A Hitch in time plays fine

As a fat man in ‘Hitchcock’

Good evening. I was first turned onto Hitch by the playwright David Rudkin. He was doing a residence at my alma mater (that’s a throw-away Hitchcock joke) and gave a talk called something like A Common or Garden Guide to Hitchcock’s Birds. He brought along his chum Alastair Reid who was starting work directing a new series called Morse. (Years later I’d work with Lewis). He also had a producer friend in the audience, Nigel Evans, who produced the movie Walter for the first night of Channel 4 (directed by Stephen Frears), 30 years ago this month. (A year later Nigel and his business partner Stephen Mellor gave me my first break with a runner job at AKA in Clerkenwell). Rudkin was an interesting character in his seaman’s knitted sweater reeking with tobaccy. I’d seen odds and ends of Hitchcock before then but fell in love in the wake of that literate, illuminating introduction.

Last night I went to a screening at Fox in Soho Square of the new movie Hitchcock about the making of Psycho. After the show Angie Errigo (a gentle reminder of my Empire-reading days) interviewed its stars Helen Mirren (Alma Reville/Mrs Hitchcock), Anthony Hopkins (Hitch) and James D’Arcy (Anthony Perkins). In the rather cosy viewing theatre I was four feet from Mirren, six from Hopkins, very much in the glow of British acting royalty.

Hopkins told how he saw Psycho when it first opened in Britain – he had the proverbial scared out of him in Piccadilly Manchester on arriving in the city one rainy night for a spell in rep. His anecdote ended with him climbing the stairs on this first night in his lodging house, run by some lone old lady, and the light clicks off as he’s half-way up.

In among the audience with me was a fella who had been in the publicity department at Paramount when Psycho was released. He described how Hitch conceived the whole promotional strategy (or exploitation as the department was charmingly named then), how this fella’s team made a How To Exploit Psycho film for exhibitors which Hitch had to approve personally, instructing cinema managers how to enforce the No Entry Once the Film has Started rule and generally dramatise the whole experience.

After the Q+A chat, I found myself in Fox reception staring into the strikingly pale blue eyes of one of the great British screen actors –  Hopkins has played everyone from Richard Nixon to Yitzhak Rabin, Hitler to Quasimodo, starring in all manner of wonders from A Bridge Too Far to Magic, The Bounty to Shadowlands, Hannibal to Dracula. As we chatted together he was gracious and warm, telling me more about Hitch’s relations with actors – from the ones he seemed to ignore (Doris Day who was anxious about lack of feedback) to the ones he gave too much unwanted attention to (Tippi Hedren).

I was asking him about whether he’d got the impression Hitch and Alma’s relationship was always so weird or dysfunctional and we discussed whether in effect the movies were their kids. The film argues that they were very much a double act from their early days on the movies together when Alma Reville was young Alfred’s boss. Mirren had used their daughter Patricia’s book about her mother as insight into her character.

I took the opportunity to thank Hopkins for QB VII, a 1974 TV mini-series which made a big impact on me when I was young. It was the thing, alongside a World at War episode, which first made me aware of the Holocaust (an episode produced by Jeremy Isaacs, first boss of Channel 4 – there was a facsimile of the Well Done Everybody memo he sent to “All at 4″ the day after the launch night with Walter  [3 Nov 1982] left on our desk on the morning of 3rd November a couple of weeks ago. “The real work begins today” wrote the first Chief Exec. Paper memos – another world, more Paramount 1950s than Horseferry Road 2012).

Hopkins met Hitch once in a Hollywood restaurant with his agent. The Master of Suspense was very ill by then and trapped in his huge body, downing brandy in quantity. Nonetheless he pulled out the charm and greeted him with the familiar Good Evening.

To conclude, 4 reasons to go see Hitchcock directed by Sacha Gervasi (who also made the heavy metal feature documentary Anvil):

1) Hopkin’s Hitchcockian accent – he gets the Leytonstone in there under the elocution, always reminding us of Hitch’s London roots.

2) Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh – an uplifting portrayal to avoid the whole thing getting grimy.

3) A touch of humour – the film captures Hitch’s wry, filmic humour without becoming pastiche.

4) A well refined script tying together the story of the making of a movie (Psycho) with an eccentric love story (Hitch and Alma) and the portrait of a driven genius who was never more thrilled than when inventing the movies, techniques and ways of story-telling that no-one had thought to commit to celluloid before.

As a bad man in ‘QB VII’

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