Monday, February 10, 2014

DVD of the Week: Hitchcock

There is always the danger that any movie about the movies, or movie makers, will end up being some sort of self-referential case of Hollywood eating it's own tail, and yet strangely there are many films of this type that are actually pretty good. Ed Wood remains my favorite Tim Burton movie, The Aviator one of my favorite Scorsese films. It may be just that many of the people that wind up making important or influential movies are sufficiently messed up to be interesting subjects even in any walk of life, and so it's only natural that the industry they helped to shape wants to take a look at them, not just the films they made. Last year saw not one, but two projects based on the later work of Alfred Hitchcock, covering, oddly enough, consecutive projects. I've not seen the BBC's The Girl, about the making of The Birds, but this weekend we did get to sit down with the bigger-budget Hitchcock, about the making of Psycho.

I think its hard to understate what a legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock was. Time has taken us away from his films, and modern audiences watch films that stand in his shadow without even realizing it, but even a cursory glance at his filmography shows classic after classic over decades of productions. The music from his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents was so iconic that the Hitchcock is content to use it without comment, and allows Anthony Hopkins to present bookends straight to the camera in the style of that show, without any need for comment or explanation. But Hitchcock isn't about his TV work, or the procession of top-notch thrillers he made through the 1930s and 1940s. Its about Psycho.

Psycho is one of those movies that I find it hard to imagine watching at the time. It's still an effective movie, but many of it's tricks have been copies so many times, it's shocks emulated, refined and surpassed, its hard to envision what it must have been like to sit in a movie theater and see it, cold and unaware of what you were about to see. Hitchcock presents Psycho as a roll of the dice by a man desperate to prove something to himself, to find something new in a career he fears is going stale. (He says this after finishing North by Northwest, so fears may be the operative word here). The more people tell him it can't be made, the more he seems determined to do it.

There is really two films happening here, and they don't always gel together. The first is about obsession; an interesting but thin attempt to use visions of the "real Psycho", Ed Gein, to mirror Hitchcocks drive to finish the film against all odds and advice, as well as emphasize the wedge between him and his wife Alma. The other film is the exploration of the relationship between Alfred and Alma, touching on Hitchcock's renown obsessions with his leading ladies, and yet also the strength they drew from each other as a working partnership, ultimately coming together (conveniently) in order to cut Psycho in to the classic we all know today.

I think Hitchcock's greatest strength is also one of it's largest weaknesses, and that is it's curious lack of bite. Its a very charming movie, the script has a lightness of touch and the performances are excellent all round. It's also clearly laid out and easy to follow for people not familiar with the story of Psycho, without feeling too patronising or simplistic. But on the other hand you can't help but feel it soft-balls the emotional damage flying around within the main relationships, and takes a generous view on Hitchcocks creepy obsessions. I'm not sure the Master himself would have been so kind.