Alfred Hitchcock is one of those iconic cultural figures who will never go out of style. Though he’s been dead longer than I’ve been alive, he’s still one of my favorite directors. If I see a Hitchcock film listed in the TV schedule, I can guarantee that I will find the time to watch it. Whether its The 39 Steps, Rebecca, Strangers On A Train, Topaz, or Frenzy, if it’s Hitchcock, I’m there. And I’m not alone as far as this is concerned. If Hitchcock hadn’t made The Birds, James Nguyen would never have made Birdemic. If Hitchcock hadn’t made Psycho, hundreds of low-budget horror films would never have had a chance to be distributed on DVD by Anchor Bay.
While it may have been Vertigo that was recently named the best film of all time by the Sight and Sound Poll, Psycho remains Hitchcock’s best known and most popular film. Psycho is certainly my favorite Hitchcock film, which is why I was certainly curious when I first heard about Hitchcock, a new movie that claims to tell the true story behind the making of Psycho.
Hitchcock opens with 60 year-old Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) trying to figure out how to follow up the success of North By Northwest. Hitchcock settles on adapting a little-regarded pulp novel that’s based on the true life crimes of serial killer Ed Gein. Over the objections of the censors, the studio, and all of his associates, Hitchcock makes Psycho his next film. At the same time, his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) deals with living in the shadow of her famous husband. While Hitchcock devotes all of his time to his film and obsessing over his leading actresses, Alma find herself tempted by a slick screenwriter named Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston).
(Has anyone good ever been named Whitfield Cook?)
As a film, Hitchcock is likable but shallow. Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren have great chemistry and they’re a lot of fun to watch but you never truly believe that you’re watching the true story of the making of a movie that changed cinematic history. Whenever Hitchcock threatens to become truly insightful about the artistic process, the story abruptly cuts away to another scene of Alma writing on the beach with Whitfield Cook. It doesn’t help that Danny Huston plays Cook as such an obvious cad that it actually diminishes Alma as character when she doesn’t immediately see through him.
Similarly, in the role of Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Hopkins gives a performance that is very likable and quite watchable but, in the end, still feels rather shallow. His performance feels like a good and entertaining impersonation but it never quite feels real. The closest that the film (and Hopkins) comes to suggesting any of Hitchcock’s inner demons is when he imagines having a conversation with Ed Gein (played by Michael Wincott). These scenes feel terribly out-of-place when compared to the rest of the film.
The actresses playing the women in Hitchcock’s life fare a little bit better. Jessica Biel and Scarlett Johansson are well-cast as Vera Miles and Janet Leigh, respectively. Helen Mirren is widely expected to earn an Academy Award nomination for her performance as Alma and she does have several strong scenes in Hitchcock. As I watched the film, I certainly could relate to Alma’s desire to be taken seriously as an individual and her frustration with being defined solely by the vows of marriage. It’s a feeling that Mirren captures perfectly.
In the end, Mirren aside, Hitchcock is entertaining but forgettable.