The principal pleasure of “Hitchcock”—which, in the end, is a film of decidedly few pleasures—comes from watching Anthony Hopkins’s transformation into the Master of Suspense. Hopkins may have worn a fat suit and prosthetics for the role, and he may not possess the disproportionately gaunt cheekbones and bulbous nose of the real Hitchcock (the star’s nose is so pointy here it almost upstages his character’s alarmingly protuberant frame) but he owns Alfred Hitchcock’s omnipresent facial expression, his jowly frown that somehow characterizes portentous self-pity and haughtiness all at once, down to a tee.
Directed by Sacha Gervasi, and adapted by John J. McLaughlin and Stephen Rebello from the latter’s 1990 book, “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho,” “Hitchcock” chronicles the director’s tireless struggle to get the 1960 classic made. Inspired by the true story of murderous loner Ed Gein, “Psycho” failed to receive financing by callous studio heads, who desired a slew of “North by Northwest” clones for easy profit, and the Hollywood censors (led here, in wonderfully stodgy form, by Kurtwood Smith) blanched at its graphic violence and potential nudity. So Hitchcock vowed to raise the money himself, even if it required selling the mortgage on the mansion shared with his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren).
The film touches on—but doesn’t really penetrate—Hitchcock’s alleged obsession with his female leads (Tippi Hedren of “The Birds” has publicly recalled her creepy experience on that film, as documented in the HBO-BBC production “The Girl,” shown earlier this year). According to the film, Hitchcock spied on his actresses in the changing room, spent hours poring over their photos on his desk and even—as shown in an amusing but eyebrow-raising sequence—channeled his sexual rage into a mock-stabbing outburst that brought out Janet Leigh’s terrified shower performance in “Psycho.” His wife (played with the perfect combination of exasperation, loyalty and hurt by Mirren) was no stranger to his demons.
Yet in this version of events, the roots of Hitchcock’s dark soul are only hinted at in gimmicky, show-offy snapshots. Most of the drama, disappointingly, stems not from Hitchcock’s obsessive nature but from his suspicions that Reville is having an affair with a hack screenwriter (Danny Huston), whose script is the first non-Hitchcock project she has ever committed to. Whether accurate or not, surely this subplot has promise: in their civil yet chilly domestic quarrels, we sympathize with both Hitchcock’s jealousy and Reville’s waning patience with his hulking neediness. But again and again, Gervasi (“Anvil,” the story of Anvil) resorts to teasing—if visually impressive—build-ups, with scant resolution. In one scene, for instance, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth’s camera zeros in on Mirren’s brittle neck, as a surly Hopkins chomps on a celery stalk; Danny Elfman, in typical mischievous form, drums up an ominous score here and elsewhere. The conflict, however, is settled neatly and cheaply, with Mirren delivering a “You go, girl” defense of her actions (which naturally drew more applause from the audience than the closing credits).
It’s not that a biopic of the Master of Suspense has to be suspenseful by default, and in fact, “Hitchcock” is notable for its not being a garden-variety biopic. But this particular chapter of his life deserves more minute detail, and less flights of fancy, than Cervasi delivers. There’s precious little development, for example, of Hitchcock’s relationship with off-kilter “Psycho” star Anthony Perkins (who’s given the apt shaky treatment by James D’Arcy), or his tensions with would-be “Vertigo” star Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), who left film for domestic purposes, or even of his intoxication with Leigh (played flatly as a naïve ingénue by Scarlett Johansson). The stars are alternately unnerved by and respectable of their director, but that’s about as far as the psychological underpinnings go.
There are an abundance of minor storylines that should have been rendered major, such as Hitchcock’s hiring of “Psycho” screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio, still cherubic after nearly a twenty-year absence from mainstream film, who’s sadly dismissed after one brief scene), or Hitchcock’s agreeing to let the censor rewrite a love scene in exchange for leaving the shower scene unedited. Even the scene where Hitchcock reluctantly agrees, upon his wife’s suggestion, to play that infamous sawing violin score over the shower scene, is devoid of rapture, of spiritual depth.
Happily, though, Hopkins’s tour-de-force performance, his sheer exuberance at playing this part, transcends “Hitchcock’s” considerable flaws. What you remember afterwards is Hopkins’ drooping about the house in a state of courtly distress, or angrily, clumsily skimming leaves out of his immense swimming pool, or waltzing, by himself, to the enraptured screams of audiences at “Psycho’s” premiere screening. Those moments, and others, prove how contagious a star’s inner delight can be.
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