The Trouble with Hitchcock, by Scott Nye
Before they changed it to the currently-favored, simplest-possible-thank-you Hitchcock, the film we find ourselves currently discussing was called Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, after the (non-fiction) book from which it’s adapted. While a more elaborate, though no less simplistic, title, it too would have been a bit of a lie. While the film does depict the months of Hitchcock’s life during which he made what could arguably be called his least delible work, it is much less concerned with the various machinations of production – from financing and writing to casting and rolling camera – than it is with Hitch’s relationship with his wife and lifelong collaborator, Alma.
They are played in this picture, respectively, by Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, each tasked with very distinct missions in terms of their collaboration and communication with the audience. Hopkins has a legend, even an icon, to inhabit, and if three tons of distracting make-up (the performer’s movements are scarcely more graceful than when Danny DeVito played The Penguin) and a series of overly-satisfied one-liners don’t go a long way towards capturing Hitchcock’s dry, English charm, Hopkins does grab hold of something of his spirit. It’s true that the filmmaker received little in the way of support from Paramount, his frequent patron studio and Psycho’s eventual distributor, and ended up financing the film all on his own. This deepens Hitch’s own stake in the film, both in his determination that it be a financial success (his previous two “one for me” films, 1957’s The Wrong Man and 1958’s Vertigo, did not go well), and that he pull it off creatively; but then, with a slick thriller like Psycho in 1960, they two go hand in hand.
It also makes Alma’s stake quite a bit higher, especially given that it was not her bargain. Though she was rarely credited to the extent of her involvement (and has no credits for original material at all after 1950), she had a hand in nearly every film Hitchcock made, having been married to him from 1926 until the auteur’s death in 1980. Her contributions were vital, consisting of everything from writing to editing to even directing (a scene in Hitchcock shows her taking charge of the set after Hitch briefly falls ill). Helen Mirren, an actress capable of commanding any frame she graces, is naturally suited to her, transitioning seamlessly from Hitch’s companion on the red carpet and at dinner engagements to damn near his general when things get rough. Their relationship is the beating heart of the film, well beyond the obligatory need to address something of the protagonist’s love life, and were the film titled Hitch and Alma, audiences would be granted, to use the Hitch’s own explanation of Norman Bates’ peephole, a chance to view, from the outside, the room from all angles.
The making of Psycho ends up being something of an afterthought, a nagging presence that loads more stress onto the characters than director Sacha Gervasi is able to properly communicate. It’s “there,” but because the intricacies of film production, ironically, don’t make for terribly compelling cinema, Gervasi makes little attempt to get us truly in step with everyone. We’re repeatedly told that far more than Hitch’s reputation is on the line with this one, and in fact it’s alluded to that something of his sanity is at stake as well (several – effective – dream scenes show the toll his work had taken on his mind, or perhaps vice versa). But in spite of Gervasi’s welcome willingness to shake up his cinema, the playfulness starts to be at odds with reaches for more somber tones down the line. That, mixed with a leaden weight to the dialogue – one-liners are to be tossed off, not celebrated – creates a load too cumbersome for a film otherwise so light on its feet.
It is that lightness wherein the film excels. Hitchcock had a wry sense of humor about the most macabre of scenarios, and that’s an attitude well worth taking when analyzing the man himself. Though it inevitably falls back on the old “kinda seems like the guy loved those blondes a little TOO much” explanation as his driving creative force (an insight as legitimate as it is limiting), it also contains several moments – a look of delight when Anthony Perkins (a spot-on James D’Arcy) talks about his obsession with his mother and guilt over his father’s death, or the opening scene I dare not divulge, for example – that genuinely indulge Hitchcock’s total glee over the prospect of fractured minds.
But as every biopic searches for something to “say” “about” its subject, so too must Hitchcock eventually succumb, and even under the story’s modest timeline, one gets the kind of dignified redemption typically reserved for a few seconds before all that’s left to say is “he died several days later.” As those who know their Hitchcock (or simply watched HBO’s The Girl) can attest, things hardly got better inside the old boy’s mind. On its own, modest terms, Hitchcock is a decent night at the movies, though one may inevitably ache, as I did, to watch instead the very film these people are making. Not only is it more entertaining, but I dare say one might learn more of the man behind it.