Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, Danny Huston, Jessica Biel, Michael Stuhlbarg, James D'Arcy, Michael Wincott, Kurtwood Smith, Richard Portnow
(Fox Searchlight; US theatrical: 23 Nov 2012 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 8 Feb 2013 (General release); 2012)
No man’s life is clearly definable by a single situation or event. Instead, he is the culmination of all he’s accomplished, all his failings and all his various degrees of success. Still, one can be clarified by a specific instance, a moment when there was a chance at growth or going backward, and our subject decided on the former. In the case of cinematic auteur, Alfred Hitchcock, that opportunity came after the release of his classic, North by Northwest. Obsessed with the then breaking story of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein and the novel based on his horrific exploits, he would struggle with the studios to get his latest thriller off the ground. The eventual result was Psycho, one of the greatest horror films of all time.
How Hitchcock got to make the movie while dealing with dilemmas in his personal and professional life has become the subject of Sacha Gervasi’s comedic quasi-biopic. Taking its title after the famous filmmaker’s surname and giving the making of Psycho itself limited lip service, the result is a Merchant Ivory experience for the wickedly cynical. As portrayed with gravitas and gusto by Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins, Hitchcock is seen as a man of large appetites and even larger ego. He steamrolls over this assistants, manipulates his agents and those who would control his creativity. About the only person he hasn’t pegged is his long suffering wife, Alma (Helen Mirren). Their collaboration made Hitchcock into the undeniable Master of Suspense. Their private life would become the source of regular rumor and innuendo.
Unlike HBO’s The Girl, which focused almost exclusively on Hitchcock’s proclivity (some say, perverted fetish) toward blonde leading ladies, this film wants to focus on the time between Northwest‘s acceptance and Psycho‘s industry rejection. When we first see our lead, he’s lamenting a lack of real terror in his efforts. He sees his last film as merely going through the motions, something that can be done in his unsettled sleep. Instead, he wants to push the boundaries, to use the techniques and restraints that came with his hit TV series to reinvent himself for the ‘60s. With the help of his agent, Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg), his dogged assistant, Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette), and Alma, Hitch settles in with the Gein story. When the head honchos say “No!,” he decides to finance the film himself.
This puts pressure on his marriage, since Alma happens to like the good California life. Angered, she begins a flirtation with a writer (Danny Huston) who hopes to impress Hitch with his latest efforts. Together with the hiring of the Psycho cast - Janet Leigh (a perky Scarlett Johansson), Anthony Perkins (a pitch perfect James D’Arcy) and Vertigo era hold-over Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), we get the beginnings of the creative process. When he is prepping, Hitch is a hurricane. He wants storyboards and endless screen tests, discussions over angle and acceptable levels of violence. Once doubt creeps in, however, both the man and the movie take a detour into darker, more dour places. Instead of giving us a behind the scenes of the infamous fright film’s making, we are stuck in a kind of sly, exceptionally witty soap opera.
Will she or won’t she becomes Hitchcock‘s main motive. We watch as Alma defends and then defies her husband. We are lead to believe that she gave up an equally impressive career to help guide her husband’s. Oddly, no mention is made of their daughter, Patricia (who had a small part in Psycho as well) or the other projects he had percolating at the time. As with other things in his life, the Gein adaptation becomes yet another undeniable obsession, leading to late night food binges and secretive pawings through pin-up headshots. There are hints of perversion, a moment when Ms. Miles explains how “difficult” it is for a woman to work for Hitch, but for the most part, this movie wants to avoid scandal. Instead, it leaves Alma to guide the sentimental center, and with Mirren there, it’s a wise choice.
So was picking Hopkins. Unlike an impressionist, he has the uncanny ability to channel a famous figure without resorting to direct imitation. He’s the very essence of Alfred Hitchcock, a living legend who seem quite incapable of living with himself. He trades on his own name, makes sure no one ever forgets who’s in charge, and uses his obvious power to control everything. With an uncanny make-up job and a just there voice, it’s a Nixon-like turn. We may not be seeing the subject in a light that’s 100% accurate, but it sure feels that way. In fact, the same can be said for the rest of the cast, including Johansson, who seems to have finally woken up from her pre-Avengers onscreen sleepiness, and D’Arcy, who could anchor an entire Perkins biography.
As for Gervasi, his chief failing is one of focus. Instead of giving us a more hands-on approach to Psycho, it’s stuck in the background. It’s the elephant in the room that everyone’s talking about, but few actually can see. We want to witness how the shower scene was created, how Alma stepped in when Martin Balsam’s dramatic death scene needed helming (Hitchcock was sick with flu at the time). We want to see the process between actor and director, to witness the way in which the famous statement of performers as “cattle” really played out in the Hitchcock world. Sadly, none of that is present. Instead, we got lots of wonderful scenes of our old school marrieds bickering and baiting each other. Again, Hopkins and Mirren are terrific, but when you have an ancillary motive within the narrative itself, it would be nice to focus on it as well.
Still, for all its incomplete scope, Hitchcock is a hoot. It’s hilarious, insightful, and like its lead, larger than life. It doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a slice of specialized exposition, and many of the more inside jokes will make cinephiles smile with delight. Had there been a little less Alma and her supposed suitor and more peeks behind the magic movie screen that was Hitchcock’s stylized vision, we’d have an exceptional experience here. Instead, this remains a very good, rather incomplete look at a complicated and confrontational man. No one would expect the story of Psycho to truly define Hitchcock. Too bad the rest of this otherwise excellent movie masks the real situation of interest.