“Hitchcock” portrays master of suspense

“Hitchcock” portrays master of suspense

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England’s greatest film director comes alive in “Hitchcock,” a biopic showing this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. Also playing there is “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which has been nominated for three of the top Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. “Rust and Bone” will return for one screening on Thursday, Jan. 26, and “Searching for Sugar Man,” on Sunday, Jan. 29.

Although Sir Alfred Hitchcock died in 1980, he remains a familiar face for movie lovers. Hitchcock made regular cameo appearances at the beginnings of his films, and his signature, bulbous profile also appeared in his popular TV series, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” His innovations as a director include “MacGuffins,” misleading clues to the mystery at hand; camera work to establish the audience’s voyeuristic gaze; the hero as an innocent man under suspicion; and psycho-sexual themes.

Director Sacha Gervasi bases “Hitchcock” on the run-up to production of Hitchcock’s most famous film, “Psycho.” Welch actor Anthony Hopkins, who won an Oscar in 1992 for his role as a serial killer in “The Silence of the Lambs,” impersonates Hitchcock with help from a fat suit and facial prosthetics. The audience meets Hitchcock, burned by reporters who ask him if he will retire now that he has turned 60, as the director casts about for a new movie idea after the success of “North by Northwest.”

Helen Mirren, who won an Oscar for her 2006 portrayal of England’s monarch Elizabeth in “The Queen,” plays the great director’s wife, Alma Reville. In addition to being Hitch’s loyal spouse, Alma served an important role in his films, as advisor and screenwriter. The third key player in the movie is Scarlett Johansson, who portrays Janet Leigh in the movie’s version of “Psycho.” The late Ms. Leigh was the actress who starred in the original “Psycho.”

These three accomplished performers enrich a movie without much inherent suspense, since everyone knows the story and its outcome. Hitchcock was notorious for his obsession with beautiful blondes, which led him to manipulate – even sexually harass – many of his leading ladies, most famously Tippi Hedren of “The Birds,” the subject of a recent HBO film, “The Girl.”

Alma is not happy about her husband’s preoccupation with the actresses in his films, and “Hitchcock” pursues this part of the story by developing a potential liaison between Alma and sometime screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). There’s no evidence that in real life the two were involved.

In “Hitchcock,” Alma, along with Paramount Studio executives, does not like Hitchcock’s proposal to film the horror story, “Psycho.” Based on a Robert Bloch novel about the Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, “Psycho” was deemed too bloody and perverted for 50s audiences. Years later, “The Silence of the Lambs” would also be based on the same real-life character, played by Hopkins.

Hitchcock, however, is determined to film “Psycho,” and when the studio refuses to fund the project, he puts up the $800,000 cost himself by mortgaging the family’s Bel Air home. Eventually Alma comes on board and helps with the production.

In addition to suggesting how the great man owed at least part of his success to his wife, “Hitchcock” illustrates the director’s brilliance as a self-promoter. He skirts the censors’ roadblocks against standards for nudity and violence through his deft editing. Scenes like “Psycho’s” iconic shower murder of Janet Leigh by psychopath Norman Bates (James D’Arcy playing Anthony Perkins) give the appearance of nudity and bloodshed without actually showing it.

Hitchcock builds up anticipation for “Psycho” by warning the public he can’t be responsible if they faint during the screening. Hopkins captures Hitchcock’s tics and showmanship with a confidence that accurately reflects the legendary director. It’s a difficult task to make one film about another that’s considered to be among the best thrillers ever made, but fans of Hitchcock will enjoy the tidbits about this great director in “Hitchcock.”

All films are shown at the M.V. Film Center, Tisbury Marketplace, Vineyard Haven. $10; $7 for MV Film Society members. For more information including showtimes and dates, visit mvfilmsociety.com.