Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock takes a soft, safe look at the Master of Suspense, operating more as a pleasant puff piece than anything too terribly insightful. Focusing on the director at a late career crossroads, the film is never boring, but isn’t all that cinematic either. Coasting on the appeal of famous modern stars posing as famous ‘50s/’60s Hollywood figures, it’s a cozy picture that may have been just as successful as a CBS Sunday Night Movie.
At the premiere for the wildly successful North By Northwest, a reporter says to Hitchcock (a fat-suited Anthony Hopkins), “You’re the most famous director in the history of the medium, but you’re 60 years old. Shouldn’t you just quit while you’re ahead?” The question, despite its simplistic plot-serving delivery, is a major stab at Hitch’s pride and serves as the film’s catalyst in motivating him to craft an even better film.
Stewing at home with his wife Alma (Helen Mirren, in typical fine form) while contemplating his legacy, he’s frustrated with the studio system and the expectations with which both it and his audience have burdened him. He quickly (perhaps a bit too quickly) finds inspiration in Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, primarily because its horror story is unlike his usual output. As Alma and others are fast to point out, horror’s reputation as a genre is dreadfully low, but, as Hitch counters, in the hands of someone talented, such a film could be spectacular.
So begins the battle to make the picture, and what a battle it is. Figuring it for a flop, Paramount refuses to fund the project and the censors threaten to deny it approval based on the script’s scandalous content. Securing the necessary talent, however, proves easier and in the back-lot, behind-the-scenes discussions of the moviemaking process, Hitchcock is at its best. With Alma ever at his side, thought processes behind choosing their potential collaborators, namely Psycho‘s cast, play out tantalizingly well. As a team, they’re looking for very particular qualities, and each time someone mentions a conflicted history with his respective mother, Hitch mischievously perks up, assured that he’s found the right person for the job.
Such thoughtfulness extends to the technical side as well. Of the numerous directorial chats, the debate over how to shoot the film’s famous shower scene is especially insightful. Hitch’s confident defense of how the section will be cut so that it suggests nudity and murder rather than actually show it provides a compelling look inside the mind of a true talent. Equally fascinating are a the few hands-on moments of direction, in which he goes to great lengths to elicit peak performance from Janet Leigh (a surprisingly game Scarlett Johansson). Whether taunting her Marion Crane on her guilt-ridden drive or taking the knife from the shower sequence stunt double and terrorizing her himself, his dedication to producing his intended results is fascinating to witness.
In examining Hitchcock outside of cinema, however, the film is less consistent. Troubled by a range of off-set issues, Hitch struggles with his weight and frets over Alma’s ambiguous relationship with the writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). Attempting to present Hitch’s personal woes so that Psycho serves as a convenient exorcism for all of his demons, Gervasi reaches a bit, going as far as to plant Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life inspiration for Norman Bates, as a veritable devil on Hitch’s shoulder. The gimmick falls flat, and combined with frequent softball-lobbed dialogue in the vein of the reporter’s opening question, the film tells as much as it shows, unwilling to let viewers connect the dots on their own.
Hitchcock also isn’t helped by the sense that Hopkins is merely playing at being the iconic director instead of outright embodying him. The sight of his wobbly prosthetic jowls can only carry the performance so far, but there’s enough moviemaking intrigue around him to discourage too much scrutiny. The same goes for the film overall, so intent on entertaining that it may be forgiven its fairly shallow story and filmmaking. Gervasi unabashedly serves his Alfred Hitchcock on the most accessible of platters, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had in its consumption.
Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content and thematic material.
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