I’m not a great cinema-goer, but in the last few weeks I’ve been twice. Both times I saw a film with a one-word title, and that name was the surname of the central character. Both films were based on real people, real events, drawn from non-fiction books rather than fiction.
The first was Lincoln, of course. The second was Hitchcock. It is hard to think of two figures who were less alike. One was tall, thin, American and generally revered as something of a secular saint; the other was short, fat, British and generally known for bringing out the worst in people. And yet there is something iconic about both of them, something signified by the fact that they are instantly known by their surnames alone. Lincoln, of course, has been at the centre of many films over the years. Hitchcock, curiously, has been central to two films that have appeared in the last few months. The Girl, which starred Toby Jones as Hitchcock, was a TV movie about the making of The Birds; Hitchcock, in which Anthony Hopkins played Hitchcock, was about the making of his previous film, Psycho.
I’m curious about Hitchcock, or rather, I am curious about the iconic status of Hitchcock. He made brilliant films. Some, like The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, North By Northwest, The Birds (though, strangely enough, less so Psycho) I consider among the great cinema masterpieces, I can watch them endlessly with genuine pleasure. At the same time, he made an inordinate number of clunkers (Torn Curtain? Frenzy?). And there are other directors who made films as good, or even better, who have not achieved the same status.
Part of it is that he consciously made himself into an icon. He exploited his shape: the round profile that became virtually his signature. He put himself into signature roles in his own films (my favourite is the newspaper advertisement in Lifeboat, otherwise one of his weaker efforts), so that you were looking for the man as much as at what he did. And that strange soft voice (that Hopkins mimics so well in Hitchcock), that was strangely lacking in emphasis and affect, yet which so well suggested menace. His voice over for the trailer of Psycho, I think, managed to make the film far more powerful than it actually was. All of this suggests someone very self-aware, very conscious of everything about himself and how it might be employed.
Yet it isn’t just the figure of Hitchcock that makes him iconic. I am thinking of Douglas Gordon’s 1993 artwork, ’24-hour Psycho’, which consisted of the film slowed down so that it took 24 hours to view; and I am thinking also of Don DeLillo’s Point Omega which uses ’24-hour Psycho’ to very significant effect. I can’t think of another film by another film maker that could be appropriated this way. Partly, I suspect, it is the look of the films, the jaggedness, the vertiginous angles, the whole expressionist feel that will regularly remind you that you are watching a film rather than glimpsing real life. The shower scene in Psycho is a perfect example of this. Indeed, the more conventional the film making, the less gripping the films tend to be.
But again, it is not just the look of the films that makes them so effective. All of his really memorable films are suspense dramas in one form or another that involve death, violence, threat. And yet they are never consistently dark and menacing; quite the opposite, he used comedy repeatedly even at moments of greatest threat. I insist that Hitchcock’s version of The 39 Steps, for example, is the most suspenseful of all the many versions precisely because it is the funniest. In his best films, threat emphasises the humour, comedy emphasises the threat.
So, since this film is not called ‘The Making of Psycho’, we can assume that it is really about Hitchcock the icon rather than Hitchcock the film maker. Indeed, we actually see remarkably little of the filming of Psycho; the longest passage shows Marion Cain’s car drive while Hitchcock insidiously relates the woman’s doubts and dreads, all of which is shown in the face of the actress Janet Leigh (played by Scarlet Johansson), but this is less about the filming and more about the manipulative way that Hitchcock gets into the minds of his leading ladies. Of course, the thing that Hitchcock had for blonde actresses is well known, but fortunately this film doesn’t take us there. It is always in the background, often comically. For instance, we see Hitchcock peering through a spyhole into the dressing room where Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) is getting undressed; later, on the set, we notice that the spyhole through which Norman Bates watches Marion Cain in the shower is identical. But this over-familiar aspect of Hitchcock never comes centre stage. Rather, the film focuses on the professional and personal relationship between Hitchcock and his wife, Alma (Helen Mirren).
It has to be said that Anthony Hopkins, in a fat suit and layers of latex, looks like a passable imitation of Hitchcock, and is great at striking the poses. (Come to think of it, both Lincoln and Hitchcock strike poses rather too often. Our very first view of Lincoln has him sitting on some crates in a pose remarkably similar to the Lincoln Memorial; while the camera often seems to find Hitchcock in just the right profile to recall the famous silhouette.) With all this make-up, however, and given that he also assumes that distinctive but often characterless voice, Hopkins is rather limited in what he can do. Much of the time he can act only with his eyes, which he does well enough. But I can’t help feeling that even if he wasn’t struggling with these restrictions, Helen Mirren would act him off the screen. She is startlingly good as the woman who started out as Hitchcock’s boss and ended up playing second fiddle to him. We see her loyalty and her hurt at his wandering eyes; we see a desire to escape and an unwillingness to leave; we see someone with as much a creative input into the films as her husband but who earns no recognition for it. There is one scene where Hitchcock declaims about how she has hurt him and the camera focuses only on the back of her neck. She does not move, not a muscle flickers, she doesn’t say anything, but in the back of her neck we see everything that she feels.
The film takes us back to the Ed Gein murders that were the inspiration for Robert Bloch’s novel, and Gein becomes a ghost who haunts Hitchcock throughout the making of the film. Bloch’s novel had been doing the rounds of Hollywood studios but no-one wanted to pick it up, mostly because it was considered too sensational to make a good film. When Hitchcock, against everyone’s advice, decides to pick up the book that general feeling works against him. He can’t get funding and has to mortgage his own home to pay for the picture. We see his battle of wills with the censor over the shower scene (though we don’t see the infamous nipple). And we see the horrified response of the studio bosses, which forces Hitchcock and Alma to hurriedly recut the film and embark on the notorious advertising campaign.
There are oddities and contradictions here. The first thing Hitchcock does when he decides to make the film is instruct his assistant, Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette) to go out and buy up every copy of the book available. From her response, we know this isn’t normal behaviour, but it is in line with the promotion for the film when people were asked not to give away the ending. And yet, the film suggests that Hitchcock didn’t even think about such a promotional line until after the film had been completed. Similarly, it is Alma who suggests that, rather than waiting until half way through the film, he should kill off his leading lady within the first half hour. Yet at this point, Alma is seen to be especially ambivalent about whether he should make the film at all. It is as if parts of the story have been cut out so we’re not really getting the coherent whole.
But the film is only the instrument through which to tell the story of Hitchcock and his women. Other than Hitchcock himself, the only really developed characters in the film are women, Alma, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles and Peggy. James D’Arcy, who plays the weird Anthony Perkins playing the weirder Norman Bates might as well not have been there for all the impact he has on the film. Instead it is the women, all of whom seem to be victims of Hitchcock’s mind games and manipulation, who all get the better of him at the end.
It’s a great film, but you do wonder: was this how it was?