Don’t tell me silly stories, I was there.
So I know at the end of Sacha Gervasi’s “Hitchcock” whether he’s telling you an important truth or not.
I stood in that long, opening day line for the first showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” at the downtown Paramount Theater in 1960. I was in my midteens at the time and I’ll never forget our audience terror in the theater that night.
Cued by the screaming violins in Bernard Herrmann’s music, there were indeed audience members who screamed and registered terror for those of us more inhibited. The screaming wasn’t nearly as constant and continuous and loud as it is in Gervasi’s eagerly awaited movie “Hitchcock,” but I’ll give the movie its props for one thing: One of its only two insights about the man I’d nominate as the single most important and influential member of his profession in America shows you what happened as the film had its opening public screening in Hitchcock’s own Los Angeles.
In this fanciful version of Hitchcock, you see the maestro alone in the theater lobby listening to audience reactions to “Psycho’s” traumatic shower scene. He seems to conduct the audience’s overdone screams and that, in this well-acted but trivial and otherwise gruesomely fatuous film, is perhaps its smartest single moment.
That is what happened to us all – everyone who walked into a moviehouse from “Psycho” on: directors, following Hitchcock’s cue, would as a class start directing the movie audience even more than the actors. That applies to all American films after 1960, whether we’re talking about “Bonnie and Clyde” or “Reservoir Dogs” or “Knocked Up.” Hitchcock’s Pavlovian tactics on his audiences became the art form’s norm instead of narratives that unfolded the way movies once did with John Ford, John Huston, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, etc. That fundamental difference created movies as we now know them.
All of that is briefly suggested by a tiny hyperbolic moment in “Hitchcock,” but true to the film’s almost unbearable foolishness, nothing is made of it.
Hitchcock did other radical and epochal things with “Psycho” in 1960 – blew the movie Production Code to smithereens (something as trivial but important as the first toilet whose insides were shown on screen) and all but invented independent film in which artistic freedom would be achieved by a creator who kept total control over minimal budgets.
There are two other things about Gervasi’s “Hitchcock” that aren’t a thick-headed waste of everyone’s time – the performances by Sir Anthony Hopkins and Dame Helen Mirren as Hitchcock and his wife (and former film editor) Alma Reville, and the truly important insight that in so many crucial ways, Alma was a full partner in her husband’s career.
When Mirren finally erupts into her aria of loyalty to the husband who has been giving her a hard time over her relationship with screenwriter Whitfield Cook, the film not only has its greatest moment, it has the only moment – aside from Hitchcock’s conducting an unseen traumatized audience like a philharmonic conductor – where it actually deserves to have its own subject.
“I’m a storyteller,” said director Gervasi to me in an interview, “Hitchcock was a storyteller,” a truth as pointless and misleading as a truth can be. Hitchcock was a storytelling genius; Gervasi is lucky he can even spell “genius.” What the otherwise deeply phony “Hitchcock” pretends to understand about the most important Hollywood director we’re ever likely to know was simply not worth knowing. That means all those scenes that drag in Ed Gein who inspired Robert Bloch’s novel “Psycho” as well as all the supposed marital jealousies that supposedly fueled Hitchcock’s truly dark and sadistic streak.
What mattered about Hitchcock’s sadism – and, in fact, transfigured the cinematic world – is that it was most importantly practiced on his audience.
This movie, for the most part, gives you the droll joking tone of the intros and outros to “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” which can still be seen on cable TV. As mildly amusing as they always were, they are a superficial and crashing irrelevance to why the making of “Psycho” was such a dramatic story. It’s a far more important story than this movie’s emphasis on Hitchcock’s mortgaging his house to finance the film, as dramatic a personal gamble as that was. To understand only that drama is the most crass possible understanding of Hitchcock’s phenomenal, distinctive – and distinguished – art. Such stuff is passed off as all-important in a movie that, in passing, assumes “Vertigo” a failure and alludes to Orson Welles in a joke about directing Janet Leigh in “Touch of Evil.” (Meanwhile, “Vertigo” was voted International Film Critics favorite film – supplanting “Citizen Kane” – during the making of this.) To say that the script of this movie has the soul of an accountant is an unnecessary slur on accountants.
“Please do not understand me too quickly” is a quote from Voltaire much loved by Norman Mailer. That is exactly what this errant, miniaturizing film does with Hitchcock – it understands him too quickly. Aside from explaining his wife’s contribution to his work and making feints toward seeing him as our most Pavlovian film master, this movie, to me, understands nothing about Hitchcock that is worth understanding.
There is truly immense drama to this man, but it is possible that only critics and audience members truly get it, not crass filmmakers. (Read David Thomson’s “The Moment of ‘Psycho’ ” rather than the Stephen Rebello book about the movie’s making that inspired this movie.) This trivial “Access Hollywood”-style version of Hitchcock would have been a travesty had it not been for the excellence of Hopkins, Mirren, Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh and Jessica Biel as Vera Miles. Far better in every important way was HBO’s “The Girl,” whose understanding of Hitchcock’s personal sadism was nastier and less sympathetic and more controversial but, because it stuck to one person’s “truth” – Tippi Hedren’s – is far more consequential as a movie.
When Hitchcock used to say “it’s a movie,” he wasn’t saying “it’s junk; it doesn’t matter.” He was saying “we’re making something that, as you watch, will seem to matter more than your very life.” “Hitchcock” doesn’t begin to do that. Its biggest joke is on itself; what a sadistic joke it is.
2½ stars (Out of four)
Starring: Sir Anthony Hopkins, Dame Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Biel,
Director: Sacha Gervasi
Running time: 98 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for violent images, language and sexual content.
The Lowdown: How the most influential of American film directors came to create “Psycho.”