Early in Hitchcock, Alfred Hitchcock (played by Sir Anthony Hopkins with a sack of fat connecting chin to neck) walks the red carpet at the premiere of his 1959 chase film, North by Northwest. “You’re 60 years old!” shouts a reporter to the corpulent master of suspense, then nearing his 40th year of filmmaking. “Shouldn’t you quit while you’re ahead?”
The scene resembles a similar one at the beginning of Singin’ in the Rain, Hollywood’s best known (and maybe best) film about itself, in which Gene Kelly’s silent-film star walks the red carpet for the last hit he’ll be able to pull off before sound upends everything. The parallels are hard to miss: In what should be a moment of triumph, Hitchcock cannot ignore that the world is changing, that he’s a dinosaur who will have to either accept extinction or fight it. The scene is an announcement that Hitchcock will be the kind of Hollywood movie in which veterans on the verge of obsolescence figure out how to beat the industry’s system of cycling out the old in favor of the new by changing with the times on their own terms.
For Hitchcock‘s Hitchcock, this means breaking away from starry “baubles” like North by Northwest and exploring riskier territory. “What if someone really good made a horror picture?” he wonders. Fascinated by the story of middle-American mass murderer Ed Gein, he buys up the rights to Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, despite the reservations of those closest to him, including his long-suffering wife and collaborator, Alma (Helen Mirren). In order to get Paramount to agree to distribute a film about a transvestite homicidal maniac, Hitchcock has to whip out his own checkbook to cover the production budget. As a suit puts it, “Every time you want to do something different—like The Wrong Man or Vertigo—someone loses money.” This sets up the film’s payoff: Psycho was in itself different from Hitchcock’s previous experiments, not because it was good but because it didn’t lose money.
Hopkins’s imitation of Hitchcock’s distinctive vocal cadence—the accent and heaviness of delivery, as if each word were rolled in bacon on its way out—is initially disarming, but the performance seems less convincingly human as the film wears on, failing to build on its first impression. The prosthetics Hopkins has been tasked with acting behind are made more conspicuous by the fact that there has been comparatively little effort to make the other actors resemble the real people they’re playing. Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh looks like Scarlett Johansson, and distractingly so. More painful are the attempts to transform Helen Mirren, the international gold standard of GILFs, into a dowdy woman-behind-the-man; her body is unmistakably fierce for its age, and her wig could not be shittier. James D’Arcy actually naturally resembles Anthony Perkins, but he’s on-screen just long enough to make a nudge-nudge gay joke.
Written by John J. McLaughlin and directed by Sacha Gervasi, Hitchcock is theoretically based on Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, a short anatomy of the film’s production and promotion published in 1990. In a new introduction to the book, author Stephen Rebello explains that what he wanted from a fictionalized adaptation of his nonfiction text was “to see the ‘making of’ aspect serve as a backdrop to a tale revolving around the complex personal and professional relationship of Alfred and Alma Hitchcock.” Hitchcock hews to this stated desire exactly, but it’s an odd thing for Rebello to want, given that his book is barely about the Hitchcock marriage at all. Rebello only even mentions Alma a handful of times; in fact, in the movie, there are inventions, comments, and ideas credited to Alma that, in Rebello’s book, are said to come from the mouths and/or brains of others.
Much of the story of Hitchcock is caught up in two more deviations from Rebello’s account and the historical record: a collaboration/flirtation between Alma and Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), screenwriter of Stage Fright and Strangers on a Train, and Hitch’s hallucinatory imaginary friendship with the specter of Gein. Both sideshows function as distractions away from the actual story of making Psycho, but the Cook relationship feels particularly forced, a way of creating distance between the marrieds just so they can reunite and of giving Alma something to do so that Helen Mirren would be willing to play her.
Maybe the only way Hollywood can handle letting its customers tour the sausage factory is by shuttling us down the scenic route, giving us the illusion that we’ve seen plenty while ensuring the secret recipe remains obscured. Hitchcock is a movie about bygone Hollywood that’s distinctly a product of Hollywood circa now. It bears the influence of the kind of reality TV in which the subject’s career is the stated excuse for the show, but in terms of screen time and story line, what they actually do for a living is relevant only in that it puts them in glamorous locales and in contact with potential catalysts for stock, soapy side drama. The change in title from book to film is instructive: Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho is about a filmmaker and the making of a film; Hitchcock is a half-ass attempt to demystify a larger-than-life man who put himself front and center while remaining enigmatic, a master at revealing a little in order to conceal a lot.