Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Notes on Hitchcock (from an anxious fanboy)

I finally watched the 2012 Hitchcock, and it became a test case in the truism that you have to see a film for yourself to decide how you feel about it. That might sound blindingly obvious, but how often we read a movie synopsis (or even a measured review) and casually say, “Oh I’m sure I won’t like that one.” Even professional film writers – weighed down by deadlines or the tedium of watching mediocre movies week after week – sometimes make these assumptions, and regret them afterward.

As I wrote in this post last year, given my intense relationship with Psycho, I was always going to approach Hitchcock with a certain amount of dread, anticipating its many simplifications and inaccuracies. I expected to feel the same way about it as many Iliad-purists felt about Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (a film I thought highly of) – wanting to elbow the stranger in the next seat every couple of minutes and hiss “That ISN’T how it really happened!” The project seemed to pivot around the casting coup of Sir Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock and Dame Helen Mirren as his wife Alma, and given that relatively little is known about the inner workings of the Hitchcocks' 53-year marriage – or the precise nature of the contributions made by the publicity-shy Alma to her husband’s later work – it felt like this was going to be a neatly dramatized, easy-to-digest serving of Hitchcock Lite, for a modern audience that would probably have little time for his own films.

And to an extent, Hitchcock is all of these things. It includes Cliff's Notes-like summaries for viewers who have a basic acquaintance with the director’s work but who aren’t engaged enough to read books filled with analysis or biographical detail. (At one point, Vera Miles glibly tells Janet Leigh that Hitchcock is just like the James Stewart character in Vertigo, constantly needing to control and reshape women. QED.) It tinkers with the facts, placing a lot of dramatic weight on a subplot about the Hitchcocks’ writer friend Whitfield Cook that almost certainly has no basis in reality. But on the whole this is a better, more layered film than I’d expected. It is a considerate (by which
I don’t mean hagiographic) pen portrait of a man who was all huff and bluster on the outside, and especially in public, but who may also have been insecure enough inside never to fully realize what a major artist he was. It is a largely engrossing account of a marriage going through a brief period of crisis, of a wife who was mostly content to stay in the background and of a husband who didn’t always acknowledge how vital her presence was to him. (The Lady Who Nearly Vanished vs The Man Who Knew Too Little?) And importantly, it is a droll, self-aware tribute that draws motifs from Hitchcock’s own work and understands something of his sensibilities. 

Consider the very first scene, where we see the mass murderer Ed Gein (whose macabre adventures inspired Robert Bloch’s book Psycho) clunking his brother on the head with a spade near their Wisconsin farm, upon which the mood abruptly changes from the gruesome to the comical: as the famous funeral-march tune of Alfred Hitchcock Presents plays on the soundtrack, Hopkins’s Hitchcock enters the frame to introduce this story and to seal a blood pact with the murderer. Ed Gein committed horrible crimes, Hitchcock tells us in his patented faux-outraged tone, looking into the camera; but then, if he had never existed – or if he had been arrested earlier than he was – we wouldn’t have “our film”, would we?

This can be viewed as an artist’s admission to feeding off – and profiting from – the ugly aspects of the real world, and the suffering of others; but the words “our film” are also a reminder that Hitchcock implicated his audience in nearly everything he did, putting us through a gamut of disturbing, contradictory, morally ambiguous emotions. (An aside: as someone whose life as a movie-watcher and writer was hugely informed by Psycho, would it be callous of me to feel vaguely grateful for Ed Gein’s existence?) That opening scene catches so much of what the real Hitchcock was about: reflections on the relationship between life and art, between the artist and his patrons, between the watcher and the watched; the alternating of black, even tasteless humour with moments of human truth and insight. (At his very best, as in Psycho’s great parlour scene, Hitchcock used one to enhance the other.)

