Saturday, 25 May 2013

Hitchcock



Hitchcock played in one Winnipeg theatre (the Globe) early this year. At the time, Ebert was still alive and I had not yet noticed how my opinions of films were increasingly diverging from those of the major critics. So I allowed the negative critical opinion of Hitchcock to persuade me to postpone watching the film until it was released on DVD. That was a mistake, since once again I enjoyed a film much more than I had expected after seeing the critics’ ratings.

I have always been a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Hitch has been my second-favourite director for decades because I could always rely on his films to entertain me and because of how frequently he employed one of my favourite plot elements (a man in over his head, caught up in a situation he doesn’t understand). Hitch also made a number of films that, for me, defined the very essence of classic (pre-sixties) films. Just like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Great Expectations, Laura, The Big Sleep, It’s a Wonderful Life, His Girl Friday, The Third Man and a dozen others, my favourite Hitchcock film, Rebecca (which I have watched at least fifteen times), is an example (for me at least) of the pure movie magic that came out of the 1940’s (and has almost never been seen since). 

I’ll come back to Hitchcock’s films below, but first let’s return to the 2012 film directed by Sacha Gervasi and starring Anthony Hopkins as Hitch, Helen Mirren as his wife Alma and Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, one of the stars of Psycho. Hitchcock is set during that brief period in Hitch’s life when he was making Psycho. It describes how Psycho came to be made in spite of a long series of challenges confronting Hitch at the time. But it also gives us a rare glimpse into the man responsible for making 59 films (many of them among the best ever made), a driven man who had unusual relationships with his female actors and who had a very close but strained relationship with his wife (and work partner, who made Hitch jealous at the time by working closely with a writer). 

Hitchcock (the film) was criticized for being too superficial, for not being a bold expose, for leaving out any sense of Hitch’s cruelty and regular sexual harassment. It was also criticized for focusing too much on Hitch’s marriage and not enough on the making of Psycho. I don’t get it. Hitchcock is not a documentary. It’s a film about a haunted but brilliant filmmaker at the peak of his powers. It doesn’t have to be accurate or comprehensive; it has to be entertaining and well-made. In my opinion, it was those things.

Hopkins does an absolutely remarkable job looking and sounding like Hitch, so much so that you eventually forget he isn’t. Mirren is the perfect partner for Hopkins, performing magnificently (as usual) as Alma. Johansson is convincing as Leigh. And James D’Arcy is positively spooky as Anthony Perkins. 

I found Hitchcock to be an intelligent thought-provoking film which finds a nice balance between Hitch’s work and private life. Sure, the film could have gone deeper and provided more insight and emotion. It’s certainly not as well-made as many of Hitch’s films. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed it and give it ***+. My mug is up.

In preparation for watching Hitchcock, I decided to watch twenty of Hitchcock’s films during the past month. I watched all my favourites again as well as a few I had never seen before. In watching so much Hitchcock, one does see recurring patterns which give one pause, such as the role of mothers in Hitch’s films. It is hard not to think that Hitch must have had a very uneasy relationship with his own mother (was she overbearing and possessive like many mothers in his films, or clueless, like in other films?). Another recurring theme is how often men are wrongly accused of something. Did Hitch feel that he had been, or still was, wrongly accused of things? It’s been a long time since I read anything biographical about Hitchcock, so maybe the answers are all there to be found. I have no doubt that Hitch was dealing with his fair share of inner demons (as Hitchcock also reveals). But he was a filmmaking genius whose influence has probably been second to none.

I did watch one film that Hitch should never have made. It was (IMHO) an utter embarrassment for all concerned. That was Torn Curtain, made in 1966 and starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. Newman and Andrews are horribly cast and their performances are abysmal, as is the writing and overall direction. I have no idea what Hitch was thinking when he allowed this mess to be released. Hitch’s last great film was The Birds, made in 1963, though I am also a fan of Frenzy, Hitch’s second-last film, made in 1972.

While some of Hitchcock’s British films from the 1930’s were excellent, for me there was a huge leap forward when Hitch moved to Hollywood in 1940 and made Rebecca. None of Hitch’s pre-Hollywood films made it into my top ten Hitchcock films, which are: 

Rebecca (1940)
Vertigo (1958)
Rear Window (1954)
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
North by Northwest (1959)
Psycho (1960)
The Birds (1963)
Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Frenzy (1972)
Notorious (1946)

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