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On Movies: The screams differ in 'Hitchcock' and 'Killing Them Softly'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 30, 2012 - Remember the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho"? Remember the look on Janet Leigh's face as a shadowy wraith pulled back the curtain and stabbed her repeatedly with a butcher knife, her blood mingling with the water that ran down her body and into the drain? Ever wonder how Alfred Hitchcock got that totally believable and hard-to-forget look of shock and terror to pass over Janet Leigh's face? Was Leigh just acting, or was she really scared?

Perhaps a little of both, if we are to believe the delicious recreation of the shower scene in the new, darkly comic film "Hitchcock." Scarlett Johansson plays Janet Leigh; and in the shower scene, the actress is having trouble getting that look on her face, even though an actor clad in old woman's clothes stabs in her direction with what looks like a real knife. So Hitchcock takes charge, helped by his screenwriter wife Alma, and works his dark and perverse magic. Suddenly Johansson gets that terrified look on her face, the look that suggests she fears for her life. The moment is a little scary, and more than a little funny.

"Hitchcock" focuses on the director and Alma in 1959 as they -- and "they" is the appropriate pronoun -- battled studio indifference to get "Psycho" made. Prosthetically jowled Anthony Hopkins, scowling as if he just sucked on something vile, plays Hitchcock, and Helen Mirren is Alma, who takes control when her husband falters. Both give solid performances, as does Johansson, in a film that cruises easily between melodrama and comedy. Perhaps the best performance in the movie comes from Danny Huston, who plays a screenwriter friend of Alma who is on the make in more ways than one.

The film, written by John J. McLaughlin and directed by Sacha Gervasi, barely touches on the bundle of world-class neuroses and obsessions beneath the ample surface of the great director -- all of which were explored in the lurid HBO feature "The Girl," about Hitchcock's cruel treatment of the actress Tippi Hedren. Mostly, "Hitchcock" plays for laughs and is filled with copious sly allusions to the birds and blondes and silhouettes of the director's film and television career. "Hitchcock" is amusing and light-footed and unpretentious.

As we enter the season of Serious, Oscar-worth Films, "Hitchcock" aims at amusement, not enlightenment. It is welcome.

Opens Friday Nov. 30

'Killing Them Softly'

In the opening scene of "Killing Them Softly," we hear presidential candidate Barack Obama making a speech about the promise of America in a loud, resonant voice as we watch a battered young hoodlum make his way painfully across a field of urban desolation.

It is 2008, and the presidential election and the financial crisis dominate the news, as criminals plan to steal money from other criminals.

OK. The filmmaker, Australian director Andrew Dominik ("The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford") is going to make the point that, in America, crime is just politics or business by other means. Not an unfertile premise -- Francis Coppola made grand drama out of it in "The Godfather." But he didn't keep rubbing our noses in it. He told his story and the story made the point for him, and powerfully.

Dominik diminishes the force of what is otherwise a potent and pungent story of crime and cash in America by continually reminding us of what the movie is really about. The result is a cinematically stylish, effectively brutal crime movie with some terrific performances that is regularly undermined by its heavy-handed message.

Half the places we go, following hired killer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) and assorted criminals on their nefarious missions, there is a radio or a television blaring out speeches by Obama about hope and change or by President George W. Bush or one of his underlings about the financial crisis. After a while, tired of all the thick irony, I wanted Pitt to forget about his intended victims and shoot the radios and TVs.

"Killing Them Softly" is loosely based on crime writer George V. Higgins' superlative 1974 novel, "Cogan's Trade." It has been moved into the 21st century and from Boston to Pitt's adopted hometown of New Orleans.

Pitt heads a first-rate, essentially male cast that also includes Ray Liotta as the unlucky proprietor of a high-stakes poker game for mobsters and James Gandolfini as a mercenary killer with some serious personal problems, including raging alcoholism. Most entertaining is Richard Jenkins as a conservatively dressed business executive -- he looks like a banker or a corporate lawyer -- who fronts for a big-time mobster. There are priceless scenes in which Jenkins and Pitt sit in a parked American sedan and discuss murders in terms and tones that businessmen would use to discuss mergers.

The language comes from Higgins, and it works beautifully. The action scenes are shot at night with minimum light, with a wildly mobile camera that creates visceral excitement. Then Dominik will undermine himself by trying to underline his message. For example, one particularly brutal and inhumane scene in the mean streets of New Orleans is followed by a cut to daytime and a car on the open road and a voice on the radio singing the Depression-era ditty "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries."

Too much irony. That's the problem with "Killing Them Softly." That and the title -- I understand the appeal of naming a movie after a popular song, but I don't remember anyone in this brutal movie being killed any way but hard.

Opens Friday Nov. 30

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