I’ve read in at least one review that Hitchcock is similar to My Week with Marilyn because of the almost over-the-top reverence paid to its central characher; both films also address the cult of celebrity at a two-generation remove from today’s always-on “entertainment” and “news” gossip industries; but while I think that the latter film is more effective as a portrayal of its subject, I think Hitchcock works better overall as a film—which is ultimately more satisfying. Part of this is a function of the place in life of each film’s subject—Alfred Hitchcock’s inner demons are tempered by a selective world-weary wisdom, whereas Marilyn Monroe, who did not live long enough to be truly wise, had only the demons. The self-reflexivity of Hitchcock is a nod to that wisdom, as well as to the duality that Alfred Hitchcock projected, a man as likely to think himself a jester as others were to think him a ghoul.
The film opens with a nice framing sequence of Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) introducing his own film in much the same way that he used to introduce each episode of his television program. He briefly recounts the story of a person called Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), a non-fictional murderer and body snatcher who became the inspiration for a fictional character called Norman Bates, in a novel called Psycho, by Robert Bloch. Casting about for a new project after the highly successful North by Northwest, Hitchcock latches on to the Bloch novel and the story of Gein, in part because he believes he can craft a successful film from the grisly story in a way that no one else can. Director Sacha Gervasi returns to the Gein device several times throughout the film, always indicating a shift from the main narrative to Hitchcock’s inner monologue.
This device worked for me on several levels. First and foremost, it features the villain from The Crow in the role of Ed Gein. That right there would have been enough, but it also lets the audience slide into Hitchcock’s mind—first as he tries to work out problems with bringing the novel to the screen, and then later as he begins to realize that some of those problems have more to do with his personal life than they do with the film he is working on. I’m not enough of a Hitchcock devotee to know whether or not this is how it played out in real life, but it’s an effective device for a narrative film—one that has its tongue planted a bit too firmly in its cheek to really qualify as a biopic. (And it’s certainly appropriate for an obvious MacGuffin to play a role in a film about Alfred Hitchcock—more of that tongue-in-cheekiness.)
Hitchcock explains the Ed Gein story at the start of the film by saying that without Gein, “we would not have our little movie.” The significance is in the use of the negative. There was probably no way to avoid the expectation that Hitchcock would be about the making of Psycho once it came out that the screenplay was based on a book called Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. It’s true that this film is not precisely what comes to mind when you think of a making-of story: very little of the action takes place on the set, and the action that does take place on the set has more to do with Hitchcock himself than it does with the film. I have not read the source material, so I don’t know whether people expecting a film school document on the making of Psycho have a legitimate gripe or not.
What I do know is that Alfred Hitchcock remains one of the most famous directors in the history of cinema. Psycho is probably his best-known film. (AFI has rated it the top thriller of all time, as well as #18 on its 100 Years...100 Movies list. It is #29 on IMDb’s Top 250.) From a remove of almost 50 years, it’s almost impossible to imagine that Alfred Hitchcock was an ordinary person with ordinary problems, and that he was not given a blank check and carte blanche (yes, I know, just go with it—I meant it non-ironically) at the beginning of each new film he embarked upon; and yet that is mostly what we see here—Hitchcock mortgaging his house to secure financing for the film, and the tension between Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), which threatens both his marriage and his career. The commingling of his personal and professional lives, which approaches symbiosis, is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this film.
And if that’s not the most fascinating aspect of the film, then watching Anthony Hopkins nearly disappear into the role of Alfred Hitchcock certainly is. He gives himself to the role fully, as he did for Oliver Stone in the title role for Nixon; but he cannot quite disappear into it. Hopkins left such an indelible mark as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs that I don’t think he’ll ever be able to disappear into a role again; and yet it speaks to his remarkable talents as an actor that he can come awfully close, even playing such iconic figures as Alfred Hitchcock and Richard Nixon. If there is a downside to seeing Hopkins in this role, it is that he appears, for the first time that I can recall, to be making an effort to achieve the performance. There are scenes where his haughty, chin-up delivery is spot on, and others where he’s clearly just Anthony Hopkins hidden under a fat suit and lots of makeup.
Gervasi’s direction is more uneven here than it was in his excellent documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil, despite the excellent point-of-view shifts to the Gein story. The montage sequences, in particular, are ineffective (especially the disjointed cross-cut montage of Hitchcock and Reville in their vehicles); but the film works because it effectively conveys how close the world came to never seeing the film that many regard as Hitchcock’s masterpiece. It is said that you can’t prove a negative, but this film nearly does just that. Hitchcock derives its power less from the current perception of its title character than from the current perception of the film Hitchcock almost didn’t get to make—a dose of cinematic sleight of hand of which Hitchcock himself would have been proud.