Hitchcock: A Biopic Without the Troublesome “Bio”
It’s no secret to anyone who spends more than a half hour or so in conversation with me these days that I have an interest in Alfred Hitchcock that could be accused of bordering on hero worship. Although he died the year I was born, he was probably the first director I was consciously aware of, thanks in large part to the syndication of his anthology television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I loved the series as a child, and pursued anything I could find with Hitchcock’s name on it, including countless compilations of horror and suspense stories that he lent his name to. I didn’t realize at the time of course that his presence in everything I’d seen or read was largely ceremonial, and I’m not sure it would have mattered if I did. As good as the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents typically were, his bookends on each were my main reason for watching, combining the macabre with a dry sense of humor in a way that made a huge impact on child me. So when I saw my first actual Hitchcock film not long after all this, I felt an immediate connection as I watched. This was the first time I really had a face, a voice, and a personality to connect with the actual construction of a movie, and that was that. I was hooked. The film in question was, appropriately enough, Psycho; the making of which is the subject of the new biopic Hitchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi and starring Anthony Hopkins as Hitch himself.
The term biopic might be a bit misleading, actually. Traditionally the goal of such a film is to present an overall picture of the subject: their triumphs, their failures, and what made them into a person deserving of a biopic in the first place. That’s not really the case here. There’s nothing on Hitchcock’s youth or early career, and only one other film is even really touched on, as the opening shot sees Hitchcock at the premiere of North by Northwest. After that, it’s straight into the notoriously rocky preproduction of Psycho. At this point if you’re a huge film nerd you might be excited at the prospect of an entire movie devoted to the making of a classic masterpiece. I know that’s what I would like to have seen. Unfortunately, Hitchcock goes a different way, devoting the lion’s share of the plot to an almost-affair between Hitch’s wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) and screenwriter Whitfield Cook, who had himself worked on prior Hitchcock films such as Strangers on a Train and Stage Fright. And even that might be interesting in its own right, if it weren’t seemingly concocted entirely for the purposes of this dramatization.
Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville were married in 1926 and stayed together until their deaths over a half-century later, undoubtedly one of Hollywood’s most enduring couples. Their collaborations in film began even before their relationship, and continued throughout Hitch’s career. She was the very embodiment of the great woman we’re told is behind every great man. That’s not to say there weren’t rough patches like those that are endured by every couple, and likely a number on them were brought on (as they are in this film) by Hitchcock’s notable obsession with his leading ladies, the so-called “Hitchcock Blondes”. But the supposed emotional affair with Cook portrayed in this film, and Hitchcock’s resulting suspicion and anger toward her, seems entirely fabricated to create an interesting story tied to a production which already had no shortage of interesting stories.
While I’m on a bender about the things I disliked, let me just throw out a few more. There are things I liked, and I’ll get to those, but first things first. Tied in with Hitch’s investigations regarding Alma’s supposed infidelity, there are a number of hallucination sequences featuring notorious serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott). Yes, Gein was the inspiration for Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho. He was also the inspiration for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the character of Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, and so on, into infinity. Gein’s crimes were horrific, and provided fodder for a laundry list of horror stories that will probably carry well beyond our lifetimes. Inspiring a book that inspired a movie is not, however, grounds for devoting a substantial number of scenes to making Hitchcock himself look like a psychopath.
