“What if someone really good made a horror picture?”
– Alfred Hitchcock in Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock
Taken on its own as a movie about a famous director on a troubled production as he approaches the final leg of a long career, Hitchcock gets a pass. It entertains and if you don’t already know the Alfred Hitchcock legend or the story of the making of arguably his most famous picture Psycho, it probably also informs to a degree. The problem is, we’re dealing with one of the greatest directors who ever lived and one who had a long, prolific and amazingly successful career. In this case, just getting a pass isn’t nearly enough. Hitchcock the man deserves much better than Hitchcock the movie which attempts to illuminate him by sifting through two-bit psychology gleaned mostly from the darker aspects of his films. That would be fine if the conclusions drawn weren’t so literal-minded and simplistic.
The book upon which Hitchcock is based, Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, sticks mainly to the interesting story surrounding the famous film’s production, but this material is mostly used as a backdrop and a springboard. From there the film tries to dissect Hitchcock’s psychology, as though to understand the art we must understand the man. That’s fair enough, but the picture the film paints is of a suspicious, brooding peeping tom who is literally haunted by serial killer Ed Gein (who inspired the Robert Bloch novel that would become the film Psycho), is jealous of his wife Alma’s work with another writer, is obsessed with all of his leading ladies and is mortally wounded whenever they’d go off to do something else like become the Princess of Monaco. There may be grains of truth to any or all of this stuff, but it’s handled with a deadly literalness – the scenes with Hitch caressing head shots of Grace Kelly for example, or most laughably, a scene where Hitchcock is laying on a couch baring his soul to a therapist and the therapist is revealed to be Ed Gein! It’s ridiculous.
Worse still is the film’s treatment of Hitchcock’s wife and collaborator Alma Reville. On one hand, Hitchcock does an excellent job of illustrating how important she was to his career, but then it cheapens her by making her jealous of his obsessions and insecure about not getting her share of the credit more than 30 years into their relationship. There was no doubt friction between them as you’d expect in any marriage of that duration, and there probably were insecurities and jealousies, but in Hitchcock it all looks unbelievably petty on both sides. The degree to which Hitchcock counted on Reville is legendary and he paid her the highest compliment by unquestioningly following her advice throughout his career. For her to remain in the shadows would’ve required a strong, confident ego, not one that pouts because she’s underappreciated. The film’s big emotional climax involves Hitchcock finally (and literally) acknowledging that Alma is his real leading lady, but I don’t believe for a moment she ever once doubted that.
On the bright side, Hitchcock avoids the usual boring rise-fall-rise biography storyline by cutting into a very precise moment of Hitchcock’s career and it’s a fascinating moment. Coming off the success of North by Northwest but with the failure of Vertigo still fresh, Hitchcock was trying to do something different and wound up doing something revolutionary. This by itself is compelling stuff and I’d have liked more of Hitchcock in action. I’m not sure the bogus psychological probing is even necessary, but if you’re going to go there, you’d better come back with something newer and more revelatory than a controlling, blonde-obsessed peeping tom.
The best part of Hitchcock is probably watching Anthony Hopkins do his thing as the Master of Suspense. He expertly avoids making Hitch a cartoon or a caricature even though that’s how the part is largely written. Hopkins in recent years has often felt like he’s just showing up to collect a paycheck, but he seems to be having as much fun playing Hitchcock as Hitchcock seemed to have playing himself. With an excellent make-up job reducing the lower half of his face to the familiar jowly inertness, it’s surprisingly easy to forget you’re watching Hopkins. Helping his own cause, the actor mostly avoids his familiar tics and mannerisms. He approximates the familiar voice and physicality of Hitchcock without overdoing it.
Helen Mirren is fine as Alma Reville and she’s given a good, crowd-pleasing scene where she reads Hitch the riot act for neglecting her and being jealous of her, but the character never comes across as particularly well-defined. She’s easily the most mysterious of the two, but here she just seems like Helen Mirren. It’s not Mirren’s fault. She’s entertaining and she has great chemistry with Hopkins, but the character is poorly written.
The supporting cast meanwhile offers a mixed bag. Scarlett Johansson is surprisingly credible as Janet Leigh and Toni Collette is excellent as Hitchcock’s trusty and able assistant Peggy Robertson, but James D’arcy’s turn as Anthony Perkins comes across like a Saturday Night Live impression by Jimmy Fallon. Since Perkins is mostly set dressing (you can’t have a movie about Psycho without Perkins in it somewhere), it’s not really D’arcy’s fault, but it’s still a wasted opportunity.
In the end, Hitchcock works sporadically. Hopkins and Mirren are fun to watch. The background material on Psycho is all excellent and the film looks great, but there’s nothing really new here we didn’t already know, and the psychological underpinnings that have supposedly been dug up are either old news or bogus-seeming. Hitchcock entertains, but does nothing to help us understand the greatest motion picture director of all time. Instead, it just kind of cheapens him and that’s a shame. Hitch deserved better.