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Lurking behind Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins), cinema's ‘master of suspense’ was a hidden side: his creatively explosive romance with his steadfast wife and filmmaking collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). The against the odds production of the 1960 thriller, Psycho, tested the couple’s union with studio indifference, budget issues, problems with the Production Code, and, worst of all, fear of infidelity.

Hitchcock
Writer turned director Sacha Gervasi is far from a nobody. He wrote a mostly unseen Craig Ferguson vehicle ( The Big Tease), one of Spielberg’s dullest movies ( The Terminal), and an unpopular Keanu Reeves vehicle ( Henry’s Crime). He also directed Anvil: The Story of Anvil, the inspiring tale of an overlooked heavy metal band’s late-in-career, last ditch effort to find the fame that escaped them for decades. Anvil is one of the sweetest documentaries of the last ten years. In fact, it’s so engaging and moving that it often feels more like an audience-friendly scripted feature, not a documentary. Gervasi’s ability to bring out the feel-good Hollywood drama in the unexpected tale of a band no one (outside a specific subset of fandom) ever heard of certainly marks him as an ideal candidate for a directing biopic, but it’s still a little surprising he was handed a high profile one and scored a cast of award-winning, household names.

Actually, biopic is sort of a misnomer here. The movie is called Hitchcock, but it’s not really about Alfred Hitchcock as much as it’s about the making of one of Hitch’s most famous motion pictures (if not the most famous). The making of Psycho is the stuff of legend and must be among the well-known, behind-the-scenes stories of all time, thanks to a number of documentaries and books on the subject. Curiously, however, it’s not among the most interesting behind-the-scenes stories. For the most part – or at least compared to most famous troubled productions – Psycho’s journey from a germ of an idea to fame was relatively ‘easy.’ There are other Hitchcock films, in fact, that had more difficult trips to the big screen, like Vertigo and Torn Curtain. The especially turbulent story of the making of Marnie ended up being the subject of a particularly sensationalistic made-for-HBO movie entitled The Girl that aired a month before Hitchcock was released (I’ve heard it wasn’t very good). The problem is that the majority of people aren’t as familiar with those films as they are with the genre and era-defining Psycho.

Hitchcock
The entire film is sort of a gimmick, at least from an ‘educated’ point-of-view. Most of the entertainment value is found in recognizing what real people the actors are portraying before they are named and then deciding if they ‘pull it off.’ This is a pretty banal and limited form of entertainment, though. It’s basically akin to watching celebrity reenactments on a tabloid news show. John J. McLaughlin’s screenplay captures the public face of Hitch and his cohorts and presents it as their private personas. These are dry, clever, charming people, but not real people. Besides Hopkins’ heavily made-up Hitchcock, James D'Arcy’s portrayal of Anthony Perkins is a good example of the cast practicing imitation over performance, because he’s not really playing Perkins – he’s playing Perkins playing Norman Bates. I’m really not a fan of this brand of character acting, myself, and kind of hate the way Hollywood rewards it (it’s especially disappointing in this case, because Hopkins did such a brilliant job playing Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone’s Nixon without ever doing a stand-up comedian-style impersonation). The only real human in the film is Alma Reville, mostly because Alma tended to avoid having a public face during most of her and Hitch’s career. It doesn’t hurt that Helen Mirren is portraying her. Unfortunately, Alma’s more human story is often at odds with the more entertaining story behind the making of Psycho – which is what happens when you haphazardly try to mix a dry retelling of a true story with an audience-pleasing love story. Mirren’s efforts are all thoroughly ruined during the gag-inducing, ‘aw shucks,’ Hollywood schmaltz reconciliation scene at the end of the film. Still, it wouldn’t have been a travesty if she would’ve ended up with an Oscar nomination.

Preferably, the film should’ve spent more energy portraying Hitch’s platonic relationships with actress Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg), assistant Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette), and even writer Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio), who barely appears in a single scene. Leigh’s brief, on-screen friendship with Vera Miles (Jessica Biel, who does what she can with very little screen time) is another underdeveloped nugget, leaving the generally more truthful and satisfying concord between Miles and Hitch as an unnecessary footnote. Like The Girl, Hitchcock began its life as a TV movie/miniseries and, despite some handsome, widescreen digital photography, it kind of looks and feels like it was made-for-TV product. The budget is slim, Gervasi’s directing style is simple (verging on stilted), the production design is almost cartoonishly clean, the shooting schedule was super-tight, and the scale is tiny. Despite the mish-mash of storytelling issues, Hitchcock never feels overlong. The pacing is quick and punchy, something that probably wouldn’t have worked with a miniseries time-scale. On the other hand, a miniseries could’ve given the underdeveloped footnotes a reason to exist.

At its best, Gervasi and McLaughlin’s tonal choices often make up for the lack of drama and natural humanism. Hitchcock is a poppy, colourful comedy that is less about recreating the ‘truth’ and more about recreating a feeling of the end of the Eisenhower era. The problem then becomes the drama, which simply doesn’t work, given the comedic wit at the base of the film. It’s okay to present caricatures in the correct context, but it’s difficult to ask the audience to care when everything is so heavily influenced by the title character’s famously ironic tones. Scenes of characters weeping are emotionally flat despite the powerful acting prowess behind the weeping. Gervasi is much more successful in dealing with Hitch’s psychology when cutting away to brief, surreal, fourth-wall-breaking vignettes/dream sequences with Ed Gein (the real life inspiration for Norman Bates). Though, even here, the film skirts pretty far into flat-out fiction that doesn’t really gel with the rest of the film. The passive aggressive exchanges between Hitch and Alma also work better than more direct interactions about marital strife; again, because these are set as the tonal norm.

