Film Review | Hitchcock

It’s neither a perfect film nor a definitive portrait of the master of suspense, but Sacha Gervaisi’s Anthony Hopkins-starring black comedy about the making of Psycho is a perfectly acceptable bit of Hollywood history fluff.

Business and pleasure: Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins as Alma and Alfred Hitchcock.
Business and pleasure: Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins as Alma and Alfred Hitchcock.

It wouldn't be quite right to say that director Sacha Gervasi's tribute to the cinematic 'master of suspense' goes off without a hitch. But it's cocksure enough to carry itself through.

Okay, apologies for the cringeworthy puns, but I'll stick by them just this once because - if I could ask you to take another leap of faith - their shallow swagger matches Gervasi's 'Hitchcock'.

The opportunities for precious indulgences abound: it's a film about a film. More worryingly still, it's a film about a filmmaker whose self-image was so deliberately crafted that he runs the risk of becoming a wax figure under the glare of contemporary cameras. So how to wrangle something human out of a - on-paper-poignant - slice of his biography? Just add repressed marital woes, is Gervasi's bet.

In a tribute to the 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' TV series, we're ushered into this micro-biopic by 'Hitch' himself - looking very much like the wax figure, as a carefully applied caking of prosthetics disguise his avatar (Anthony Hopkins) to reproduce the director's trademark - read: corpulent - silhouette. 

Hot on the heels of his box office smash North by Northwest, he's embarking on a new adventure, he says. It'll be his most daring - and best - film, he says. Of course, he's talking about Psycho. And of course, there will be problems.

Beyond the predictable wranglings with studio heads and censorship boards - it's easy to forget just how shocking the iconic 'shower scene' was back in the day: the day being 1959 going on 1960 - another drama quietly unfolds in the background.

In what is possibly one of the most striking illustrations of the 'behind every great man lies a great woman' adage, the unconventional marriage of Hitch and his wife Alma is what keeps this turbulent project afloat. But Alma - who doctors Hitch's script and helps to keep the production sailing along, is growing frustrated by the star-director's eccentric personality - to say nothing of his dangerous predilection for young blondes: this time around personified by the alluring young actress Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson).

When she can, she escapes for (entirely platonic) sojourns with screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). It's steadfastly not a romantic getaway, but a creative one: the writerly duo make use of the isolated seaside resort to tinker away at Whitfield's new screenplay, and not make whoopee away from the roving - and penetrating - eye of the Great Hitch.

But there are plenty of moments of darkness in Hitch's journey to bring Psycho to the big screen, and the fact that he's visited by a 'guardian angel' in the form of the infamous psychopath Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) - the inspiration behind Psycho - is certainly not a good sign... particularly when he begins to suspect that his otherwise dotingly faithful wife is having an affair.

That Gervaisi's film doesn't take itself all too seriously is signalled clearly and early on by Danny Elfman's  jaunty musical score, which complements the lushly photographed period piece - think Mad Men in Hollywood - in its blackly comic naughtiness (it's no surprise that Elfman is a frequent Tim Burton collaborator). It's not a problem that Hitcock is elevated (or is that reduced?) to something of an inflated stereotype - the film itself is already a masterfully executed cartoon, and it allows you to enjoy it as such.

It works because John J. McLaughlin's screenplay is funny, even genuinely witty in parts, and it lets you indulge in your fantasy of what Hitchcock may have been while still keeping you interested in just how he's going to get Psycho off the ground.

But of course the soap opera of Hitch's domestic life - if we can call it that - is the sharpest hook Gervaisi throws at us, and it's up to Mirren and Hopkins to make us believe that they're reproducing a fragile - if strangely potent - relationship. They largely succeed, owing in no small part however to the fact that these are gift roles for any actor worth their salt: protected by a thick layer of make-up, Hopkins isn't really asked to present a human side to the morally questionable cinematic savant, and Mirren effortlessly slides into the archetype of the ambitious, creative woman living in a world which doesn't quite have a natural home for her yet.

The performance is certainly more likeable than Johansson's impersonation of Janet Leigh - Psycho's shower-bound victim - which doesn't feel like much of a performance at all. Perhaps it's notable that we're introduced to her butt-first.

It'll reveal very little about the inner life of the inimitable - but oft-imitated - director. But as a witty piece of fluff replete with naughty rewards ("call me Hitch, hold the cock"), it's a more than worthwhile distraction.

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