Hitchcock comes up short despite great cast

I love Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). It’s one of my favorite movies in fact. It’s also a great example of why the tired old cliché about ‘the book always being better than the movie’ is completely untrue. Because of my love of that film, and Alfred Hitchcock, I happen to know a lot about them as subjects, as I suspect will many viewers interested in the new Hitchcock (2012) biopic. It’s also the reason why this flimsy TV-movie of the week quality film just simply won’t do.

Such is the pity, because the film is populated with great actors. If you heard that Anthony Hopkins was playing Alfred Hitchcock, you would probably consider that perfect casting. I know I did, but then having seen the film I have to say I think Mr. Hopkins phoned-in his impression a bit. He’s got the girth and the baldness to fall back on, but really his voice in the film is closer to actor Bob Hoskins than Hitch. I remember Hopkins, despite looking and sounding nothing like Richard Nixon, making a good Nixon in a bad Oliver Stone film. Here’s he looks like Hitchcock, but isn’t a very good Hitchcock in a bad film.

The other central role is played by Helen Mirren as the long suffering Mrs. Hitchcock, Alma Reville. It is true that she has been relegated to the footnotes of his life by history, but I feel that the film probably goes too far in creating a significant role for a star actress like Mirren. Ultimately, this is a mistake because the film becomes a cheesy soap opera about a marriage on the rocks instead of thorough insight into the work of the great master of suspense. Sure there are plenty of scenes on the lot at Paramount (not very accurate scenes mind you) and even several from the set of Psycho throughout the plot of the film.

Things pick up a little when Scarlett Johansson delivers a lively turn as Janet Leigh and Jessica Biel floats in as Vera Miles, but these are glorified cameos in the scope of the film. The making of Psycho is sold as our story here, but most of the focus is on Alma and her possible affair with the screenwriter Whit Cook (Danny Huston) as they work on a script while Alma feels alienated by Hitchcock’s obsession with Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho that no one but he believes will work as a film. In the end he has to put up his own money to finance the film despite his sterling reputation in Hollywood.

This much is fact. However, really, the depiction of events is a series of creations to make history flow like a movie. I don’t mind this in a good movie, but in a fluff piece like this, it is aggravating. The scene that depicts the filming of Pyscho’s famous shower scene is completely ahistorical. The screenplay is also shockingly mechanical about the context of its setting as famous people like Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) speak in biographical facts like they were reading from an encyclopedia entry to Hitchcock. It couldn’t feel more lazy and contrived if it had tried.

All of Hitchcock’s neurosis, his overeating, his obsession with beautiful blonde actresses, are foisted into the movie for plot obstacles, but no attempt to actually get inside the head of one of the greatest directors ever is really made. There is a weird series of scenes where Hitch communes with the actual serial murderer Ed Gein, whom Psycho is partly based on, but these scenes are awkwardly sprinkled in along the way and don’t really cohere into any ideas about the relationship between artist and subject. The film’s running time is pretty slight as is, but even that felt like padding to me.

I love the ‘Old Hollywood’ of the studio system and the backlot so anything about that setting should be a sure shot to get me intrigued. Even with that going for it, I have to say Hitchcock is pretty poor.  I would liken it to last year’s My Week With Marilyn (2011), but it’s not even as good as that. There’s really no excuse for this film being so glancing and superficial. It should have been fascinating with its superior cast and subject matter.

The book that it is based on by Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the Marking of ‘Psycho,’ is quite good, so I’m not sure why writer John J. McLaughlin and director Sacha Gervasi had such a hard time animating the events. The Hyland is currently playing this film, but I might advise you to stay home with Hitchcock’s Psycho itself for a better evening’s entertainment.

Perhaps the Hyland’s monthly RETROMANIA series will sprinkle in some more Hitchcock classics at some point in 2013 to satiate the appetite of London Hitchcock fans. This film, however, will not.

(Out of Four Stars)

Paul Hantiuk is a local film enthusiast and occasional freelance writer