The master of suspense. Alfred Hitchcock was one of the giants of movie making in the twentieth century. One look at his canon of work is impressive enough. What marked him out from others at the time was his ability to generate buzz around his films that captured the public imagination and attention. From this gift he was able to develop a public persona of an enigmatic and slightly menacing figure. Hitch reveled in this and was always happy to play his part in building the myth. It got to such a level that the distinction between truth and fiction got blurred. I suspect that the film Hitchcock starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren has a similar relationship with reality.
The film tells the story behind the making of the Master’s film version of Psycho. Based on the book by Robert Bloch, it is an interpretation of the story of the nineteen forties serial killer Ed Gein. Hitchcock was looking for a new project after the success of North by Northwest. Something different to what had gone before. Under his existing contract with Paramount Pictures he was obliged to provide one more film. Paramount were after another film in the same vein as North by Northwest (North by North-Northwest perhaps!). What Hitchcock pitched to them was completely unpalatable. To them a film about a killer who has a less than healthy relationship with his mother to the point where he kills for her was deemed to be a box office poison. Their refusal to back the film prompted Hitchcock and his lawyer Lew (Michael Stuhlbarg) to arrange to self finance the project. Putting his home up as collateral for the project, Hitchcock risked everything to bring this story to the screen. With the absolute backing of his wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) they have to navigate through the process. We see the obstacles they have to overcome along the way. The film censor board and their stringent demands for decency are the least of the problems. Script issues, Hitch’s obsession with his female stars and the effect that his personality is having on his health and his long suffering wife. Added to this stress Hitch is starting to have conversations with the spirit of Ed Gein.
With the given title the film was always going to succeed or fail on the central performance of Hitch. Anthony Hopkins has had previous experience of the influence of Ed Gein while playing the part of Hannibal Lecter. Another tale inspired by Gein’s exploits. Hopkins is rather good in this role. Though not totally resembling Hitchcock he completely fills the role in such a way that you forget that it is him. A very impressive transformation. This is no mere impersonation. He has enough of the characteristics of the public Hitchcock to seem familiar but also brings depth to the portrayal in how he deals with the stresses of the process. He is always on edge. We get the feeling that he is only ever one step away from failure and that notion terrifies him. At times his inner turmoil threaten to consume him sending him spiraling into despair.
Obviously Hopkins performance is the main focus of attention. That’s not to say that others do not shine. Helen Mirren is, as always, a commanding screen presence. She gets the performance just right as the supporting character in the life of Hitchcock. Alma’s life seemed to be as a support mechanism for her husband. A talented editor and writer in her own right, her contribution to Hitch’s success were overlooked during his period of greatest acclaim. The majority of the other roles are quite small with limited screen time. There are some talented performers on show. Scarlett Johansson performs her role as Janet Leigh with understatement. She gets to take centre stage in the recreation of the famous shower scene. The most powerful scene in cinema history comes across almost as well as shown from the other side of the camera. Toni Collette as the long suffering personal assistant, Michael Stuhlberg as Hitch’s Lawyer Lew and Jessica Biel as Vera Miles all deserve a mention for their performances. There is a nice contrast in Biel and Johansson’s characters as the new Hitchcock starlet and last years version in the process of being discarded.
The film itself is made in a very familiar Hitchcock style by director Sacha Gervasi. It is book ended by monologues to camera in the Style of the Alfred Hitchcock presents TV show. The music queues are certainly inspired by some of his famous works. Kudos to Danny Elfman for a mood enhancer much in the way Bernard Herman’s music was incorporated into scenes in some of Hitchcock’s best known films. A particularly effective scene that uses music and visuals to great effect is where Alma buys a red swimming costume and goes for a dip in her pool. The camera focuses tight on the red costume under the water never wavering from the torso while the music induces a sense of motion and unease at the same time. Quite powerful stuff.
We see glimpses of the obsessions of Hitchcock. There are moments where the voyeur that we suspect he is shown to be real. He has a hole gouged out of his wall so he can spy on his actress in her dressing room. This is echoed later when on the set of Psycho. Norman has a similar hole to spy on the female guests. It is signalling that some of the elements of Norman’s character actually comes directly from the traits of the director. His main obsession is creating the best piece of art that is humanly possible. The best parts of the film are when he is on set filming with his actors. We see recreations of key scenes with Hitch directing. He uses various techniques, depending on the actor, including intimidation and fear to get the response he is looking for.
This film may not be the whole truth regarding the legend. A number of critics have already beat on the film for its lack of accuracy. I think this is the point of the film. With Hitchcock the man you could not take everything at face value. There are truths and half-truths scattered throughout his career. This film is no different. I am sure that he would heartily agree with the end product.
Overall this is not a masterpiece but is in its own way a very enjoyable and quite mischievousness take on the larger than life character that was Alfred Hitchcock. Recommended.