It was inevitable. One day someone was going to make a biopic about the world’s favorite rolly-polly master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. Someone must have decided that 2012 would be the year because not only was a movie about a creepy, rapey Hitchcock launched on HBO (The Girl), but the most famous director who ever lived is also getting the glossy biopic treatment just in time for awards season in the appropriately titled Hitchcock.
Here’s the challenge with this or any biopic though: Is there a story about great man worth telling? Yes, he was groundbreaking. Yes, he had a delightfully morbid fascination with murder. Yes, he was obsessed with blondes and liked to have beautiful actress do his bidding on screen. The thing is that all of those intriguing aspects of his character were already covered fairly well in the man’s movies. There are certainly biopics like say Raging Bull, Ed Wood, or even Lawrence Of Arabia that have such compelling stories at their core, the fact that they were based on real life is almost secondary. The true test of any biopic should be whether it would still be compelling if the celebrity at the center were a fictional character. Hitchcock is not one of those. It’s a movie with appeal limited to fans wanting to simply see Hitch live again on the big screen. The actual content is manufactured to try and force drama onto a fairly banal life story.
The film opens with Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) walking out of the premiere of one of his greatest populist hits North By Northwest. The man is on a high, but the pesky press just have to ask if, at 60 years old, he should consider retirement. Oh boy does that ever grind the director’s gears. He decides he’ll have to do something edgy and relevant to prove he’s still got it. Of course, Hitch doesn’t really know how to accomplish that until learning of the mother-loving, skin-wearing, serial killer Ed Gein and Robert Bloch’s book that was loosely inspired by the sicko’s life. Hitch is so excited that he starts have dreams and fantasies where he interacts with Gein (yep, that really happens) and offers to bankroll the budget himself when Paramount seems nervous. He then embarks on the production that would go one to become his most successful, famous, and infamous film – Psycho. Superstar Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) is cast as a piece of misdirection who will be murdered halfway through, while big screen innocent Anthony Perkins (Michael Stuhlberg) is chillingly cast against type in the title role. It’s a risky production, but one that gets Hitch more excited about filmmaking than he had been in years and could make him a legend.
That’s the best material in the movie and what’s been specifically designed for film fans. Aside from the fact that Universal refused to grant the filmmakers access to any footage from Psycho or even the right to recreate scenes (hey, Gus Van Sant got there first buddy!), there’s only so much that could be done. Had the movie just followed this admittedly interesting slice of film history and strove to be a movie-buff pleaser like the HBO Citizen Kane bio RKO 281, it would be worthwhile for a selective audience. Unfortunately, someone decided along the way that there wasn’t enough substance there for an entire movie. So, the bulk of the running time is dedicated to Hitchcock’s relationship to his wife Alma (Helen Mirren). She was always a secret behind the scenes collaborator, but according to this movie she was actually involved in every decision Hitch made and was deeply saddened by never receiving any credit. So, while Hitch was shooting Psycho, she spent her days working on a screenplay with writing buddy Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), which drives Hitch mad with jealousy when he should be focusing on his masterpiece. Oh, what drama! It’s all manufactured hogwash of course and doesn’t really add much to the film, but then again many of the facts are fudged in the production story anyways (I’m not sure how a disastrous Hitchcock movie could be saved in the cutting room since he essentially shot movies like puzzles that could only be fit together a certain way, but apparently that’s what happened). I guess the filmmakers thought it would give Hitchcock some heart, but just feels like manufactured drama tacked on to a fairly dry making-of story.
Of course, manufacturing drama like that is a natural part of the biopic process, it just feels gratuitous here. Most people who see the film will be fans of the director who just want to see the Psycho story and don’t need Alma’s semi-affair, the ludicrous Ed Gein dreams, or Hitch actually referring to Hitchcock blondes for the sake of a lame send off gag. Those who don’t care about Hitchcock aren’t going to run to the theater to see a movie about a director who they don’t care about getting in a mild tizzy with his wife. That material would be superfluous for any audience, and the movie will ultimately only really be appreciated by those who want to see the Anthony Hopkins’ stunt casting.
Hopkins has been shoved into a life-size rubber Hitchcock suit and while he admittedly carries it well, he never commits to Hitch’s voice. It sounds like a Hopkins in a lower register, which is a shame since it’s one of the most iconic and easily imitatable voices out there. Ignore the voice and there’s no denying it’s amusing to see him waddle around and tell people how to stage a shower murder. It’s just a shame he doesn’t get to do much else. Helen Mirren brings the same presence to Alma as she does to all her roles, even if playing a nice woman who gets slightly miffed over the course of 98 minutes seems like a waste of her talent. Johansson doesn’t really bother with a Janet Leigh impression, she’s just Johansson, but I suppose that’s fine since all she’s required to do is appear famous on camera. Michael Stuhlberg’s Perkins is actually quite good. Unfortunately he’s barely in the movie. Sigh…
Now, I don’t want to make it seem like Hitchcock is an unfathomable biopic disaster. It’s not. It’s at least watchable. Anvil director Sacha Gervasi keeps things moving at a brisk pace with a wiseacre sense of humor. Between that tone and the performances, the film is certainly never boring. The trouble is that since biopics are made to win awards, making an amusing movie that goes through the motions just isn’t enough. There’s amusing novelty to be had in seeing Hopkins walk as Hitchcock or hearing whispers of how Psycho was pulled together, that’s just not really enough to sustain a feature length film. Maybe the team should have tried to make this a comedy or maybe they should have manufactured some exciting twist in the tale beyond a semi-affair.
Hitchcock is one of those movies that feels like it should be better while you’re watching, since so many small pieces work but never quite add up. It’s obviously still a must see for Hitchcock addicts since… you know, it’s a movie about Hitchcock. However, expectations should be lowered and general audiences probably shouldn’t be invited. The movie is okay with some problems. But since it’s about one of the greatest directors who ever lived, “OK” shouldn’t have ever been an option. Ah well, at least after two sub-par Hitchcock bios we don’t have to worry about another one being made anytime soon and even if that somehow happens, there will now be two very different examples of what not to do.