Highly entertaining ‘Hitchcock’ lacks inherent drama

For me, the much-awaited “Hitchcock,” which had its world premiere at AFI Fest 2012 presented by Audi, is the cinematic equivalent of the curate’s egg: parts were good. And the actors were quite good (Oscar-worthy some say) in their parts: Anthony Hopkins as director Alfred Hitchcock, Helen Mirren as his wife Alma Reville and Scarlett Johansson as actress Janet Leigh.

We meet the Hitchcocks in 1959, enjoying the success of “North by Northwest,” Hitch and Alma having made the critical flop “Vertigo” the year before. At 60, the great auteur was at the height of his fame and yet was unable to convince Paramount to finance his next film, “Psycho,” a story based on Robert Bloch’s lurid novel about a serial killer. So the couple decide to finance it themselves – a huge gamble that paid off nicely at the box office and with critics. The movie was nominated for four Oscars.

Against this backdrop, director Sacha Gervasi depicts the artist as a brilliant, shrewd, canny and compulsive man with no end of personal peccadilloes (overeating and obsessing over elegant blondes top the list) and renders a portrait of a marriage that was at times strained but resilient enough to last 54 years.

Upon accepting the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1979, Hitchcock said: “I beg permission to mention by name only four people who have given me the most affection, appreciation, and encouragement, and constant collaboration. The first of the four is a film editor, the second is a scriptwriter, the third is the mother of my daughter Pat, and the fourth is as fine a cook as ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen. And their names are Alma Reville.”

Arguably, their ultimate bond was the work – making movies that masterfully blend high art, humor and entertainment in a way that has been often repeated and only rarely rivaled.

With its luscious looks, meticulous period details and engaging performances (even if Hopkins sometimes veers into a slightly mannered impersonation), Gervasi’s “Hitchcock” entertains, to be sure. The opening sequence and the scenes where we see Hitch directing Leigh are especially memorable.

But as I watched this glossy yarn, I couldn’t help wondering why this story was being told, what it was adding or subtracting to the legacy of Alfred and Alma. In other words, because “Hitchcock” lacks an inherent drama and an editorial stance by Gervasi, it also fails to involve us deeply or move us. That said, there’s an intrigue to the back story of a film as famous as “Psycho” and, to that end, “Hitchcock” doesn’t disappoint.

“Hitchcock” opens today in limited release.

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The Noir File: Hitchcock, Grant, Fontaine fill us with ‘Suspicion’

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

A guide to classic film noir and neo-noir on cable TV. All the movies are from the current schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Suspicion” (1941, Alfred Hitchcock). Thursday, Sept. 27, 8 a.m. (5 a.m.):

Cary Grant bringing the glass of milk is an unforgettable moment.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s glossy, shivery 1941 domestic thriller, British provincial wallflower Joan Fontaine marries the gorgeous but irresponsible Cary Grant and begins to suspect, more and more strongly, that he intends to murder her. Hitchcock builds the suspicion, and the suspense, beautifully.

And the lovely might-be victim Fontaine, whom Hitch had made a first-rank star the year before by casting her as the shy, nameless heroine of his Best Picture Oscar winner “Rebecca,” this time won the Best Actress Oscar herself.

“Suspicion” is one of Hitchcock’s most polished and well-executed thrillers, and there are scenes and shots in the film – such as the sinister, glowing glass of milk Grant carries upstairs to his sick wife – that have become famous. But the movie has one big flaw, dictated by the culture of the time and by the Production Code. You’ll know what it is by the end of the film.

The classy British émigré cast includes Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Dame May Whitty, Nigel Bruce and Leo G. Carroll. The screenwriting team – Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison and Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville – adapted “Suspicion” from Francis Iles’ classic suspense novel “Before the Fact,” and they should have kept Iles’ shocking original ending.

Friday, Sept. 21

5:15 p.m. (2:15 p.m.): “Lolita” (1962, Stanley Kubrick).

4 a.m. (1 a.m.): “10 Rillington Place” (1971, Richard Fleischer). Noir expert Richard Fleischer specialized in true-crime movies (“Compulsion,” “The Boston Strangler”) and this is one of his best: a chilling realistic thriller modeled on the famous case of British serial killer Dr. John Christie (brilliantly underplayed by Richard Attenborough), and the hapless man he frames for one of his murders, (a brilliant job by John Hurt). Also with Judy Geeson, Andre Morell and Bernard Lee.

Saturday, Sept. 22

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Gilda” (1946, Charles Vidor).

Tuesday, Sept. 25

1 p.m. (10 a.m.): “Nightfall” (1956, Jacques Tourneur).

Paul Newman as Lew Harper

Wednesday, Sept. 26

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “Harper” (1966, Jack Smight). Paul Newman, at his most attractively laid-back, plays one of detective literature’s most celebrated private eyes, Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer, in this brainy thriller based on MacDonald’s novel “The Moving Target.”

One catch: Archer has been renamed “Lew Harper,” so Newman could have (he hoped) another hit movie with an “H” title, like “The Hustler” and “Hud.” He got one. The stellar cast includes Lauren Bacall, Janet Leigh, Julie Harris, Shelley Winters, Robert Wagner, Arthur Hill, Robert Webber and Strother Martin. Scripted by William Goldman.

Thurs., Sept. 27

9:45 a.m. (6:45 a.m.): “Murder, My Sweet” (1944, Edward Dmytryk).

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