AFI FEST 2012 Review: Shapeless ‘Hitchcock’ Nearly Saved by Stellar Supporting Performances

By  · Published on November 6th, 2012

Alfred Hitchcock is, as the kids say, “having a moment” right now. On the heels of a HBO’s made-for-television film, The Girl, and a year before he’ll pop up in Olivier Dahan’s Grace of Monaco, ol’ Hitch is the subject of yet another feature. This one is simply named Hitchcock, and despite the promise such an eponymous title might deliver (“Hitchcock! That sounds like it will cover quite a bit of ground!”), Sacha Gervasi’s film sticks to a slim (though important) period of the director’s life, focusing on the production of Psycho, a truly warts-and-all experience. And yet, despite working from intriguing material (the script, by John J. McLaughlin, has been adapted from Stephen Rebello’s book, “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho”) and with a tremendously talented cast (led by Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren), the final product is a disparate and shapeless film that never finds its footing or its focus. A Hitchcock film this is not.

Hitchcock attempts to immediately introduce us to both “Hitch” (Hopkins) and his obsessions, opening with a mildly amusing vignette that features mass murderer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the inspiration behind the book that inspired Hitchcock’s Psycho, offing his first victim while Hitchcock himself wryly observes, coming into frame like some sort of grand master of ceremonies (Gein will reappear throughout the film, each appearance becoming more laughable and ineffective than the last). Hitchcock, it turns out, has just come off the tremendous success of his North By Northwest and is now hungry for something new – something like a big screen version of Robert Bloch’s “Psycho,” something bold for the director, something naughty.

And yet, for a film that about one of cinema’s most famous directors that ostensibly centers on the creation of one of his most important production, Hitchcock suffers tremendously and immediately from lack of direction. Billed as an insider’s peek at the making of Psycho, the film instead never finds its footing, unsure of its focus, swinging unsteadily from Psycho production (occasionally turning up some mildly interesting trivial tidbits that the film needs much more of) to personal relations between the Hitchcocks (with Mirren cast as Hitchcock’s wife and right-hand woman, Alma Reville) to – what? implications of infidelity and indiscretion? – the sort of lascivious speculation that just feels rote and undercooked. The film marks director Gervasi’s feature directorial debut, and his resume leading up to Hitchcock (he previously directed the doc Anvil: The Story of Anvil and penned both The Terminal and Henry’s Crime) is just as scattershot and hard-to-pin-down as Hitchcock itself.

Without clear direction or a coherent tone, Hitchcock is forced to rely on the strength of its performances, which prove to be decidedly divided. Hopkins does not quite disappear into his role as Hitch (despite the gallons of makeup and facial prosthetics and body padding that are there in service to such an endeavor), though he does eventually get to a place that befits his formidable talents (though one that does just okay when it comes to honoring the Master of Suspense). For the film’s first act, Hopkins continually toes the line between impersonation and pure ham; to be sure, he never crosses said line, but even its barest visibility is jarring to the audience.

It’s still more jarring when Hopkins does actually hit the occasional high note as Hitchcock – particularly during a last act scene that puts an anxious Hopkins-as-Hitch in a theater lobby, eagerly anticipating the reaction of the first paying audience to see Psycho as it plays just feet away from the pacing director. It’s perhaps the best scene of the entire film, but such a solid sequence in such an underwhelming film doesn’t aid the entire production, it just makes the rest of its flaws so much more apparent.

When it comes to Mirren as the underappreciated and misunderstood Mrs. Hitchcock, it’s almost passe to comment on the impeccable quality of her performance. At this point in her career, talking about a Mirren turn can only be interesting if (and that’s a big if) the actress ever turns in something less than astonishing. She’s astonishing in Hitchcock, she’s easily the best thing about it, and it’s her work here that ultimately saves the entire outing.

However, Mirren is not alone in carrying the weight of the production. Hitchcock does not shy from telling us that Hitch himself was all but carried by the women in his life, so it’s of little surprise that it is the women of the film who do the best work – including Mirren, Toni Collette as Peggy Robertson, Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, and Jessica Biel as Vera Miles. They’re all game and focused in their various role, an even more impressive feat in the face of such a viciously unfocused production. They – and Hitch – all deserve far better.

The Upside: Another career-best performance from Helen Mirren (aren’t they all career-best at this point?), occasional moments of brilliance in Hopkins’ performance, mega-fun Hitchcock trivia for all.

The Downside: Unfocused, uneven, hazy, and shapeless, Hitchcock also suffers from a frequently nearly-hammy turn by Hopkins, who takes far too long to settle into his role.

On the Side: Joseph Stefano is the only credited screenwriter on Psycho.

For more AFI FEST 2012 coverage, keep it locked right here at Film School Rejects.