Biopics take on a new personality when the subject is an admired figure or, worse still, a personal hero. Alfred Hitchcock’s well-deserved moniker, “The Master of Suspense,” does little to fully capture the elevated place of regard he holds with cinephiles who count themselves devoted fans, which is to say cinephiles. Sacha Gervasi‘s Hitchcock narrows the scope of the director’s life to the production of arguably his greatest film: Psycho. The film covers the lifespan of Psycho from inspirational inception to the labor pains of production, and finally its glorious delivery.
Some may balk at the idea of a Hitchcock biopic covering such a short period of the man’s life and indeed only one movie from the intensely prolific director’s canon. However, this seemingly reductive approach is actually quite fitting considering the turning point that this one film represented and the inherent metaphors that can then be extrapolated from the production experience. Psycho was one of the riskiest endeavors of Hitch’s career. He was nearing the end of his professional life and wasn’t commanding as much studio confidence as he once was. It was at this precarious era that he decided to make, and self-fund, a film that not only challenged the conception of Hitchcock as an artist, but indeed changed the landscape of film itself. The studio refusing to fund the movie fed his lifelong insecurity and the tricks employed to sell Psycho to audiences were a function of his overarching commitment to publicity.
So yes, the choice to restrict the biopic to the events around Psycho is apropos for more reasons than one. If there is a flaw in this model however, it’s that Hitchcock manages to be unbalanced even within the somewhat meager time space it occupies.
For a goodly portion of the film, or at least a significant enough allotment of time to confound the story flow, we are forced to endure a monopolizing subplot about Hitch worrying that his wife is having an affair. The unwieldy “misunderstanding” plot devices that one would typically find in a conventional sitcom are given supreme emotional weight as the scales tip unwisely against the actual production of his seminal film. That’s not to say an extramarital affair, or even the perception of a fictive one, doesn’t deserve a certain amount of affective gravitas, but when so central a point within a biopic is an almost entirely unproven aspect of the subject’s life, the decision to spotlight that aspect is perplexing.
It is true that Hitch had his obsessions with starlets, and that he may have even sought cruelty and abuse toward those starlets as outlets for his desires, but it has never once been corroborated that Alma Reville, Hitch’s biggest supporter, most vital collaborator, and indeed the fuel of his creative fire, ever even courted the idea of adultery. In fact, Dame Helen Mirren herself has admitted to the affair being manufactured for the film. The hint of her wandering eye is therefore only present to make equally a comical farce and emotional wreck out of our titular director when the film-within-the-film subject is much more interesting than this bizarre embellishment. To put it more succinctly, in a movie about Hitch’s Psycho, the narrative focuses far too much on his suspicion.
Despite its fumbling with inconsequential deceptions, there is plenty in Gervasi’s film that will delight Hitchcockians…er Hitchphiles…quitting while ahead. The intertwining of the real world events that inspired Robert Bloch‘s novel, i.e. the Ed Gein murders, is both Hitchcock’s most darkly comedic element, a testament to the man’s own morbid sense of humor, and the recurring measuring stick of our “hero’s” fragile psyche; mirroring Psycho’s own themes. The scenes detailing the actual production are like candy for the hardcore fanbase. Watching Hitch maneuver around censors and studio heads, peeking behind the curtain at the most iconic scenes in filmdom, and especially the gathering of the legendary talent responsible for bringing Hitch’s vision to life is thrilling. His signature showmanship is also chief among the film’s most rewarding introspections. Not only do we see his glorious marketing gimmicks, but the moments in which he listens to audiences reacting to the first screening of Psycho so perfectly encapsulate what made him such a maestro of the macabre. Even a basket full of rubber knives placed deliberately in the background of a scene of dialogue offers a giddy indulgence for those sharp-eyed enough to recognize their presence and significance.
But what of the contemporary affectations of these cinematic icons? Sir Anthony Hopkins takes on The Master of Suspense here, but for all his careful imitative nuances, he appears more masquerade than masterful in his performance. There is far more to be said of the transformative makeup on Hopkins than transformative performances, and the same can be said for most of the cast. Scarlett Johansson looks far more like Janet Leigh than does she inhabit that character, and the same can unfortunately be said of Jessica Biel. James D’Arcy is the spookiest in his accuracy, adopting several physical and vocal alterations to portray the complicated personage of Anthony Perkins. The standout, in so so many ways, is Mirren. Her Alma absolutely steals the show away from Hopkins’ Hitch – a far too appropriate theft. She is poised, and as commanding of every obstacle as she is every minute she appears on screen. There is something so satisfying about a film called Hitchcock actually serving as a pedestal for the woman who spent so much time in the shadow of this genius, even though she was the engine that drove, if not was entirely responsible for, much of his greatness. Mirren’s thoroughly decimating monologue near the film’s end might as well be framed with a spinning Oscar in the lower right corner.
Hitchcock’s most criminal oversight is what we’re not hearing more than what we’re not seeing. Danny Elfman‘s score is so lackluster as to seem phoned in by someone bereft of his many years of experience and staggering acclaim. The worst part of the shortcomings of Elfman’s score is that it is used in place of the far simpler and far more enticing prospect of using Bernard Herrmann‘s existing, and transcendent, orchestrations. Why not simply re-arrange the original music from Psycho and use various cues throughout the biopic? Is this a necessary tactic? No, and therefore this complaint may seem like Monday morning filmmaking. But when presented with so bland an alternative, the missed opportunity registers as an even sourer note.
The Upside: Helen Mirren offers Alma Reville the respect she has long deserved, and the Hitch faithful will find plenty to sate their fandom.
The Downside: The story centers too much on nonexistent, or at least wildly unproven, aspects of Hitch and Alma’s life and many of the performances feel more cosplay than craft.
On the Side: In the spirit of Hitchcock, Hopkins, as the iconic director, recorded a “turn off your phone” PSA that is currently playing before films in certain theaters. Meta much?