The Sacha Gervasi-helmed “Hitchcock” is less a biopic of the celebrated film director Alfred Hitchcock than an extended riff on how he came to make, and market, the film “Psycho.” In the telling, this story wanders off track; what we end up with is neither historical document nor drama, but something that smacks of backhanded idolatry via mimicry and, on occasion, reeks of farce.
Anthony Hopkins literally buries himself in the part, his face and physique mostly hidden by fat-suit padding and prosthetics. His mannerisms and affect, similarly, feel like skillful, but slavish, efforts at imitation, and he forsakes his usual accent for a dead-on impression of Hitchcock’s.
The film exhibits some curious departures for a project that draws on a true account of the making of “Psycho,” Stephen Rebello’s “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho.” (Screenwriter John J. McLaughlin, or someone providing him with notes, has seen fit to provide Hitch with an imaginary friend, none other than Ed Gein, the notorious killer who has provided the basis for cinema baddies as diverse as “Psycho” ’s Norman Bates and Jame Gumb, the skin-harvesting sicko from Jonathan Demme’s 1991 hit “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Indeed, one has to wonder if this is one more layer of black humor, misjudged though it might be, given that Hopkins really hit in big in America in the role of Hannibal Lecter —— also a villain in “Silence of the Lambs,” albeit a magnetic and highly cultured one. But the addition of an imaginary / hallucinated companion in films about historical figures just doesn’t seem to work; it detracted from last year’s “The Iron Lady,” an otherwise thoughtful and affecting film that didn’t need Dennis Thatcher’s ghost (Jim Broadbent) on hand to help us sympathize with former British Prime Minister Margaret (Meryl Streep), and it adds nothing to “Hitchcock” aside from an occasion for puzzlement.
Much more effective are the scenes in which Hitchcock rises in the middle of the night to devour tins of expensive pâté, or the ludicrous —— but shocking —— moment when the director, under heavy financial and creative pressure, and seething with enraged suspicion that his wife might be having an affair, demonstrates how he wants actress Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) to be attacked in the infamous shower scene. His flailing with the knife seems one razor-thin edge away from true mayhem, and Gervasi cleverly poses Johansson in the same ways as Leigh herself was posed in snapshot-brief glimpses of her character’s terrified struggles. Johansson’s Leigh is left breathless and shivering, the performance of her life having just been wrung from her because she truly believed, for an instant, that she was about to be gutted. In instances such as these, the level of mimicry to which the film resorts feels like it means something more than playing to audience expectations of how Hitchcock spoke and moved.
Hopkins does convey a sense of Hitchcock’s needy, compulsive nature whenever he has a morsel of food or beauty at hand. His greedy sups at wine are as ferocious as his anger at Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), who played the sister of Leigh’s victim in “Psycho.” Miles forsook stardom in favor of motherhood; Hitchcock never forgave her, and we have a chance to see his confusion and frustration in a key scene between Hopkins and Biel. Contrasting with this are the scenes between Johansson and Hopkins in which Leigh is gracious and friendly, but leaves no doubt about exactly where her boundaries are and what the nature of their working relationship is going to be.
Just as prim is the collaboration between Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), Hitchcock’s wife, and screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). Cook can’t seem to write anything really good on his own, so he coaxes Alma out to his cottage on the beach, where they scribble and devise; Hitchcock, meantime, grows ever more convinced they are up to the sort of hanky panky he’d only like to indulge in with his succession of platinum-blonde leading ladies. The shade of Ed Gein prods him along in his jealous imaginings, but once more we really don’t need him. Hopkins is perfectly capable, all on his own, of communicating his character’s insecurities and projections of guilt, and when Alma puts her husband firmly in his place the scene should be a victory for her dignity and her integrity. Instead, it feels like a rebuke to Hitchcock’s ramped-up silliness, imaginary pal and all; Alma seems more like a den mother than a strong life partner with career ambitions of her own.
When imitation rises to homage, such as with Danny Elfman’s score and Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography, this production becomes handsome and takes on the true style of the age in which it’s set. But that happens too rarely here; Hitchcock was a complicated and ingenious filmmaker, the sort of great talent who knew how to elicit an audience’s reactions on cue, using film the way a conductor leads an orchestra with raised baton. (In one of the movie’s best bits, Hitchcock, standing in the lobby of a theater where “Psycho” is screening, does just that, miming a conductor’s motions to a chorus of screams.) This film falls far short of its subject matter, and even the sincerest flattery through imitation doesn’t do justice to Hitchcock the visionary artist or Hitchcock the obsessed, driven man.