Friday, January 11, 2013

Hitchcock (2012) A Movie Review

I went in to see this expecting a movie about the making of Psycho, the 1960 film that Alfred Hitchcock challenged the censors, challenged moviegoers, and Universal Studios. After all, the movie trailer focused primarily on the movie and Hitchcock's involvement. Why would I think otherwise? What I saw was something below par and not what the movie trailer promoted. Because of this, I was disappointed. 

By 1959, Hitchcock was reaping the rewards of North by Northwest, a $3 million dollar adventure thriller with Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint (gorgeous as always) and James Mason. Lush color and widescreen cinematography, the crop duster sequence, the thrilling climax on the top of Mount Rushmore... and then theater audiences went to the movies a year later to see a black and white film in standard aspect ratio, a woman who embezzled lots of money, semi-lost on a dark and stormy night, windshield wipers going back and forth.... and a third of the way through the movie a brutal stabbing that made the audience squirm in their seats.

"It was an experiment in a sense," Hitchcock later explained to Francois Truffaut. "Could I make a feature film under the same conditions as a television show? I used a complete television unit to shoot it very quickly. The only place where I digressed was when I slowed down the murder scene, the cleaning-up scene, and the other scenes that indicated anything that required time. All the rest was handled in the same way that they do it i television."

Psycho was a project Hitchcock found exciting simply because he loved planning movies -- not so much making them. To film the shower sequence with Janet Leigh, for example, they had to construct a shower that came apart so the camera could film from all four directions. Wheels on the bottom of furniture so a sofa could be out of the way when it was out of range of the camera and the camera could follow the actor into the next room. It's those kind of things Hitchcock liked to plan. But when he couldn't find a studio willing to finance the picture, including Universal Studios, he went to Paramount who agreed to release the film if Hitchcock would back his own money into the project. Referred to as Production 9401, Hitchcock paid James P. Cavanagh to write the script. Cavanagh had proven faithful when it came to writing teleplays for Hitchcock's weekly television series, since it began in 1955. Dissatisfied with his first draft, Hitchcock paid the writer off and wen in search of someone else. Enter stage left, Joseph Stefano, who knew very little about screen writing and that was what Hitchcock wanted. Damn the censors and forget the rules. Just write the script and Hitchcock would work out everything else. The sky was the limit.

Hitchcock spent less than $1 million of his own money and having made a profit on every episode of his television program, this was not too much of a financial burden. This financial arrangement is perhaps one of the only things I observed in the movie that was fairly accurate. Yes, Paramount signed for distribution rights -- nothing more. The rest of the movie... well, that's a different story.

You can imagine my surprise when, half way through the movie, I discovered the film is not about the making of Psycho, but rather a speculation of Alfred Hitchcock's personal life. Suggesting a rocky marriage between Alfred Hitchcock (played by Anthony Hopkins) and his wife Alma (played by Helen Mirren), the film dealt with Hitchcock's preoccupation of the blonde actresses he worked for in the past -- and Vera Miles who worked with him on The Wrong Man (1956). I admit that I enjoy reading an autobiography or two every year simply to know more about the personal lives of the Hollywood elite. But movies like this are mere speculation and one man's interpretation of another man's personal life isn't exactly easy on the eyes. I hate trying to forget what was not considered the gospel. In short, facts were thrown about and liberties taken to tell a story about... well, Hitchcock. After all, that is the title of the movie.

Scarlet Johanssen as Janet Leigh
Funny thing. In the theater, I noticed how the audience reacted many times but only when Hitchcock employed one of his witty remarks and when there were scenes that involved the making of Psycho. Which makes me wonder... why didn't they make a movie about the making of Psycho? That was apparently what the audience enjoyed best. After all, Stephen Rebello's wonderful book (I recommend you buy a copy today), is a superb documentary on the making of the horror classic and is credited on the screen as the source material. I sometimes wonder if the screenwriter read the liner notes.

There is no bad acting throughout the entire picture. Anthony Hopkins, who is receiving lots of praise from critics, was not a bad Hitchcock. But at times he was still Anthony Hopkins. Will he win a few acting nominations? Yes. Will he win any? We shall have to see. Mr. Hopkins is a great actor. But to play the role is to be the role and very rarely do I see an actor play a role so strongly that I honestly forget for two hours who is playing the character. Yes, rarely. I personally thought Daniel Day Lewis was an excellent Abraham Lincoln and I will not be surprised if he wins the Best Actor Oscar. The only person who could beat Lewis is Hugh Jackman for Les Miserables, but again at times I saw Hugh Jackman... not Jean Val Jean. Helen Mirren gave one of her better performances and I wish I could see her in more movies. James D'Arcy was great as Anthony Perkins and it's sad his role was played down to a small brief scene. The person who stood out among the entire cast, however, was the beautiful Scarlet Johansson. As Janet Leigh, Johansson hit her mark and then some. I really thought she was Janet Leigh.

Helen Mirren (Alma Hitchcock) and Scarlet Johanssen
In 2000, I had the opportunity to interview Janet Leigh who told me what intrigued her the most about the role. "When I read the screenplay, I was thrilled because it was so much better than the novel. The character of Marion was so thoroughly gone into and researched that it made my role a more interval part. She was so important in the first part of the movie that when she leaves, the audience was just struck with shock. I was stunned when i first saw it. I had no idea that it was going to have that kind of an effect on me and on the audience in the screening room. Of course, we didn't know how the larger audiences would feel, but I can tell you that it had an extremely horrific imprint on my mind and on the people who first saw it on the screening."

