November 20, 2012
Hitchcock, the Underdog Auteur
The first movie director I ever heard of was Alfred Hitchcock. Actually, before I knew there were such things as movie directors, I knew who Alfred Hitchcock was. I used to watch reruns of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" on TV, and I assumed he must have written all those stories until my mom told me he was actually a director, not a writer. Then I heard that Alfred Hitchcock's movies were suspenseful and scary and had lots of murder in them, then I watched Vertigo and Rear Window, and then I thought maybe I should spend the rest of my life watching as many movies as possible.
The name "Alfred Hitchcock" is probably more widely known and recognized than any of his movie titles, and it's been that way since the 1950's. Pretty amazing! That's why it's so strange to see him as he's presented in this new movie, Hitchcock, as a scrappy underdog fighting the studio system to make his radical self-financed experimental art film, Psycho. This is where the movie is best: the scenes about the genius and sweat that went into making Psycho, from the original novel's inspiration by real-life murderer Ed Gein, to the money talks with the studio heads, the bickering with the prigs in the Production Code office over violence and nudity, casting, shooting the shower scene, editing, the score. All the technical stuff is fantastic.
Unfortunately, a lot of the movie deals with Hitchcock's relationship with his wife and collaborative partner, Alma Reville. She's played by Helen Mirren, who it goes without saying is fantastic, but their petty jealousies are nowhere near as interesting as the creative spark at the core of their relationship. Alma was Hitchcock's main collaborator in everything he did, and was already a successful writer and editor while Alfred was still learning his way around a set. (The Times has a great article about Alma in the two recent biopics about the Hitchcocks.)
Even though Psycho was massively popular and pretty much changed our definition of horror movies, it was seen as a risky proposition at the time. One of the reasons Hitchcock is so good at portraying Alfred Hitchcock as an unconventional indie hero is its director: Sacha Gervasi, who's only other feature is a great documentary about a metal band that never quite made it big, Anvil: The Story of Anvil.
Unlike Alfred Hitchcock, Anvil really are underdogs, admired by superstars of rock like Lars Ulrich and Slash, but still plugging away without major success, working cruddy day-jobs and going on depressingly mismanaged tours like an unfunny version of Spinal Tap. Sacha Gervasi calls himself "England's #1 Anvil fan", so this guy knows his lovable losers. I'm really impressed that he captured that same hardcore, outsider spirit in a movie that includes scenes of Alfred Hitchcock writing $900,000 checks and tossing back buckets of foie gras.
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