As I've mentioned before, I'm not a big fan of Hitchcock, the kind-of quasi biopic concerning the late film director of the same name, starring Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins, written by John J. McLaughlin, and directed by Sacha Gervasi. I understand that in the dramatizing of real events that factual liberties are taken all the time, and have been since (I know, I know) the days of Shakespeare and before. So I understand then too that to complain about factual liberties taken here is to court accusations of,among other things, humorless literal-mindedness. But as I said in my review of the movie for MSN Movies, had the liberties taken with the facts resulted in a motion picture that was either illuminating or entertaining, or both (a lot to ask, I know) that would have gone a long way to forgiving those liberties. I got up early this morning to watch my friend Matt Singer of Criticwire talk Hitchcock, and Hitchcock, on the CBS This Morning program. The clip they showed from the new film features Hopkins and Mirren, as Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville, going over footage of Psycho's shower scene in the editing room. Looking carefully at a single frame, Mirren's Reville coos "Ooh, you imp! You've got nudity in there!" to which Hopkins' Hitchcock replies with an exaggerated air of sang froid, "Well her breasts were rather large, it'd be a challenge not to show them." Most of the dialogue in the film is determined by the same juvenile notion of what constitutes breezy adult banter as that example. So, you know.
Sometimes you will read a review of a motion picture and wonder if the person writing actually saw the same film you did. In the case of my friend Richard Brody, I have no doubt that we saw the same Hitchcock, as we sat next to each other at the press screening. But he came to some vastly different conclusions than I did, which he lays out in a typically detailed, incisive, provocative, and, for me, exasperating post at his New Yorker blog. He covers a lot of ground in this post, and seems most particularly pleased with the way Hitchcock demonstrates "the personal significance of the story of Psycho." Now, as I understand it, Brody's baseline idea isn't hugely different from Andrew Sarris' definition of Pantheon Directors, that is, those who "have transcended their technical problems with a personal vision of the world." Brody sees an innovation in this biopic, born of his perception that "Gervasi rightly suggests that Hitchcock is no mere puppet master who seeks to provoke effects in his viewers." In discussing the technical aspects of his own films, Hitchcock took not-unjustifiable pride in the fact that with his effects he could, yes, traumatically "play" the audience, and there's nothing wrong with that. However, Hitchcock himself DID acknowledge, and publicly at that, that within that component of his art there was a strong element of self-expression, so it's not really as if Gervasi has stumbled on to anything particularly new. (Then, of course, there are the reams—more like libraries—of detailed critical studies of Hitchcock's work.) Brody continues: "[Hitchcock is] converting the world as he sees it, in its practical details and obsessively ugly corners, into his art, and he’s doing so precisely because those are the aspects of life that haunt his imagination." This is all unobjectionable. Where I think Richard goes a little off is in his praise for what he considers the "shaky but bold artistic limb" Gervasi goes out on by introducing the midwestern murderer Ed Gein into Hitchcock's consciousness, making him the stuff of daymares and imagined psychiatric consultations and even forays into marital jealousy that find Alfred crawling about the floor of his bathroom collecting grains of sand with which to confront Alma, who hasn't told him that her writing sessions of late have been taking place at a collaborator's beach house.
"I have no idea whether Hitchcock gave much thought to Gein, but it doesn't matter," Brody writes. "[I]f it wasn't Gein that obsessed him, it was surely much that was Gein-like." Leaving aside that perhaps overly-confident "surely," I would argue that whether Hitchcock gave much thought to Gein certainly does matter, or at least it matters within the context of this film, because the portrayal of Gein therein is almost by necessity a kind of burlesque. At the time that Robert Bloch wrote the novel upon which Psycho was based, Gein was not the kind of household world that he has since become. As awful and appalling as his crimes were, the singularity of his atrocities underwent a certain diminishment as he was transposed over the years into a kind of pop-culture "brand." The wild-eyed, Midwestern, possibly cannibalistic serial killer, after roosting as a kind of Chiller Theatre Expo hipster icon since some time well before G.G. Allin shuffled off this mortal coil, has since become a sort of post-modern kitsch object. The only way for such a figure to inspire anything resembling real terror in a cinematic context anymore is to stretch him beyond, and then further beyond, reason, as Lynch did with "BOB" in Twin Peaks: Fire Walks With Me and certain episodes of the Twin Peaks television series. In any event, in Hitchcock, the way Gein, almost inescapably, comes off, Michael Wincott or no Michael Wincott, is as serial killer vaudeville.
