Perhaps the biggest problem with Sacha Gervasi’s “Hitchcock” is its title, which suggests that the film is something more ambitious and substantive than it actually is. The singular surname suggests a definitive biopic–in the tradition of “Nixon,” “Patton,” “Chaplin,” and so on–full of insights about the life and career of the man who many consider to be the greatest filmmaker who ever lived. But the movie is really just a dramatization of the making of Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” wherein historical facts are accompanied by embellishments and simplifications that serve to add humor and conflict. This makes for a reasonably enjoyable entry to the “film about a film” genre, but viewers are unlikely to learn anything new of consequence about the Master of Suspense.
Undoubtedly, many Hitchcock purists will take issue with Gervasi and screenwriter John J. Laughlin’s portrayal of the filmmaker, which, though based on Stephen Rebello’s acclaimed biographical account, may not be entirely accurate in the way that it reduces the creative genius’ private life to 1) gorging on junk food, 2) being a dirty old man, and 3) losing his temper with wandering wife and collaborator Alma Reville. But this is where the aforementioned issue of viewer expectations comes into play. I’ll be the first to admit that Gervasi and Laughlin’s depiction of Hitchcock is not dimensional enough for a respectable biopic. But as a means of heightening the dramatic stakes of a fictionalized work through its implication that Hitchcock was a worthless human being without his filmmaking career, which the financially risky “Psycho” threatened to end if unsuccessful, it works.
Anthony Hopkins is as strong as ever in the title role, fitted with impeccable makeup and prosthetics. Even though the film trivializes Hitchcock, Hopkins ensures that he never becomes a full-on caricature by committing to the spirit of each scene. In other words, while the content of “Hitchcock” may not be multi-faceted, the actor is able to play such a range of emotions/actions that, as the movie unfolds, viewers are likely to be tricked into believing that they’re watching something more complex. Hopkins exudes the distinct passion of a genius as Hitchcock works on “Psycho,” especially during the filming of the infamous shower scene; he cleverly positions Hitchock’s self-torture over Alma’s suspected affair as the result of the same control-freak nature that made him a skilled artist; and he even makes Gervasi and Laughlin’s inexplicable fixation on Hitchcock’s food obsession consistently funny, strictly through mannerisms. This is a great example of a performance elevating a film.
Even as an undemanding drama, however, there are three components of “Hitchcock” that just plain don’t work. First, certain performances don’t possess the same credibility as Hopkins’, especially Helen Mirren’s Alma and Jessica Biel’s Vera Miles (though, the two are somewhat cancelled out by excellent turns from Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh and James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins). Second, Alma’s near-fling with Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), her co-writer on “Strangers on a Train” and “Stage Fright,” brings the movie to a screeching halt as it takes the focus off Hitch. And third, occasional dream sequences in which Hitchcock has conversations with Ed Gein, the inspiration for “Psycho,” are mishandled, inadvertently implying that the filmmaker actually suffered from psychological delusions.
Indeed, there is quite a bit wrong with “Hitchcock,” and the film isn’t truly worthy of its namesake. But had it aired on HBO with a less imposing title, like the other recent Hitchcock production “The Girl,” most viewers simply would have accepted the film for what it is and savored Hopkins’ performance. I suggest that you do just this. Even a half-baked behind-the-scenes look at “Psycho,” still one of the great films, is more diverting than most of the other crowd-pleasing entertainments currently occupying the marketplace. Those hoping for a more revealing examination of Hitchcock will just have to visit their local library instead.