At times it is hard to figure out exactly what sort of audience Hitchcock was made for. It presumes that the viewer cares about Psycho, or at least has a good memory of the film (an intense scene where Hitch is shown directing Janet Leigh during the car-drive shoot, for instance, would lose much of its impact for someone who didn’t know Psycho well). But at the same time, the narrative emphasis is on something more universal: the relationship between two people as they approach the twilight of their long life together. One can tell the film is more interested in the Hitch-Alma relationship than in behind-the-scenes trivia, because it leaves out some of the most entertaining and filmable anecdotes about the making of Psycho, such as the one about Hitch taking Janet Leigh aside and asking her to “warm up” her cold-fish co-star John Gavin during their love scene, or the painstaking, half-successful experiments with moleskin to cover the “naughty bits” when Leigh had to be topless for the shower scene. The inclusion of such scenes would unquestionably have made Hitchcock a more accessible and exciting film for a mainstream audience; instead, it chooses to spend much of its running time on the bond between two people who have been married for 35 years.

Mirren and Hopkins play a big part in making this work. But equally notably, the growing tension and paranoia in the marriage (as Hitch wonders if his wife is having an affair) is presented not in the terms of a conventional realist drama but as Hitchcock himself might have opted to do it: there is a terrific scene where he crunches violently on celery in the kitchen and the camera moves in on Alma hunching over the sink, with the movement and the sound design suggesting that her husband momentarily feels like snapping her neck. (This may also be a reference to a darkly funny domestic scene in Hitchcock’s Frenzy.) Elsewhere too, the spirit – and some of the energy – of Psycho infects this film, from the deadpan one-liners (“You know where to plunge the dagger, don’t you?” is said during domestic banter in a scene that takes place, where else, in a bathroom) to the use of quiet, minatory passages from Bernard Herrmann’s superb score.

And there may even be a few hat-tips to the intense visual design of Psycho: the echoing gestures and movements, the use of similar-looking objects (windshield wipers in the rain, a knife swinging back and forth in a shower). Take two scenes – very different in mood – that have our portly director making flamboyant use of his arms. In one, deeply distressed, he insinuates himself into the shooting of the shower sequence, moving the knife savagely back and forth to show the crew how it is done (and indulging in self-therapy in the process). In the other scene late in the film, he stands outside the preview hall, so thrilled by the audience’s reception to the shower scene that he waltzes about and moves his hands like an orchestra conductor slashing a baton through the air. Neither scene plays like an accurate representation of what the undemonstrative Hitchcock might actually have done in those situations, but they achieve a poetic credibility in showing what may have been going on in his head (the latter scene is presumably a literalisation of his remark that he liked to “play the audience like an organ”). They make a good, playful stab at summoning the master's ghost, and for that I was happy to overlook this film's little inconsistencies.

P.S. I like Scarlett Johansson, but I was a little underwhelmed by her performance as Janet Leigh; though that is probably because the real Leigh in the first 45 minutes of Psycho – so skillfully holding the best section of the movie together – is so thoroughly embedded in my movie consciousness (it is a great performance, one of the best in a Hitchcock film). I might have felt the same way about James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins, but the difference is that D’arcy has a smaller, less important part, and in the two or three scenes we do see him he bears a strong enough physical resemblance to Perkins and does a decent job of imitating the actor’s real-life earnestness – whereas Johansson has the harder task of playing Janet Leigh in recognizable scenes from Psycho (in the car, and in the shower).


  1. Haven't seen this film.

    But I can't fathom a society that has time to make meta-films like these. Is it suggestive of a certain poverty of imagination?

    I see this trend even in Hindi films. With several new films referencing old 60s/70s films as a means of paying "homage" to established canons.

    Why don't you create your own canons? Are modern movie personages so bereft of personality that you have to keep harking back to ancient stars to evoke awe in the audience?

    In a way I think this is understandable given the drastic deglamorization of showbiz we've seen since the 60s all around the world.

  2. The movie's based on a book by Stephen Rebello on the making of Psycho, so it's strange some interesting anecdotes aren't included.I have the impression that you're relieved that the film had some insight and visual flourish...it wasn't as bad as it could have been!

  3. It is a considerate pen portrait of a man who was all huff and bluster on the outside, and especially in public, but who may also have been insecure enough inside never to fully realize what a major artist he was

    That's one reason why I like Hitchcock (and several other classic Hollywood filmmakers) so much. Their acute insecurity and humility engendered by the much reviled forces of "commercial culture". Something you don't get to see in a Rosellini or a Godard.

    Unlike the great directors of the past 30-40 years, the "Golden Age" directors never thought of themselves as "artists" and never condescended towards even the lowest denomination in the audience.

