Hitchcock (2012)

2018 #20
Sacha Gervasi | 92 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Hitchcock

Arguably the most famous film director of all time, it was inevitable that one day there’d be an Alfred Hitchcock biopic. Indeed, as is so often the case in Hollywood with an obvious idea waiting to happen, two turned up at once (the other being BBC/HBO TV movie The Girl). Rather than taking an overview of the man’s life, however, both focus in on the making of a single film — in this case, arguably the one he’s most famous for today, Psycho.

That’s half of what the film’s about, anyway. It’s a mixed success. I’ve no idea how true it is, but the setup — the acclaimed Master of Suspense who’s so established that people are judging him over the hill, determined to do a striking new project no one else believes in to prove he’s still got it — is a good’un. It’s especially effective precisely because it’s about Hitchcock and Psycho: it’s the film that defines him for many people now; so, yes, we know the ending, but that lends dramatic irony — how do we get from that starting point to the acclaimed classic we all know? However, it all feels slightly hamstrung by the filmmakers failing to get the rights to directly recreate any shots from Psycho itself, making it feel like the film is having to constantly pull punches there.

Shooting Psycho

The other half of the film is about a blip in Hitch’s marriage — a storyline which is mostly fictional, unsurprisingly. That Hitch was a pervy old letch shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone anymore, but the way the film decides to draw links between the director and twisted murderer Ed Gein (the inspiration for Psycho) is a bit weird. It feels like the scenes of murder, etc, have been included for mere titillation rather than actually revealing anything about the titular moviemaker.

The latter storyline leads to a reconciliatory ending that is cheese personified. By the scene just before that wraps up the Psycho storyline in a much more effective manner, with Hitchcock listening to the film’s premiere screening from the lobby, ‘conducting’ the audience’s screams during the shower scene. It’s probably the highlight of the movie; the main insight into why Hitch ever did what he did, perhaps. (Well, that and all the lust.)

In the title role, Anthony Hopkins is completely submerged as the big man, helped by a pile of prosthetics. Sometimes I think Hopkins is a distinctly overrated actor, but he’s put the effort in here. As his under-appreciated wife, screenwriter Alma Reville, Helen Mirren is superb as ever. The cast is rounded out by a bunch of decently-served small roles, performed by the likes of Jessica Biel, James D’Arcy, Danny Huston, and, in particular, Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh. She seems to fit the era perfectly. Inexplicably drawing the short straw is Toni Collette, in a totally nothingy role as Hitch’s assistant.

Hitchcock blondes

With a running time that barely crossing 90 minutes before the credits roll, Hitchcock feels very slight. This is a small incident in the long and storied life of the great director; and while it may touch on various themes that concerned his whole career, thereby acting as an exemplification for all of them, it still feels more like a vignette than a full-blown biopic.

3 out of 5

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Rear Window (1954)

2014 #119
Alfred Hitchcock | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Rear WindowAdrenaline-addicted photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) finds himself house- and wheelchair-bound during a New York heat wave. Whiling away time spying on his neighbours around their shared courtyard, he begins to suspect the man opposite, travelling salesman Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), has committed a murder and is trying to cover it up. Jeff persuades his high-society girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), visiting nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and police detective friend Doyle (Wendell Corey) to help investigate, but no hard evidence is forthcoming. Is Jefferies just bored and paranoid?

The end result of this, as a film, is a heady mix of suspicion, tension, voyeurism, and a light romantic subplot — Hitchcock through and through. It’s one of his best-regarded films, too: Vertigo may gain the Sight & Sound plaudits, but Rear Window is second only to Psycho on the IMDb Top 250; and, as I write, they sit precisely side by side, which on a list that long is tantamount to equality. (Not that S&S ignored Rear Window: it’s at #54 on their last list.)

