A Psycho Drama
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
I miss Alfred Hitchcock. The thought occurred with a nostalgic pang whilst viewing director Sacha Gervasi’s solidly entertaining homage bearing the filmmaker’s name. While Hollywood is flush with technically astute manipulators of suspense and scads of competent horror-meisters, Hitch’s sheer and surprising inventiveness is lost to the ages.
However, thanks to Anthony Hopkins’s witty and dedicated emulation of the title genius, we have the consolation of at least spending ninety-eight reminiscent and edifying minutes with Sir Alfred. The biographical sketch centers around the sturm and drang he weathered in 1958 and ‘59 while wickedly working to shock the world with “Psycho.”
You won’t feel so bad that your brother-in-law wouldn’t back you in that hot dog stand venture when it’s impressed that Paramount didn’t want to fund the film, believing it was farfetched, risky and just too terrifying. Gee, what slings and arrows we poor geniuses must endure. Of course, with no great challenge, there can be no great success story.
And thus, without a tribute to the romantic notion that behind every great man there is a great woman, there would be no love story here. But “Hitchcock” purveys on both fronts. Plus, if you count the battle of the sexes, it’s also a war story. Helen Mirren’s portrayal of Alma Reville, the filmmaker’s wife and long suffering afflatus, supplies plenty firepower.
A good supporting cast, featuring Scarlett Johansson as a very sexy Janet Leigh and James D’Arcy as an appropriately anxious Anthony Perkins, nicely establishes the aura and authenticity of the backstory. Appurtenances of the era, like a Formica kitchen table in the Bel Air manse where the artiste often agonizes, help recall a time and place.
Interestingly, director Gervasi manages to delve into the intrigue and sinew that went into creating the classic film in question without detracting from the haunting cachet that has come to attend it. Imagined visits by Hitchcock to the heinous retreat where serial killer Ed Gein, the inspiration for the tale, plotted his butchery, add a disturbing eeriness.
Less gripping, but a necessary element to the intertwining accounts of love, marriage, devotion and a dose of inescapable jealousy, is Alma’s relationship with writer Whitfield Cook (“Strangers on a Train”), played by Danny Huston. Far more intriguing is the peek into the director’s infatuation with what have become known as the Hitchcock blondes.
Depicted as an epicurean of large and diversified tastes, he is a bit of a naughty boy, aggravating his abiding, health conscious Alma with an insatiable appetite for rich foods and spirits. Hopkins impishly captures the essence of innocently unaware decadence when, told he must economize, rails against purchasing pâté sourced from lesser geese.
Recognized icon or not, Alma’s attempts to rein in Hitch’s excesses and keep his ego in check as concerns their relationship offer a telling glimpse into the artistic ethos. Implicit is the virtuoso’s expectation of special privilege and dispensation from the mundane obligations of mere mortals. The polemical dance the two do is deliciously droll.
But while Hopkins handsomely fulfills the script’s personality portrait, expect no deep look into the protagonist’s life. The narrative moves briskly and exercises an impressive economy of detail. Still, it would be nice if, more than just the few allusions to his storied past, an elucidative checklist of his filmic contributions decorated the storyline.
Precluding the use of the term biopic to describe “Hitchcock,” the accent on the narrow swath of events surrounding the making of “Psycho” iterates the cynical reality that is Tinseltown. Yep, even Alfred Hitchcock, the acknowledged Master of Suspense, is only as good as his last movie. We mull the tentative nature of fame, the rigors of commerce.
So it’s capital vs. art and imagination, that conundrum unique to us humans, the internal competition hardwired into our nature, ostensibly programmed to improve the species. How would it have panned out for civilization and the commonweal if Paramount had just given Hitchcock carte blanche? Besides, this way we get to hate the corporate suits.
All of which makes for a high echelon David and Goliath. While practically everyone likes a good rags to riches saga, a variation on the theme to which we are perhaps even more sensitive is the potential fall from grace. We shudder when personalizing it: “Look, there’s Mike…once a respected film critic, wrote that bad review, and .now look at him.”
Thus, we are cozily ensconced in a front row seat, rooting for the fat cat as underdog, smirkingly aware of our champion’s legacy and anxious to see how he ultimately ensured it. Hopkins et al pull it off rather swimmingly, transporting us back to a point in time when horror, murder and mayhem were best served with a touch of “Hitchcock” class.
“Hitchcock,” rated PG-13, is a Fox Searchlight Pictures release directed by Sacha Gervasi and stars Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren and Scarlett Johansson. Running time: 98 minutes