    I rewatched The Lady Vanishes over the weekend. In my book one of the greatest moving pictures made over the past 120 years in any part of the world. Yet I am sure Hitchcock never thought of the film that way. His inherent humility (partly induced by market forces and partly by his own traditional anglo-saxon understatement) keeps him from thinking of the film as anything more than a very light and somewhat nonsensical comedy.

  4. Sukhmani: yes, the Rebello book is a favourite of mine (mentioned it in that earlier post, I think) and it does include many of the anecdotes; but then it is much more a straight-faced journalistic account of the making of the film, rather than a dramatic treatment of Hitch's personal life. Alma only gets a few perfunctory mentions in it - one notable one being about her eagle-eyed observation that Janet Leigh had blinked slightly when she was supposed to be dead.

    My positive feelings about the film may have something to do with the low expectations going in, but I don't think that's all there is to it - I liked parts of it very much.

  5. Shrikanth: you know I love the apparently unselfconscious, "termite art" films as much as you do, but I think you're setting up an unnecessary dichotomy by extolling a director who doesn't think of himself as an artist. At least some of the "humble" directors who never thought of themselves as artists really weren't all that great, and conversely there have been great directors who did think of themselves as serious artists. Rather than drawing broad categories and pitting one against the other, it's better to look at individual cases: a Howard Hawks might never have been interested in talking Art, but the great personal qualities and artistic rigour in his body of work are there for anyone to see. But that doesn't mean we should set up a pedestal for, or romanticize, any director who shied away from analysing his films.

  6. Hi Jai,

    Completely off topic but since you mentioned, I did not find any blog here that can be read as a review of Troy.

    Did I miss something?

  7. Anon: no, I haven't written about Troy - I only said in this post, parenthetically, that I liked it.

  8. Have you seen the HBO movie The Girl that came out just before this movie? I saw it before watching Hitchcock therefore found this one a little "about nothing".

  9. But that doesn't mean we should set up a pedestal for, or romanticize, any director who shied away from analysing his films

    Fair enough. I do have high regard for the likes of Rossellini and Godard. The purpose of the comment was not to downplay them or to talk up every other studio era director.

    I believe Hitchcock's modesty is not just an irrelevant personal trait but vital to his being a great artist. A Rossellini may meditate on a single theme (eg: marriage) in a film like Viaggio in Italia - a great film no doubt. But Hitchcock, thanks to the modesty of his vision and genre-orientation, meditates on themes as diverse as marriage, unrequited love, ideas of loyalty, jealousy, the morality of espionage and "bad girls" among other things in a single 1.5 hour film like Notorious. He packs more stuff in largely unwittingly because his inherent modesty and conservatism keeps him from taking up projects where he can make a "grand" statement on a solitary theme the way a Rossellini or even a Woody Allen would.

  10. Nice post, Jai. I am scared of horror films. In that case, it becomes tough to watch Hitch's films. But, I want to explore his work. Can you please suggest some Hitch films, which are not horror genre? I know you don't like recommending, but still :) I have seen That Lady Vanishes, The Rear Window and that courtroom drama with Gregory Peck (if I am not mistaken), which almost seemed like Bible of such films to me. I know this can be one of those stupid comments. People normally dont accept they are scared of horror films :) :) And men, even less :P

  11. Can you please suggest some Hitch films, which are not horror genre?

    Hitchcock never made a horror film as far as I know! Though Birds may be loosely classified as one.

    Besides the usual favorites here are some relatively underrated Hitchcock masterpieces I'd recommend -

    Suspicion : My personal favorite among all Hitchcock films. Cary Grant turns in one of the great performances.

    Shadow of a Doubt: Filmed in 1942, Hitch captures the last vestiges of the "old world" in this film. A secure, confident civilization that gets jolted by an irrational, nihilistic force of evil.

    Under Capricorn: A most remarkable period film. No other film quite like it.

    Frenzy: Littered with great conversations. Terrific insights into the 20th cen western male. Few films can offer a better understanding of the male condition in the modern world.

  12. Pessimist Fool: like Shrikanth says above, Hitchcock wasn't really a practitioner of Horror (as it is conventionally defined), with the possible exceptions of The Birds and Psycho.