At its most basic level, Rear Window is an incredibly effective thriller. The setup is intriguing, followed by a drip feed of facts and clues that invite us to play detective too, joining in with the characters’ speculation. Jeff believes Thorwald’s guilt almost unequivocally, but not all his friends and associates agree, which gives us permission to doubt the movie’s ostensible hero. Maybe this isn’t the story of a well-executed murder uncovered by a right-place-right-time layman, but instead the narrative of an adrenaline junkie driven half-mad by being cooped up at home? The final reveal might turn out to not be the truth of the crime, but the truth of Jeff’s paranoia. The romantic subplot, which pivots around the vastly differing lifestyle desires of the pair (Lisa loves being a fashionable New Yorker, Jeff desires to explore the dangerous parts of the world), only emphasises the notion that Jeff may just be unhappy being ‘settled’.

The titular portalHitchcock certainly didn’t consider Jeff to be an out-and-out hero, even aside from the very real possibility that he may be wrong — as he put it in one interview, “he’s really kind of a bastard.” After all, what right does he have to be poking his nose so thoroughly into other people’s business? Not only to spend his time spying on all and sundry, which in many respects is bad enough, but to then investigate their lives, their personal business, even break in to their homes. If he’s right, they’ve caught a murderer, and the methodology would be somewhat overlooked; if he’s wrong… well, who’s the criminal then?

So Jeff is a voyeur, a position that one can interpret the film as implicitly both condoning and condemning; perhaps not in equal measure, but there are pros and cons. Through his directorial choices, Hitchcock makes us into one as well. In a genius move, we’re limited to Jeff’s perspective: we only see inside his apartment and the view from his window, pretty much as he sees it. If he falls asleep, we most often fade to black. We don’t have the advantage of knowing much that he doesn’t (as is sometimes the case in this kind of movie), but we do know exactly what he does, no less. The only difference is we can consider the possibility that he’s fooling himself — we have slightly more objectivity. Nonetheless, placing us in his shoes so thoroughly makes us consider the feeling of being a voyeur too. For some it’s uncomfortable; for others, probably a thrill; for many, I suspect, it’s a bit of both.

All of this is made possible, in part, by the movie’s incredible set, which has to be one of the greatest ever constructed. To quote from IMDb’s trivia section:

The entire picture was shot on one set, which required months of planning and construction. The apartment-courtyard set… consisted of 31 apartments, eight of which were completely furnished… some of the buildings were the equivalent of five or six stories high. All the apartments in Thorwald’s building had electricity and running water, and could be lived in.

Rear Window courtyardClick to enlarge.

It’s an incredible toy box for Hitchcock to play in, and every technical element rallies to use it to its full effect. Virtually the entire movie is shot from within Jeff’s apartment, the camera panning from apartment window to apartment window as we follow Jeff’s voyeuristic gaze. (This choice has, decades later, led to at least one striking re-working.) In every film the camera’s lens is our window on the world, of course, but you rarely feel it so much as you do here. We share in Jeff’s frustration about not being able to get a closer, better look; at only being able to watch as his friends imperil themselves, so close — only the other side of the courtyard! — yet so far away. Nonetheless, he’s afforded something of the same perspective we get as film viewers: late in the film, as Lisa searches the suspect’s apartment, Jeff can see Thorwald returning home, but he has no way to warn his girlfriend — just like us in so many moments of movie suspense. (These days he’d just send her a text, of course. Though I suppose you could still milk that: He can’t handle predictive texting! Autocorrect’s got it all wrong! He’s dropped the phone! How did he load a Chinese keyboard?!)

There’s the sound design, too. The heat wave means windows are open, letting the sounds of parties and whatnot drift to all ears. It’s not as meaningful a commentary on the viewer’s experience, I don’t suppose, but it lends a veracity and sense of immersiveness to the situation, Suspense!further enhanced by the almost total lack of a score (only present in the opening few shots).

In crafting both a suspenseful thriller and a commentary on the audience’s perspective, Hitchcock created the kind of movie that can be appreciated by both the casual movie fan and the analytical cineaste alike. Whatever one’s reasons for appreciating Rear Window, it’s certainly a masterpiece.

5 out of 5

Rear Window was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.

Ministry of Fear (1944)

2010 #70
Fritz Lang | 83 mins | TV | PG

Ministry of FearI like cake. It’s all soft and sweet and tasty. But I don’t like cake as much as Stephen Neale, the protagonist of Ministry of Fear.

