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Rating ‘Psycho,’ Behind-the-Scenes ‘Hitchcock’ and the Universal Hitchcock Fifteen

Rating 'Psycho,' Behind-the-Scenes 'Hitchcock' and the Universal Hitchcock Fifteen

It’s Hitchcock season. I got over the awful HBO “The Girl,” starring Toby Jones as Alfred Hitchcock and Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren, by watching the entire Dick Cavett Hitchcock interview. I had more fun with Thursday night’s AFI FEST world premiere of Sacha Gervasi’s light-hearted “Hitchcock,” starring a superb ensemble led by Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren as the master auteur and his collaborator and wife Alma Reville, who the director thanked when he won his AFI Achievement Award, but I confess that I’d rather stick with the real thing. (TOH’s set visit is here.)

In my possession, happily, is Universal’s Limited Edition “Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection.” It’s an embarrassment of digitally restored high-def riches, fifteen Hitchcock movies, 13 never before seen on Blu-ray, with a 50-page collectible book and “over 15 hours of bonus features!” including the new documentary “The Birds, Hitchcock’s Monster Movie.”

Ah, if only I had time to work my way through revisiting all these late-era Universal library classics. (Much of the prolific auteur’s best work is not included, such as “Spellbound,” “Strangers on a Train,” “Suspicion,” “The Lady Vanishes” and my personal fave, must-see spy drama “Notorious,” starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.)

I rank these 15 HItchcocks in order of preference, top to bottom, below. Feel free to demur. Truth is, as the “Hitchcock” end credits point out, Hitchcock never topped his 1960 career peak “Psycho,” made while he was age 60 in crisis mode. No one wanted him to make this low-brow pulpy thriller, which he discerned was “a nice clean nasty piece of work.” And agent Lew Wasserman (well-played by always-solid Michael Stulhbarg) had to raise the financing independently, which meant mortgaging Hitchcock and Reville’s home.

The main thing that these biopics keep suggesting is that Hitchcock wasn’t just pouring his obsessions onto the screen. While voyeurism is a mainstay of his work, this film makes him into a literal Peeping Tom. They have Hitchcock hiring twitchy screenwriter Joe Stefano (Ralph Macchio) and closeted homosexual Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) because they each had mother issues.

There is no actual evidence, one of the producers said at the AFI FEST opening night party, that the director ever sexually assaulted any of his leading ladies, although “Birds” and “Marnie” star Tippi Hedren has called him “evil and deviant.” In “Hitchcock,” Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) tells Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) that Hitchcock is just like the Jimmy Stewart character in “Vertigo.” One of the reasons Paramount didn’t want to finance “Psycho” was that his other experiments “The Wrong Man” and “Vertigo” had tanked. I love the scene where Hitch passes out to the press gory photos of real-life murder victims of serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott). Was this a good idea? “They can’t stop looking at them, can they?” HItchcock replies.

Neither Mirren nor Hopkins turned up at the premiere, as they were shooting “Reds 2” in London. Of the ensemble, only supporting cast D’Arcy, Stuhlbarg, Wincott, Kurtwood Smith and Richard Portnow were on hand. In a video clip Mirren and Hopkins thanked Brit producers Tom Thayer and Alan Barnette who developed the project for the decade before it got to Ivan Reitman and Tom Pollock’s Montecito Pictures. Fox Searchlight came in to partner on the film which marks “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” director Sacha Gervasi’s somewhat clunky feature debut.

Too much time is spent on marital tensions between Hitchcock and Reville, who enjoys writing with a flirtatious screenwriter (Danny Huston), although this does yield a fabulous Mirren blowout scene that earned applause Thursday night. Searchlight opted to put the film out during the holiday frame, aiming the film at the over-50 demo also represented by the Academy, hoping to build some extra buzz during the awards season. The film is a genial crowdpleaser–which had to tiptoe around the rules laid down by Universal and the Hitchcock estate (just as “Psycho” had to stay inside the rigid boundaries of the ratings board)–that is unlikely to garner heaps of critical praise. Danny Elfman’s Bernard Herrmann-inspired score is just right.

  • “Psycho” (1960) Hitch broke every rule making this terrifying indie classic. Saul Bass storyboards. Stephen Rebello commentary.
  • “Vertigo” (1958) This led the Sight & Sound critics’ poll because it’s his darkest and most kinky. William Friedkin does commentary.
  • “Marnie” (1964) follows close behind. Sean Connery is super in this box office misfire that gained critical stature over the years. So is Louise Latham as Marnie’s mother: “My leg, Marnie, my leg!”
  • “Rear Window” (1954) Voyeurism, James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Near perfect.
  • “North by Northwest” (1959) Jessie Royce Landis as Grant’s mother was just a few years older than he was. HIgh points: Eva Marie Saint, cropduster, Mt. Rushmore. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman comments.
  • “The Birds” (1963) He broke rules here too. No music! Just scads of live birds. Tippi Hedren’s screen test, deleted scene, original ending. Hedren talks about shooting the film here.
  • “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943) is about another man and woman who don’t trust each other, uncle (Joseph Cotton) and neice (Theresa Wright).
  • “Saboteur,” (1942) another spy thriller, this time with Statue of Liberty monument set piece.
  • “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956) is another Stewart film. Hitchcock is remaking himself, including the famed Albert Hall concert sequence. Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera” won the Oscar.
  • “The Trouble with Harry” (1955) is a charming dark comedy that introduced the young Shirley MacLaine; consider it a precursor to the Coens’ “Blood Simple.”
  • “Rope” (1948) , starring Stewart, one of Hitchcock’s formal experiments, was shot in a series of 10-minute takes.
  • “Frenzy” (1972) is great mordant fun; it stars Jon Finch trying to clear himself of crimes committed by the “Necktie Murderer.”
  • “Torn Curtain” (1966) stars Paul Newman and Julie Andrews in a dated Cold War thriller. I agree with Leonard Maltin: “Slick but empty.”
  • “Topaz” (1969) stars John Forsythe in this unmemorable CIA thriller based on the Leon Uris bestseller.
  • “Family Plot” (1976), Hitchcock’s last film, is a flimsy affair packed with his trademark rear-projection shots.

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