I normally take great pains to avoid reviews of films that I'm preparing to write about, but the following tweet from GQ film reviewer Tom Carson, who I used to read regularly, long ago, in the Village Voice, popped up in my timeline before I could unsee it: "Just saw Hitchcock and is giving up movie reviewing. I don't want to be part of a world where such terrible things can happen." Needless to say, I went into Hitchcock with very low expectations.
The bad news is that I see Carson's point. The good news is that on a certain impersonal level, this is a film that efficiently clicks along, moving from one sitcom punch line to the next as it tells the story of a famous old man who takes his wife and creative partner for granted—and gets his comeuppance for it—while producing one of his most enduring films. The problem is that Sacha Gervasi's facile, by-the-numbers film shouldn't be called Hitchcock. It should be called Somebody Else Who Is Reminiscent of Hitchcock.
The film's version of the London-born Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins), who was 60 during the period covered by the film, and his beloved wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), as they were making Psycho is filled with so many fabrications as to be useless as a biopic. Still, credit is due to screenwriter John McLaughlin (who also wrote the Tommy Lee Jones comedy Man of the House, as well as Parker, an upcoming Jason Statham actioner) for efficiently constructing a digestible film set against a story that should only be of interest to extreme cinephiles: the particular challenges of making Psycho. This 1960 film, made after Hitchcock had done a run of color pictures with romantic leads such as Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, was, in certain respects, an avant-garde blast on the cusp of the decade when old prohibitions against sex and squalor in movies would fall away.
It's true that, as the film tells us, Psycho was done on the cheap, in black and white with a less-expensive television crew. Hitchcock deferred his fees, too. But the creators of Hitchcock blow all of this up into a major mid-career crisis. They show us this couple sitting near their treasured backyard pool, contemplating life without foie gras flown in from Maxim's in Paris. Hitchcock goes into a nostalgic reverie with his wife about their trailblazing youth, when they invented new ways of telling stories. "I want to feel that kind of freedom again," he says in the tone of a man who has sold out his soul. But really, a guy coming off a five-year run that includes Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest is hardly lost in the wilderness.
Conflict arrives in the form of a smarmy hack writer (Danny Huston) who schmoozes up to Alma, ostensibly for her editing talents but also for her influence over her husband. Something tells us that the real Alma would have sent this clown packing in 20 seconds, but the movie spins out a fabricated flirtation that results in Hitchcock's increasing suspicions about them.
That's obnoxious enough, but there are other inventions: I'm not aware of any evidence that Hitchcock peeped on his own actresses as they changed clothes in a dressing room conveniently located next to his office. Other made-up stuff serves no purpose in educating viewers about how movies are made—Psycho or any other film. Take the shower scene, which in reality was painstakingly filmed over seven days and required more than 70 camera setups. In the moviemaking world of Hitchcock, the scene is only captured when Hitchcock, unhappy with the intensity level of Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and the stand-in who's attacking her, personally grabs a knife and pretends to slash at Leigh—while standing between her and the camera, no less.
Then there's stuff that's downright dumb, like the device of having Ed Gein, the real-life Wisconsin nut whose homicides and necrophilia inspired Robert Bloch's novel that Hitchcock eventually read, appear to the filmmaker throughout the film as an apparition who, at one point, directs him to evidence that will lead him to accuse Alma of infidelity.
Anthony Hopkins' performance is unconvincing as he settles for a Saturday Night Live-level impression, glowering superciliously and purring his Hitchcockisms. ("Try the finger sandwiches. They're made from real fingers.") And when things go badly, he drinks and pouts, much as he did as the title character in Nixon.
Even if the film could be excused for dumbing down Hitchcock for a new generation, throwaway bits to sate the film nerds in the audience are sniggering and borderline homophobic—none worse than the representation of Anthony Perkins (whom James d'Arcy essentially portrays as an anguished Norman Bates), who was known inside Hollywood to be gay. In his casting interview, Perkins tells Hitchcock that his two favorites films of his are Rope and Strangers on a Train, which film nerds will know to be Hitch's two other films about crypto-homosexual psycho killers.
The real Hitchcock certainly had his faults, but the film makes the most of our revulsion from this fat, gross guy leering pathetically at glossies of actresses—the unforgettable "Hitchcock blondes" from the latter stage of his career like Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, Vera Miles and Janet Leigh. The real problem is not his desire, for directors have been crossing professional boundaries with their male and female stars since the earliest days of the medium. No, the problem is that he was old and fat and gross and he made creepy, perverse movies. Accounts of working with him vary, and to the film's credit, Hitchcock's relationship with Leigh is presented as a professional one. If it had been otherwise, Leigh no doubt would have reported it in her own behind-the-scenes book about the making of that film. (A second film out this season, HBO's The Girl, dramatizes Hitchcock at his most sinister: his obsession with Tippi Hedren, who starred in two films he made after Psycho.)
Notwithstanding a scene at the end of the film, in a theater lobby during the premiere of Psycho, Hitchcock is never shown as the brilliant, thoughtful constructor of movie narrative that he was. This side was revealed in François Truffaut's book-length interview with him, which as a result is an enduring landmark of film history. Hitchcock the movie is no landmark—except of bad biopics—but with any luck it will bring new audiences to his indelible work.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Shire and shite."