This year’s Oscar season is dominated by movies which delve back into various key moments in American history; Lincoln headed back to the abolition of slavery, while Zero Dark Thirty saw a no-nonsense Jessica Chastain risk her career to take out Osama Bin Laden.
Hitchcock deals with an artistically important moment in America’s past; the creation of Psycho, the most popular film in its director’s career, and one of the most influential films in horror cinema. Like Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, Hitchcock is about a strong character bravely risking their reputation to achieve their chosen goal.
It’s 1959, and director Alfred Hitchcock (here played by Anthony Hopkins in heavy jowl makeup) is growing creatively restless. Although his latest film North By North West is a hit, suggestions that it harks back to the more inventive thrillers of his earlier years leave him searching around for fresh inspiration. Hitch’s wife and creative muse Alma (Helen Mirren) is keen for him look at another thriller script, but he’s more interested in a nasty novel called Psycho – Robert Bloch’s macabre tale greatly inspired by the horrific killings of real-life serial killer Ed Gein.
Hitchcock sees potential in the book, but his collaborators don’t; his studio, Paramount, whom he owes one more picture to fulfil his contract, think it’s horrible. The ratings board, personified by Kurtwood Smith’s grumpy MPPC film examiner Geoffrey Shurlock, find the story’s nudity and violence scandalous. Galvanised by the ever-supportive Alma, Hitchcock digs his heels in, even remortgaging his expensive house to help cover the $800,000 budget which Paramount refuses to stump up. So begins this version Psycho’s creation story – and most of us know how it ends.
While the cameras roll on Paramount’s sound stages, Hitchcock the movie, directed by Sacha Gervasi (director of the brilliant documentary Anvil: The Story Of Anvil) and written by John McLaughlin (Black Swan), takes furtive glances into Hitchcock’s personal life. Frustrated by her husband’s inattention and eye for his leading ladies, Alma fosters a growing attraction for a dashing American writer, Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). Hitchcock, meanwhile, dodges the demands of Paramount’s angry chairman Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow), has imaginary conversations with Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), who acts as his repressed id, and lusts after his leading lady, Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson).
Readers may be aware that Hitchcock isn’t the only film about the director to have appeared in recent months. Over Christmas, the BBC aired The Girl, HBO’s rather more candid and damning account of Hitch and his obsession with Tippi Hedren during the filming of The Birds and Marnie. That film portrayed Hitch the puppet master; brutally cruel to his leading ladies, and obsessive of their every move.
Gervasi’s film paints a more mellow picture. While it doesn’t dodge the issue of Hitchcock’s voyeurism and obsessive behaviour entirely – like Norman Bates, Hitch has a peephole into the ladies’ dressing room, while Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) warns Janet Leigh of the director’s controlling habits – these shadowier sides to Hitchcock are skated over rather than dissected, and the film is more interested in depicting a light-hearted myth than a nuanced character study.
It’s an odd subject to make a feel-good drama out of, but it just about works, largely because of the lead performances. Even under a metric ton of latex, Anthony Hopkins brings mischief and melancholy to his version of Hitch, imagining him as a mildly creepy yet essentially benign old geezer who enjoys his wine, caviar and Freudian little murder stories. Helen Mirren is equally good as a very spirited, raunchy version of Alma, and the movie pointedly accentuates her creative role in her husband’s career in general and Psycho in particular.
Really, though, the version of Hitchcock we’d preferred to have seen would probably never have made it past the scriptwriting stage. We’re given only fleeting glimpses of what went on during the filming of Psycho, and a movie that dealt almost exclusively with the process of making it would – to us, anyway – been a more fitting tribute. Saul Bass’ wonderful titles are barely even mentioned, for example, and we only see momentary flashes of the iconic Bates Motel.
The making of Psycho becomes the backdrop to an amusing yet not terribly exciting relationship drama, whose outcome is hardly a mystery in any case. What Hitchcock does do, though, is hit many of the beats in the Psycho legend. We see the director’s clashes with the ratings board, the initial uncertainty of Paramount, a bit of Hitchcock’s inventive marketing campaign (security at cinema doors, no admittance once the reels are rolling, and so on), and the subsequent clamour of excitement once Bernard Herrmann’s reenk-reenk score jabs into theatres for the first time.
Hitchcock is a pleasant, fun and well-acted drama, with a cosy tone akin to Last Of The Summer Wine or Heartbeat. It captures some of the late director’s sense of dark humour – the film opens with a great homage to his Hitchcock Presents to-camera monologues – but skirting around the spikier, more troublesome aspects of the director’s personality greatly lessens its dramatic impact.
Hitchcock opens on the 8th February in the UK.
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