I didn’t learn anything from Hitchcock (2012), which doesn’t really have any insight or unique perspective nor does it add anything to the people it’s using to generate interest, but it does have famous people playing other famous people and that’s fun, so I enjoyed it.
The movie is the behind–the–scenes story of the making of Psycho (1960), which Hitch (Anthony Hopkins) wanted to make to stay on the cutting edge. It has Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, Jessica Biel as Vera Miles and James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins, the stars of Psycho, but the star of Hitchcock is Helen Mirren as Alma Reville, Hitch’s long–suffering wife, who many consider to be nearly as responsible as the master himself for the genius of his films.
The scenes on the set of Psycho provide the most inherent interest, as we get to see the stars of today dress up like the stars of yesterday and re-create one of the cinema’s most famous movies (that interest has a limit, however, as the Gus Van Sant 1998 shot-by-shot remake proved but, if anything, I left Hitchcock wishing I’d seen more making-of material). Also worth watching is the sweet interplay between Hitch and Alma, who hold a daily competition to see who can be the most droll. Hopkins isn’t uncanny in the Streep mold; in fact, he’s more like a socially acceptable Hannibal Lector with campy understatement and even a cannibalism joke (“Try the finger sandwiches; they’re real fingers.”) but the same macabre showmanship is there, so he gives a performance not an impression. Mirren is sensational as the great man’s equal, frustrated but loyal, suggesting years of love and sadness. Hitchcock is not a subtle movie, but its handling of Alma’s need for affection (professional and personal) is fairly inconspicuous, represented in her purchase of a swimsuit or the look of disappointment when an expectation isn’t met. Mirren makes these moments come alive.
When the movie leaves the set or the Hitchcock house, it mainly falters, particularly with the toothless threat represented by Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), a screenwriter who’s flirting with Alma to get to Hitch. There’s also a number of exaggerated plot elements about the production of Psycho that seem tacked on to give the movie more drama; it makes it seem like, had the picture flopped, Hitchcock, a thirty–year veteran with a two dozen hits under his belt, would be completely ruined. There’s also a truly unworthy look into Hitch’s psyche complete with hallucinatory visits from Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real serial killer who inspired Psycho’s Norman Bates. These episodes are insipid and pointless and simply underline how unwilling the movie is to give a portrait of its subject that’s any more than surface deep. Many characters take their turns stating exactly what they mean and what they represent (Vera Miles seems to exist just to explain to the audience what’s going on emotionally), but they do it while made up to look like Janet Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock so we hardly care.
The movie reminded me of last year’s My Week with Marilyn, which was similarly slight but good natured. Hitchcock does a little worse because its attentions are divided between its central character and the film he’s making. My Week with Marilyn was able to stay completely with Marilyn Monroe because it showed her during the making of an unimportant movie (The Prince and the Showgirl ); the Hitchcock equivalent would have been to show the making of Some Like It Hot (1958), which would have split our attention between Monroe’s personal life and the movie production we’re interested in, which is what happens in Hitchcock.
Just like Marilyn, though, the fun of Hitchcock is in the sly little in-jokes about its subject. They’re cheap and obvious (there are a lot of birds in this movie) but they’re fun. I liked Danny Elfman’s score inspired by some of the famous riffs of Hitchcock’s frequent music man Bernard Hermann, especially from Vertigo (1958). Some of these are fairly inspired, my favorite being when Hitch, observing the reactions of an audience watching the shower scene in Psycho, waves his arms in a mixture of orchestra conducting and vicious stabbing—a wink both to the violence of his film and to the control he had over the audience’s behavior. “A lot of movies are like a slice of life,” the real Hitchcock said, “Mine are like a slice of cake.” Hitchcock is like a finger full of frosting, but it’s hard not to enjoy that.