“My name is Alfred Hitchcock…”
Thus begins both Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the anthology TV series hosted by The Master of Suspense, which ran from 1955 to 1965, and Hitchcock, the biopic of his life, directed by Sacha Gervasi (Anvil! The Story of Anvil).
Making a film about possibly the most famous director of film who ever lived seems like a hard sell – comparisons with his work are unavoidable and inevitably unfavorable. Then the making again Psycho, arguably Hitch’s best known film, was hardly a fait accomplit, as ‘Hitchcock’ documents, so it seems artistic merit has little to do with saleability.
Even so, Hitchcock never really achieves a life of its own, perpetually living in the shadow of the great man’s work. It’s a Catch-22: someone unfamiliar with Hitchcock’s work has no real reason to see this film, despite sterling work by both Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren; Hitchcock fans won’t be able to help but be disappointed by the grab-bag of stylistic flourishes and psychological quirks that make up Hitchcock.
Hopkins’ Hitch is a corpulent epicurean, always downing a glass of sherry or raiding the pantry in the middle of the night, despite the scolding of his acid-tongued wife, Mirren’s Alma. When he disappears behind a screen to fix a faulty projector on the set of Psycho, there’s no mistaking his portly silhouette. Hitchcock, it seems, it a man of immense appetites, but also obsession.
If Hopkins never quite captures the plummy tones of the real-life Hitch, if he ever seems to be peeking out from beneath the heavy makeup, that’s probably because, as with his performance in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, Hopkins prefers to inhabit “the role” rather than simply imitate “the man”.
It’s a shame it’s not more of a role: the film opens opens outside the house of Ed Gein, the serial killer upon whose exploits Robert Bloch based his novel Psycho. This is where the film stumbles over its own ambitions: the sequences where Hitchcock meets with an imaginary Gein, who characterizes the director’s dark side, are supposed to be nightmarish, but they feel superfluous, cheap even.
Hitchcock’s obsession with blondes is will documented, not least in HBO’s recent TV movie The Girl, which portrays Hitchcock as a megalomaniac headcase determined to utterly dominate his leading lady. Scarlett Johansson appears at Janet Leigh, the actress who played Marion Crane, the ill-fated heroine of Psycho – indeed, Hitchcock recreates the terrifying shower scene, albeit with a notable twist.
James D’Arcy is spot-on as Anthony Perkins AKA Norman Bates, whom it’s suggested, like Hitchcock, has his own demons to excise through the work. Michael Stuhlbarg plays the role of Hitchcock’s loyal gent, Jessica Biel that of Vera Miles, one of Hitchcock’s former “victims”, with Danny Huston as philandering writer Whitfield Cook.
At the heart of the story, beneath all of Hitchcock’s neuroses, is his relationship with Alma; his muse, whose infidelity he fears, but to whom he is unwilling or unable to fully give himself. For a supposed warts-and-all telling, Hitchcock is strangely silent on it’s subjects childhood, which, especially given the Freudian themes that saturate the piece.
Hopkins and Mirren both inhabit their roles, but, despite their effort, there’s not much to play. With HBO’s recent TV movie The Girl portraying Hitch as a borderline headcase, the man here, though certainly more balanced, can’t help but feel a bit – if you’ll pardon the pun – thin.
We never get to know Hitchcock as well as we might, held permanently at arm’s length, or perhaps a knife’s length. Hitchcock gives us precious few opportunities to watch the man at work, choosing to present us with homicidal fantasies in place of real-life struggle. Part of the film’s trouble is that it remains so resolutely – albeit trashily – tasteful.
When Hitchcock in the penultimate scene of the film seems to conduct the audience’s screams from outside the cinema, we might well wish that Gervasi, not to mention the film’s writer John J. McLaughlin, had been a bit more hands on with us.
The man remains a mystery, albeit a sympathetic one. It’s all artifice – there are subtler ways to establish an undercurrent of darkness in a man than populating his subconscious with posthumous serial killers. With his enormous appetite and undeniable genius, it’s not difficult to imagine what Hitchcock himself might have thought of this meager effort…