John J. McLaughlin (Book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” by Stephen Rebello)
Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Danny Huston, Toni Collette, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Wincott, Jessica Biel, James D’Arcy
PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content and thematic material
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There are few more fascinating figures in film history than legendary director Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock examines a brief period of Hitchcock’s career as he works to bring to the screen what would one day become one of his most clebrated features, Psycho.
Set in the months leading up to and the ultimate filming of the Hitchcock classic, director Sacha Gervasi struggles to turn John J. McLaughlin’s adaptation of “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” into a workable dramatic feature. Hitchcock, played lifelessly here by Anthony Hopkins, was a visionary who saw great potential in a small story about a real life psychotic killer. The film concept rankled producers and critics for being so violent and unsettling a premise that it couldn’t possibly make money. Sure that he could turn it into a success, Hitchcock bankrolls the film himself, and employs his established television crew to mount the feature.
Even his wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), can’t hide her dismay at her husband’s potential folly, but whether his critics were right or wrong doesn’t seem as important to Gervasi and McLaughlin. They seem to want to focus on the lurid infatuation Hitchcock had with his leading ladies and the damaging consequences those relationships had with his wife who would, according to the film, seek refuge in the arms of a more compassionate and understanding man, her ex-associate Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston).
Hopkins treats Hitchcock like his on-screen persona in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, keeping his tone neutral and avoiding too much direct conflict. He’s rarely seen as a jovial or even outwardly destructive man and that impersonation makes for a bland performance. Mirren is the consummate professional and whereas Hopkins seems almost disinterested, Mirren is engaging and witty, doing most of the heavy lifting of giving Hitch some humanity. She brings out the best in him even when he’s notoriously flirting with and obsessing over his new starlet Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson).
The film has notably few “cameos” by big name actors of the period. Unlike movies The Aviator or Infamous, Gervasi limits the notable names mostly to those appearing in or associated with Psycho, namely Leigh, star Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) and ex-Hitch fling Vera Miles (Jessica Biel). Neither Biel nor Johansson add much weight to the film, but D’Arcy is superb as the self-effacing Perkins. In far too few scenes, D’Arcy adds measurable credibility each time he appears.
While Mirren is the film’s heart and soul, Toni Collette does strong work as Hitch’s faithful secretary Peggy Robertson, who also attempts to bring out some depth in Hopkins’ version of Hitchcock. She showcases the character’s devotion to the man while pushing him to be better and more compassionate. It’s a character that helps to highlight why so many prominent figures were faithful to him.
Gervasi was fairly limited in his decisionmaking by a restriction placed on the production that it not replicate scenes from the film Psycho. That limitation requires much of the iconic film conjure in the mind of the viewer, but only if you’ve already seen it. And if you haven’t, much of what is shown won’t aid you in conjuring up the requisite images that make some of the sequences in Gervasi’s film so pivotal. These include scenes set behind Norman Bates’ peephole and those inside the shower where the most memorable scene of the film takes place. Gervasi does his best given the situation and a few compelling moments arise from this forbiddance, but not enough to keep the film from feeling weighed down by the hindrance..
Yet, it’s the weak story, which parallels the struggles Hitchcock goes through while filming his picture and his wife’s flirtatious, albeit platonic, affair with Cook that keeps the film from reaching the heights it should. These segments which position Cook as Alma’s potential romantic savior give Huston some nice moments, but ultimately bogs down the feature by turning it into a “love affair” and not a glimpse of filmmaking methodology. The book on which the film is based was more fascinated with Hitchcock’s processes and not the cooked up romantic affair angle that became the central focus of the film. And that’s the problem any reasonable cineaste will have with this production.
If you’re a fan of Hitchcock and his work, Hitchcock the film won’t give you much insight into the portly impressario’s mindset or capabilities. It’s a film that relinquishes its control over process in a vain attempt to titillate the audience with a sedate series of affairs. This isn’t a historical document, it’s a love story without the love.
July 11, 2013