In a comment to a prior blog post, the great critic and biographer Joseph McBride, before recounting his own late '50s Gein-tourism experience, chides me a bit: "How can anyone not like a movie in which Alfred Hitchcock hangs out with Ed Gein?" I understand what he's getting at, and had Hitchcock been conceived and executed thoughout as a kind of burlesque, in the style of what McBride's old pals Allan Arkush and Joe Dante often had a go at in the Corman days and beyond, Hitchcock could have been good disreputable/affectionate fun. But that's not what Hitchcock is up to. Brody states that Gervasi recognizes Psycho as a great artistic acheivement, but he doesn't, or rather the movie doesn't, not really; art never enters into this movie's argument, or algebra. Rather, Hitchcock recasts the making of Psycho through a tired Hollywood template: the story of a dreamer with a vision that everybody around him thinks he is—you'll excuse the term—crazy for entertaining, and how that dreamer proves the naysayers wrong...here, not by making a great work of art, but by concocting a motion picture commodity that slays them at the box office. And in the process of grinding out this particular narratvie sausage, Hitchcock also manages to be astonishingly patronizing to its principal characters. In her own clearly ticked-off New York Times review of the movie, another friend, Manohla Dargis, writes, "Hitchcock, you are meant to believe, was himself a little psycho and could only work from a place of madness." She continues: "The real Hitchcock's great flaw, apparently, was that he was at once a genius and a private man, a combination that has allowed some filmmakers to have their insultingly imaginative way with him." She goes on to dismiss "dim fantasies" that to her smack of "spiteful jealousy." I'd say that's pretty spot on. Except I don't even think that Sacha Gervasi understands enough about Hitchcock to know that he maybe should be jealous of him. (There are several interviews with the director that bear this notion out, I'll leave it to readers curious enough to seek them out to do just that.)
As for Hitchcock himself...like DeMille, whom he admired, he was something of a self-made showman, and pronouncements such as "some films are slices of life, my films were slices of cake" were a part of his presentation. As Dargis said, he was a private person, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he worked exclusively and consciously in a vacuum of his own unexamined fancies. As much of a front as he put up, one often doesn't need to read too far between certain lines to understand his own understanding of where his themes came from. In other words: he knew that cinema was the stuff of obsession. There's a droll and poignant passage in Luis Buñuel's autobiography in which the Spanish director recounts a Hollywood lunch in his honor, at which Hitchcock rhapsodized, practically in a swoon, over a particularly salient detail in Buñuel's Tristana: " 'Ah, that leg...that leg,' he sighed, more than once." In the final revised edition of Hitchcock/Truffaut, Truffaut, recalls watching Vertigo and seeing Jimmy Stewart's Scotty trying to remake Kim Novak's Judy Barton into "Madeline;" he writes of experiencing a certain sad frisson knowing that it was Vera Miles, not Novak, that Hitchcock had wanted for that crucial role, and Truffaut sees Hitchcock in Stewart with a kind of sad clarity. In other words, you don't need a bad cartoon—which, finally, I'm convinced Hitchcock is—in order to get it.
A few citations. Here's a pretty salient passage from the above-mentioned Truffaut study of Hitchcock:
FRANÇOIS TRUFFAUT. Mr. Hitchcock, this morning you mentioned that you had had a bad night and indicated that you were probably disturbed by all of the memories that our talks have been stirring up these past several days. In the course of our conversations we've gone into the dreamlike qualities of many of your films, among them Notorious, Vertigo, and Psycho. I'd like to ask whether you dream a lot.
ALFRED HITCHCOCK. Not to much...sometimes...and my dreams are very reasonable.
