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

‘Hitchcock’: Not an entirely good eve-ning

By
From page A15 | December 07, 2012 |

“Hitchcock”

3 1/2 stars

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Danny Huston, Toni Collette, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jessica Biel, James D’Arcy, Michael Wincott

Rating: PG-13, for violent images, sexual content and dramatic intensity

Superb period detail and a strong cast are undercut by odd narrative choices

2012 has been a banner year for Alfred Hitchcock.

The London Symphony Orchestra debuted composer Nitin Sawhney’s innovative score for a sparkling new print of 1926’s silent suspenser, “The Lodger” — regarded as the first true “Hitchcock thriller” — at London’s Barbican Center on July 21.

“The White Shadow” — a 1924 silent melodrama long thought lost, on which Hitchcock served as scripter, assistant director, editor and art director — was found (mostly intact!) in mislabeled film canisters by a researcher at the New Zealand Film Archive, and has been lovingly restored and posted online, for all to enjoy.

And the past month has seen not one, but two quasi-biopics set during Hitchcock’s prime in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

That sort of attention can be a mixed blessing, particularly when the first of these projects — “The Girl,” which debuted Oct. 20 on HBO — was little more than character assassination. Happily, the newly released “Hitchcock” is a more palatable brew. Scripter John J. McLaughlin — working from Stephen Rebello’s “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” — doesn’t have any axes to grind, and he also benefits from the genuinely fascinating, behind-the-scenes back story.

“Psycho” was a landmark production in all sorts of respects, from the shrewdness with which Hitchcock outmaneuvered the censorious Hays Office — one of the early artistic assaults that illuminated the growing irrelevance of that body of ultra-conservative bluenoses — to the film’s brilliant marketing campaign, which kept people out of their showers for weeks, just as “Jaws” would keep them away from the ocean in 1975.

“Hitchcock” benefits from several great performances, starting with Anthony Hopkins’ dignified depiction of the Master of Suspense, and Helen Mirren’s feisty reading of his wife and longtime creative collaborator, Alma.

They’re merely the tip of the iceberg. James D’Arcy’s portrayal of Anthony Perkins, who starred as Norman Bates in “Psycho,” is so authentic that it’s startling; at times, D’Arcy seems more like Perkins than Perkins himself. Scarlett Johansson is similarly striking as Janet Leigh, who winds up taking that fateful shower in a scene that has been imitated and spoofed countless times. Johansson doesn’t try for mimicry as much as D’Arcy, but she definitely conveys the way Leigh walked, acted and struck a pose; close your eyes slightly, to silhouette D’Arcy and Johansson, and it genuinely looks and sounds like Perkins and Leigh rehearsing a scene.

“Hitchcock” also has a strong sense of the era, thanks to Judy Becker’s meticulous production design, Julie Weiss’ costume design, and the art and set decoration by Alexander Wei and Robert Gould. Hollywood loves to make movies about making movies, but this one feels right; it plants us firmly in the late 1950s, thanks to cars, clothes, cigarettes, California beachfront property, tony Beverly Hills mansions and the Universal Studios backlot, where a flea-bag motel and the creepy, cornice- and pilaster-laden Bates house were constructed for Norman and his mother.

It’s frustrating, then, that with so many top-notch elements in play, first-time feature director Sacha Gervasi frequently derails his film with an ill-advised narrative device that not only brings things to a grinding halt at inopportune moments, but feels as if it had been imported from some low-grade horror flick. As Hitchcock himself said, on many occasions, he wasn’t about horror; he sought to deliver suspense. Big difference.

Events kick off with the completion and release of 1959’s “North by Northwest,” the glossy, all-star adventure thriller that reinforced Hitchcock’s reputation as one of America’s master showmen. This image was further cemented, on a weekly basis, by television’s “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” which had debuted in 1955 and been among the nation’s top 25 favorite TV shows for four consecutive seasons.

Hitch could have made any film he wanted, and the execs at Paramount — to whom the director owed one more picture, on contract — eagerly hoped for another “North by Northwest.” But the always restless and contrary Hitchcock, who hated to repeat himself, was mindful of the financially successful low-budget horror films being made by American-International, Hammer and other smaller studios.

Consider, as Hopkins’ Hitchcock muses to his longtime production assistant, Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette), how much better a first-class, low-budget shocker would be if he directed it.

And thus the die was cast, Hitchcock getting his way via ploys that would have been admired by a master tactician. Longtime agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) makes Paramount’s wary execs an offer they can’t refuse, mostly contingent on Hitchcock’s offer to finance “Psycho” himself. This causes some consternation on the home front, mostly when Alma’s cost-cutting measures interfere with his gourmand’s palette.

As Hopkins so endearingly explains, though, “Psycho” isn’t merely a means for Hitchcock to demonstrate his ability to efficiently helm a low-budget thriller. In one of many warm scenes between Hopkins and Mirren, the director evokes their early days in the 1920s, when no-budget films forced them to be quick, inventive and daring. Wouldn’t it be nice, he suggests, to recapture those exhilarating times once more?

The team of not-quite-stars comes together, with Perkins and Leigh joined by Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), cast as Leigh’s dowdy sister, who comes looking for her sibling after she vanishes, without trace, during the drive to California.