The opening scene portraying Ed Gein in an Alfred Hitchcock Presents-style bookend was entertaining, but turning him into a supporting character is way past the line. And while we’re talking about things inspired by the TV series that cross the line, I would like to be the first to introduce the Hitchcock drinking game for the film’s home release. Every time Anthony Hopkins is filmed in profile, take a shot. Of course, if the game takes off and the cops trace it to here, I’ll be put away for killing more people than Ed Gein himself. Sacha Gervasi takes the iconic TV series opening, where Hitch would walk on camera in profile into a stylized caricature of himself, and bludgeons it to death throughout the entire 98 minute runtime. There’s no mystery, and no suspense; there is only a direct reveal of Gervasi, standing with a baseball bat over the bruised and bloodied body of a portly director (in profile of course), loudly proclaiming “Look what I did!”. Hopkins walks in profile, he stands in profile, he sleeps in profile. The amount of effort Hitchcock must have gone through to position the entire world 90 degrees from where he was facing at all times must have been extraordinary! There’s even a scene after the credits, where, get this…he’s standing in a theater in profile. I’ve never seen Gervasi’s one other film, Anvil: The Story of Anvil, but I hear good things. Next time though, maybe give the Hitchcock biopic to somebody with some knowledge of the subject beyond how his TV series was introduced.
Alright, now that I’ve got all that out of my system, let’s talk about some performances. In the rare moments that he’s allowed to face the camera, Hopkins actually makes a pretty superb Alfred Hitchcock, much more so than I would have expected. I’m pretty tired of “because we can”, J. Edgar-style extreme makeups to allow actors to portray well-known and visually dissimilar subjects, but this one wasn’t so bad. He doesn’t look anything like Hitch, but just the addition of the fake weight I think allows him to live in the part a little more. Vocally, his accent comes and goes, but as someone who has spent a not-insignificant amount of time listening to audio interviews of Hitchcock, I can say that his cadence and delivery is dead-on. I wish he would’ve gotten more time to flex his acting skills outside of ridiculous hallucination sequences. The scene near the beginning of the film where he’s dissecting trade papers while in the bathtub is probably the most true-to-life moment, and it just sort of goes downhill from there.
Helen Mirren is a good fit as Alma, but I can’t think of a time I walked out of a movie thinking “Helen Mirren might not have been right for this”. Most of what I know of Alma herself is in print rather than audio or film, but Mirren feels like a perfect fit for the parts of the story that aren’t complete fabrications. Scarlet Johansson doesn’t look much like Psycho‘s leading lady Janet Leigh, but she’s really one of the closest things we have to the “Hitchcock Blondes” in Hollywood today. And from what I’ve seen of Leigh in various interviews, she completely nailed the role: charming, professional, personable, and sexy without overdoing it. The biggest surprise of all the performances was James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins. Not since Val Kilmer in 1991’s The Doors have I ever seen someone so effortlessly conjure up another performer. His role in this film is much smaller than it should be considering the purported subject matter, but every second he’s onscreen it’s uncanny. The only better choice would have been the ghost of Anthony Perkins himself.
There are charming scenes littered here and there, and they make me yearn for the film that could have been. The awkward dinner between Hitchcock, Reville, and Leigh is funny and feels true-to-life. Hitch’s clever handling of reluctant Hays Code-era censors was a treat to watch, and also seems to be the one thing in the script that the writers or director did any real homework on. I should also mention here the brilliance of casting Kurtwood Smith as the head of the censorship board. While I’m sure he’s a great person in real life, the weight of every character he’s portrayed from Clarence Boddicker to Red Foreman endures, and he’s the perfect guy to plug in when you don’t have a lot of time to tell the audience why they should dislike him. Overall I didn’t hate it, but my nervousness about a biopic focused on someone who I hold in such high regard had me skeptical from the outset, so my expectations were incredibly lowered going in. Maybe check it out once it hits your disc format or streaming service of choice. I wouldn’t recommend making the theater to see it, which is just as well because a theater near you is probably not playing it, and if they are now they won’t be in a week. It’s one of those late-year small release Oscar-grab films, but Gervasi seems to have been a bit overly confident that the subject matter alone would carry the film through the awards season.
Posted on December 9, 2012, in Movies, Reviews and tagged Alma Reville, Anthony Hopkins, Anthony Perkins, Biopic, Ed Gein, Helen Mirren, Hitchcock, James D'Arcy, Janet Leigh, Psycho, Sacha Gervasi, Scarlett Johansson. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.