Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock is a curious creation. Adapted from Stephen Rebello’s biographical novel, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, this biopic of “The Master of Suspense” unravels the director’s complex nature through the discourse of popcorn-munching entertainment. Whether Hitchcock sends you into fits of laughter (guilty!) or glues you in by reliving some of Psycho’s most viscerally memorable moments from a unique, behind-the-scenes perspective, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a dull or lifeless moment in the film. In fact, the consistently high output of energy surrounding the narrative makes revisiting Psycho a new experience altogether, with equal measures of suspense, drama, horror, comedy and romantic intrigue – just as Hitch would have wanted! Most biopics often stick to the same banal formula: “larger-than-life” presentation of the subject, pretentious dialogue that tries to be clever but ends up painfully drab, and an elongation of the film’s running time because “there’s just so much to tell” about the figure of importance. With Hitchcock, Gervasi drops all of those elements in favor of staying true to Alfred Hitchcock’s inner being: a man who was naturally larger than life – there’s no going around that fact – and a man who never wanted to bore his audience, never wanted to view the world through any lens other than a movie camera. Gervasi breaks every known rule of the “biopic” with Hitchcock – much to the frustration of many critics, I imagine – but in doing so is able to capture the essence of Alfred Hitchcock better than anyone: a man who lived his day-to-day life as though he were in a movie, exaggerative and over-the-top because his psyche was locked up in a state of confusion. For everyone else, movies were a fictitious playground, artificially created to generate mass revenue and drive business. For Hitchcock, movies were reality.
So much more than a retelling of the making of Psycho, Gervasi’s Hitchcock primarily focuses on the clinical marriage between Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) and Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), tested greatly by Alfred’s obsession with making Psycho at whatever cost. The film begins immediately following the worldwide success of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Paramount Pictures wants to replicate MGM’s financial prosperity with that film by contracting Hitchcock to produce a similar project for their studio. Hitchcock, who hates the fact that he’s on the verge of being typecast or defined, refuses to be a puppet for Paramount’s greed. Unfortunately, refusing to abide by the rules of the game means financial disintegration. Hitchcock, in an alarmingly emotional sequence, gazes out at his pool, eyes red and tear-filled, realizing that a legendary name alone cannot move heaven and earth in Hollywood. I found it refreshing how Gervasi used motifs and symbolism to drive home the themes in Hitchcock(the courtyard pool represents his wealth, and later the black-curved phone — intentionally shaped like a crow –symbolizes Hitchcock’s constant presence). That’s a rare form of filmmaking nowadays, especially on such a relatively mainstream feature. I get the sense that Gervasi’s direction will largely be ignored by the masses, but I’ll happily go to bat for him and say that his craftsmanship is solid. Sure, it may borrow heavily from directorial legends of the past, the obvious being Hitchcock himself, but his execution of style, tone, pacing and storytelling is near-flawless.
Tensions between Alfred and Alma threaten to boil over after Hitchcock ignores a screenplay Alma gives him, written by Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). Alfred suspects the two are having an affair since Alma is so friendly towards Whit, who himself makes no attempt to hide his infatuation with Alma. The film’s weakest moments are those featuring Alma and Whitfeld together – Huston and Mirren have little-to-no chemistry (Huston is also miscast as a charming Hollywood screenwriter), and the scenes merely serve as a device to drive a wedge further between Alma and Hitchcock. Even though Mirren is arguably given the most “Oscar”-type material to chew on, she’s often burdened with the least compelling subplots. However, she does get an opportunity to show how sexually viable she still is at her dignified age. I won’t spoil it for you other than to say the cinematography in that scene is spectacular, and the segment itself is integral to Alma’s journey of reaffirming her self-worth.
Following his dismissal of Cook’s script, Hitchcock discovers a novel he is fascinated by – Robert Bloch’s Psycho – that taps into his own inner darkness, a darkness that can be channeled through the art of filmmaking. Hitchcock, perhaps more than his desire to be regarded as an auteur, had a passion for risk-taking in Hollywood. He thrived off making bold moves and seeing the chips fall where they might, hopefully in his corner and with untold riches to boot. Thanks to Hopkin’s endearing portrayal, Hitchcock’s assuredness never feels arrogant or irritating; rather, it’s something to greatly admire, especially in the face of Hollywood-exec adversity. Paramount refuses to distribute the film until Hitchcock agrees to self-finance the movie, with the promise from Paramount that he earns forty percent of the film’s profits. Paramount reluctantly gives in even though the studio is highly adverse to the twisted source material, but they allow Hitchcock to carry on within certain conservative parameters (which of course Hitchcock doesn’t follow).
