Sascha Gervasi’s Hitchcock, written by John J. McLaughlin, is a thoroughly entertaining, but ultimately uneven film about the Master of Suspense’s professional struggles to finance, make, and promote Psycho, and his personal problems with his long suffering wife, Alma Reville. The best thing the film does is treat its title character not as a legend, but as a person. Half behind the scenes look at the inner workings of Hollywood during its last decade of innocence and half family drama, the movie’s different segments, however, vary greatly in quality and tone.
Opening on a quiet prologue taking place in 1940s rural Wisconsin, the casual tone is firmly set when the peaceful tableau turns into a gruesome family murder, and the camera pans to reveal the title character’s portly presence, calmly sipping a cup of tea while directly addressing the audience, as he did in his famous “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” show. Brother has been killing brother since Cain and Abel, Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) croons is his incomparable British drawl; who is he to deprive us of the pleasure of watching it happen on the silver screen?
As Hitchcock’s story starts in 1959, the filmmaker has just premiered North by Northwest to great popularity and success. The character is sixty years old, and keeps getting advice to quit while he’s ahead. In an effort to prove he still has “something fresh, something different” to offer the world, he starts wondering what a horror film would look like if it was made by a good director.
Against unwavering criticism and disapproval, he sets his mind on Robert Bloch’s “Psycho.” Battling the studios, censors, and even his at first reluctant wife, who find the novel distasteful, Hitch (“hold the cock”) decides to risk everything and finance the picture himself, mortgaging the house and endangering Alma’s beloved pool.
“All of us harbor dark recesses of violence and horror,” Hitchcock says in his whispery brogue, and although everyone is opposed to the movie—“I’ve seen happier faces on a school bus going off a cliff,” agent Lew Wasserman tells the director after he has announced his new project—“they can’t stop looking, can they?” Hitchcock knew how to draw on and out our deepest desires and fears, and although the studio heads and Production Code aficionados didn’t like to admit it, they couldn’t turn away. He took risks, experimented, and invented new ways of making pictures. His films touched something deep within audiences, unfolding not onscreen but within the viewers’ imaginations.
Which is why it is so frustrating that we never figure out exactly what went on within Hitchcock’s imagination when he worked on the movies, as is the fact that Gervasi’s Hitchcock plays it so safe.
Viewers expecting a closer look and deeper understanding of the man behind the myth will mostly be disappointed. Although we get a loving, yet fairly level gaze at the great director’s family life, Alfred Hitchcock is as much of an enigma at the end as he was in the beginning.
The strength of Hitchcock lies in the irreproachable performance of its actors, with few exceptions. James D’Arcy is uncanny as a high-strung, awkward Anthony Perkins; Scarlett Johansson doesn’t look exactly like Janet Leigh, Psycho’s leggy leading lady, but she channels her intelligence, warmth, and pluck; as shapely starlet Vera Miles, Jessica Biel is effective but forgettable. Hopkins, portraying the director as a dour, arrogant, yet playful individual, creates an almost endearing version of the man behind some of cinema’s greatest classics. An impressive makeup job and imposing fat suit obliterate the actor from our minds so we can only see the character. But the pulsing, warm heart of the movie is Helen Mirren’s Alma, a woman as talented and intelligent as she is kind and loving. She offers her husband full support on his work and cares for him as a patient mother might for a stubborn child.
Alma, the woman who penned Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, was content to live in her husband’s shadow for most of their almost sixty-year long marriage. A constant source of support, collaborator, inspiration, producer, script revisionist, assistant editor, and even director (when Hitchcock couldn’t make it to the set), Alma contributed to almost every one of the filmmaker’s works and was never credited—except when Hitchcock won his AFI lifetime achievement award, the end postcards inform us, when he said he shares the award, as he has his life, with his wife.
The one faltering side-story of Hitchcock involves Alma beginning a series of secret meetings with friend Whitfield Cook devoted to working on his new script; these interactions perk Hitch’s suspicion and jealousy. Cook, a sycophantic screenwriter, acts as a perfect foil to the stand-offish, dismissive director. Although this section makes us understand how Alma cannot get what she wants at home and is attracted to the idea of a relationship with another man, if never to its fulfillment, the story of her and Cook overstays its welcome.
When Hitchcock accuses her of having an affair, especially as he glances dreamily towards his blondes, his wife runs out of patience. The scene in which an upset Alma tells her husband off is one of the best in recent cinema; by the end you’ll be cheering for Mirren.
However, the film’s loveliest, most memorable scene, in which Hopkins acts as conductor to Bernard Herrman’s screeching violins and the audience’s screams from outside the theater on the film’s premiere night, is a sad indicator of all that Hitchcock could have been and isn’t: filled with the thrills and joys of discovery, a haunting look at the man who has just orchestrated his greatest success through sheer will, happy accident, and tremendous artistic talent both at filmmaking and grifting.
Hitchcock is a good movie. Anyone who knows and loves Alfred Hitchcock’s films will be intrigued, and those who don’t will be entertained by way of a flurry of priceless one-liners. But Hitchcock, although some moments suggest otherwise, isn’t a great film. It’s the kind of film that leaves you longing for more, longing for a great movie. Perhaps some Hitchcock.