The unqualified single word title of Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock might lead you to expect a comprehensive cradle-to-grave account of its subject, but like Spielberg’s recent Lincoln its focus is in fact a great deal tighter, concentrating solely on a critical point late in the celebrated director’s life, in this case the problems and tensions involved in the making of Psycho in 1960. With Spielberg’s film this approach seemed fair enough, as the short time frame there encompassed some of the most pivotal events in the history of the United States, but with Hitchcock it’s a lot harder to work out the point of the film, other than that Anthony Hopkins looks pretty good in a black suit and latex-enhanced jowls.
Psycho was certainly an important film for its director, and a ground-breaking one for cinema in general, but while it’s true he had an unusual amount of trouble in getting it made and released due to the studios’ disdain for what they considered its low and tasteless subject matter he didn’t really have that much trouble: he was wealthy enough to be able to fund it himself, he had a dedicated and talented crew on hand who knew what they were doing, and his reputation following a string of hits was such that he was always going to be able to attract bankable stars. In order therefore to provide enough points of drama and conflict for his film Gervasi resorts to drastically inflating some of the sore points we know about the big man’s marriage, obsessions and working methods and then for added value inserting some overwrought dream sequences in which Hitch talks out his problems with none other than Ed Gein, the Wisconsin murderer whose bloody activities were the inspiration for the novel Psycho was based on. These latter bits don’t half jar, both with the light and unchallenging shooting style of the bulk of the film (it feels like a TV movie) and with every account we have of Hitchcock’s unflappable personality. The sequences showing his mounting jealousy at his faithful wife’s friendship with a handsome and charming screenwriter are slightly more watchable, largely due to Helen Mirren’s skill in not laying the melodrama on too thick, but they’re still not particularly believable – it’s only really in the scenes dealing directly with the planning, shooting, editing and selling of Psycho itself that this film really starts getting interesting, and even there there are regrettable lapses into corniness.
Hitchcock isn’t a disaster, but it does seem to fall between stools a bit, being neither funny enough to be a comedy, insightful enough to be a convincing psychological portrait, nor detailed enough to be a valuable summary of the making of an iconic film. There are some good performances and some surprisingly impressive impersonations from the cast (Scarlett Johannson is very good as Janet Leigh, while James D’Arcy is a dead ringer for Tony Perkins, both in appearance and mannerisms), and it whips along at a brisk pace. You do however end up feeling that while there ought to be room in the world for a bio-pic of a figure as charismatic, influential and talented as Hitchcock, Gervasi’s film is just a fat-suit looking for a story. Pity.