This is something I’d normally keep to myself but, if you catch me in a bad enough mood, I’ll argue you can count the number of outstanding movies Alfred Hitchcock made on the fingers of one hand:

‘Vertigo’ (his masterpiece, by far and away my favourite, and why isn’t it available on blu-ray yet??!!), ‘Psycho’, ‘The Birds’, ‘North By Northwest’ and ‘Rear Window’.

Okay, and ‘Notorious’. 

Alright, and ‘The 39 Steps’ and ‘Marnie’ and ‘Frenzy’ and ‘Rope’ and… okay, two hands. Alfred Hitchock made two hands-worth of outstanding movies. Twenty years ago I would never have admitted that, but twenty years ago I knew a rabid Hitchcock fan who would have happily waterboarded me for dissing any of the Master of Suspense’s work, but two hands-worth of outstanding movies from a lifetime’s catalogue of filmmaking is still a remarkable achievement.

I know very little about Alfred Hitchcock the man. He was born not very far away from me, although a serious number of years earlier (before you ask), and he had a legendary predilection for stunningly beautiful blonder-than-blonde actresses. Although fortunately, most of the actresses he fetishised were phenomenal talents in their own right. And he probably began the whole ‘director makes cameo in his own movie’ conceit, that can sometimes drive me to distraction when I catch myself spending more time trying to spot Hitchcock-dressed-as-a-Nun than concentrating on the plot of his film, but at least he didn’t over-egg the ‘director’s ego’ pudding like Peter Jackson or, most shamefully and embarrassingly, Quentin Tarantino.imagesCATAD2L8

Quentin Tarantino should stay behind the camera or, at the very least, step briefly in frame and out again and never speak. It’s ironic that a man who can write such brilliant dialogue as Tarantino can’t actually perform it.  But that’s another grouch for another time.

And I think Hitchcock invented the Macguffin (the plot device that ultimately means nothing at all, not the famous Egg Macguffin that only took off when its name was subtly altered by a major fast food chain run by a creepy stripey clown) and his gift for locating on-screen talent wasn’t lost behind the camera either. He knew how to spot (literally)killer material, and snapping up the rights to Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel ‘Psycho’ was probably Hitch’s biggest coup of them all.

You’ll be relieved to know that I’m finally now going to begin my review of Sacha Gervasi’s ‘Hitchcock’, the starry new biopic which is based on Stephen Rebello’s account of the legendary director’s battle to bring ‘Psycho’ to the screen. The film has only just opened in the UK and I’m surprised by the critical flak it’s already attracting because I think several reviewers have missed the point, possibly because they expected much more emphasis on the minutiae of ‘Psycho’ and weren’t expecting the movie that ‘Hitchcock’ ultimately is, which I think is a very charmingly told love story.  

Over Christmas, the BBC beat Sacha Gervasi to the chase by airing ‘The Girl’, a dramatisation of Hitchcock’s obsession with Tippi Hedren and the almost sado-masochistic trials he put the actress through while directing ‘The Birds’. Toby Jones played Alfred Hitchcock and a lot of people say it was a fine portrayal, although many argued that the script (biased heavily towards Hedren) bordered on character assassination of the great man.

‘Hitchcock’ is not character assassination. Compared to ‘The Girl’, it could be possibly be described as almost frivolously lightweight. But if ‘The Girl’ hadn’t put the knife in first, I don’t think Gervasi’s film would be receiving the sadly lukewarm reception it certainly doesn’t deserve.

True, there’s probably not too much this movie’s going to teach you about Hitchcock that most of his admirers didn’t already know. Yes, he was a voyeur. Yes, he was temperamental and obsessive and stubbornly single-minded in pursuit of his goal to make the finest horror story ever (up to that point) committed to celluloid, and prove he wasn’t so old that he should have retired on the high-note of ‘North By Northwest’. Yes, he enjoyed making his long suffering assistant Peggy (beautifully played by Toni Collette) shudder with his bogeyman antics and his penchant for showing off photographs of the grisly Ed Gein’s crime scene (Gein was the notorious serial killer on which ‘Psycho’ was loosely based, who would go on to inspire Tobe Hooper’s Leatherface and Thomas Harris’ Jame Gumb).

And yes, Hitchcock was a slightly child-like cinematic genius with an occasionally twisted selfish streak and a slightly pathetic – if entirely understandable – little-boy-lost obsession with his unattainable blonde muses.

But what ‘Hitchcock’ (the movie’s) dissenters haven’t taken into account is that this isn’t a film about Alfred Hitchcock.

It’s a film about his wife, Alma Reville. And the collaborative brand called ‘Hitchcock’ which they painstakingly created together.Scarlett-Johansson--Anthony-Hopkins-in-Hitchcock-jpg

Back in late 2012, when the first trailers for ‘Hitchcock’ were released, I thought Anthony Hopkins’ makeup and fat-suit were too cartoonish to convince and his vocal didn’t sound quite right. It worried me about what was to come. But it’s dangerous to judge a performance out of context and I was absolutely wrong to be concerned. Now I’ve watched the whole of Hopkins’ portrayal, I’m inclined never to see the real Alfred Hitchcock in the same way again. It’s a skilful and affectionate evocation, less a Hitchcock impersonation than a crafty integration of Hopkins as an actor and our perception, based largely on Alfred Hitchcock’s lampoonish portrayal of himself in his famed ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ TV series, of who we fondly remember Hitchcock to be.

