‘The Master Of Suspense’, Alfred Hitchcock, hangs over cinema like an all seeing spectre. His work and technical flourishes are so viscerally imprinted on cultural psyche that even someone who has never seen one of his films would still recognise his touch at a glance. Any biopic of such a looming figure (both metaphorical and literal) has huge boots to fill and it’s a task that Sacha Gervasi of Anvil! The Story Of Anvil fame has attempted with a dramatization of behind the scenes of one of The Master’s most celebrated works.
1960: Worried that age is catching up with him and his talent slipping away, Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) boldly settles on the controversial pulp novel Psycho as his next project. It’s lurid subject matter sees him meet refusal from Paramount Picture executives so he takes the unorthodox move to finance the film himself putting at risk his reputation and house together with his wife and longtime collaborator Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). The drama follows them and their efforts to make the picture whilst confronting their own marital stresses.
Whilst it may be unfair to immediately compare Hitchcock with another film of similar subject matter, it cannot help but be cursed to have been released in the wake of television movie The Girl starring Toby Jones as the titular director. Whilst not without its flaws, that film presented a darker, more complex view of the man in regards to his supposed infatuation and harassment of Tippi Hedren whilst making the follow up to Psycho, The Birds. Whether or not you agree with the account, it added layers of credible complexion to a figure whose dry comedic wit and physical appearance dominate public perception of him. Here Anthony Hopkins dons the fat suit and the make up and makes a good stab at the hangdog expression and the constantly bemused vocal tones. However whilst Hopkins provides the surface for Hitch, what’s beneath amounts to little more than a running checklist of all the well known tics and traits. He liked his food and drink, had the fondness for blondes, was something of a bully on set and so forth. This unfortunately leans more towards mimicry than performance. The supporting cast fare little better. Whilst you can argue that psychical likelihood is not the cornerstone of a biopic performance, neither Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel convince as Janet Leigh and Vera Miles respectively. James D’Arcy is surprisingly uncanny as Anthony Perkins yet is given very little to do whilst fine character actors Michael Stuhlbarg and Kurtwood Smith are given practically walk on roles.
Of all the principal performances Helen Mirren as Alma easily steals the show. Nobody quite corners the market as strong willed supporting roles quite like she does and she provides Hitchcock with a passionate line that it needs badly. The marriage interludes hinting at Alma’s resentment of her husband’s success and lack of her own adulation do drift towards soap opera material yet Mirren turns it around and manages to convey a fiery will that sees her husband and his projects through. Another intriguing, if brief performance comes from Michael Wincott as Ed Gein, the serial killer whose bizarre and horrific crimes influenced the novel of Psycho (they also served to be the inspiration for another landmark American horror title; The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). Hitchcock imagines Gein in a number of scenarios, taunting him with references to the darker, sadistic sides of the director’s personality. The darkly amusing opening shot of the film sees Gein beating his brother to death with a shovel only for the camera to pan and reveal Hitch who breaks the fourth wall in his Alfred Hitchcock Presents persona. Eye catching as these scenes are they mark a conflict of tone of the film. We get hints of Hitchcock’s psychological impulses and dark desires yet Gervasi never acts on them or brings them fully to the fore. Rather the more potentially questionable sides of his personality are cast aside in favour of playful admiration and constant name dropping of stars and films of the period. It tries to be edgy yet comes off as surprisingly toothless.
All in all Hitchcock feels like its treading water when a terrific, meaty subject matter lies just beneath it. Hopkins and Mirren do their best but the playful idolization becomes too much of a distraction. You could argue that the movie would more benefit those who are unfamiliar with Psycho and Hitchcock. That may be true but then why would you watch this over Psycho or any of the great man’s work?