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Arts & Culture

Review: 'Hitchcock'

Anthony Hopkins (left) filling in the fat suit nicely as Mr. Alfred Hitchcock (right)
Anthony Hopkins (left) filling in the fat suit nicely as Mr. Alfred Hitchcock (right)

A Film About Movie Mastery, Melancholy, and Mommy Issues

Mr. Hitchcock's infamous silhouette graces the silver screen once again, and reveals the personal side of cinema's master of suspense. (Opens in San Diego November 30.)

The film's beginning gives us a delicious taste of the 'Hithcockian' style. We are introduced immediately to two random farmers, shoveling dirt and discussing important family matters. Quickly, we are drawn in; we connect with them. We have interest in their story and concern for how it might unfold. Then -- WACK! A rusty shovel quickly takes the life of one of our farmers and the breath away from the audience. Perfectly Hitch-like. Then we pan to the man himself (in essence), Hitchcock as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. His belly is perfectly round and descending, jowls full, eyes dreary. He analyzes the idea of murder in the medium before his story even starts.

The driving force of the film is Hitch's struggle to create "something new" in "Psycho" (1960), which is now referred to as his finest masterpiece and one of the scariest movies of all time. The film is a legal and professional struggle for Alfred (film agencies didn't take nudity, violence or toilet flushing lightly), and this project also reeks havoc on his marriage (his wife, Alma, is played by the timelessly beautiful Helen Mirren). The story begins at Alfred's first walk from a screening of the successful film, "North by Northwest" (1959) and ends at his first walk from the "Psycho" screening.

Much of the film's focus (as I hoped) looms around the creation of the infamous shower scene. There are plenty of scenes in this film focused on that masterpiece of shot sequences, but one scene is particularly perfect -- when Hitch attends the screening of "Psycho." He prepares for this hard-fought scene by leaving the theater. He lurks in the lobby waiting to hear the reaction.

The shower turns on. He waits... Then the all-to-familiar violins screech through the theater and the audience is consumed with terror. In the halls, listening to their cry, Hitch directs their reactions, screams and the music like a crazed conductor. A wave a relief sweeps across his face after the last note. This is the best 'shower scene' scene in the film (Hitch attacking Janet Leigh while filming the scene is a close second).

Below is the original shower scene -- a focal point of both "Psycho" and "Hitchcock" -- one of the most famous in cinematic history, and it's been scaring people out of the shower for 50 years. (Originally, Hitchcock wanted the scene completely silent. According to Gervasi's film, his wife talked him out of it. Others say as soon after Hitch watched the scene with music for the first time, he thanked the film score composer by nearly doubling his salary)

There are slight Hitchcockian touches to the story's presentation. Hitch liked to call the his film's plots 'MacGuffins,' or a false lead. This means that the plot is not the main focus, but rather the mechanism to present the relationships that happen throughout. Another example of this would be "Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Worrying And Love The Bomb." You can know the film is about a fight to stop the world from nuclear holocaust, but that doesn't spoil the movie.

There are other Hitchcockian traits and themes for those searching: The score is often only strings, as one of the only appropriate suspenseful tones. Hitch forms obsessions with his beautiful blonde leading ladies, which, as the film explores may very well be due to his damaged relationship with own his mother -- "They always leave!" he exclaims to himself. Throughout the film, Hitch relates closely to the characters and actors who similarly understand deeply rooted causes of their torment. Alfred's trademark silhouette makes several appearances. And a hint to his next hit, "The Birds" (1963) is made (in an unclever manner that nonetheless excites).

'Hitchcock' is an exploration of the 'Master of Suspense,' his relationship to his work, and to his personal life outside of the studio. We see Hitch the stubborn and difficult husband, tireless story searcher, perfectionist, glutton, and paranoid weirdo. Again, this contributes to the MacGuffin notion -- we know Hitch makes a spectacularly famous movie and continues his success, but aside from that, we also get to experience his subsidiary relationships.

At the film's end, we have Hitch, again, sharing his conclusions, much like in his television series "Hitchcock Presents." In each installment of the series, he sets the stage for his audience, then checks back in at the end, all with a perfectly dry and insightful tone (see the first episode here). Director Sacha Gervasi does the same here, using Hopkins/Hitchcock both as an actor in the story and one who can step outside the film to analyze it with the audience.

Overall, the film was a noble attempt by Gervasi to present a legend of the medium at the height of his career. Yes, it could be better, more suspenseful and macabre. But it's fair to keep in mind that these standards are being measured directly against the man that helped create them -- the man being portrayed.

Some fun Hitchcockery:

The 2008 Hollywood Portfolio of Hitchcock Classics

Watch the original shower scene above, then watch the 1998 remake here. Which do you prefer? Are there some differences in the 1998 version that Hitchcock might have added if he had the resources and studio approval?

Artistic rendition of Alfred Hitchcock using his film's famous imagery.
Artistic rendition of Alfred Hitchcock using his film's famous imagery.