‘He’s Always Watching’:
“All of us harbour dark recesses of violence and horror…by the way, try the finger sandwiches. They’re real fingers.”
When I was a kid growing up in the ‘sixties and beginning my life-long love affair with the cinema, I was even then curious about this mysterious guy known as ‘the director’. My mother and father didn’t really get what I was on about. As long as it had Charlton Heston, Gregory Peck or maybe Cary Grant in it then you knew you were in for a ‘good film’ in their opinion. As to my dad, he had a bit of a yen for Lana Turner so we could throw her in as well. And as a result I remember seeing at quite an early age the terrific double-bill Imitation of Life and Madame X. Happy days! But this thing about who directed them? They never quite got that. Well, except for one man; because everybody knew who Alfred Hitchcock was.
If you heard the words “There’s an Alfred Hitchcock film on tonight” you knew you were not only in safe hands but that, oddly enough now that I think of it, you were likely to be let up past your bed time to watch it. I suppose it was the fact that he had his own television show, presented with dry wit by him, that separated him and brought him into people’s homes in a way that other directors never got the chance to do.
Last year we heard that there were going to be two Hitchcock movies close together. The first was The Girl, which I saw before Christmas. This was also the one which I was looking forward to the most for the simple fact that I’m a big fan of Toby Jones and he was the man in the suit. It dealt with his time making The Birds and of his obsession with the blonde model that he was going to make into a star, Tippi Hedren. Hedren is played by Sienna Miller and much to my amazement she turned out to be pretty good. I say to my amazement because to tell you the truth I don’t know much about the girl except that she seems to get herself mentioned in the tabloids a fair bit. So it was like discovering that a mannequin could act or that a robot like Kim Kardashian was actually possessed of some kind of talent apart from getting her gear off at every opportunity. So yeah, Miller played Hedren well. Or maybe she’s a bit of a cold fish in reality.
The film itself is pretty mean-spirited. Maybe Hitchcock was really this bad, I don’t know. I do know that he’s dead and that Ms. Hedren had a fair bit of input; and that a lot of time has passed. Still, as adequate as the film was it was really my man Toby Jones that disappointed. He has the accent and the mannerisms off well enough but there is just a lack of…oh, stature that we associate with the real ‘Hitch.’
No such problems with the second outing, called simply Hitchcock. With Anthony Hopkins as the man himself there is stature to spare. Yet I was expecting a heavy film and what we get instead is a surprisingly light one. We go back two years before the events of The Girl and this time Hitchcock is obsessing about another blonde actress and here it is Janet Leigh in Psycho, played by Scarlett Johansson. But truth to tell he is obsessing a hell of a lot more about getting his movie made. As Paramount has failed to back him he and his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) are putting up the money between them, which means that they stand to lose their home if the movie isn’t a success. I think it’s fair to say that would focus your mind and keep it off nubile young blondes.
The screenplay is by John J. McLaughlin and is based on the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of ‘Psycho’ by Stephen Rebello; and one would wish that it had stuck a little more to the actual making of that classic movie. Instead director Sacha Gervasi and his collaborators bring in a harmless enough, but rather pointless suggestion, that Alma was at one point so cheesed off with Hitch and his unrequited blonde girl lusts that she almost had an affair herself. Since we know that she didn’t there’s no real tension there. It is nice to see Alma getting the credit for her huge input into Hitchcock’s work that was pretty much ignored during the decades that she worked with him. And it’s equally nice to see him recognise and acknowledge it. But rather than go off on this tangent I would definitely have preferred to see more on the making of this groundbreaking film.
It is also interesting to note that the censors of the time unwittingly, because of their restrictions, probably made Hitchcock use his imagination more and contribute to the powerful effect of the famous shower scene. One thing that I couldn’t believe Gervasi left out, however, was even a mention of the almost-as-famous murder of the private detective on the staircase. Instead he wastes whole scenes with imaginary dialogues between Hitchcock and Ed Gein, the mass murderer/ inspiration for Robert Bloch’s original novel . I just didn’t feel that this worked at all. Although I must admit that, considering that Gein was also the inspiration for Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs there’s a surreal feel to Ed and old Hannibal Lecter himself sharing a chin-wag. There’s also a bit of the Lecter about him as he plays with people’s heads:
“I’m just a man hiding in the corner, watching. My camera will tell you the truth.”
Vera Miles, played by Jessica Biel even warns Leigh: “He’s always watching.” And indeed there is an odd scene where he looks through a wall hole into Leigh’s dressing room but none of this goes anywhere and what we are left with is a good looking, very slight biopic.
And, as I say, if the reason that you are going to watch it is because you want to know about the making of Psycho then you’re in for a disappointment. Leave that aside and you have an entertaining, undemanding film. And of course there’s nothing wrong with that. Considering the talent involved it just seems a bit of a waste, that’s all.