Friday, July 10, 2015

Technically, Alfred Hitchcock is retro

FXM Retro has aired some decidedly recent movies, usually right at 3:00 AM or leading into 3:00 PM when the regular FXM block starts. Tomorrow morning at 3:00 and repeated at 1:15 PM is the 2012 movie Hitchcock.

Anthony Hopkins stars as Alfred Hitchcock, the famed movie director. In this movie, the action begins in 1959, just as North by Northwest is a big success. In fact, Hitchcock had a big string of successes in the 1950s, but the movie posits that Hitchcock still didn't have as much clout as you'd think he did. That's becautse when he comes across the source material for what would be his next film, Psycho, the studios are reluctant to let him film it the way he wants. Hitchcock has to put up a lot of his own money, and so there's a lot at stake riding on the success of that next film.

Well, not just for him, but also for his wife Alma (Helen Mirren). Alma had been one of the screenwriters for a whole bunch of Alfred's films back in Britain, and now serves a bunch of purposes for Alfred: helping deal with producers and actors, having good taste to understand what will work, and so on. But she's decidedly in Alfred's shadow, at least publicly. Everybody knows Alfred; people don't particularly know Alma.

And so, our movie version of Hitchcock looks at both the shooting of Psycho, which wasn't always easy because of the difficult subject matter, as well as the personal relationship between Alfred and Alma. It's well known that Alfred had a thing for icy blondes, which is why he cast so many of them in his movies, at least the great movies of the 1950s through to Marnie in 1964. How interested he was in the actresses themselves is a matter for debate; Janet Leigh (played here by Scarlett Johansson) supposedly said good things about Hitchcock after Psycho, while Tippi Hedren (not a character in the movie) had difficulty on the set of Marnie. As for the movie Hitchcock, Psycho costar Vera Miles (played by Jessica Biel) is shown warning Janet about the director's reputation, and Hitchcock is shown as a peeping Tom.

While the cat's away, the mice will play, so neglected Alma spends her days playing script doctor to crappy writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) and eventually getting entangled enough in a relationship with him to spend her days working at his beach house. Exactly how serious their relationship was is left a bit ambiguous. But what isn't ambiguous about this movie's presentation of Alma is its presentation of her as more of a force behind Alfred than most people would think, including keeping production going while Alfred was ill. Alfred is known for having elaborate storyboards prepared such that the actual prodcution should in theory go like clockwork; supposedly this means that somebody who knew Alfred well enough would be able to make that clockwork run too.

I'm not certain just how much of the material in the movie is true; there are also dream sequences of Alfred talking to Ed Gein (the murderer who was the basis for the book that was made into the movie Psycho), but if this were a story about wholly fictitious people it would hold up quite well. Anthony Hopkins has the thankless task of trying to play a well-known larger than life figure, something that probably no actor would be able to do. Alma is less well known, so Mirren can do more of what she wants with her, and I think she does quite a good job as the woman behind the man.

Ultimately, Hitchcock is entertaining, at least if you go in expecting a dramatized version of Hollywood history.

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