1 Star out of 4.
What exactly did they want from this picture?
A study of one of the most prominent figures in our field? A true story behind the legend? A picture to fulfill all the gossip and hero worship?
Who knows what the intent was as the result is a biopic so muddled and so disjointed that the picture never takes off in any sense, and relies on stereotyping a year in The Master’s career into exactly the sort of audience pandering gibberish that Hitch himself loathed more than anything else.
All the right elements are there for aficionados and fans. The gossipy bits are there for the uninitiated, reducing Hitch to his obsessions and demons, let alone ever acknowledging the man in front of them. Admittedly, Mrs. Hitchcock does finally get her due, but in a manner overtly waving a giant flag in front of the audience’s face for the length of the picture. Alma was a brilliant editor of both story and picture and deserves a massive share of Hitch’s praise, but the manufacture of such blissfully ignorant typical script drivel just makes one ask the one simple question that is death to any film: “Why?”.
Hitchcock is a continually frustrating experience in that it is not a portrait of the man or his life but a caricature of what many would like to think Alfred Hitchcock was. It features all of the so-called critical theories about his adoration of the cool remote blonde, his rejection of Vera Miles, lust for his leading ladies, his personal connection to Vertigo and everything else that has become standard baggage whenever even approaching the subject of The Master. Some of these have some basis in reality but can only remain theories. Yet the film treats these as truth to work from and in fact never gives a legitimate glimpse into the period of 1959-1960 when Psycho was made and the same period where Hitch was doing what he always did but in a completely different way.
What most people fail to realize, and arguably the secret of Hitch’s extreme longevity and success was his unmatched ability to “run for cover” and produce a project so intricately perfected that it both pleased audiences and his own artistic desires. He especially knew when he had to perform one of these feats of magic after a particularly unsuccessful picture where attempts were made to break the mold. It is of no coincidence that many of The Master’s most famed works of art were produced when they were. Strangers on a Train in 1951 turned his career back around after the successive failures of The Paradine Case, Rope, Under Capricorn, Stage Fright. North By Northwest was a massive return to form after the absolute rejection of both The Wrong Man and especially Vertigo.
Psycho was an attempt to fully break new ground with audiences and produce something both shocking and new. Hitch was fully aware of the growing trend in low budget shocker pictures that were making fantastic returns in drive-ins and the like. In one of the few things the film gets right, the general idea behind Psycho is that what if a great movie maker made a low budget shocker picture?
This was neither the first nor last time Hitch tried to break new ground. Continually forced to bury his innovations and desire for unrestricted creativity in his work, Psycho is one if not the only time he was ever able to fully capitalize on his full creative powers. This is the key reason why so many put a larger stock in his earlier British period, where the films were technically and monetarily limited but feature an extreme and sublime amount of imagination that essentially formed the Hitchcock touch; the way his camera probes every single scene exactly as our eyes do, his devilish sense of humor even in the darkest of predicaments.
A much better, albeit far darker picture would be based on entirely different work. (This films claims to be based on the classic text Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho but instead plays much more like a tabloid article than a researched account.) A truly insightful biopic about the most revered director in the medium of cinema would not take place at his pinnacle but rather starting three years later at the apex of his downfall. It is not ever a pretty story to detail the gradual fall of any person, but in Hitch’s case it took many years and some truly mismatched pictures amidst a multitude of denied opportunities.
With his own health and that of Alma eventually becoming unreliable, the pains of trying to make a living in an ever-increasingly changed world were only furthered. And in the end, it was a truly heartfelt and sad existence, as chronicled in David Freeman’s relatively ignored and forgotten The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock. A truly meaningful picture about The Master of Suspense as both an artist and man would not be about making the actors look and sound exactly like the subjects within. It would not be about trivializing the facts for general audience consumption and also would not fall into the usual trap most biopics find themselves in where every aspect of the subject’s life is glossed over to give a hugely incomplete portrait of their lives in just over two hours.
The biopic of The Master should begin in 1972 and find our hero home in the markets of London confronted by the long forgotten ghosts of his childhood while making what was to be his final triumph, Frenzy. (Itself partially made from the shattered remains of what would have been his second groundbreaking masterpiece of the 1960’s, a picture in the vein of Psycho’s shocking breakthroughs but even more daring. This was to have been the vibrant and beyond suspenseful 16mm handheld picture Frenzy-Kaleidoscope.)
The film never touches upon any of this or gives a true sense of the man himself except for one glorious and perfect moment. The film is book ended by premieres. It opens with the premiere for North by Northwest and closes with the premiere of Psycho. In the theater while the first audience is becoming entranced by one of the most legendary of all motion pictures, Hitch is shown hovering in the projection booth gazing down voyeuristically at the enraptured audience. Then he paces in front of the entrance door waiting for the shower sequence to begin and waiting ever so patiently for the reaction. And because we know what is coming, because we know what sacrifices he had to make to make the picture, because we know our own reactions to the scene over fifty years later there is suspense in the waiting. And in the audience’s screams of terror, for one single moment in this entire picture we have a moment with The Master himself. Carried away in his manipulation of the audience, we get a glimpse of the sensitive and charming person beneath the showman who merely liked to tell stories.
“The audience is like a giant organ that you and I are playing. At one moment we play this note on them and get this reaction, and then we plat that chord and they react that way. And someday we won’t even have to make a movie- they’ll be electrodes implanted in their brains, and we’ll just press different buttons and they’ll go ‘ooooh’ and ‘aaaah’ and we’ll frighten them…Won’t that be wonderful?”
Yes it is wonderful. That is why we make pictures.
EDITIONS: The Blu-ray does exactly what it is supposed to; represent the film as best it can in the home. Picture and sound are what they should be, highlighting the rather flat and drab appearance meant to convey the period of 1959-1960. The artificiality of the setting is so much so that you wish you were simply watching Psycho again and inferring yet more details for the umpteenth time. Nothing this film can ever do will compare with the best and most exciting screening I’ve ever witnessed of Psycho, an open-matte battered 16mm reduction print projected onto a theater’s outdoor wall in the parking lot.