As I waited for the advance screening of Hitchcock, from director Sacha Gervasi (writer of The Terminal and director of Anvil: The Story of Anvil), I ended up chatting with a fellow writer who also happens to be a stand-up comic, and he pitched an alternative take on Alfred Hitchcock, musing about the story of Hitchcock as a matchmaker rather than a noted filmmaker. Think about it for a moment — Hitchcock as Hitch, with Sir Anthony Hopkins as the great man giving direction to the loveless in take after obsessive take, which would end up revealing his own fascination with the intendeds of his clients. How successful would Hitchcock have been as a matchmaker? Alas, we will never know.
What we do know is that by the late 1950s, Hitchcock (Hopkins peeking through prodigious layers of prosthetics) faced a rather modern industry dilemma. Coming off a hit — a string of strong outings, in fact, capped off by North By Northwest — fans and studio executives wondered what was left for him. He had cornered the market on thrilling suspense and could easily slide into a comfort zone, knocking out “Hitchcock” knock-offs or he could retire to television work or discover another obsession. Maybe he would devote time to pleasing his talented and supportive wife Alma (Helen Mirren).
A chance introduction to the story of Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the celebrated serial killer and the subject of a cult of personality that begat our current fascination with serial killers in reel/real life and the rise of crime scene investigations and FBI profiling, set Hitchcock, like a bloodhound off the leash, onto the project that would crystallize all of these trends in our imaginations, while also granting Hitchcock the opportunity to indulge his dark romantic urges.
Gervasi attempts to frame Hitchcock as a love story between the director and Alma, a rekindling of their passion for one another without actually presenting evidence of the initial spark or the carefully laid foundation between them.
To make matters worse, Hopkins as Hitchcock exhibits not one ounce of primal wickedness. We love Hopkins for his deep repressiveness. Remains of the Day was full of stifled emotion and longing. Even his Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs captures the pent-up urges lurking just beneath the placid surface. We always knew there was something held in check and the tension is what engaged us. But here, in a character and a man we know to have had deep reservoirs of turmoil chugging and churning underneath the dark suits and the bounty of flesh that he wore like another protective layer of armor, Hopkins feels hollow.
Once he seizes control of the process to produce Psycho on his own and turns his attention to Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), Gervasi, brick by yellow brick, wants his film to be a wonderful behind-the-scenes journey, but his wizard, his great and powerful magician is a bit of a sham, a flim-flam man without much heart, dark and twisted or otherwise.
Fortunately, his lady-in-waiting fills in some of the blanks. As Alma, Mirren has moments that speak to her own passion and intelligence. Playing off the naked intentions of fellow writer and Hollywood insider Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), Alma obviously enjoys the flirty attention, even though she knows it is not driven by a comparable emotional or intellectual genius that exists in Hitchcock (even the empty one that Hopkins offers here). But Mirren presents Alma as a woman with longings, something that she has done time and again; it is not a trait or an actorly affectation that she can turn off and on, like, apparently Hopkins can.
If only she could have switched roles with Hopkins. Her Hitchcock would have been closer to the real deal, at least the version of him that we’ve come to accept as the truth. The big man, bloated with wit and kink, who we could have understood, in terms of his attraction to Ed Gein, the dark passenger riding shotgun with him during the production of Psycho, whispering advice about how best to peep and creep or his unfulfilled borderline pornographic objectification of his blond leading ladies. Oh, what Mirren would have done with all that!
I would wager that version of Hitchcock would have actually captured more of that alternative Hitch my stand-up critic companion jokingly pitched. And it would have been a far far better thing than the utterly conventional biopsy-pic that Gervasi has given us.
Opens wide Friday. (PG-13) Grade: C-