Hitchcock’s narrative transition to the “making-of” segment is interwoven quite seamlessly with the marriage problems between Alfred and Alma. Whenever Alma is not on the set helping Alfred work through a problem, he becomes agitated and begins to lose control of his cast and crew. On the flipside, whenever Alma is alone with Whit or by herself, something definitely feels amiss and it doesn’t take too long to realize that Hitchcock is what ultimately fills Alma’s void, for better or worse. Rather than one outshining the other – although both at first seem to think that’s what needs to be done – it’s later proven that the pair needs each other in order to thrive as artists. Gervasi should be lauded for allowing Alma as much screen time as Alfred Hitchcock. This really becomes her story, especially in the second half when she takes the reins of the picture after Hitchcock suffers a breakdown. Helen Mirren can command a scene like no other, and it is she who carries the film’s dramatic weight whilst Hopkins tackles the comedic elements of Hitchcock with aplomb. John McLaughlin’s screenplay contains the funniest lines of dialogue I’ve heard all year, and Hopkins delivers them completely stone-faced underneath the smarm, causing you to howl in laughter (yes, McLaughlin even goes there with Hitchcock’s name). Without question, Hitchcock is the funniest film I’ve seen this year, but it’s also astounding how well balanced the tones of comedy and drama are. You are captivated by those dramatic moments almost as much as the comedic ones, although Alfred Hitchcock’s longer screen time results in more laughs than sobs. If you were to ask me if this film is either a comedy or drama, I’d be stumped. Even calling Hitchcock a “dramedy” seems odd for some reason. This film is as far away removed from Cloud Atlas as possible, but just like last weekend’s high-quality flop, there is a multitude of genres spinning together in one giant cog. Thus, it becomes impossible to truly define Hitchcock as one type of movie. In my eyes, postmodern filmmaking is the future, and I’m more than pleased to see another example of such progressiveness in Gervasi’s Hitchcock.
Finally, we have to discuss Hitchcock’s incredible supporting cast (minus Danny Huston). James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins masterfully channels the actor’s closeted awkwardness, not to mention nailing his creepy demeanor to a tee. Michael Stulbarg as Hitchcock’s agent is perfectly cast in the role, uptight but also intelligent and caring. Jessica Biel, without question, delivers her career-best performance as Hitchcock’s has-been muse, Vera Miles. There’s a confidence in Biel that I’ve never noticed before, at least one that doesn’t seemed forced. Perhaps her astounding turn in Hitchcock proves that the actress is clearly choosing the wrong scripts when signing onto a film. I would compare Biel’s revelatory performance here to Kate Beckinsale’s in The Aviator. Both ironically play Hollywood startlets, but they are able to surpass their beauty and show immeasurable strength. Last of all, Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh brings forth the most sincere performance in the film. Scarlett, like Janet Leigh, was cast for her curvature but just like the actress she portrays, brings a sweetness to the role that astounds. Moreover, Scarlett epitomizes Leigh’s transition to a great actress when pushed to her emotional limits by Hitchcock’s behind-the-scenes madness. The best scene in Hitchcock is, in fact, the shower sequence. The way the iconic moment is reconstructed, with the editing paying homage while simultaneously evolving in intensity and speed, is nothing short of magnificent. Johannson’s scream felt like a wave that transcended through the movie screen, right into my soul with a reverberating chill. Those moments – where the cinematic experience begins to work its way into your own body — are only derived from watching a Hitchcock film. I never thought I’d ever feel that same sensation again, but Gervasi managed to pull it off. Certain dream sequences, where Hitchcock is conversing with sociopath Ed Gains, are truly terrifying.
The Oscar® potential of this film depends heavily on how much The Academy appreciates the humorous, over-the-top style that genuinely emblematizes Alfred Hitchcock. I believe the movie is going to polarize critics due to the tonal mish-mash, but audiences will likely devour this film like the audience at AFI Fest did. Anthony Hopkins has such a presence at the beginning of the film, drawing all the laughs and uttering the most memorable lines of dialogue. However, in the middle act things slow a little for Hopkins and the focus transitions to Mirren’s storyline, where she really takes control of the film. Because of this — though no fault in storytelling, merely a byproduct of it – Mirren kills off any momentum Hopkin’s has had with his performance up until that point. Instead of rising to the levels of the Marlon Brandos and the Daniel Day Lewis’ of Hollywood, Hopkins merely scratches the surface. He picks up considerable steam at the end when Psycho finally opens, but isn’t quite able to match the stunning treatment of Alfred Hitchcock seen in the film’s first thirty minutes. Mirren is almost a lock for “Best Actress,” but doesn’t give a radical enough performance to win this time. The below-the-line nominations that we could see from Hitchcock are sound editing and sound mixing. On a technical level, this is easily Hitchcock’s strongest feature. The bottom line is that Hitchcock will be an all-or-nothing play, much like Psycho was. If The Academy hates it, they will shun everything. If they love it enough to give it a Best Picture nomination, Hopkins and Mirren are guaranteed to come along for the ride. Johansson and the other supporting cast have virtually no shot at nominations – they simply aren’t in the film enough.
In all, despite Helen Mirren given a somewhat barren subplot for most of the film, Hitchcock succeeds because of Gervasi’s deep respect towards his subject. He creates a film that portrays Alfred Hitchcock in an honest, slightly introspective manner that actually brings forth new questions about the type of man Hitchcock was. Was the search for the perfect blonde muse a way for Hitchcock to reawaken his sexuality? It’s hinted in the film that Hitchcock is either impotent or asexual (Alma makes a comment to Hitchcock about his cluelessness of what goes on between a man and a woman). These questions Gervasi presents don’t necessarily attack Hitchcock as much as it does America’s own ignorance within that time period. But the most important contribution Gervasi makes is a film that Hitchcock himself would be proud of. Through and through, Hitchcock’s main intention is to entertain the pants off of its audience. Biopic, shpioic – this is an Alfred Hitchcock movie, and therefore we get all facets of cinema forged into one slice of delicious entertainment. Honestly, would “The Master of Suspense” have his biopic any other way?