"Hitchcock" takes place during the legendary production of "Psycho" in 1959, but it never shows a single frame of the movie itself. Whether this is the result of rights issues or an unwillingness to create distance from the reenactments with the genuine article, the absence of "Psycho" in a story so committed to its production underscores the narrative thrust of "Hitchcock." As the title implies, it focuses more on the master of suspense than his mastery.
The foregrounding of Hitch's character benefits greatly from a brilliantly kooky turn by Anthony Hopkins, whose diction and stiff pose wonderfully inhabit Hitchcock's peculiar physicality. At the same time, the emphasis on Hitch the man versus Hitch the filmmaker only carries the movie so far. Based on Stephen Rebello's 1990 book, "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho," John McLaughlin's screenplay has been vividly realized by director Sacha Gervasi (who directed the heavy metal documentary "Anvil!" and has written several screenplays, but makes his fiction debut behind the camera here).
The focus on Hitchcock's life during this pivotal moment where he rejuvenated his career makes sense. For decades, Hitchcock's films have been dissected every which way in book-length analyses and film courses that bleed the subtext dry. Yet even as the filmmaker's portly figure remains immediately recognizable from his various cameos and morbid introductions on the still-potent TV series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," the man himself remains something of a mystery in the public imagination, and "Hitchcock" largely succeeds at pulling back the veil on his off-camera personality. To a larger degree, it reveals the level of influence of his devoted wife and screenwriter Alma (Helen Mirren) on both his personal life and career, a track that eventually leads "Hitchcock" away from "Psycho" and into scenes from a marriage instead.
"Hitchcock" swiftly establishes its leading man's midlife conundrum. At the peak of his fame and turning 60, he has grown frustrated with the presumption that his age has taken him off the playing field. An early scene finds him in the bathtub grousing to Alma about a New York Times article surveying "the new masters of suspense." "Why do they keep looking for new ones when they still have the original?" he asks. Hitch returns fire by seeking material that defies expectations, "a nice, clean, nasty piece of work." He finds it in Robert Bloch's newly released dramatization of the grotesque Ed Gein murder case from 1957. Alma balks at the gruesome descriptions in the text, positing that the filmmaker doesn't go for cheap shocks. "But what if somebody really good made a horror film?" he asks.
While informed by the fame of the movie that came out of this thinking, the genesis of "Psycho" is a fascinating process that unfolds in bedroom conversations between the director and his wife, heated meetings with Paramount's skeptical head of production (Richard Portnow) and Hitchcock's committed agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg), eventually continuing into the production. Hitchcock's decision to self-finance the movie (securing Paramount for distribution alone) rackets up a different sort of tension than anything remotely Hitchcockian; Hopkins' ability to imbue the witty character with intense likability in spite of his rampant ego and prickliness make it easy to root for his success. As the director battles through censorship issues with the PCA while nearly losing his mind over his fixation on blonde leading ladies, "Hitchcock" convincingly makes the case that "Psycho" might not have come together.
However, while the devotion to Hitchcock's personal life informs his unwieldy approach to realizing his vision, the movie stumbles when it gets away from the actual production and foregrounds Hitchcock's rocky married life. Gervasi relies on a weak plot device that finds Hitchcock suffering from visions of Gein (Michael Wincott) muttering creepy insinuations in the director's ear (Hitch would surely disapprove). Furthering his fixation on blonde actresses, Scarlet Johansson surfaces as a benevolent Janet Leigh, whose presence in the film underscores Hitchcock's unspoken urges.
But that's only part of the reason why the director drives Alma batty, and soon she's involved in a suggestive working relationship with fellow screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) and contemplating the prospects of infidelity. Given a tremendous amount of credit for influencing various plot points in "Psycho," Alma becomes the true star of "Hitchcock," the enabler unappreciated by the man she enables, but once the movie gets drawn into this drama it loses much of the appeal generated from the tale of the production.
Nevertheless, a vibrant atmosphere littered with colorful sights and sounds — not unlike a Hitchcock production — carries through movie through its stodgier moments. Jeff Cronenweth's cinematography gives the impression of Hitchcock living through one of his own productions, while Danny Elfman does his best Bernard Hermann with the jumpy orchestral score. But the presence of these ingredients also draw attention to the lack of Hitchcockian skill, and once "Hitchcock" digs back into the details of the "Psycho" post-production it has nearly run out of time.
The fleeting sight of an editing room argument centered on the use of music during the famous shower sequence provides one of the few peeks at the Hitchcock couple at work. Later, the director is seen anticipating each scream from the film's first public audience with the calculated gestures of a symphony composer. It's these sights of a man in true control of his medium that elevate "Hitchcock" by rendering the director's genius through his commitment to the process. That only makes it more dispiriting that "Hitchcock" treats "Psycho" as its MacGuffin, using the backstory as an excuse to unearth a comparatively run-of-the-mill relationship drama. With so much screen time committed to Alma and Alfred, the title of "Hitchcock" should have been plural.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? "Hitchcock" opened AFI Fest this week to mostly positive buzz ahead of Fox Searchlight's November 23 release date. Hopkins will likely remain a major candidate in Oscar season, but the movie faces difficult commercial prospects beyond its opening weekend.
Watch the trailer for "Hitchcock" below: