Last year kicked off a wave of Hollywood biopics that don’t look to abate into 2013. Hitchcock was one of two films about the legendary director that arrived in 2012. I reviewed HBO’s television movie, The Girl, which detailed Hitch’s relationship with Tippi Hedren when it aired and found it shed little context for the director’s actions making the audience believe him to simply be a lech. You can read my original review of The Girl here. The second film was this theatrical rendition, succinctly titled Hitchcock. The original title was going to be Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and thank goodness they dropped that as it wouldn’t be appropriate to the plot that’s presented. The movie sheds little light on the making of Psycho outside of what’s already entered into popular culture. The meager plot only sustains a 90-minute runtime and fills up anything not industry related with a bizarre love triangle for Hitch’s wife and the introduction of serial killer Ed Gein as Hitch’s muse/psychiatrist.
Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is anxious to move onto his next picture. He latches on to the controversial novel Psycho, and with the help of his put-upon wife, Alma (Helen Mirren), he struggles to turn the horror novel into the seminal film we know today.
There are a few winks for the more discerning members of the audience throughout Hitchcock which present a devilish, though intermittent, fun. The introduction to the director is done by playing the theme song to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, complete with the director intoning “Good evening, everyone.” Hopkins isn’t a bad Hitchcock; he stands up there next to Toby Jones with both being admirable in terms of looks and carriage. Hopkins certainly has the vocal patterns down and can throw out morbid jokes with ease. We don’t see any overt signs of affection between Alma and Hitch, and in one scene they’re sleeping in separate beds. I wasn’t sure if that was a true fact, or if it was a nod to the Hollywood Production Code which we see Hitch fight throughout the film; if it’s the latter, it’s a fun moment. The ending scene also has Hitchcock musing over his next project before a crow lands on his shoulder. Anyone who’s a film buff should know the meaning of that symbol, but again it’s a fun little wink at the audience.
There’s just a few too many flaws with this movie to elevate it above anything more than passable. The actors are good, but the story is far too good to be relegated to that category alone. For a movie hoping to detail the making of the classic film, and with only 98 minutes to do so, we spend little time putting things together; and when things are being put together, they move faster than the intimate sequences involving Hitch, Alma, or the couple together. I have no doubt Hitchcock and Alma Reville had problems; if they didn’t I doubt every movie would exclusively focus on that, but their problems aren’t that fascinating. The love triangle between Hitch, Alma, and Alma’s friend Whit (Danny Huston), aren’t focused or engaging. Alma and Whit want to write a script away from Hitchcock, and while it gives Alma a sense of purpose, the film closes with Alma being right where she left off. There’s no catharsis for the audience because we know the further troubles of Hitchcock. (Feel free to watch The Girl as a de facto sequel of where thing allegedly went from there). Sure, the script tries to wrap it all up with Hitch proclaiming that all his leading ladies, Alma included, “betray me,” but it’s too little too late. The script never knows whether the audience is meant to hate Hitch (he’s seen looking through peep holes into his actresses dressing rooms while they change) or pity him. The betrayal he supposedly feels in this moment doesn’t simply apply to Alma, but to Grace Kelly and the other ladies of Hitch’s past, so what do we take away? The movie leaves the audience to feel no differently about Hitchcock, the man, as we did upon arrival.
Other problems skew towards authenticity. I’m not sure how heavily influenced Hitchcock was by Ed Gein’s story, but it’s been debunked that Psycho was that heavily inspired by Gein’s life. For starters, Gein never dug up his mother’s corpse and slept with it. (He did dig up dead bodies, but not his mother specifically.) In fact, most movies that mention being based on Gein’s life are incredibly loose. The movie makes a point of flashing to supposed moments in Gein’s life – I’m not sure if they were meant to be fantasies of Hitchcock’s or supposed reenactments – and Hitchcock envisions Gein as his therapist. I’m not sure the basis for these moments since they have no bearing on the making of Psycho, again loosely inspired in the first place, but it creates an outlandish quality that’s unnecessary.
When the movie does seek to explore the intricacies of making the finished product, you catch glimmers of the strong Hollywood story that’s buried beneath the moribund love triangle. We see how ridiculous the strictures of the Hollywood Production Code are when Hitchcock is told you can’t show a toilet in the film. (Psycho is cited as the first film to show a flushing toilet.) There’s also the creation of the cast and script that I wish had been the focus. By deviating into the personal life, it makes any attempts at bonding with the cast of the movie feel out-of-place and conspiratorial. A prime example is the relationship between Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel). They try to shoehorn a relationship between the two actresses into the convoluted plot and it never feels like anything beyond two girls chatting about incidentals. You never feel anything for the two stars because all context of their relationship with the film, or Hollywood, is removed. Alma mentions in passing that Leigh is hoping to get out of being a nice girl in movies but that’s it.
The level of detail put into Hitch’s appearance is entirely missing in the portrayal of Leigh and Miles. The ladies each get a bad wig and the clothing seen in the finished product and that’s all you’re given to believe these two are playing the iconic characters. Johansson is simply playing herself, and that’s about as interesting as it sounds. Biel smiles a lot but Miles is a pointless character. The context for why Hitchcock hated Miles devolves into a throwaway conversation between him and Leigh, and with Biel playing the role so dryly, it’s hard to understand why Hitch felt he could make her “the next Grace Kelly.” The worst of the lot is James D’Arcy playing Anthony Perkins. He’s given about two scenes; none of him actually acting the role of Norman Bates (although we briefly see him dressed as mother). The one moment we spend with him, the script finds it humorous to announce Perkins’s rumored homosexuality (he never admitted he was gay). He tells Hitchcock his favorite films are Rope and Strangers on a Train. Yes, everyone believes Perkins was gay, but the man is gone with no way to defend himself so let’s make the one big scene with him be around a gay joke? It’s disrespectful to the actor and flat-out unnecessary. There’s absolutely no significant screen time given to his character, so why not use another sequence or write something different? It just felt like a wink meant to make the audience uncomfortable.
Hitchcock is a disappointment, and further shows that no one’s created a well-rounded portrayal of the director. The Girl removed all context, as does Hitchcock. While both attempt to focus on an exact moment in time, the scripts insert incidental plot points that drag down the predominant narrative. If the film aspired to tell the making of Psycho it did so only on a surface level. I recommend reading Stephen Rubello’s original book for a better understanding.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.