The pratfall effect is a psychological tendency to like a person more if he or she makes a mistake. This dates back to the heroes of Greek tragedies, who we treasure not only because they are ideal but because we identify with the flaws that cause their downfall. In our culture today, where we have celebrities in place of deities, we keep insisting on collapsing this gap between the glorification of stars and our humanly selves, by unveiling their blunders in our legion of tabloid magazines and gossip blogs. The newest attempt by Sacha Gervasi at depicting Alfred Hitchcock wants to present the director as an ordinary human being but ends up being a disappointing simplification of arguably the most influential name in cinematic history.
Any sort of reconstruction regarding the auteur, a British filmmaker who directed more than 50 movies from the silent era through the introduction of color and sound and forever changed the shape of Hollywood, will be subject to contempt. But people have been taking on this ludicrous task for decades anyway, fixated particularly on Hitchcock’s first horror, “Psycho,” in hopes that some of the brilliance will rub off, or, in a cruder sense, presuming that the provocative legacy of Hitchcock will, at the very least, garner attention. There are a number of remakes, three sequels and multiple television spin-offs. Gervasi’s biopic is proof that we are still very much in the business of exploiting the success of “Psycho.”
“Hitchcock” features an ensemble cast of stars that will excite in the modern-day audience a similar pleasure once felt while attending a Hitchcock original: Helen Mirren as Alma Reville, Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, Jessica Biel as Vera Miles, James D’Arcy as Norman Bates and Anthony Hopkins as our beloved director himself. The script was co-written by Stephen Rebello, who wrote the book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho.” Gervasi breaks away from the usual psy-clones by introducing a lesser-known story of the director’s relationship with his wife, Alma, and although the film uses the production process as the narrative backdrop, the movie doesn’t feel like you’re watching “Psycho” at all.
“We deliberately made the choice not to make a shot-by-shot reconstruction of the film,” said Gervasi. “I wanted to stay true to the spirit of Hitchcock by doing it tongue-in-cheek comedic style a la ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents.’”
In his early 1970s television show, also known as “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” the director would make a sardonic introduction and closing that corralled the suspenseful, thrilling episode. But this cartoonish vignette never dissolves in Gervasi’s film and rarely digs beyond the surface of a Wikipedia search. Hopkins and Mirren are, as always, entertaining to watch, but it is a pity that the script does not develop around enough characters for the excellent cast to wholly showcase its talents.
Overall, the film is a deflated presentation. To your left, you have Hitchcock’s compulsive overeating disorder: his face illuminated by the refrigerator light as he drowns his sorrows with fist after fist of pastries and meat. On your right is Anthony Perkins in Hitchcock’s office, twitching, briefly explaining that he feels nervous about playing the infinitely complex Norman Bates because he too happens to have a much-too-intimate relationship with his mom. On the highway is Janet Leigh manically driving, a pivotal scene butchered by Johansson’s laughable performance. The director has now returned to his office, a cocktail in hand, and is peeping between the blinds to get a glimpse of the hot new blonde on the Paramount lot because, as we have all heard, Mr. Hitchcock was a creep.
But “Hitchcock” also shows the tender husband side of the director and his reliance on Alma as a way, in Gervasi’s words, to provide a balanced view of someone who has been vilified. A recent example is the HBO movie “The Girl,” Tippi Hedren’s account of the harassment and blackmail Hitchcock apparently put her through while he was power-tripping in the production of “The Birds.”
“Let’s assume that everything Tippi Hedren is saying is true. There are four more people who will say the exact opposite. When putting together Janet Leigh’s character, Scarlett Johansson called Leigh’s daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, who was very encouraging of this immensely warm portrayal,” said Gervasi. “We hope that the audience will understand that this is a movie, not a documentary.”
If Gervasi’s film is the defensive response to “The Girl,” where it falls short is exactly where HBO succeeds — by utilizing all that cinema has to offer, as Hitchcock masterfully did time and time again, to provide an intimate understanding of the convoluted power relations within romance and to unashamedly critique modern culture. Gervasi calls it a love story, but it’s the most archetypal, least enticing dalliance yet. The film pussyfoots around the endless concerns that arises in “Psycho,” such as its severe homophobic messages and complicated relation to Hitchcock’s own mother, and simply reduces the cinematic connoisseur to an overweight, pathetic, aging pervert and Alma to a woman who, even with Mirren’s commanding performance, ultimately winds up voluntarily placing herself back in the neglected position of a wife cloaked under the shadow of a man.
“Hitchcock would have wanted this movie to be for an audience. That’s who he made films for,” said Gervasi. “There’s going to be scholars who have a specific view of Hitchcock, but we want everyone to come with an open mind. People want to answer the riddle, the enigma of Hitchcock. You can’t.”
No, you really can’t. Hitchcock undoubtedly knew his audience like the back of his two hands, but Psycho is a movie he funded himself, a testament that his latent urges placed precedence far beyond Hollywood’s standard of entertainment. As comical as “Alfred Hitchcock” may be to the general public not familiar with the auteur’s oeuvre, it doesn’t transport and challenge the viewer’s comfort level as Hitchcock always strived to do.
If not impossible, it’s certainly not necessary to humanize Alfred Hitchcock. Going through the capital and time to create a movie about someone for the pure sake of humanizing him is paradoxical as it is.
The opening frame starts on high from the celestial sky, the camera following the rain as it spatters down to the premiere of “North by Northwest.” For a minute or two is a glimmer of hope that maybe Hitchcock, even if only cinematically, can come back to life. For the rest of the movie, you will obsessively scan for that golden cameo, but he’s not there.