We also meet the production talents: young screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio), whose obsession with therapy cements his being hired; prickly composer Bernard Herrmann (Paul Schackman), whose slicing string section would add the cherry to the notorious shower murder; and graphic designer Saul Bass (Wallace Langham), who concocted the film’s unsettling title credits and storyboarded interior sequences such as the shower scene and the staircase murder of the private investigator played by Martin Balsam (Richard Chassler).

And then there’s a rather strange detour: Hitchcock’s imaginative channeling of Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the 51-year-old, small-town Wisconsin serial killer whose gruesome exploits prompted horror novelist Robert Bloch to write “Psycho,” the book Hitchcock later purchased — with an anonymous lowball “blind bid” that netted Bloch only $9,000 — for screen adaptation.

Numerous times throughout this otherwise captivating and firmly grounded docudrama, Hopkins’ Hitch finds “motivation” via imaginary (hallucinatory?) conversations with Gein. I cannot imagine a plot device that would more effectively rip us away from the story being told; it’s a dreadful miscalculation on the part of Gervasi and McLaughlin.

Far better, instead, to concentrate on their film’s finer moments. Both Mirren and Hopkins have choice scenes, hers coming when Alma delivers a wounded harangue to her clearly surprised husband, after he unwisely questions her loyalty. It’s a great speech, and Mirren conveys it brilliantly.

Hopkins’ transcendant moment, conversely, is completely silent; it comes as Hitchcock stands in the lobby of a theater showing the premiere of “Psycho.” He waits, calculating a key scene to the nanosecond, and then indulges in a droll little dance, his sweeping arms perfectly punctuating each collective shriek from the audience within. Pure visual poetry.

I wish “Hitchcock” more frequently aspired to that level of quality. Sadly, while Gervasi’s film is mostly engaging, these ill-advised lapses — which feel like the exploitative indie material Hitchcock intended “Psycho” to exceed, not emulate — leave a bitter and disappointing taste.

— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com

 

Comments

comments

  • Recent Posts

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this newspaper and receive notifications of new articles by email.

  • .

    News

     
    School nurses stretched thin

    By Jeff Hudson | From Page: A1 | Gallery

     
    DPNS has afternoon openings

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A3

     
    Paws for Thought: Socialize your new pup at UCD’s Yappy Hour

    By Evelyn Dale | From Page: A3 | Gallery

    DHS parents go back to school

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

     
    New DHS Hall-of-Famers

    By Wayne Tilcock | From Page: A3

    Exploration of dementia lecture set for Sept. 25

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

     
    Sierra Club gathers for morning walks

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A3

     
    Bad roads cost Californians billions

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A4

    Farmers market continues at Sutter Davis

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4 | Gallery

     
    Yolo County’s looking for a few good advisers

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

    Sick-pay benefits expanded to millions

    By San Francisco Chronicle | From Page: A4

     
    Search the Internet at Connections Café

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

    Garage, bake sales benefit outdoor education trip

    By Anne Ternus-Bellamy | From Page: A5

     
    Sutter qigong classes start Sept. 22

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

    Halloween costume sale benefits preschool

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

     
    Hundreds flee wildfires; homes burn

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A5 | Gallery

     
    Harmony Award nominations sought

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A7

    Da Vinci seniors take on Constitution essay

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A8

     
    .

    Forum

    Maybe not the best rebound guy

    By Creators Syndicate | From Page: B5

     
    Nate Beeler cartoon

    By Debbie Davis | From Page: A6

    Many reasons to back Sunder

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6

     
    I support Madhavi Sunder

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6

    A leader with heart and vision

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6

     
    Carbon fee and dividend plan is the answer

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A6

     
    .

    Sports

    Open Cup final has local flavor

    By Evan Ream | From Page: B1

     
    Devil volleyball victories keep piling up

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1 | Gallery

    DHS needs just 10 boys to top Elk Grove

    By Evan Ream | From Page: B1 | Gallery

     
    Finding the good in a tough DHS football loss

    By Spencer Ault | From Page: B1

    More pressure on QB would be nice for Aggies

    By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1

     
    Raber: glad to join in bringing readers golf column

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: B1

    Highlights galore in Junior Blue Devil weekend

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B3 | Gallery

     
    Sports briefs: Big Monday for Masiel as DHS golfers win league opener

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B8 | Gallery

    .

    Features

    .

    Arts

    ‘Jane Eyre’ to screen at I-House

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11

     
    ‘Shrek, The Musical’ shines at DMTC

    By Bev Sykes | From Page: A11 | Gallery

    Anais Mitchell to play Third Space

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11

     
    Irish fiddlers come to Davis house show

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11

    Jenny Lynn and Her Real Gone Daddies play at Picnic in the Park

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11 | Gallery

     
    Woodland artist hosts event at her new studio

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11

    .

    Business

    .

    Obituaries

    .

    Comics

    Comics: Tuesday, September 16, 2014 (set 1)

    By Creator | From Page: B5

     
    Comics: Tuesday, September 16, 2014 (set 2)

    By Creator | From Page: B7