Neale (played by Ray Milland) likes cake so much that, as soon as he’s released from an asylum at the film’s start, he goes almost directly to a nearby fête to win a cake. And win it he does… though as he leaves with his prize, he’s told he didn’t win it after all. But Neale loves cake so much that he pays them off so he can keep it. Then he gets on a train to London — and he loves cake so much, he can’t resist tucking in straight away. At least he’s kind enough to give a piece to the blind man who shares the car with him. Except the blind man whacks Neale over the head, steals the cake and jumps off the (fortunately, stationary) train with it. Not because he loves cake too, but we’ll come to that.

But the blind man — who isn’t actually blind, as you may have guessed — hasn’t counted on just how much Neale loves cake. He jumps off the train too, giving chase. The not-blind blind man shoots at him, but that’s not enough to deter Neale from cake. It’s only when a Nazi bomb drops on the cake, destroying it (and the not-blind blind man) that Neale finally gives up. And even then he goes back to look for the cake later in the film.

I think he's about to cut the cake...Ministry of Fear isn’t really about cake, but the opening 20 minutes or so plays out more or less as above and it is rather amusing. Less amusing — and, in fact, part of the film’s biggest problem — is a ‘humorous’ epilogue that returns to the cake theme. I found it hilariously funny, but unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. The other part of the problem is the abrupt ending that immediately precedes this brief coda. On the bright side, everything is resolved and you can imagine the post-climax resolution scene for yourself, but it still leaves the tale’s telling cut short.

To say too much about what Ministry of Fear is actually about would ruin it, which I don’t want to do because in fact it’s a great twisty little thriller, a rather Hitchcockian ‘wrong man’ tale with a baked MacGuffin. You might need a decent suspension of disbelief to get through it, as Neale races round London trying to find out the truth behind the activities of a wartime charity and its army of little old dears, but doing so rewards with a tale where you can never be sure who is on whose side and where any character will end up.

Director Fritz Lang brings his customary expertise to proceedings, with several shots and sequences worthy of appreciation in their own right. Nazi drone, perhapsThe train cake theft and chase, for instance, could be thoroughly laughable thanks to the cake element and what’s clearly a studio-built wood/wasteland, but it’s atmospherically shot and, in its main burst of genius, scored only by the drone of a Nazi air raid taking place overhead. It makes for a more tense and effective soundtrack than most musical scores manage.

In spite of the potentially laughable opening and the need to suspend one’s disbelief — or, perhaps, because of it — Ministry of Fear is a most enjoyable wartime film noir in a Hitchockian mould.

4 out of 5

High Anxiety (1977)

2009 #65
Mel Brooks | 94 mins | TV | 15 / PG

High AnxietyMel Brooks pays comedic tribute to Alfred Hitchcock — in case you can’t tell, the second credit is a prominent dedication — but those unfamiliar with the Master of Suspense’s output need not apply.

Brooks presents a largely Hitchcockian plot, though the clearest references come in a couple of sketches and one-liners. To be fair, there are several significant Hitchcock films I’ve still not seen, leaving the nagging sensation that some allusions and gags simply passed me by. On the other hand, maybe they just weren’t funny — I can’t remember many laughs that didn’t spring from a Hitchcock reference of some kind.

Indeed, whole chunks pass by without a laugh. At other times, bits that are clearly meant to be funny just don’t hit home (though I’m aware that, inevitably, they will for some people), while some gags are almost reassuringly familiar: a dramatic piece of music kicks in, causing characters to look around until they see a band in full swing has appeared nearby, for just one example.

Things pick up considerably in the second half, which is also more obviously Hitchcockian to my mind. Some scenes offer very good, though specific, riffs on famous Hitchcock moments — a version of Psycho’s shower scene is particularly memorable, though a scatological take on The Birds will please some — but these are almost exclusively asides to the story, little sketches inserted wherever Brooks can find space to squeeze them in. They provide welcome amusement, but are far from integrated into the plot.

At this point I’m beginning to suspect Brooks’ humour just doesn’t gel with me. I enjoyed Spaceballs when I was younger, but watching it a couple of years ago I found it more embarrassing than entertaining. Even the widely praised Blazing Saddles raised little more than the occasional smile. High Anxiety, unfortunately, now joins this line-up.

2 out of 5