In one of my dreams I was standing on Sunset Boulevard, where the trees are, and I was waiting for a Yellow Cab to take me to lunch. But no Yellow Cab came by; all the automobiles that drove by me were of a 1916 vintage. And I said to myself, "It's no good standing here waiting for a Yellow Cab because this is a 1916 dream!" So I walked to lunch instead.
F.T. Did you really dream this, or is it a joke?
A.H. No, it's not a gag; I really had a dream like that!
F.T. It's almost a period dream! But would you say that dreams have a bearing on your work?
A.H. Daydreams, probably.
F.T. It may be the expression of the unconscious, and that takes us back once more to fairy tales. By depicting the isolated man who's surrounded by all sorts of hostile elements, and perhaps without even meaning to, you enter the realm of the dream world, which is also a world of solitude and danger.
A.H. That's probably me, within myself.
F.T. It must bem because the logic of your puctures, which is sometimes decried by the critics, is rather like the logic of dreams. Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest, for instance, are made up of a series of strange forms that follow the pattern of a nightmare.
A.H. This may be due to the fact that I'm never satisfied with the ordinary. I'm ill at ease with it.
F.T. That's very evident. A Hitchcock picture that doesn't involve death or the abnormal is practically inconceivable. I believe you film emotions you feel very deeply—fear, for instance.
A.H. Absolutely. I'm full of fears and I do my best to avoid difficulties and any kind of complications. I like everything around me to be clear as crystal and completely calm. I don't want clouds overhead. I get a feeling of peace from a well-organized desk. When I take a bath, I put everything neatly back in place. You wouldn't even know I'd been in the bathroom. My passion for orderliness goes hand in hand with a strong revulsion toward complications.
F.T. That accounts for the way you protect yourself. Any eventual problem of direction is resolved beforehand by your minute predesigned sketches that lessen the risks and prevent trouble later on. Jacques Becker used to say, "Alfred Hitchcock is undoubtedly the director who gets the least surprises when he looks at rushes."
And here is Hitchcock describing his childhood to Truffaut: "I was what is known as a well-behaved child. At family gatherings I would sit quietly in a corner, saying nothing. I looked and I observed a good deal. I've always been that way and still am. I was anything but expansive. I was a loner—can't remember ever having had a playmate. I played by myself, inventing my own games [...] I was put into school very young. At St. Ignatius College, a Jesuit school in London. Ours was a Catholic family and in England, you see, this in itself is an eccentricity. It was probably during this period with the Jesuits that a strong sense of fear developed—moral fear—the fear of being involved in anything evil. I always tried to avoid it. Why? Perhaps out of physical fear. I was terrified of physical punishment. In those days they used a cane made of very hard rubber. I believe the Jesuits still use it. It wasn't done casually, you know; it was rather like the execution of a sentence. They would tell you to step in to see the father when classes were over. He would then solemnly inscribe your name in the register, together with the indication of the punishment to be inflicted, and you spent the whole day waiting for the sentence to be carried out."
And perhaps we should give the last word, for now, to Robin Wood, and this passage from 1989's Hitchcock's Films Revisited. The film to which Wood refers is, of course, Psycho (which I think I might watch this afternoon): "No film conveys—to those not afraid to expose themselves fully to it—a greater sense of desolation, yet it does so from an exceptionally mature and secure emotional viewpoint. And an essential part of this viewpoint is the detached sardonic humor. It enables the film to contemplate the ultimate horrors without hysteria, with a poised, almost serene detachment. This is probably not what Hitchcock meant when he said that one cannot appreciate Psycho without a sense of humor, but it is what he should have meant. He himself—if his interviews are to be trusted—has not really faced up to what he was doing when he made the film. This, needless to say, must not affect one's estimate of the film itself. For the maker of Psycho to regard it as a 'fun' picture can be taken as a means of preserving his sanity; for the critic to do so—and to give it his approval on these grounds—is quite unpardonable. Hitchcock (again, if his interviews are to be trusted) is a much greater artist than he knows."