How you feel about Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock is likely going to depend on what you’re expecting. If you’re anticipating a deep look into the mind of Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins), or a detailed depiction of the making of Psycho, then you’re out of luck. However, if you’re in the market for a cheeky, playful entertainment that’s more of a mildly dishy Hollywoodized romp than a warts-and-all biography, Hitchcock delivers handily. Oh, the warts are hinted at, but they’re not very warty — and, much like a Hitchcock movie, they’re tucked away beneath the sheen of movie glamour and surface sophistication. If you like the film’s clever opening — one that trades heavily on Hitch’s public persona as defined by his TV show — and accept that this breezy approach defines most of the movie, then chances are you’ll have a good time. Think of it as a somewhat less stylish Ed Wood (1994), only about people with actual talent, and you’ll be in the right ballpark — even if this never scales the heights of Burton’s film.
As you probably know by now, Hitchcock concerns itself with the making of Psycho — a project the movie puts forth as Hitchcock’s attempt to prove that he’s far from being a has-been, he’s ahead of the curve. Paramount — to whom Hitch owes one more picture — doesn’t want it. Even after Hitchcock puts up the money to make the film himself, all that studio head Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow) asks is, “Is this still a picture about a queer killing people in his mother’s dress?” The censor board is no more happy about it. And, for that matter, Hitch’s wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), is neither sold on the material (“Charming. I think Doris Day should do it as a musical.”), nor is she in the least bit happy that Hitch has mortgaged their house to finance the thing. She puts up with it in part because the Great Man levels with her that he wants to experience the kind of freedom they had back when they were starting out and having to create new ways to tell stories. (This may be the film’s most insightful moment.)
From there, the film is more or less about the making of Psycho, but not entirely and not perhaps in the way you might expect. It seems, among other things, that Universal refused the makers of Hitchcock permission to actually recreate anything from Psycho — or, indeed, to use the Bates house (seen via a matte painting in one scene). That may actually be in the film’s favor, since there can scarcely be anything left to say about Psycho. Much of the story concerns the rocky relationship between Hitch and Alma, and her long-suffering anonymity to the public at large — not to mention putting up with her husband’s fixation over what she calls “contract blondes.” It’s mostly told in amusing terms — with flashes of genuine pain — but it’s still an interesting examination of how a stronger personality can overwhelm another person.
Some of the film is downright peculiar — especially Hitch being given advice by the specter of serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), on whom Norman Bates was based. How that works is probably a matter of taste. At the very least, I wasn’t bothered by it — it seemed to fit the quirky nature of the film. Yes, some of the statements of fact are a little on the specious side, starting with the fact that Psycho wasn’t shot on the Paramount lot. Certainly, Helen Mirren is physically nothing like Alma, but in terms of performance, it’s a small price to pay. You can believe in them as a couple — however strange. Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel don’t look much like Janet Leigh and Vera Miles, respectively, either, but they work. James D’Arcy, on the other hand, virtually is Anthony Perkins. Hopkins makes a much better Hitchcock than the trailer suggests — it’s neither an outright impression, nor is it Hopkins just being Hopkins. All of it’s entertaining and some of it verges on the sublime — especially Hitch “playing” the audience like a symphony conductor while listening to their reactions from the lobby on opening night. It may not be a great movie, but it’s so much fun that I didn’t care. Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content and thematic material.
Playing at Fine Arts Theatre