    Recommending is a fool's game really, but here are some of my favourite Hitchcocks apart from Psycho: Notorious, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, The Lodger, Rich and Strange, Sabotage, North by Northwest, Marnie. And Vertigo of course (currently "the greatest film ever made according to those facile Sight and Sound list aggregations) - but though that film is a gorgeous visual experience if you see a good print, it is such a personal work that its full effect also depends on a deep understanding of the Hitchcock world, how he moulded actresses and so on.

  13. @ Shrikanth and Jai - Thanks both of you. Will try watching those films. Also, told you guys to recommend, because I watched Advise and Consent after it was discussed here on this blog and boy what a film it was! Dare I say it is better than Dr Strangelove :) I know I run the risk of getting beaten up

  14. Shrikanth, your binaries are problematic, to say the least. I wonder how you concluded that purveyors of so called "Elephant art" condescended towards lowest common denominator.That's an extremely narrow view of artistic expression.
    Again, to say that Viaggio in Italia meditates on one single theme is a narrow viewing. For that matter, even Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage which was more explicitly about marriage had many themes. Marriage was the backdrop against which they were examined.
    Wonder how in your book Hitchcockès films have themes of "unrequited love, ideas of loyalty, jealousy" etc. but in case of Viaggio in Italia the theme boils down to a single word, marriage.
    Also, to say that so called self conscious purveyors of elephant art have explicit themes in their work is simplistic. For example, what is the theme in 8 1 /2 or Dolce La Vita ?
    Totally agree with Jai here ``Rather than drawing broad categories and pitting one against the other, it's better to look at individual cases``

  15. I wonder--how did you decide that the movie was not an accurate portrayal of Hitchcock? I mean, lets face it: you are what 35-40? You weren't born in the era of Hitchcock, and you got information about his life from perhaps the same sources (books, documentaries) as the filmmakers did. If anything, since they had more money at disposal, they might have been able to do better research than you did.

    So why is it that you feel somewhat wronged and offended as a Hitchcock fan? Isn't it possible that your interpretation of his life was incorrect? Maybe what the film shows is truer than what you've understood. Or are you too self absorbed to discount that possibility?

  16. how did you decide that the movie was not an accurate portrayal of Hitchcock ... why is it that you feel somewhat wronged and offended as a Hitchcock fan?

    MG: THAT'S what you got from this post? Well done!

  17. That's what I got from your previous post--which is linked to this one.

  18. The previous post, as is clearly indicated, was written before I saw the film, and expressed a paranoid fan's preemptive defensiveness. The current post - where I changed my mind after watching the film, and said that it may have captured some poetic truths about Hitch and his art - is the one you should be addressing.

    That said, I am hardly the only one who has raised questions about the biographical accuracy. Stephen Rebello himself, who wrote the book, did a first draft of the screenplay and certainly spent way more time researching Hitchcock than the filmmakers did, has said in interviews that the film chose to change the focus by dramatising and embellishing the Alma story.

    Lastly, do stick to one moniker please. (I'm assuming you are the "MG" who commented above.)

  19. This is unrelated to this post but I'd hoped to read a review of Ranjhanaa on your blog. I'd read Rangan's review/analysis and Filmigeek's analysis and was curious about your views. I'm surprized by the polarizing response the movie's generated and the whole argument that this movie glorified stalking of women. Maybe you'll post an analysis soon?

  20. I wonder how you concluded that purveyors of so called "Elephant art" condescended towards lowest common denominator

    Rahul : I made no such conclusion. I was just admiring the way the likes of Hitchcock (often in close concert with the script writers) buried multiple themes in their narrative. Often far more skilfully than several acclaimed filmmakers (the Bressons and the Godards of this world).

    Take for instance Notorious. There is this supposedly "hot" scene with Grant and Bergman fondling each other. Amidst all the fondling Bergman makes some revealing remarks. She says - "Let's not go out. I have a chicken in the ice-box. You're eating it. I'll cook it for you."

    It may sound inane. But it reveals how the "bad girl", even in the middle of love-making, is trying her hardest to sound "domestic" and "caring" by making reference to cooking food.

    This is just one instance. I can recall several other lines from Ben Hecht in that film wherein uncommon psychological insights are provided by the odd throwaway line here and there.

    Viaggio in Italia is fine. A great film also starring Bergman. But it's not as interesting as Notorious either script-wise or in terms of its visual style.