One of the more intriguing additions to the slate of Oscar contending films in 2012 is Hitchcock, a quasi-biopic which focuses on the legendary Alfred Hitchcock’s process in creating the most storied horror film of all time, Psycho. With truly little left to be said about Psycho, the idea of a look behind the curtain at Alfred Hitchcock, the chance to learn about what propelled his genius forward and a glimpse into the risks he took to make the film that still defines his legacy to this very day, seems like a wonderful idea for a film. If anyone deserves a cinematic tribute of sorts, it is indeed Alfred Hitchcock.
And that film still needs to be made.
Director Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock takes a lighthearted glance into the process that Hitchcock slogged through to get his film made, but presents its story in an underwhelming scattershot mix of melodrama and comedy. Something of a lesser cinematic cousin to 2011’s My Week With Marilyn, Gervasi’s film struggles to know how to define itself. It has humor, but is this a comedy? There are domestic and interpersonal issues between Hitchcock and his wife and cinematic behind-the-scenes partner, Alma (Helen Mirren), but are we watching a relationship drama unfold? Hitchcock battles the ratings board, anxious investors, and his own employers to have Psycho adapted from page to screen, but we are not criticizing the Hollywood machine here either. Watching Hitchcock, you simply check the “No” box on all thematic options before you, left with scraps of a rattled and decompressed film that thinks it is being witty and cloying, but really does little more than aggravate and, at best, amuse in its finest moments.
Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) had released approximately 40 films by the time Psycho crossed before his eyes and the man was riding high off of the success of 1959’s North By Northwest. Needing another project, Hitchcock read books and rejected screenplays, and received a healthy amount of influence from his wife on what that next project should be. Hitchcock became obsessed with the true story of serial killer Ed Gein, and after steamrolling through Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same name, which documents Gein’s exploits in full detail, Hitchcock ordered his production assistant (Toni Collette) to purchase every last copy available of the novel. Eccentric? Perhaps, but Hitchcock wanted to ensure that no one knew of the secrets that lay within Bloch’s story. Compelled by the fact that no one wanted to even touch Bloch’s book, Hitchcock pitched the idea to Alma, who steadfastly dismissed the concept. She felt a change of tone for her husband would serve him well. He naturally disagreed.
Stubborn and undeterred, Hitchcock arranged an investor’s party, sharing Gein’s crime scene photographs with his attendees, only to become alarmed at the hesitancy and rejection he received. When his agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) failed to sway Hitchcock’s bosses at Paramount Pictures in financing the project, Hitchcock paid for the budget with his own resources; risking most of his money and luxurious home in the process. Paramount eventually agreed to distribute the film and true to his personality, Hitchcock became enthralled with his work on Psycho, losing sight of everything outside of the Psycho bubble. Alma’s gravitation into spending more and more time with long-time friend and journalist Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) is not entirely a shock, as she becomes fed up and disenchanted with existing in a chaste marriage and watching her husband swoon and fawn over yet one more new leading lady – in this instance, Vivian Leigh (Scarlett Johansson).
Or so Hitchcock the film would have us believe.
Hitchcock is played so light and airy, that it is hard to find any real substance. The film lacks direction, strange when its sole purpose is to give us a behind-the-curtain look at a lasting film icon of the 20th Century. John McLaughlin’s screenplay fails to recognize any depth. In many scenes, Hitchcock plays as if it were adapted for television. Emotions are skirted, details and facts which may be interesting to the target audience for a film like this are skipped or surfaced over, and nothing proves all that interesting at the end of the day.
In the title role, Anthony Hopkins balloons around, spouting irascible and arrogant lines of dialogue simply because. Sure, we see him playful when he and Alma come together to ensure that Alma’s rewrites and Hitchcock’s changes are implemented in Psycho‘s final cut. A great scene occurs at the premiere of Psycho, when Hitchcock begins conducting wildly in private to the screams and shrieks of his shocked and frightened screening audience. But there is simply not enough of these moments. And when we want the film to speak to us, we get goofiness. When we want to smile, we get melodramatic soap opera malarkey.
Maybe Sacha Gervasi’s task was a bit too daunting as he seems lost in trying to convey to us who Alfred Hitchcock was at this defining point in his career. He draws nice performances from Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel, who plays the jilted former Hitchcock starlet Vera Miles, now relegated to that of a supporting player. I rather enjoyed James D’Arcy’s take on Anthony Perkins, often employed as effective comic relief.
The performance given by Anthony Hopkins is a curious one. Hopkins as Hitchcock is excessively heavy, even by Hitchcock standards, and never absorbs into the role. Rather, we see Anthony Hopkins taking a Hopkins try on the auteur’s unique cadence and vocal patterns. While the delivery is inspired, the whole performance proves distracting, as if Hopkins were oftentimes operating in a different film than his cast mates.
If you want to make a film about Psycho and/or Alfred Hitchcock’s struggles to get that movie made, then make that movie! Or share how difficult Alfred Hitchcock was to deal with as an artist, filmmaker, husband, and father. Under Sacha Gervasi’s guidance, much of Hitchcock is so unrelentingly pedestrian that it becomes too difficult to care about anything. As luminous as Helen Mirren’s performance is here, she can only do so much and eventually she, and the film, become weighted down by an unfocused screenplay, stilted direction, and a central performance that becomes more and more grating. Perhaps someday Alfred Hitchcock will be captured on screen effectively, but in all honesty, I fear that this was his only chance.