I don't care about the subject matter; I don't care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the soundtrack and all of the technical ingredients that make the audience scream. I feel it's tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion. And with Psycho we most definitely achieved this. It wasn't a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film." — Alfred Hitchcock, interviewed by filmmaker François Truffaut
Hitchcock is not a straight biopic about classic Hollywood's most famous filmmaker but rather a portrait of the "Master of Suspense" at work in the period between the launch of his great triumph, 1959's North By Northwest, and the even greater success of his subsequent big gamble, 1960's Psycho.
In capturing this time in the director's life, Hitchcock weighs three related but distinct topics: It's a marriage story, looking into the personal and professional relationship between Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife and underrecognized creative colleague, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). It's also a backstage procedural about how Hitchcock, along with agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and assistant Peggy Robertson (Toni Collete), got Psycho — a nasty piece of work that made for an unlikely and groundbreaking project for an A-list Hollywood director of the day — made despite resistance from Paramount and industry censors. But it's also at times — at its infrequent best — about "the pieces of film and the photography and the soundtrack and all of the technical ingredients that make the audience scream."
Hopkins, abetted by heavy makeup and a fat suit, plays Hitchcock as the droll, morbid caricature from his film trailers and television appearances. He doesn't seem like Hitchcock, but at least he doesn't seem like Anthony Hopkins either. Mirren gives a better and deeper performance even as the plot lines centered on her threaten to sink the film. A secret writing partnership between Alma and Strangers on a Train scribe Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) is suspected to be something more intimate by Hitchcock, and the soapier aspects of this tangent feel like a sop to the middle-aged demographic, tapping into which is probably the film's only hope of becoming a hit. Mirren, at least, brings this detour home by nailing her Big Speech.
On the studio lot, there's plenty of material of more interest to film buffs, from stray asides — Hitchcock turning down an offer to make the first James Bond — to re-creations of Psycho's three great set pieces: the opening afternoon tryst, the staircase killing, and, of course, the shower scene. But much of this material is more dutiful than inspired. (And that goes double for Scarlett Johansson's nonperformance as shower-scene victim Janet Leigh.)
Attempts at plumbing Hitchcock's psyche in these scenes pales next to what the man himself does in his own films. And, on a related note, the use of real-life Psycho inspiration Ed Gein in a series of fantasy sequences is a stillborn gambit.
Hitchcock only truly finds a groove in its final stretch, when Alma tells Alfred at the breakfast table, "I suggest for everyone's sake we start whipping Psycho into shape," and we're suddenly in the editing room with those "pieces of film," snipping strips of celluloid, looking at individual frames, and cutting together a shower scene that, as Hitchcock told Truffaut, took seven days and 70 camera set-ups to produce 45 seconds of footage. Next, Hitchcock is negotiating with composer Bernard Herrmann about the film's iconic, piercing score; devising an ingenious marketing scheme; and, in the film's best and no doubt fanciful moment, standing in the theater lobby on opening night, stabbing along with Mrs. Bates to a helpless, orchestrated audience response, literalizing the notion of movie murder weapon as conductor's wand.
This little grace-note tribute to "pure film" is true to Hitchcock but mostly out of step with Hitchcock, which, unlike its subject, must rely on performance and audience familiarity with its source material to generate interest.
Opening Friday, December 14th