Few would disagree that Alfred Hitchcock was a master of his craft, especially gifted in the art of mystery and suspense, but the man himself remains just as big of an enigma, a sort of Mr Macguffin to use his own term for that mysterious something that draws you deep into an intricate web. Fellow British director Sacha Gervasi aims to unravel those complexities with his latest film Hitchcock (opening Friday), but it’s a surprisingly fluffy portrait starring a heavily latexed Anthony Hopkins.
The title of the film could just as easily refer to his wife, Alma, a role that has scored Helen Mirren her fifth Oscar nod. Her performance is the beating heart of this film, marked by that regal poise (which was enough to win her the gong for The Queen) and a streak of mischief as she steers her husband through the creative decisions that elevated Psycho from b-movie to cinematic masterpiece. It was her skill as an editor, writer and assistant director that drew ‘Hitch’ to her in the early days of his career, when they both worked at studios in London.
Hopkins brings plenty of wit to his role as well, but the gravitas that some might expect is missing. He seems restricted, and not just by the inch-deep makeup. Ostensibly, Gervasi was working from Stephen Rebello’s book ‘Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho’ - tapping into Hitchcock’s fascination with real-life serial killer Ed Gein - and yet the film is about as dark as an episode of One Foot in the Grave. In fact, the BBC sitcom is a good shade or two darker, because for all the friction that exists between the Hitchcocks, their love for each other is never really in doubt.
Much about the story feels counterintuitive, but especially the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, the distressed damsel of Psycho who is killed off after half-an-hour, apparently on Alma’s recommendation. But Johansson is more Monroe than Leigh, a pneumatic sex object rather than the girl-next-door ingénue that Leigh was at the time, and the difference is key, because it was that wholesome image that made her bedroom scenes even more sensational in Psycho and set the tone for a brilliant marketing campaign. (The challenge was to sneak a peek, if you dare.)
Of course, Hitchcock’s fixation with beautiful blondes (and his tendency to victimise them on and off the screen) has become part of cinema legend and is portrayed in more excruciating detail in recent TV drama The Girl, based on Tippi Hedren’s eerie account of the making of The Birds. It could even be argued that Hitchcock himself laid these issues bare in his 1958 thriller Vertigo, in which Kim Novak is sucked into the dark fantasy life of James Stewart’s gumshoe. And yet, in Gervasi’s film, the dynamic between Hitchcock and Leigh is superficial. Johansson is barely a supporting player.
Still, Alma keeps a beady on her man and there are hints of his previous transgressions with Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) whose career is apparently stalled after turning down Hitchcock’s advances. But this doesn’t jibe with the cuddly, slightly naughty uncle figure that Hopkins portrays. Surprisingly, it’s Alma whose eye begins to wander in the direction of Strangers on a Train scribe Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), prompting hubbie to re-examine the ways he takes her for granted. Gervasi veers into Hallmark Channel territory and it appears that someone has cut the brakes…
Hitchcock looks into his heart, but from Gervasi’s point of view, there are no great revelations and he seems even less sure of what lurks beneath his fascination with Ed Gein. He is the spark that brings Psycho to life in Hitchcock’s mind, but Gervasi takes this too far, making him an imaginary friend (played by Michael Wincott) whose twisted philosophising strikes a chord with the director on some primal level. It’s a clunky device, jarring with the cosy, comedic tone that he’s chosen to run with. Hitchcock’s sly manoeuvring to keep his shower scene safe from the slash ‘n’ hacking censors actually offers better insight into a devious mind, as well as being funny.
Gervasi obviously shares his subject’s cheeky sense of humour, which is also evident in his brilliant documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil and there are plenty of amusing moments, but this undercuts every attempt to get at Hitchcock’s darker side. His focus on Reville also tips the balance. She deserves her place in history, of course, but the fact that James D’Arcy’s uncanny turn as Anthony Perkins amounts to barely five minutes of screen time – in a film supposedly about the making of Psycho! – is just screwy. Like one of Hitchcock’s hapless blondes, Gervasi takes a wrong turn early on and the end result is very choppy.
Hitchcock is in UK cinemas from 8 February 2013