Movie Review: Hitchcock
By Matthew Huntley
December 4, 2012
Hitchcock is too broad a title for this film. Granted, it’s about “the master of suspense,” Alfred Hitchcock, who’s regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, but it’s about such a small portion of his life that a more specific title was in order. And of that “small portion,” even though it may have been the most significant and famous of Hitchcock’s career, I can’t help but think there were more interesting ways to tell it and other aspects of his life that could have been worked in to give the overall story a greater depth and purpose.
The film is based on Stephen Rebello’s book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (now there’s a title), and while I appreciate that it’s focused, anyone who’s even remotely aware of Hitchcock or Psycho, or the moviemaking business in general, won’t find too many surprises here. It serves more as a reiteration of things we probably could have surmised for ourselves (or picked up along the way while watching other movies about Hollywood and making-of specials), while the central dramatic conflict is merely adequate. Most of it feels whipped up just so the film can deliver moments of nostalgia and pieces of trivia. Although, to be fair, it does make us smile a lot, even if it never goes beyond that.
In 1959, following the success of North by Northwest, Hitchcock is searching for his next project. He has one more picture to direct under his current contract with Paramount Pictures and doesn’t want to make just any old movie; he wants to blow the audience out of the water. Hitchcock is played by Anthony Hopkins, who does what any actor should do when portraying a real-life individual: he lends him his own quirks and personality. Yes, it’s important to look the part and nail some of the broad strokes like how the person spoke and carried himself, which Hopkins could do standing on his head, but it’s even more crucial to make that person a character - someone who’s interesting, has presence and whom we care about in spite of our knowledge of their public persona. Playing an icon goes beyond mere imitation.
Hopkins knows this and makes the portly Hitchcock a stubborn and fiery fellow who’s willing to put up a fight when Paramount executive Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow) refuses to finance his next movie because of its content and lack of commercial appeal. That movie, of course, is Psycho, based on Robert Bloch’s novel, which itself was loosely based on Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein. John J. McLaughlin’s screenplay for Hitchcock, in fact, makes Gein (Michael Wincott) one of the characters. He’s sort of an instigator and tormenter of Hitchcock throughout the production of Psycho and, at one point, Hitchcock imagines taking on the role of a killer himself and stabbing everyone who’s getting in his way of making the movie.
One of them, besides Balaban, includes his dear wife, Alma, played with gusto by Helen Mirren. As Hitchcock’s loyal partner - marital, creative and business - Alma starts to grow tired of living in her husband’s shadow. She takes it upon herself to help a younger author named Whitfield Cook (a devious Danny Houston) write a novel. With so many other burdens weighing down on him, like having to self-finance Psycho for $800,000; a film censorship committee who won’t allow him to show a naked woman in the shower, let alone a toilet; and a production falling behind schedule, Hitchcock is quick to assume Alma is having an affair. And so the film settles down and becomes a battle of wits and wills as Alfred and Alma put their marriage to the test.
Alma has every right to be angry and frustrated. Her husband gets to spend his days and nights directing beautiful Hollywood women like Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel). Plus he does little to combat his failing health. Over the years, she’s loved a man who she’s not quite sure appreciates everything she does, from script re-writes to accompanying him on the red carpet. She figures it may be time to invest her talents elsewhere.
The central romantic story in Hitchcock is serviceable for the two leads to show off their talents, which they do with relative ease, but it nevertheless feels like a watered-down, stock Hollywood conflict just so the film can tell us how Psycho went from an independently financed picture to one of the most successful and critically acclaimed films of all time. We don’t fully care about Alfred and Alma’s marital woes because in the back of our minds we sense most of what they’re going through stems from the mind of a screenwriter instead of real life. As a result, the story lacks tension and relevance and doesn’t seem like that big a deal to us.
Still, the consolation prizes are Hopkins and Mirren, because in spite of the inconsequential story, watching them perform makes the film worth it and I suppose the light insights into Hollywood make for good, harmless fun. But the great movie about Alfred Hitchcock remains to be made, which raises the question: does a film about Alfred Hitchcock even have to be made? Would Hitchcock have wanted one? I guess we’ll never know, but one thing that’s certain is Alfred and Alma’s tenacity for perfection paid off. They gave us a groundbreaking picture that earned a large seat in film history, which, among many other things, may have single-handedly invented the plot twist. If Hitchcock does anything, it reminds us of his and Alma’s gifts, for which we’re still thankful.