Dir: Sacha Gervasi
And yet Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo has just been crowned the best film ever made in the definitive Sight and Sound magazine poll conducted every ten years.This is no mean achievement. He has also beaten Bergman,Antonioni, Bunuel, Ozu ,Orson Wells, Kubrick, Bresson in the process. His stock continues to rise and rise.In his own words he continues to play the audience (and the critics!) like a piano.He is the Steve Jobs of cinema.
“I am scared easily, here is a list of my adrenaline-production: 1: small children, 2: policemen, 3: high places, 4: that my next movie will not be as good as the last one.”
As the film begins we find him yet again at point number 4 of his own statement. He has just finished North by North West which is a hit.The previous film Vertigo was a turkey!!He stumbles upon the pulpy novel Psycho and immediately realizes its cinematic potential.He sees it as a journey back to his roots, the ability to create something never done before.When the studios don’t agree he decides to go it alone, turning producer, mortgaging his house.His formidable wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) goes along, she realizes that he is at a vulnerable time of his life and needs to prove himself once more.
“Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.”
We see Hitch go about mounting the film.He orders all copies of the novel to be purchased by his staff so that the mystery is maintained.He casts Janet Leigh(Scarlett Johansson) as the leading lady and seems determined to overcome his reputation for fetishizing about his blond heroines.His wife Alma needs some space and begins to meet a writer friend and they start working on a script together. This causes an acute bout of jealousy in Hitch, which coupled with anxiety over his fragile reputation, leads to a nervous breakdown.Alma takes over the direction, telling the crew ”I am among the two people paying your salaries”.We know that since they are shooting Psycho it will become a cult film which will adorn covers of books about cinema itself.But what is fascinating is the process by which a masterpiece is brought to life and the enormous risks its involves.
“Film your murders like love scenes, and film your love scenes like murders.”
Hitchcock was a master of visualisation. This is illustrated by his clarity about handling of the shower scene.We see him read out the few lines from the book and then visualize a cinematic treatment. Eventually that iconic scene will have 78 pieces of film for a 45 second sequence, achieving the impossible task of suggesting both nudity and gore without actually showing any.We also see him working his magic on the set, telling dirty stories as Janet Leigh drives away from the city in her getaway car, her face tormented by the repercussions of the crime she has committed. Perhaps it helped to bring out her perfect expressions, perhaps it added to the Hitchcock myth, it was something he just had to do.
“Man does not live by murder alone. He needs affection, approval, encouragement and, occasionally, a hearty meal.”
But this film is a Helen Mirren show, as Alma she is nothing short of brilliant, her face and body suggesting her weariness for Hitchcock and his insufferable ways but still infused with a gentle love and motherly instinct for a man who is nothing but an overgrown child.She knows she is the other half of the Hitchcock myth and ensures that he does not crumble under pressure.Hitchcock always said his favorite theme was an innocent man wrongly accused, perhaps that is Hitchcock himself, accused of being a dirty old man with a blond fetish and manipulating his actors to the point of breaking.Alma understands something implicitly, that she is the other part of the Hitchcock story and plays her part with great dignity.
“I deny I ever said that actors are cattle. What I said was, ‘Actors should be treated like cattle’.”
Antony Hopkins is one our greatest actors but here his otherwise stellar performance is submerged under a mountain of makeup which makes him look like a poor copy of the real man. In one scene he peers through the blinds to survey a curvaceous Janet Leigh as she passes by outside his garden.The eyes that follow her moves are those of the most beloved Hopkins character Hannibal Lector. Could he not have played the role by suggesting Hitchcock rather that looking like him, the way he tackled Nixon in Oliver Stones wonderful film?
“I was an uncommonly unattractive young man.”
We see Hitch in the bathtub and Alma calls him immensely corpulent. He returns the insult by calling her “very presentable” when in fact she is looking beautiful and handsome.He most likely suffered from a complex about his looks and humble roots and found himself a perpetual outsider in hollywood.He tackled this by cultivating a careful image which endures till date.But behind the façade of a carefully crafted image what was the real Alfred Hitchcock like? Note how he constructs a peephole like a wide-angle lens to watch his heroines changing.The film indicts Hitchcock for being a voyeur but then can we not say that every time Hitch peeped through a peephole he was merely stepping into the shoes of his audience. Call it market research.
“Some films are slices of life, mine are slices of cake.”
Hitchcock is a film which tries to be a slice of the masters life and what a delicious slice it turns out to be. Movies about moviemaking are a genre of its own and Truffaut’s Day for Night is its shining example.While this film does not scale those sublime heights it delivers a solid entertainer. Hitchcock is a slice of cheesecake, smooth, rich and indulgent.And the director Sacha Gervasi does not make us suffer at all, he lets us hang on the coat-tails of an all time great and takes us on the dream trip of any movie buff.