You won’t find many films about film directors because, let’s face it, we’re not exactly savory characters, certainly not everyman heroes on whom you can pin your hopes and aspirations. On the contrary: at best we’re quirky, petty despots who are deluded into thinking that what we do has more value than it really does by the underlings over whom we are despotic, until we fuck up and get flushed by the system.
Alfred Hitchcock was a particularly unsavory character, and therefore a real challenge to bring to the screen as a central character. He was obese, obsessive, perverted, creepy, alcoholic, ugly, gluttonous, insecure and sadistic—oh, yes, and somewhat comical, but with a list of adjectives like those clattering behind you as if they were cans attached to a newlyweds’ car departing a wedding designed by Tim Burton, you’d better have a sense of humor.
I like Hitchcock. I think he was a stylish, accomplished director. He might even have been great, at least for people whose tastes are more inclined towards Tales From the Crypt and crime stories than mine are. I emphatically do not agree with the British Film Institute that Vertigo is the best film of all time. It’s not the BFI’s fault, of course; they were only polling film critics, or whatever the cinema studies geeks from film school turned into professionally. I find Vertigo to be whacky and dull and overly long—harsh as it sounds, it deserved to be the box-office flop that it was. And it certainly doesn’t deserve canonization now, just because our tastes have changed from Big Themes like those behind Citizen Kane to the more macro examination of the individual as a universe unto himself.
Hitchcock begins with the “corpulent” maestro having just come off a massive success with North by Northwest—every time I see that title I remember a torpid afternoon at Wesleyan University trying to stay awake while a cinema studies guru that all the other students treated like some Dionysian demiurge broke that fucking crop dusting scene down shot for shot… groan. So Hitch finds himself at a loss as to what to do to top NBNW. There are no surprises. Just watch the trailer for Hitchcock and it tells the rest of the story: He wants to make Psycho next, but Paramount is convinced it will be a flop, so he finances it himself in a deal that might make George Lucas envious were Lucas’ own self-financing deals with the studios reputedly not even more advantageous than Hitchcock’s.
The shoot is difficult, as all shoots are in one way or the other—only a survivor of the Battle for Iwo Jima has an inkling of what a clusterfuck a production can be—and the film almost doesn’t get released, which is bullshit. All that probably really happened is nobody liked the director’s cut, so Hitchcock made changes to everyone’s notes—totally standard with almost every film ever made other than Innocence of Muslims. (To clarify for those who might not be aware of this technicality, the director’s cut actually refers to the more or less rough assemble a director must deliver within a certain time frame after wrapping a shoot, usually around six weeks. It is not expected to be perfect, often major elements like proper sound and CGI are missing, it hasn’t been color corrected, etc. So this thing DVD peddlers push as being the “Director’s Cut” should properly speaking be called, “The Director’s Preferred Version, After He’s Had Lots of Time to Think About It and Has Managed to Convince His Editor to Do Another Pass or Two in Exchange for Working on Those Insanely Lucrative National Commercials.”)
As much as I am not a huge fan of Hitchcock’s, merely a respecter of his talent, he deserves worthier treatment than Sacha Gervasi’s tepid film, which ironically happens to be exactly the sort of limp, overcooked Hollywood tripe Hitchcock rails against in the film (but which he made plenty of early in his career). Certainly, it could have been shot and edited with more panache, in keeping with the director’s own stylish flair. As it is, it looks like an expensive Lifetime movie of the week.
The wonderful thing about Anthony Hopkins is also the terrible thing about Anthony Hopkins: he is never not Anthony Hopkins, no matter how large the fat suit, how expertly the whale-like rubber chin is applied. He doesn’t disappear into this role in the least, certainly not the way Meryl Streep did in Iron Lady, who was so Margaret Thatcher you felt the real former British prime minister wasn’t enough of herself to begin with. Okay, I’ll concede that occasionally Hopkins does become someone else in Hitchcock: when he dusts his accent with a touch of East End as a nod to the director’s humble origins, he becomes Michael Caine in a fat suit and whale-like chin. Never Hitchcock himself.
Helen Mirren is the true delight, as she always is, without fail. As I said in the beginning of this review, it’s not complicated to see the challenge of hinging a film around someone as grotesque and unappealing as Alfred Hitchcock, so the decision was made to focus on his relationship with his long-suffering wife and collaborator, Alma, in order to establish some semblance of compassion for the lead characters. And that works to a certain degree, had Mirren not been forced to also perform opposite Danny Huston, who plays Whitfield Cook, a debonair writer with whom she collaborates with a view to make Hitchcock jealous, or maybe she really wants to have an affair—it’s all so contrived that expressions of disdain from Mean Girls start popping into your head. Despite his illustrious pedigree as the son of director John Huston and half-brother of Angelica, Danny isn’t nearly at Mirren’s level—I can think of a few other actors who might have been better suited for the role, and would have convinced me that Mirren-as-Alma would have gone for him. But, in truth, this is such a lame subplot I wish they’d done away with it altogether for something more authentic and darker, more Hitchcock, even if it really did happen.
As if bolstering the point in my recent article “Too Beautiful Too Act?”, the most egregious point of cast is Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh. With Mirren and Hopkins in the lead roles, I really don’t understand the point of loading the film further with another star whose pneumatic looks are just too 60s Playboy pinup to come anywhere near the sort of aristocratic WASP blond with whom Hitchcock was obsessed, and which Leigh represented. He can’t have Grace Kelly for Psycho because she’s now a princess, so the alternative is… ScarJo? Nope.
As if to counterbalance that ginormous casting misstep, James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins is perfect. I wish he’d had more screen time, because what a complex character Perkins was in real life. Those of us Gheys who survived the AIDS epidemic of the 80s, which he didn’t, know that there was a tenebrous, kinky underside to Perkins that is the kind of subtext Hitchcock could have benefited more from, rather than being so whitewashed and sanitized. Instead of going for what was really there with Perkins and company, Gervasi inserts a banal conceit: an on-going conversation Hitchcock has in his mind with real-life serial killer Ed Gein, perfectly matched physically by Michael Wincott, but utterly forgettable in terms of performance and pertinence to the story. Yes, we creative types do have all sorts of internal fantasy lives, but I would rather screen time have been spent on D’Arcy as Perkins, the man who immortalized Norman Bates. For instance, a scene in an S&M dungeon of the kind Perkins reputedly frequented would not have been remiss in a film about the making of Psycho.
From a filmmaker’s standpoint, what makes Hitchcock both disheartening and inspiring is that no matter how great you are, no matter what your standing in Hollywood, you are never more than a step away from a great yawning precipice that threatens to destroy your life. True, the stakes that Gervasi tries to raise here are completely ridiculous—that the Hitchcocks will face financial ruin if their self-financed pet project flops—because anyone who can balance a checkbook or understands percentages can grasp from the dialogue that at worst they will break even. And, bitch, please, he owned the negative to his TV shows? That in itself dampens the dramatic impact to the extent that I personally would have eschewed it in favor of what I have already suggested: making a psychological mind-fuck thriller about the making of a thriller by exploring the dark relationships between a twisted director and the gorgeous people he manipulates.
But Gervasi and his team erred too far on the side of caution, and that’s exactly what Hitchcock is not about. And what this film is about—risking it all, never backing down to idiots, sacrificing your comfort to make something great, having the strength of your own convictions—was the inspiring part of it for me as a filmmaker: If I have to compromise to the degree of having to create inauthentic, safe pabulum like this, I’d rather write children’s books the rest of my career.