In Hitchcock (2012), it was the liberties that the scriptwriter and director applied that made me squirm in my seat. Most notable factoids that were incorrect? Psycho went about Hollywood in the form of a galley, not as a novel. Hitchcock never sent his people out to buy every copy of the novel after it was already published. Most people referred to him as Mr. Hitchcock -- not "Hitch." Janet Leigh is portrayed referring to him as the latter but even first-year film scholars know that Grace Kelly and Alfred Hitchcock's relationship, while professional, still remained "Miss Kelly" and "Mr. Hitchcock." Janet Leigh, in 2000, still referred to him as "Mr. Hitchcock." The director sent Joseph Stefano to the production code censors because as Stefano explained to me, "Hitchcock sent me to argue with them as he just thought I would be able to defend the screenplay because I had written it. A lot of it was just very weird stuff. You know, they didn't want me to use the word 'transvestite' and I said, 'But that's a scientific and medical word. A psychological word.' And they seemed to think it was some kind of slang about homosexuals and I said, 'Well, I don't think anyone has ever called a homosexual a transvestite'."

Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock
I rarely go into the theaters with an expectation level. For this movie, I certainly had one. And was I a bit disappointed? Yes. The movie trailer led me to believe that the film was the making of a motion-picture classic. Did Hitchcock really scare Janet Leigh in the shower by waving the blade himself? No. Did Hitchcock argue with the censors about scenes? No. (He did film additional scenes for the movie he knew would never have been approved and inserted them into the print so he could negotiate... "I'll take out these three scenes but I keep the toilet scene...") My only fear is that the younger generation who knows nothing about Hitchcock or his movies will assume the movie is purely factual. Worse, ten years from now at a film festival some young kid will start quoting the plot of this movie as the facts behind the making of Psycho. If this is so, movies like this should have had the disclaimer at the beginning of the movie -- not at the very end.

It would have been nice for the producers to have filmed a scene demonstrating how movie critics at the time panned the movie because they were not allowed to see the film in advance. Yes, they took it personal. But Hitchcock did not want anyone revealing the shower stabbing sequence until after the movie was released in theaters. It also would have been nice for the producers to go into detail about such movie facts as...
-- The blood running down the drain was actually Hershey's chocolate syrup. The company had recently released on store shelves a new squeeze bottle. Prior to this, chocolate syrup came in a can.
-- Janet Leigh had skin-colored undergarments to protect herself from peering eyes on the set.
-- The take-apart shower I mentioned above.
-- Hitchcock thanked Simon Oakland at the conclusion of the filming, telling the actor that his explanation of the solution to the mystery made his entire picture.
-- Who really voiced Mother Bates in the picture?
-- How they accomplished the car-sinking-in-the-swamp-then-pausing-before-another-sinking scene.

There is a happy little ending to this review. After Psycho made a large fortune for Alfred Hitchcock (who used his television crew to film the movie), Universal Studios sought interest in buying the movie. In 1964, by the advice of Lew Wasserman, the director sold the movie to the studio (Paramount only had distribution rights, nothing more) along with his entire TV series (when it concluded in 1965). Universal would own the rights to the entire Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Psycho. In exchange, Hitchcock received a small fortune in Universal Studios stock (150,000 shares of MCA stock), a deal that made the director the company's third largest shareholder. And more importantly.... every movie Hitchcock ever made was released through Universal. This prevented the kind of problem Hitchcock suffered in the past with his movies. Distribution was guaranteed. (This is why, when you watch the movie today, the film opens with today's Universal Studios logo, followed by the actual movie print with the Paramount Pictures logo.)

Today in New York City, if you pay to go through the NBC Studios Tour at Rockefeller Center, you are treated to a 20 minute video about the history of NBC and Universal Studios. They are apparently proud of taking credit for Psycho (and the 1932 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) when in fact, they were released through Paramount Pictures. Universal later bought ownership but the studio was not responsible for the film's production or theatrical release. To claim the studio was responsible for such movies is inaccurate. I later wrote a letter to the CEO of NBC/Universal pointing out this historical error. Two years later, nothing has been done to correct this oversight. What's even sad is the fact that a 20-something kid in the audience knew that and made a remark about the films being Paramount productions. Which goes to show you that you cannot fool a kid in his twenties... and when an inaccuracy is brought to the attention of the CEO and nothing is done afterwards... that's irresponsibility and there's no excuse for that.

In closing, Hitchcock (2012) is by no means a bad movie. If there is any failure to turn a profit it is the lack of distribution and the horrible movie trailer that misleads theater audiences to come see the movie. People go to the movies with an expectation and it is that expectation that drives them to the theaters in the first place. Had I gone to the theater expecting a speculative marital relationship, I might have enjoyed the movie a bit more. Sadly, our movie theater did not chose to carry the film and my wife looked online to find the nearest movie theater carrying the picture... two hours away in what appeared to be the only movie theater in the state of Maryland even screening the movie. Had I known the film was not going to be as advertised, I would have waited until the DVD release. Of course, a written comment towards the end of the closing credits reminded movie goers that what they watched was based on true events, but scenes were written for dramatic appeal. In other words, while most of the audience had already left the theater by that time, the filmmakers only then wanted us to approach Hitchcock as a piece of entertainment. Not a documentary.