Who would have thought that of all things, Hitchcock, Sacha Gervasi’s window into Alfred Hitchcock prior to and during the making of Psycho, one of the most enduring films of all time and a suspense classic, would turn out to be primarily a romance?
But that’s exactly the yield in Gervasi’s overextended film, which screenwriter John J. McLaughlin has adapted from Stephen Rebello’s piercingly definitive account, “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho”. And in chronicling just a couple of years in the life and career of the director, including his struggles to get Psycho made, yearning for industry adulation, his odd dealings with the female stars he directed, and most especially, his marriage to Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), the film spreads itself far too thin in its portrayal of the famously portly artist.
Hitchcock’s primary emphasis is on Hitchcock and Reville, a largely unknown force who certainly deserves her own story. But this film isn’t it. McLaughlin’s script sanctifies the woman. She can do no wrong – all of her story ideas for Hitchcock are spot-on, and she fills in for him on set at one point as director with a complete grasp of proficiency. Even a formulaic subplot hinting at a desired affair with writer Whitfield Cook (a caddish Danny Huston) treats her with the utmost sympathy. And as outfitted by Julie Weiss, Reville takes on the form and figure of a movie star herself. It’s a glamorous look at a largely invisible figure, and it goes too far.
On the other hand, Hitchcock holds back when it comes to the other threads on which Gervasi pulls. The script shows Hitchcock having frequent internal dialogues with Ed Gein, the real life murderer on whom Robert Bloch based Norman Bates in his novel of “Psycho”, asserting that the director might be just as disturbed as his depraved subject matter. But then it doesn’t deliver beyond that, aside from a few cute bon mots (“Enjoy the finger sandwiches; they’re made of real fingers”) that do not sound threatening at all. And while a competing HBO film, The Girl, focused on Hitchcock’s infamous obsession with star Tippi Hedren, we largely see him merely pulling pranks on the two actresses in Psycho, Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel).
Miles remarks how her choice of personal life over career cost her the leading role in Vertigo, but the film offers nothing to support her argument or prove that it makes the director reptilian. And if she resented him so much, why take on the thankless role in Psycho anyway? (Though neither actress can do much in these portrayals, at least the distaff members of the Psycho cast get representation; men like Richard Chassler as Martin Balsam and Josh Yeo as John Gavin are barely seen and never heard.)
As a thesis, Hitchcock is unfocused. It cannot decide if it wants to portray its subject as monster or mere menace. While both his fortune and his marriage face hurdles, neither impediment looms too large or for too long. And a humanizing note rings false. The director bemoans the fact that while nominated, he has never won the Best Director Oscar he so craves. But McLaughlin never addresses the fact that he refused to make more Oscar-friendly fare throughout his career (and he did get an honorary Irving G. Thalberg Award, which goes unmentioned in the film’s post-script.)
There are joys to behold in the film, however, for cineastes. It is a thrill to see renderings of behind-the-scenes figures like Lew Wasserman (essayed by Michael Stuhlbarg) and Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow), and set designer Robert Gould’s recreations of both the homes and sets of a bygone era have the effect of time travel simulation. Most especially, one gets to watch Hopkins and Mirren, indisputably two of filmdom’s greatest working actors, work together. Hopkins, who has brought real-life presidents and painters to life onscreen before this another home run, marrying the director’s arrogance and insecurity in a devilish turn that does justice both to Gervasi’s light tone and respects the subject himself. And while her role may be inflated, Mirren certainly imbues Reville with dignity and credibility. I would have traded less screen time with her and a bit more of Psycho star Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy). Both had fascinating lives deserving of their own individual film treatments. But maybe those movies are to come. God knows Hollywood loves a good trilogy.