Alfred Hitchcock is probably the most famous and recognizable of all film directors. This is largely thanks to his regular appearances on his popular TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents and in the trailers for his films. These cameos were always dryly witty and in keeping with Hitchcock’s obsession with the macabre. This new film, vaguely entitled Hitchcock, tries to capture some of that wit while briefly and broadly covering the creation of one of the director’s greatest masterworks, Psycho. That film remains one of the most infamous of all time, not only because of its disturbing subject matter, but because of its gleeful breaking of many 1960 rules: the flushing of a toilet, the appearance of a woman in underclothes, the sight of men spying on said women, the stabbings, the implications of incest. Prior to modern technology that proves the contrary, it was widely believed for years that the famous shower scene contained both on-screen violence and nudity. Sacha Gervasi’s movie touches on all these issues like a checklist, creating a movie that is entertaining in an anecdotal kind of way, without achieving any real significance.
I’ve always had a problem with biopics about well-documented people. You could hire the greatest actors in the world and they will still be no replacement for the real thing. That’s why I was so fond of Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn. I didn’t have to strain to believe she was Marilyn Monroe; she simply was. Anthony Hopkins is a great actor and he does well here, but the entire film hinges on whether or not we believe that he is Hitchcock and I didn’t for a second. Sure, he has the voice and mannerisms down and gobs of makeup do their best to disguise Hopkins’ true appearance, but it’s all just a cheap magic show. When the real Hitchcock spoke, there was no question of his genius. His very presence had a power that was attention-grabbing, yet here we are more distracted by Hopkins putting on a show.
The plot largely involves Mrs. Hitchcock, played convincingly by Helen Mirren, who impresses mostly because we have nothing to compare her to, and how she played a huge role in making Psycho the movie it became. That very well may be, but it was hard for me to applaud the movie’s decision to constantly rank Alfred below Alma. Even though I’m sure she was a great influence on his career, those who watch Hitchcock with little or no knowledge of the man will probably walk out thinking he was some kind of idiot. I simply can’t imagine Alfred Hitchcock crying because he never won an Oscar. The film does succeed, however simply, in making Hitchcock seem like a human being, rather than the cardboard symbol a more reverent movie could have made him out to be. This is mostly due to Hopkins’ earnest portrayal and to some well-written dialogue between the couple, even if it does all turn into a typical screaming match. These scenes are bookended by more interesting ones concerning the production of the film, including amusing battles with the censors, brief though they are. I like Scarlett Johansson as a sweet Janet Leigh and James D’Arcy is downright creepily like Anthony Perkins. It’s just too bad they don’t get very much screen time.
A lot of Hitchcock rubbed me the wrong way, but there are still a lot of things to enjoy here. It has a great cast and the very subject should be intriguing to any film fan. Unfortunately, it’s all a little too slight and doesn’t cover any material most of us don’t already know. It also somehow manages to understate the greatness of the creation and creators of the original Psycho, undeniably one of the greatest of all motion pictures. Hitchcock is worth a watch overall, but the idea that anyone would see this film without first seeing the real Hitchcock’s great classic is unthinkable. Don’t you dare do it.