Maybe Hopkins is nothing like the real-life Hitchcock at all, but I don’t care. This is the portrayal of Hitchcock I want to watch, and although it doesn’t have the cruelty of ‘The Girl’. Hopkins doesn’t entirely play Hitch without adding a few rough edges.

And yet, as I’ve mentioned already, it’s Alma Hitchcock who shines brightest.  

Helen Mirren is wonderful as Hitchcock’s battle-worn, but never battle-weary, muse, confidante, champion, and saviour. And it’s great to see how firmly Sacha Gervasi (and screenwriter John J McLaughlin) underline her importance to Hitchcock’s success and, during the period of ‘Psycho’, her brilliant but generally overlooked creative smarts – when Hitchcock fears the film they’ve risked so much to make will emerge stillborn, Alma’s magical midwifery delivers a bouncing baby horror classic to the world.  

Theirs is a marriage I can believe in, and want to believe in. Maybe it’s a little too smooth and ‘Hollywood’, but there are still some bumps along the way. They banter, they argue, there are frustrations and paranoia (the paranoia is on Hitch’s part, although it’s not entirely unjustified), but there’s always love – even if it’s generally unspoken – and a respect and a caring and a deeply sincere appreciation of each other.

It’s also good to see Alma portrayed in such an unexpected way. I’m probably being completely unfair here, but I’ve never thought of Alma Reville as a particularly ’feminine’ woman – in photographs she’s always reminded me of a patient, bespectacled tomboy who was physically no match for the platinum bombshells her husband fixated upon – but Helen Mirren plays Alma like a firebrand, confident and sexual (particularly in the red swimsuit she wears midway through the movie), playful but lioness-like, and in every respect – her famous husband’s creative equal.

Alma is undoubtedly the only one who can keep Hitch contained. She has a disarming juxtaposition of steel and warmth and there’s a tremendous firecracker moment in the final Act of the film when we can see the truth of this woman in Mirren’s eyes. She doesn’t portray Alma, she channels her. It’s a fascinating performance.johansson hopkins mirren in HITCHCOCK

None of the cast disappoints. They all give fine performances with the small but beautifully observed character tics necessary to convince us these aren’t just caricatures but real flesh-and-blood Hollywood legends brought back to life. Scarlett Johansson is fabulous and beautiful as Janet Leigh, James D’ Arcy is an unnervingly accurate Anthony Perkins (particularly when he appears on set wearing the Norman Bates turtleneck) and Jessica Biel, with the briefest screen time of all, is a convincing Vera Miles whose perceived ‘betrayal’ of Hitchcock on an earlier movie continues to incur his wrath.

And there are true moments of brilliance from the director and his DP, Jeff Cronenweth. Much of the sun-soaked photography is beautiful to behold, particularly during a neat, possibly unconscious nod towards a luscious scene in ‘Vertigo’ when Alma goes to the beach with her writer-friend (and possibly Hitchcock’s love rival?) Whitfield Cook, and Cronenweth’s colour palette is sublime.

Watch out, also, for the filming of the famous ‘Psycho’ shower scene. It’s a quite wonderful restaging, operating on multiple layers as a reconstruction of a moment in film history (although where’s Saul Bass? But that’s only a small gripe), an affectionately accurate homage, a revelation of Hitchcock’s inner darkness, and a brief shock of stabbing violence that has such perfect rhythms it almost matches the unexpected impact of the original.

And then there’s a subtly composed scene between Hopkins and Biel when Hitch speaks with Vera Miles in her dressing room and, shot through the mirror, we watch a dark-haired Miles confronting Hitch while her blonde ‘Psycho’ wig sits on the table, seemingly if impossibly between them, playing its own part in the psychology of the moment.  

There’s only one small storytelling detail I didn’t quite believe, and that ‘Hitchcock’ could easily have done without, and that’s the occasional ‘slippages’ Hitch has when he daydreams interactions with  Ed Gein. Those scenes don’t damage the movie but they’re unnecessary and could easily have been left on the cutting room floor.

Don’t let the less-enthusiastic reviews put you off. ‘Hitchcock’ is a wonderful  film, a joyous evocation and a hugely touching love letter to the woman who was undoubtedly the power behind the Alfred Hitchcock throne. And so what if it’s not the harsher warts-and-all biopic some other critics wanted?

As Alma tells Hitch midway through the film, “It’s only a bloody movie.”.
 
P.S. I was watching ‘The Birds’ as I wrote this review and had forgotten how incredibly subtle and chilling that marvellous scene is when Tippi Hedren takes a smoke-break in the school playground, unaware until almost the last moment that the birds are gathering silently all around her, preparing to strike. Even with the ancient greenscreen and some of the hokey bird-attack effects, that movie still makes me glad we don’t own a budgie.

And, as killer birds go, it’s far more nightmarish than the frankly stupid raven attack in the first Act of ‘Damien: Omen II’, when the journalist has her eyes pecked out and is inexplicably hurled up into the air when an articulated lorry hits her. Please explain the physics of that one. I’ve never worked it out.

About The Author

Ian White is an author, screenwriter and journalist. His book ‘Witchcraft and Black Magic in British Cult Cinema’ was recently published by Hemlock and he is a regular contributor to ‘Paranormal Underground’ and ‘Starburst’ magazines. He’s currently writing a new book and screenplay and his embarrassingly out-of-date website can be found at http://ianwhitelondon.wix.com/ian-white