Hitchcock

Video


Old-fashioned subject matter doesn’t necessarily dictate the need to shoot using classic film, and Gervasi and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth ( Fight Club, The Social Network) make charming use of Red Epic digital HD cameras as part of their punchy look. This 2.35:1, 1080p transfer features all the benefits of the format without appearing too over-stylized. For the most part, Hitchcock looks as if it could’ve been shot on film, but the overall clarity of the image and the clean, soft details give away its digital roots. There is generally more grain in the darker sequences than one usually expects from the format and said grain looks more like genuine film grain than digital noise (it comes in sheets and is often close to pure black). This grain/noise isn’t distracting and only pops up a couple times in the otherwise crisp transfer. Detail levels are limited by focus throughout the film – Cronenweth really likes pin-pointing focus on the face of the character speaking, which gives the backgrounds only an occasional chance to appear particularly complex. Close-up textures are quite sharp, however. The colour qualities are thematically consistent, sort of a naturally modified version of the popular orange and teal mixed with a warmer palette, depending on location and time of day. The lush, natural greens are particularly outstanding, as are the consistent brick red shades that pop throughout the wardrobes and set-pieces. The candied skin tones are also quite nice. Black and white levels are strong without any major edge enhancement or too much bleeding from the smooth colour gradations.

Hitchcock

Audio


This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack isn’t exactly the type of thing audiophiles will get too excited about, but it gets this particularly low-key job done. The bulk of the track revolves around dialogue scenes and is punctuated with music, rather than effects. The general noise levels are soft and warm with only basic ambience to fill out the channels. This includes the murmuring noise of a bustling film set, the breeze and surf of a beach, and the bustle of shutter noise of a busy an editing room. There really aren’t any standout moments to report. Danny Elfman’s score sounds an awful lot like a Danny Elfman score – sort of a greatest hits of his popular ‘90s scores. It’s pleasant and bouncy with big, Tim Burton-like bouts of loud whimsy. The music is given the most boisterous moments on the track where it sounds plenty warm and punchy when it needs to without any notable distortion or compression.

Hitchcock

Extras


The extras begin with a commentary from director Sacha Gervasi and Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho author Stephen Rebello. This track is chock full of information and paints a detailed portrait of the movie they intended to make. The two participants, who have a strong, friendly repartee, start things off by sort of interviewing each other, but eventually settle into a groove where they can work off of one another with relatively equal time speaking. Gervasi’s part on the track is as a wide-eyed, first-time director who wants to share his incredible experience working with talented, famous people. His enthusiastic tone (and incessant need to praise everyone to the nth degree) rarely overwhelms his professionalism or his ability to tell his audience pleasant little behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Rebello’s place is to first be excited about his book being adapted as a fictional feature and then fill in all the important bits of real history. This involves both acknowledging what has been altered and what is, in fact, true, despite the Hollywood sheen.

Up next is Becoming the Master: From Hopkins to Hitchcock (12:30, HD), covering the process of capturing the ‘spirit’ of Hitchcock through performance and make-up, without entirely covering Hopkins’ essence (amusing, since I think it was absolutely an impression of a performance). Obsessed with Hitchcock (29:10, HD) is a general behind-the-scenes featurette, including production inception, hiring Gervasi, Stephen Rebello’s book (that inspired the film), the screenwriting process, casting, the crew, cinematography, and editing. This is followed by Gervasi’s behind-the-scenes cell phone camera footage (13:30, HD), including Hopkins’ make-up, hiring dogs, wardrobe fitting, production design tests, and general fly-on-the-wall antics. The behind the scenes stuff is wrapped up with a series of EPKs – The Story (3:40, HD), The Cast (4:30, HD), Danny Elfman: Maestro (2:20, HD), Hitch and Alma (3:20, HD), and The Story of Hitchcock (with people that intimately knew Hitchcock, 4:10, HD). Interview subjects throughout the featurettes include Gervasi, Rebello, make-up artists Howard Berger and Martin Samuel, costume designer Julie Weiss, production designer Judy Becker, producers Alan Barnette, Ivan Reitman, Tom Pollock, Tom Thayer, and Joe Medjuck, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, editor Pamela Martin, and actors Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, James D'Arcy, Kurtwood Smith, Michael Wincott, Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Biel, Danny Huston, Toni Collette, Richard Portnow, and Michael Stuhlbarg.

The extras are completed with an amusing cell phone PSA (:40, HD), a deleted scene with director introduction (1:40, HD), a trailer, and trailers for other Fox releases.

Hitchcock

Overall


Hitchcock has some good stuff going on, but is constantly at odds with itself. It works as a comedy, but is determined to also work as a melodrama. It’s incredibly tightly-paced, but lacks story and tonal focus. It features a brilliant cast, but too many of the performances verge on parody. In the end, it is an entertaining enough bit of fluff that you’ll probably forget an hour after seeing it. This Blu-ray release has only one or two notable shortcomings in terms of video or audio quality, a strong director and writer commentary, and a series of brief but entertaining behind the scenes featurettes. It should keep any of the film’s fans happy.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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