“Call me Hitch, hold the cock,” says the playful, flirty characterisation of Alfred Hitchcock in Sacha Gervasi’s film Hitchcock (2012).
History has a way of distorting popular figures, especially through the medium of Hollywood films, and this Hitchcock biopic is no exception. If you like your history sunny side up, this film would be of interest to you. The many flaws of Hitchcock are presented in an endearing, flattering manner that tries to paint his flaws as comedic. While he is evidently presented in an unfavourable manner for much of the film, he is nevertheless presented as a redeeming figure who is ultimately a kind old man underneath a filmic genius. Those who are familiar with Hitchcock’s notorious ways behind the camera may dislike the film. The casting itself is a curious thing, with Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, and Helen Mirren as Hitchcock’s long suffering wife Alma. Fitting the boisterous role of Hitchcock is Sir Anthony Hopkins, playing not his greatest role to date, but one that certainly deserves attention, considering the literally enormous shoes he is filling.
Rather than following all of Hitchcock’s career, the film focuses on Hitchcock’s struggles, both financial and personal, getting his adaptation of Psycho off the ground. Paramount Pictures are hesitant but later give in, and the censor’s board continue to badger Hitchcock about the nude and murder scene.
While the opening plays with the nostalgic elements of those who watched Alfred Hitchcock Presents, from there, very few authentic characteristics are revealed about the darkness of Hitchcock. In fact, if not for the plot centring around Psycho, a viewer might not catch on that this is actually about the master of suspense, rather than about a rich older man and his wife. The darkness is played in the light, with Hitchcock’s peepholes into his leading actresses’ dressing room garnering laughs from the minute audience. While Tippy Hedren of The Birds called Hitchcock a ‘mean, mean man,’ the leading actresses in this film (Johansson and Jessica Biel playing Janet Leigh and Vera Miles respectively) muse over Hitchcock being easier to work with than Orson Welles. His womanising, drinking, and difficult working habits are downplayed as a mere character flaw that should not corrupt the man’s genius. This is often the way with masters of cinema and geniuses of film: think Peter Sellers and even Ernest Hemingway. In fact, Sylvia Beach was said to have dismissed James Joyce’s act of cutting her out of future publishing profits, by claiming that she had been working with a genius. The light touch of the film is further accentuated by the poor choice of composer, Danny Elfman, whose upbeat scores do not parallel with the reality that was Hitchcock.
A mercifully darker element to the film is the relationship between Hitch, and the man who inspired the character Norman Bates, Ed Gein, whose house was filled with skin-made lampshades and lips for curtain handles. Throughout much of the film, the murderer invades Hitch’s conscience, offering him advice about his personal issues with his wife. As far as films go, this is right on par with the kinds of films made today, where characters are fairly bland and little substance can be seen. It is too superficial to be something of real value. While Anthony Hopkins does his best with Hitchcock, it is the rather predictable, Hollywood type script that fails what could have been something much more intriguing.
I grew up in the 90s, where films were beginning to wane in quality but still had a decent amount of gusto. It is my belief that films truly began to lose their lustre at the turn of the century, with The Matrix rounding off the last pop-culturally interesting films in 1999. After that, there grew an overly focused attention on acting and character driven films with bland characters that are all talk with little substance to them. The last few Oscar-winning films, for instance (Crash, Million Dollar Baby, A Beautiful Mind, The Departed, etc.) are amnesiatic films, in that they are applauded on acting and receive a great number of awards, before they disappear into oblivion, and nobody remembers them. People remember The Great Escape, Gone with the Wind, The French Lieutenants Woman, The Shining and The Godfather. The integral quality of a film, a part from characters, is its ability to be remembered, to be sustained throughout popular culture. While there were many good elements to this film, including a vaguely comedic touch at the beginning and at the end that tapped into authentic Hitchcock nostalgia, many of these elements were not good enough to lift the film up from its underwhelming aftertaste. It exists in the same vein as popular, ‘big’ films such as this years’ biopic from Spielberg, Lincoln. The endurance of these big films is very short-lived indeed. While French director Jean-Luc Godard once stated that bad reviews are pointless, they are perhaps more necessary now that films lack any enduring quality.