Alfred Hitchcock has been having a terrific year for a man who’s been dead for the last 32 of them. The celebrated purveyor of the macabre has been miraculously resurrected into the center of popular culture. First, his artistic manifesto, Vertigo (1958), was selected as the greatest film of all time by 846 film directors and aficionados surveyed by Sight & Sound (a survey that for decades has chosen Citizen Kane). Then he was the dubious subject of HBO’s TV film, The Girl. And finally, he concludes 2012 as the star of Sacha Gervasi’s aptly titled biopic, Hitchcock. Can this cinematic love letter finally net Hitch an overdue Oscar?
Unlike the HBO movie, which depicted the artist almost only as a lecherous sadist torturing actress Tippi Hedren, Gervasi’s picture chooses to cast Hitchcock’s talent and idiosyncrasies in a humorous and broadly entertaining light. The film still touches on the director’s fascination with blonde leading ladies, but the movie remains more of a lighthearted character study of how his mind worked and its impact on his long overlooked wife, Alma Reville. Based in part on the non-fiction book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello, the movie is content at being a wry portrait of the filmmaker during the height of his creativity and not a two hour summation of the man’s life.
In 1959, Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) has hit a creative wall. His obsessive soul searcher, Vertigo, underperformed at the box office and was received with mixed ambivalence by critics. The director had returned to the safety of his popular romantic thrillers starring Cary Grant in North by Northwest. But despite renewed success, the Master of Suspense feels artistically unfulfilled with how formulaic and predictable his movies have become. Alma (Helen Mirren), his wife and collaborator, keeps pushing Hitch to film family friend Whitfield Cook’s newest book. Instead, Hitchcock finds himself drawn to the grim and grizzly new novel, Psycho. That book, written by Robert Bloch, is loosely based on the horrific mass murders committed by Ed Gein—who would also later serve as inspiration for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs—and had already been passed over by most of Hollywood. Hitchcock instantly wants it. To get the horror picture made, he mortgages his house and takes a substantial pay cut. But while Hitch becomes consumed by a story of murder, perversion and incest, his often forgotten wife gets closer to Cook (Danny Huston) by helping him adapt his novel for the screen.
The film is a breezy 90 minutes of self-aware bemusement. Hopkins brings a dry wit to his jovial interpretation of the famed moviemaker. His Hitchcock is every bit as eccentric as the man is publicly remembered to be, but it’s presented here as the harmless side effect of genius. If his eye wanders to his leading ladies, it is a fanciful silliness that can be scoffed at by Alma. Even so, the character insists he is capable of the darkness he visually wallows in. “Any man can become a murderer,” he tells his wife as she takes away the pudding he is indulging in. “And have good reason.”
Helen Mirren is equally devious and entertaining as Alma. Being the wife who is often taken for granted by her blonde-obsessed husband, she finds herself drifting further than usual from her husband in the story and flirting with a possible affair. However, given the film’s tone and other creative flourishes, one wonders how truthful this subplot can be or if Alma ever really looked like Helen Mirren.
One of the movie’s best such liberties is the idea that Hitch has turned Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) into a sort of imaginary friend. The film opens like an episode of the director’s 1950s TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as Alfie introduces us to Ed murdering his brother. Throughout the course of the film, the director fantasizes about Ed cuddling with his dead mother and murdering his victims. In a different movie, it could make for a hell of a buddy comedy.
However, the problem the movie faces is that most of the drama feels just as concocted for the narrative. While Hitchcock really did have to struggle to get Psycho made, the movie treats the trouble almost as a formality. He wants to kill off his leading lady in the first 30 minutes! Isn’t it funny how the Paramount executives overreact to the whacky idea? The biggest conflict of the story, Alma’s potential affair, hardly feels unpredictable. In a film about the Master of Suspense, the lack of suspense is a shame. Still, the movie knows that the performances of Hopkins and Mirren are the focal points. And when the two exchange barbs, the movie shines.
Another standout in the cast is Scarlett Johansson as the Psycho’s water-soaked star, Janet Leigh. Always poised and smiling, Johansson has fun evoking that movie star charisma of yesteryear and plays Leigh as amused by Hitchcock’s cheeky eccentricities. When hearing horror stories about his possessiveness from cast mate Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), Leigh shrugs and says, “He’s a sweetheart.” Then again, perhaps most men are when you’re married to Tony Curtis? James D’Arcy is also very good at finding the awkward discomfort of film legend Anthony Perkins. Unfortunately, he is barely in the movie.
Hitchcock is a movie that lives entirely by the audience’s familiarity with its subject matter and their acceptance of the casting. Luckily, the cast is very capable of selling this navel-gazing yarn about Hollywood. Watching Hopkins and Mirren spar is a joy and the movie does a fine job of reminding audiences that behind this genius was an equally strong woman. In fact, it was Alma who forced her husband to put Bernard Hermann’s iconic theme over the shower scene in Psycho. Hitch wanted the scene to play without music and it was his wife who helped elevate that sequence and film to its legendary status. If only she could have helped raise this very enjoyable movie to similar greatness.