Hitchcock – Anthony Hopkins brings a filmic genius to life

Alfred Hitchcock – master of suspense – didn’t always have it easy. That moniker meant that people expected a certain sort of film from him after hits such as Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest. Hitch became bored and decided to do something altogether different for his next one though – an adaptation of the book ‘Psycho’ by Robert Bloch, a book based on the serial killer Ed Gein. Hitchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi, tells the story of Hitch’s struggle to get Psycho to the screen – his troubles with the studio, the problem of financing it, as well as the strain it puts on his already fraught marriage to his wife Alma.

Anthony Hopkins beings Hitchcock to life in all his big-jowled glory. Under a huge layer of prosthetics and wearing a lot of padding, he is almost the reincarnation of the director. And not just in looks. Hopkin’s speech and mannerisms perfectly emulate the Hitchcock we have come to know from various TV appearances and interviews. His performance also adds a little something else to the usual view many have of Hitch being a woman-objectifying, prank-playing, mysterious man. Hopkins does display this, but also shows a more sensitive side to the director, one who becomes obsessed with making what quickly becomes his passion project while everyone and everything seems to be against him. Writer John J. McLaughlin and director Sacha Gervasi’s decision to present this different side to Hitch is a breath of fresh air, and one that humanises the brash, iconic man rather than turning him into a parody of the director.

The film also shows that there was an unsung heroine in the Hitchcock movie making machine. His wife, Alma, is here given the recognition she deserves as someone who not only stood by him during these difficult times, but who also was a talented writer and editor who often gave Hitch’s films a final check for any flaws that hadn’t been spotted by others. Helen Mirren gives an exceptional performance as her and again brings a more emotional core to this character and the overall film itself, showing Alma as a put-upon but loyal figure who was forever in the shadow of the director.

The actors who make up Hitch’s Psycho cast have similarly been expertly cast here. Scarlett Johansson plays Janet Leigh and perfectly reflects her wide-eyed mannerisms and girlish charm, and is also excellent in certain infamous scenes that require a more frantic, terrified performance. James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins is weirdly the spitting image of him. Not just this but he too portrays the actor’s trademark quiet, nervy disposition brilliantly. Toni Collette as Hitch’s production assistant and Michael Stuhlbarg as his agent are also great as the people in Hitch’s life who run things behind the scenes for him. It is Jessica Biel as Vera Miles though who is wholly unforgettable in her role. Although to be fair, she doesn’t have much to do in the story other than act as a reminder that Hitchcock didn’t always treat his leading ladies so well…

However, with all these other superb performances at play within Hitchcock, there is a downside – something that doesn’t sit right with the film.  McLaughlin’s script is good, but one of the problems with it seems to be that there is no sense of jeopardy in it. We all know that Hitchcock did manage to film Psycho and that it is one of the most successful films he ever made. So to counter this McLaughlin focuses more on the tense relationship between Alma and Hitch – his obsessions with his leading ladies bringing obvious annoyance to Alma. And when another writer, Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), wants Alma to help him with his own screenplay, Hitchcock is in for a taste of his own medicine. But this relationship angle to the film doesn’t make it compelling or entertaining enough. The back and forth between Hitch and Alma (although performed to perfection), actually becomes tiresome after a while.

It is also telling that there is an incredibly annoying plot device used throughout the film that attempts to bring a bit of excitement to proceedings, which is the decision to have Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) pop up and talk to Hitchcock about his problems while making Psycho. Although it acts as a way to show Hitch’s psyche at the time, instead it seems like a cheap way to keep the story moving when nothing much is going on.

Another problem that comes from focusing on Alma and Hitch’s relationship is that it sometimes feels like the whole story behind the Psycho shoot is breezed over. Self-financing the film means Hitch has to mortgage the house, but no real problems seem to come from this (other than having to cut back on the gardener coming by every day – shudder). The much-documented censorship issue which was a huge and ground-breaking moment in cinema history also feels far too quickly dealt with. Hitch wasn’t even at first permitted to show a flushing toilet, let alone a naked woman for the shower scene. Yet the censorship debate here isn’t discussed enough, playing out in only two minor scenes. Indeed the build-up to the final screening, including Hitchcock’s strict specifications of how the film should be screened (no late admissions and warnings to viewers and staff about giving away the ending) even feels rushed. This makes for a hugely unsatisfying, not to mention sudden, ending that will leave viewers disappointed after watching this.

Overall, Hitchcock is one of those films that you watch just to see the expert performances of those involved who bring screen icons to life.  But the story isn’t interesting enough to warrant repeat viewings, or even a satisfying first viewing for that matter. This is a film that could have soared with an expert retelling of Hitch’s struggle for creative freedom, when instead it disappears down the plughole.

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~ by square-eyed-geek on February 22, 2013.

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