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Hitchcock - Film Review

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by Emu Byron (subscribe)
writer in English, French and Spanish with published credits available in government publications, local and ethnic media. I live in Sydney.
Published January 31st 2013
Hitchcock is first time movie director Sacha Gervasi's making of a movie, about director Alfred Hitchcock's making of a movie (Psycho). It is a movie about a movie and this is my interpretation of Gervasi's take on that movie and its director Hitchcock.

Just call me Hitch and hold the Cock", the great director tells Janet Leigh (played by Scarlett Johansson) on introduction to his new project, Psycho (1959). As with any biopic, you need to know something about the subject, and even the subject's many subjects, before venturing to interpret the film's imagery. Who, in the audience, for example, would know that the film opens-up with a scene from the life of Ed Gein, the real life nutter who inspired the book behind Psycho by Robert Bloch, as well as a list of other movies in the same cheery genre (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Silence of the Lambs, etc, etc)?

At first glance, and with an equally minimalist gaze, we are led to understand that the blow-to-the-back-of-the-head-with-a-shovel of the opening scene, where Hitchcock appears "presenting" like in his brilliant eponymous television series, refers to the universal vocation of Man (i.e. Ed Gein) as murderer of his own brother. With first hindsight, we see this reference as serving to identify the subject's dark view of human nature. Only later do we come to see that it also places its symbol, Ed Gein, the true subject of Psycho, on an equal footing with Hitchcock as something of an American culture icon.

Well, perhaps. According to my interpretation of Gervasi's take of Hitchcock's terms anyway, which in the Freudian spirit in which this movie is made, is far from clear initially.

Another supposition in support of this interpretation is that, given the type of aesthetic judgment demonstrated by Hitchcock throughout his career, it would have only been a matter of time only before he and Gein should 'meet. But at precisely this point (i.e. the filming of Psycho) and no other, they do more than just 'meet', and during the making of the film, the regular 'reappearances' of Gein in the private thoughts and life of Hitchcock, become a menacing, almost overpowering, leitmotif.

This is echoed in the filming of the infamous scene in the shower, with Hitchcock shown taking over the acting from Anthony Perkins (played by James D'Arcy) and scaring the wits out of Janet Leigh with a savage demonstration of the stabbing motions that he is demanding from Perkins (plus the use of a real knife). The pantomime will later be repeated during first showing of the finished film (minus the knife), in the isolation of the Movie House lobby (where only one bemused usher witnesses it, who stands perhaps for our befuddled selves), just as the audience in the darkness of the theatre begins to scream. All is in perfect sync with the slashing bows of the demented violins in the sound score, and the stabbing motions of Anthony Perkins on the screen.

But what does this demented choreography mean? And how does this shuffling back and forth between the tawdry details of Hitchcock's relations with his starlets (whom he 'voyeurs' regularly through specially constructed peep holes), the dark stuff of real life (represented by Ed Gein), and the fandangle schemes of movie-art (which all coincide perfectly in the above scene) fit-in with the staid and stable setting of Hitchcock's married life to 'Alma', the movie's other subject?

This question suggests the doctrinal agenda in Gervasi's movie: Gervasi dishes out enigmas, not clues. What is the point of the movie? How many subjects does it have, and does it try to embrace too much all at once?

Certainly there is Hitchcock, the titanic ego; the details of his domestic life with Alma Reveille, which are revealed as dynamic and proactive in the story of his career; the drama of the difficulties encountered while making a movie like Psycho in the moral and cultural climate of 1950's America; and the voyeuristic nature of sex and of sexual crime in as sexually repressed a society as 1950's America, which is in turn responsible for some of the funniest lines in the film: "No toilet has ever been shown in an American movie!", thunders the censors, "let alone a flushing one!" "Fine", answers Hitchcock, "we'll make the movie in France and use a bidet instead!"

With as choice a wit as Hitchcock's, the use of the word 'bidet' is not just a ludicrous device of heated rhetorical flourish but a word deliberately picked out to sneer at what all the fuss is about. In short, what Gervasi seems to be saying is that Hitchcock's making of Psycho in 1959 is a cinematic milestone on the way to America's sexual liberation. But 'milestone' and 'liberation' 'à la Hitchcock' is a tremendous punishment meted out upon the American psyche, rather than a persuasive argument.

Hence the identification of Hitchcock and Gein, to which may be added that of Janet Leigh as the American public, with "Hitch" doing the "slashing" because he feels personally aggrieved that she will not "hold the cock" (at the end of his name), nor for that matter any of his other starlets (Novak, Kelly, Miles, Hedron), by whom he admits to "always feeling betrayed".

Obviously the movie reunites a trove of biographical detail which is woven consistently in a Freudian twist worthy of the master himself, only this one works on a historical scale; whether it is accurate or not, or does justice to Hitchcock or to Psycho, is not the point. This is simply Gervasi's take, and it is recondite and somewhat contrived, or perhaps it's simply that I do not like doctrinal stories.

For that reason, and in spite of all the overblown rhetoric about the acting, the performances of the actors remain subordinate to the cinematographic intent, technically flawless in all cases but strangely subdued, except of course for Anthony Hopkin's, who takes centre stage as Hitchcock (except in those scenes which belong to Helen Mirren as Alma Reveille), and whose portrayal of Hitchcock is pinpoint accurate, down to the emphatic gravitas of his ponderous persona. Mind you, this is a film which instead of being titled "Hitchcock," could have been renamed Psycho, copyright permitting, with Hitchcock himself as 'the Psycho'.

This could be the reason for the lingering sense of dissatisfaction that we felt as we left the theatre. While there is no doubting the mildly risqué nature of Gervasi's take on the subject, there is also a strong undertone of self imposed restraint, as if he knows that he can go so far with this thesis but no further. All very Freudian and very 1950's, but perhaps a bit cliquey, maybe a tad too didactic.

So Hitchcock is portrayed as something of a culture hero for making a movie which (according to Gervasi) is effectively saying: "if you don't let us to jump into bed more often, then there's going to be a lot more of this!" The symbolic meaning of Ed Gein in the film is the cipher at the crux of this interpretation.

This may or may not be an exaggeration on Gervasi's part, given that in the film, as in the real story, Hitchcock and Reveille mortgage 'the American Dream' (their expensive Belair home, complete with swimming pool) in order to make the movie that no one else in Hollywood wants to touch. I am no Freudian psychoanalyst, but the rest is history.
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