Like the film Capote about the iconic American writer, Hitchcock achieves a mild success because of the masterful impersonation of Anthony Hopkins in the eponymous role. All the more impressive since, unlike the lisping, snickering-over-cocktails Truman, Hitch didn’t exactly have the spiciest personality—at least on the surface. But Hopkins admirably captures the deadpan wit, the jaundiced critical eye, the automaton-like walk. Which makes for an entertaining watch, especially for those who remember the corpulent film master from his introductions to the famed Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series.
Yet as with Capote, there’s also a false note about this film from the get-go in that Director Sacha Gervasi chose to focus on one watershed event in Hitch’s career: the production of Psycho (Capote centered almost exclusively on the writing of In Cold Blood). Shouldn’t this rather be called Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (This is, in fact, the name of Stephen Rebello‘s book on which the film is based)? The title leads us to believe that we’re in for a true biopic in the manner of Gandhi, not the evaluation of an artist in the context of a single artistic achievement.
Misleading as the title may be, the film uses this turning point in Hitch’s career to point out some timely truths about the nature of the Hollywood movie industry, as Hitchcock, often cited by cinephiles as one of the medium’s prototypical auteurs, is unable to procure funding from Paramount Studios without being forced to compromise his artistic vision. Particular sore points for the brain-dead, risk-is-an-anathema movie moguls include the homosexual overtones implied in the character of Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy, who looks remarkably like Perkins), as well as the bloody shower scene with Janet Leigh (Jessica Biel)—part of the reason for the film’s black-and-white shooting. So what does the almost comically intransigent Hitchcock do? Makes it an independent venture and puts up his own money to produce it. He’s a director who’s willing to stick to his artistic guns even when the powers that be are—myopically, if box-office results and subsequent critical accolades are a fair measure of success—attempting to appeal to the public’s sense of decorum to bend Hitch to their will. Not that this is a particularly perceptive point, but it’s nonetheless a salient one in our aesthetically bankrupt times. Too bad more directors (especially more well-known ones) don’t have the chutzpah, vision, or funds to do likewise, I thought to myself. Maybe then there’d be fewer Marvel’s The Avengers and Total Recall clones polluting the multiplexes nowadays.
None of Hitch’s success, however, would have been possible without the support of his wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). The film’s central theme of Hitch’s courage to preserve artistic integrity in the face of pragmatic setbacks revolves around their strained relationship. As with the real wife, we tend to overlook Mirren’s solid portrayal of Alma alongside the virtuosic delivery of Hopkins. But to dwell on her frumpy, nondescript looks would be to overlook the will of iron she brings out in the character. Her suppressed anger comes to a head in the face of her husband’s groundless accusations that she had had an affair with screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). She uses the opportunity of their quarrel to point out that while Hitchcock has been glowing in the limelight, she has unwaveringly stood by him, smiling for the press, reading and talking over his scripts with him, and encouraging his creative process. And in response, we see the stony-faced director, regretting his jealousy, express the modicum of remorse we would have never thought him capable of.
With finely tuned performances like these, Hitchcock is a film I wanted to love rather than to consider a mere Saturday Night diversion. But ultimately, like the film on which it’s based, it seemed a bit flat to my eyes. I’ve never much cared for the self-consciously psychoanalytical approach of Psycho, with its dissection of Norman Bates’s twisted identification with his mother that culminates in the banal conclusion in which some air-headed psychologist drones on in Freudian terms about what any idiot could figure out from simple observation. Hitchcock, too, at times wallows in psychological overexplanation through its depiction of the fascination the director had for Ed Gein, the small-town murderer of women and necrophiliac on whom Bates’s character is based. At several points, the film indulges in crudely inserted and edited dream sequences in which Hitch imagines he is in the presence of Gein. (The film, in fact, begins with a brief soliloquy by Hitch outside the house after we are shown Gein murdering his brother in a Cain-and-Abel-like fashion.) Scenes such as these distract and ramble rather than illuminate. Yeah, artists become immersed in, and identify with, their subjects. We get it. It’s as if the filmmakers were worried that if they didn’t insert some surrealist mumbo-jumbo (also known as something corny and overblown), mass audiences would be bored to sleep. Sadly, they may be right.
Still, even for the film snob, Hitchcock is definitely worth a view, if only to hear the delicious irony in Hopkins’s delivery of the line “They can’t stop watching, can they?” Indeed, viewing it for the first time at least, Hitchcock aficionados and neophytes alike should remain entranced by the master of suspense’s je ne sais quoi aura until the credits roll.
Joe’s Grade: B