Giving the real Hitchcock a cameo role

A new film about the making of the iconic shower slasher, Psycho, is too shallow to shed light on the master of suspense.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater
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The late great Alfred Hitchcock is one of the few directors who is arguably as iconic as the classic films he crafted. This rotund, jowled figure, embossed on our cultural consciousness through his incessant cameos, has, over the years, been made all the more intriguing by rumours of a perverse and obsessive personality, befitting the dark, sinewy tales he brought to life on screen.

It’s a testament to the potency of the Hitchcock legend that two biopics about the fabled ‘Master of Suspense’ have arrived in such close proximity, giving two very different sides of his story.

First came The Girl, a BBC-HBO feature-length drama which hit the small screen on Boxing Day 2012. Based on the account of Tippi Hedren – star of Hitchcock’s The Birds and Marnie – it suggested that the director’s propensity for sex and violence wasn’t confined to his creative endeavours. Lining up the inexperienced young actress as his next starlet, he promises her stardom and riches before she rebuffs his leery advances and things turn nasty, Hitchcock style: All culminating in the now infamous five-day shoot for The Birds in which Hedren was repeatedly set-upon by the agitated, peck-happy creatures.

Ploughing a far cosier furrow, if anything more fitting for eating Christmas leftovers in front of the telly, is Sacha Gervasi’s big-screen rendering Hitchcock which, arriving earlier this month, seemed a timely response to Julian Jarrold’s perceived ‘hatchet-job’.

Set in 1959, it dramatises the events surrounding the Hitchcock classic that almost wasn’t. After the release of North By Northwest, the near 60-year-old filmmaker is seemingly at the zenith of his career. Amid suggestions he ‘quit while he’s ahead’ and calls from the studio for a box office-friendly NBNW rehash, he decides on his most risky project yet – an adaptation of a sordid pulp novel called Psycho. Based on the exploits of Wisconsin killer with mommy issues, Ed Gein, Robert Bloch’s tale of sex, incest, transvestitism and murder was black-balled by studio execs forcing Hitch to go it alone with his own money and a rattled sense of self-belief.

But as much as this is a movie about the torrid making of a masterpiece, its true focus is the marriage (in the traditional and creative sense) between Hitchcock (a prosthetic-clad Anthony Hopkins) and Alma Reville (an ever-spiky Helen Mirren). Herself a talented and prolific screenwriter, assistant director and editor, Alma had final say on all of her husband’s films. Married for 54 years by the time of Hitchcock’s death in 1980, her devotion to him and his work survived his ruthless work schedule and imagined dalliances with his leading ladies. In return, he always expressed an awed reverence and appreciation for her, most publicly when he accepted his AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1979: ‘I share my award, as I have my life, with Alma.’

But what seems poised to humanise the dark genius and celebrate his oft-forgotten partner is lost under a stultifying Hollywood gloss. It’s nostalgic late-Fifties styling – where no one has a hair out of place and car chassis gleam with preternatural splendour – frames equally caricatured renderings of the couple in question.

Dispensing with dry one-liners and never out of his trademark black suit, Hopkins doesn’t even attempt to crack the veneer of the director’s iconic image. As for Mirren, she is woefully miscast, turning the mousey Alma into a bolshie, aging bombshell, every bit the ‘Hitchcock blonde’ as Janet Leigh or Vera Miles, albeit with a few more miles on the clock.

All the while, their illustrious creative partnership is barely paid any attention, aside from a few choppy montages of Alma laying down the law in the editing room and the odd expression of shared admiration.

The attempts to reconcile Hitchcock’s murkier side to this fluffy yarn about a long-suffering couple rekindling their spark are even more hamfisted. His obsessive tendencies stirred by new muse Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johnanson) and Alma running off to collaborate with a struggling writer (Danny Huston), Hitch is visited by the spectre of – get this – Ed Gein, who in his own psychotic way helps Hitch get a sense of proportion.

In the end, his penchant for peeping on his leading ladies and a near-murderous rage, that comes to the surface as he demonstrates how best to stab Leigh in the infamous Psycho ‘shower scene’ on set, is dismissed as mere foible. In just over 100 minutes, we watch as the film is made, it becomes a smash and Alma and Hitch step out onto the red carpet of its premiere looking lovingly into each others eyes; Mirren’s glowing glance seeming to say, ‘He may be a bit creepy, possibly a bit rapey, but he’s still my fella’.

The opportunity to unearth the woman from behind the man and the man from beneath his dodgy reputation is wasted. Gervasi prefers to splash around in the shallows rather than truly probe the depths of a unique partnership.

The definitively-titled Hitchcock, it turns out, isn’t even half the story.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Hitchcock here:

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