Master of suspense learns marriage can be murder

Anthony Hopkins plays the title role in "Hitchcock."

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Anthony Hopkins plays the title role in "Hitchcock."

Movie Review

‘Hitchcock’

Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual material and adult themes.

Suzanne Tenner / Associated Press
"Hitchcock" features Jessica Biel (left) as Vera Miles, Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh and James D'Arcy as Anthony Perkins during the production of Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller "Psycho."

Photo by Suzanne Tenner

Suzanne Tenner / Associated Press "Hitchcock" features Jessica Biel (left) as Vera Miles, Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh and James D'Arcy as Anthony Perkins during the production of Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller "Psycho."

Anthony Hopkins plays the title role in 'Hitchcock.'

Photo by

Anthony Hopkins plays the title role in "Hitchcock."

HITCHCOCK is a love story about one of the most influential filmmakers of the last century, Alfred Hitchcock and his wife and partner Alma Reville. ...

Rating: PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content and thematic material

Length: 98 minutes

Released: November 23, 2012 Limited

Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Danny Huston, Toni Collette

Director: Sacha Gervasi

Writer: John J. McLaughlin, Stephen Rebello

More info and showtimes »

As a value judgment referring to talent or quality as opposed to size, the word "greatest" is too vague to mean anything. But I'll say it anyway: Alfred Hitchcock was perhaps the greatest filmmaker in the history of motion pictures, and definitely one of the great directors of popular movies aimed at a mass audience.

For this reason, some reviewers have been defensive and touchy about "Hitchcock," a thoroughly entertaining and more or less comic dramatization of the personal and professional crises faced by the aging "Master of Suspense" (Anthony Hopkins) while working on his most "tasteless" and déclassé production, 1960's "Psycho."

In The New York Times, the estimable Manohla Dargis says the "Hitchcock" movie "pathologizes" genius, while taking "extravagant liberties with the dead." Is there a statute of limitations on such liberties? Or is it more acceptable to portray (for example) the 16th president as a staker of vampires because the idea is too risible to be offensive?

If anyone was adept at exploiting and lampooning his image and what we would now call his "brand," it was the "corpulent" (to borrow a word from the new movie), deliberate and oh-so-droll Alfred Hitchcock.

"Hitch," as he was known, leased his name not only to the network TV program that increased his celebrity a millionfold but to "Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine"; a Hardy Boys-inspired juvenile detective book series known as "Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators"; numerous punningly titled suspense anthologies, including "Alfred Hitchcock's Noose Report" and "Alfred Hitchcock's Happiness is a Warm Corpse." There also were various"Alfred Hitchcock Presents" record albums, such as "Music To Be Murdered By"; and even a Milton Bradley board game.

Yes, there's a world of difference between profiting off oneself and being exploited posthumously by others, but I don't think the director of "Vertigo" — which this year dislodged "Citizen Kane" as the consensus "Greatest Film of All Time" (there's that word again) in the once-every-decade poll of filmmakers and scholars conducted by Sight & Sound magazine — will suffer any loss of reputation because Anthony Hopkins portrays him as alternately pouty and cuddly.

Pitched somewhere between the larky "My Week with Marilyn" and the wry "Ed Wood," and aimed more at the senior crowd that made "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" a hit than at those who believe "Marnie" is a masterpiece (despite its many cinephiliac-flattering in-jokes), "Hitchcock" is essentially a reassuring movie-themed nostalgia piece in edgy psychoanalytic drag.

An auspicious narrative feature debut for director Sacha Gervasi (know for the affectionate heavy-metal doc, "Anvil: The Story of Anvil"), "Hitchcock" begins in semi-spoof mode, introducing Hitch as a sort of dry narrator (as he was on his television series), and then moving on to Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life mother-obsessed Wisconsin murderer, body snatcher and corpse-skinner whose ghoulish antics inspired Robert Bloch's 1959 novel about Norman Bates, "Psycho." Gein reappears throughout the film, as a sort of cautionary muse — a more sinister version of the Bogart spirit that haunts Woody Allen's "Play It Again, Sam."

Intrigued by the Bloch book's "graphic violence, voyeurism, transvestism and incest," which is in marked contrast to the predictable content of the "sleeping pills with dust jackets" his advisers have foisted on him, Hitch decides to make "Psycho" his next project. He's not dissuaded even after his longtime loyal wife and collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren, typically wonderful), dismisses the book as "low-budget horror-movie claptrap." Responds Hitchcock: "What if someone really good made a horror picture?"

Scripted by John J. McLaughlin (whose "Black Swan" owed something to "Psycho"), working from Stephen Rebello's 1990 nonfiction book, "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho," the bulk of the movie chronicles Hitch's pursuit and production of "Psycho," despite the discouragement of Paramount execs ("Thank God we have 'Cinderfella' for the holidays," says one) and industry censors ("No American movie has ever found it necessary to show a toilet, let alone flush one," blusters the chief bluenose).

But the movie's subtitle could be "Dial M for Marriage." Intertwined with the birth of "Psycho" is the story of Hitch's suddenly problematic relationship with Alma, who has become fed up with her husband's blond obsession and apparently is contemplating an affair with a glib screenwriter (Danny Huston).

McLaughlin's dialogue references "dark recesses," but for all the drama (Mirren gets at least one showstopping speech), the couple's relationship ultimately is as comfortable as that of Archie and Edith; we could almost be watching a series of sketches titled "Hitch & Alma."

Hopkins is never particularly convincing, in look or voice, which adds to the unreal aspect of the action, and helps us accept an amusing operatic scene in which Hitch gleefully "conducts" the audience watching "Psycho" like a maestro in front of an orchestra.

The fine supporting cast includes Scarlett Johansson as shower victim Janet Leigh, Jessica Biel as the out-of-favor Vera Miles and James D'Arcy, who is fairly amazing in his few scenes as the closeted Anthony Perkins. The score is by the talented Danny Elfman, taking on the unenviable task of evoking the work of "Psycho" composer Bernard Herrmann— arguably the most talented scorer in the history of movies — without infringing on musical copyrights.

Oddly, the film's concluding bit of text obfuscates history, to prop up the story's theme that Hitchcock was under-appreciated by his peers. An on-screen legend states that although Hitch never won an Oscar, he was honored with an American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award in 1979 (the year before his death, at age 80). This is true, but it doesn't mean he was ignored by Oscar organizers: At the Academy Awards ceremony 10 years earlier, Hitchcock was given the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, a periodic honor for filmmakers "whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production."

"Hitchcock" is on two screens at the Malco Ridgeway Four.

© 2012 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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