The slippery slope of making a bio-pic about a well known public figure is two-fold: one, our image of that person is firmly etched in the mind, and second, finding out that great people and artists aren’t saints is only worth it if the revelations are worthwhile. Though there’s nothing wrong with taking liberties, the end result of  Sacha Gervasi‘s Hitchcock is that the film isn’t as rewarding as watching a lesser or even bad Alfred Hitchcock film.

The Players

The Plot:

Though his last film (North by Northwest) was a huge hit, Alfred Hitchcock (Hopkins) owes a picture to Paramount, and he wants to do something new, something exciting. He finds the book Psycho, and decides that will be his next project. He convinces his wife Alma Reville (Mirren) it’s worth doing because no one’s even killed off the lead halfway through a movie, to which Alma suggests they do it in thirty minutes. Paramount is reticent, so Hitch puts up his house. Filming is rocky because of the director’s relationship with Vera Miles (Biel), but he gets along great with Janet Leigh (Johansson). And because at home writer Whitfield Cook (Huston) may be trying to steal Alma away.

The Good:

  • Helen Mirren: When is Helen Mirren not one of the best things in a movie? Ever?
  • Toni Collette: Also, what she’s able to do with a nothing role is pretty fantastic.

The Bad:

  • History: In the film, Hitchcock has visions of Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) throughout the film. This is what’s known as a device so people – in a movie where many statements are leaden parodies of what we know to be true – can reveal their inner thoughts. But if you’ve seen Psycho, and know anything about Ed Gein, it’s pretty obvious that Hitchcock had little interest in the serial killer at all. And if you read the book this movie is based on, there’s little evidence Hitch thought about the man ever. The use of Ed Gein would be worthwhile if either he was a central concern of Hitch’s (he wasn’t) or if it somehow elevated the material (it doesn’t). And this bending the truth to make a more obvious three act structure is one of the biggest problems with the movie. By doing so they’ve made a film for people who know nothing about Hitchcock, who may end up knowing less about the master director (or, worse still lies about him) than they did when the movie began.
  • Not lying enough: But if they’re going to embrace that this is a work of part fiction, then what they do isn’t interesting enough on its own to merit telling this story. Okay, so the Hitchcock’s may have cut back on some of their gourmet food, and fired the pool cleaner for a couple months. That works against what the film is trying to say; This isn’t a grand struggle, it’s a twelve year old complaining they didn’t get everything they wanted for Christmas. There may have been resentment and conflict between Vera Miles and Hitchcock, but as it exists on screen, it’s more brought up and dismissed than a part of the story. That’s another problem with the film. When screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) is in the film it’s for one scene where he says that he’s in therapy and has mother issues. James D’Arcy – perfectly cast as Anthony Perkins – is stuck playing the role as a not so closeted homosexual, and that’s the only thing to his character. It’s like a greatest hits album with no connective tissue between tracks. Whereas other important people involved in the making of the film – including Martin Balsam, and Hitchcock’s daughter Patrica – don’t appear in the film at all.
  • Why Psycho?: If you’re making a movie about Alfred Hitchcock, why would you make a movie about Psycho? That’s not to say Psycho is a bad or uninteresting film, but I think Hitch himself would not be offended by saying that what he saw in Psycho was something that he could do in the rise of exploitation filmmaking that was better than the cheap-o versions. He made a rougher, more violent film than the studio system had ever seen, and his technique was never better. But Psycho was no passion play, not compared to Vertigo, or Marnie, or even something like Rear Window. So if you’re going to talk about Hitch’s weird relationships with his often ice queen blond leading ladies, why then show him have a perfectly amenable one with Janet Leigh? If you’re going to talk about Hitch’s demons, why is he the only man in the movie without mommy issues if Psycho is about mommy issues? If they wanted to show that Hitch was worried about his wife cheating, why wasn’t this about – say – Dial M for Murder or Rear Window which involve plots about killing wives?
  • Alfred Wasn’t a Nice Person: Okay, Alfred Hitchcock was kind of a dick, and his wife Alma didn’t get enough credit for being part of his brain trust. Anyone who’s read more than reviews about the man may know this, which makes watching the film pointless.
  • Endgame – Unworthy of Hitchcock: Hitchcock at his best made films about paranoia, voyeurism, infidelity, trust, sex, murder, and Hitchcock is about all those things (though there’s no mistaken identity or spy rings to speak of), but it doesn’t show the craft or psychological understanding of Hitch at his best. Perhaps that’s impossible, but then why do it?

Overall:

There is a Catch-22 here. If you know much about Alfred Hitchcock, the film isn’t penetrative as it only gets skin deep into things. Hopkins never becomes the character, and at times – like when he’s yelling at Janet Leigh – you’re reminded of Hannibal Lecter more than the master director. For someone who doesn’t know Hitchcock the film might be engaging on its own terms, but it’s doing a disservice to them and to Hitchcock by watching it. But those who don’t know the man, it might be engaging.

Rating: 3/10

Hitchcock opens in limited release on November 23.

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Trailer: