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Psychotic Reaction

Dec. 10, 2012
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Alfred Hitchcock is having a midlife, make that a late-life, crisis. His latest movie, North by Northwest, is a smash hit and yet he is nagged by doubt. “But you’re 60 years old,” a reporter shouts out. “Shouldn’t you just quit while you’re ahead?” Hitch responds with the frozen countenance of a statue but inside he is rankled and worried. The Master of Suspense must prove to the world, and a younger generation of filmmakers, that he’s still the master. His inner turmoil resulted in a film that sharply changed the course of filmmaking: Psycho (1960).

Anthony Hopkins inhabits the title role in Hitchcock, which focuses on the great director during the making of his pivotal motion picture. The story is emotionally true and captures the main arc of the plot—Hitch’s stubborn persistence against resistance to Psycho on all sides—while salting it with fiction and apocryphal rumors. Director Sacha Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin have a bit of fun, framing their picture with commentary from the corpulent, dryly deprecating director. But the production belongs to Hopkins, who replicates Hitch’s persona, which, by the time of Psycho, had overtaken the person. He’s a swollen pear-shaped man, savoring thoughts of mayhem through pinched lips and precise, slow-going enunciation.

He’s also a man who peers through a peephole in his office wall into the dressing room of his female stars. For Hitchcock, making and watching movies were acts of voyeurism. He was also obsessed with a fantasized feminine ideal: always blonde and curvaceous and utterly unlike his wife and colleague, Alma Reville. She was always the under acknowledged collaborator, and Hitchcock highlights her importance through Helen Mirren’s smart performance as Alma. Despite Alma’s crucial role in doctoring scripts and maintaining continuity, and her solicitous concern for her husband’s health, their marriage is portrayed as adrift. He has lost interest in her sexually and they have withdrawn to separate beds. Alma is charmed by the attention of a writer who wants to collaborate with her (and gain access to her husband) and Hitch peers more intently through the peephole, discovering the curvaceous blonde he depicts as making love, and being murdered, in Psycho. Scarlett Johansson is fetching as Janet Leigh, the actress etched in memory as the shrieking woman in the shower stabbed to death by her nice, if nervous, motel keeper Norman Bates.

Much of Hitchcock’s humor is drawn from reality, including the director’s meetings with censors who threatened to kill Psycho not only for its illicit sexuality and explicit murder scene, but also for Hitch’s insistence on showing a toilet being flushed. “No American movie has ever found it necessary to show a show a toilet, much less a toilet being flushed,” harrumphs the censor. Without blinking, Hitchcock suggests he might make the film in France and use a bidet. Hitchcock captures the shock that swept through audiences upon first seeing Jane Leigh’s murder in the shower. Nothing like it had ever been shown. Since then, slasher movies, usually involving beautiful sexually active women, have become a dismally familiar genre. Pulp fiction, including the novel Hitchcock adapted, Robert Bloch’s Psycho, had been confined to the margins of popular culture. Nowadays, we live in a pulp fiction world.

The cultural shift was triggered in part by Psycho, whose director sensed where public taste was headed and transmuted his own dangerous impulses into unforgettable cinema. The world was changing and he, unlike his studio bosses, knew it. “What if it’s another Vertigo?” he asks, wondering if everyone else is right in predicting Psycho’s box office demise. After all, the strange and moody Vertigo failed to find an audience on its first release. Hitchcock might allow himself a rare smile if he learned that Vertigo recently displaced Citizen Kane as the top film of all time in the British Film Institute’s influential roster of greatness.

Home Movies/DVD & Blu-ray

Why Stop Now

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Eli, a gifted young pianist on his way to the audition that could change his life. But first he must check mom into rehab. And when she is denied admission and told insurance won’t cover her unless she produces a “dirty” urine sample, she goes in search of drugs with Eli at the wheel. Why Stop Now is a spiky, sometimes hilariously un-PC comedy of mishaps as Eli stumbles among good-hearted dealers, Revolutionary War reenactors and into the girl he loves. The story is an affirmation of family (even gangstas have moms) and the will to succeed against the odds.

The Pact

A young mother is home alone and speaking to her little girl on Skype when the girl says: “Mommy, who is that behind you?” The debut by writer-director Nicholas McCarthy is off to a chilling start. Making the best of its low budget and with many well-constructed scenes, The Pact opens a trap door into several layers of darkness: the ghosts of memory from an abusive childhood bump against a disembodied soul rattling around suburbia, as well as a flesh and blood ghoul. It stars Caity Lotz as the motorcycle-riding protagonist who stumbles into the story’s dark hole.


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