“Hitchcock”, in part, tells the story of the making of Alfred Hitchcock’s most controversial and most successful film, “Psycho”. It also portrays a period of strain in his marriage to his wife, Alma Reville, brought on by the Great Director’s obsession with the project.
Featuring two awards calibre performances by Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren in the lead roles, “Hitchcock”, I’m sad to report, is weighted down by some unfortunate creative choices and (ironically for a film about Hitchcock) an overall lack of suspense.
In 1959, Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) released “North by Northwest” to great success and acclaim. Yet he tired of doing the same sort of movies over and over, and wanted to push his boundaries creatively. That same year, Robert Bloch released his novel “Psycho”, inspired by the infamous Ed Gein, a murderer and grave robber whose heinous activities had been uncovered a scant few years prior. The novel crossed Hitchcock’s desk, and he immediately embraced it as his next film. “Psycho” was an extraordinarily controversial choice of material to make a film of, especially at the time. Murder, cross dressing, voyeurism, grave robbing… these topics were completely shocking during the propriety of the late 1950s.
Which is precisely what drew Hitchcock to the material.
Of course, Paramount had severe issues with the film. When they balked at greenlighting it, Hitchcock was forced to self finance, which included mortgaging his home. He also had a lengthy battle with the ratings board over the content of the film. Add on the struggle to actually make a good film, and Hitchcock was left with his hands full.
All of this drew his attention away from his wife and behind the scenes collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). As she faces her own apprehensions about aging, her attention is drawn away by a man named Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wants her to collaborate with him on a screenplay… and may want more. This dalliance disturbs Hitchcock, and a marital dispute ensues. Alma is frustrated by being shut out of the creative process on Psycho, and Hitch’s obsessions with his leading ladies (In this case Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh and Jessica Biel as Vera Miles), and he worries that she may be having an affair.
At the center of “Hitchcock” are two fantastic performances. Helen Mirren’s turn as Alma Reville has already scored her nominations from the Screen Actors Guild and for the Golden Globes. The Academy will most likely follow. It’s not a flashy role, by any means, but she does a fantastic job displaying her emotions while still keeping them tastefully constrained. She also makes for fantastic fun, watching her character put the great Alfred Hitchcock in his place. As for Hitchcock himself, he was always droll in the public eye, and Hopkins’ portrayal carries that temperament through his daily life as well. Thus it’s not the most expressive role of his career, certainly, but it is an excellent onscreen impersonation.
Fans of the film “Psycho” will be entertained by the behind the scenes portions of the film, but regrettably, there’s not enough to that story to make an entire film of it. The marital strife between he and Alma is well done, but again, it never really rises to the level of high drama, in spite of the remarkable performances. There’s simply not a lot of weight to the material here. It’s entertaining to me as a fan of Hitchcock, and as someone who finds the story of the making of Psycho fascinating but I wonder what if any value this would hold for people who aren’t fans.
Finally, there are some really poor artistic choices made here by director Sacha Gervasi. Gervasi came to my attention with the remarkable “Anvil: The Story of Anvil”, and I was happy to see him making the transition from documentaries to feature film. He gets in his own way more than once, though, mainly during the conversational “visions” that Hitchcock has with Ed Gein throughout the film. They really serve little purpose (except perhaps to elicit sympathy for one of the most notorious serial killers in history) and undercut the realism of the rest of the material. He could have just as easily left it to the audiences imagination as to what Hitchcock saw in the material, it’s not that difficult to see.
So, in spite of the great performances submitted by Hopkins and Mirren, I would have a hard time enthusiastically recommending “Hitchcock” to anyone aside from ardent Hitchcock fans.