My first thought upon hearing that there was a double bill of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock going on in Toronto last night was that it was a disastrous idea. Psycho is in the highest echelon of cinema’s greatest and very few films can live up to its level of quality. Sight unseen, a biopic by a first time director at the helm doesn’t promise to be one of those films. And having now seen Hitchcock, it is clear that it does not, indeed, come anywhere close to Psycho’s cinematic mastery. But the organizers’ decision to show the films back to back has to be commended. In retrospect, the double bill might be reason I enjoyed Hitchcock so much. It isn’t a perfect film by any means – or even a great film, for that matter – but it works as a sort of unclenching of the fists and letting out a sigh of relief after two suspenseful hours spent in Bates Motel.
Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is just coming off the successful release of North by Northwest when Gervasi’s eponymous film opens, but he doesn’t get to revel in the spotlight for long. As a reporter reminds him that he’s in the twilight of his career despite his recent success, Hitchcock becomes determined to tackle a project that gets his creative juices flowing, something fresh and different. Countless number of projects are on offer but he rejects all of them in favour of adapting Psycho, a gory slasher book by Robert Bloch based on the true story of murders by Ed Gein. Initially, the idea sounds ludicrous to everyone around him but this reaction coupled with Paramount’s decision to reject financing the film only urges him further to get the project off the ground. His ever supportive wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), is right by his side as they decide to finance the film out of pocket and risk losing their home.
The film is composed of two parallel stories: that of the making of Psycho and that of the straining marriage of the Master of Suspense to Alma; and quite surprisingly I found myself more attached to the personal side of his life than the professional one. There are tonal inconsistencies in the film, typical of a debut feature, that make the behind-the-scenes sequences hit and miss, but their biggest problem is the lack of insight into Hitchcock’s working methods. We are virtually shown nothing of his on set ethics, only reminded time and time again of his obsession with blonds. There are only two scenes that really deal with the production of Psycho and one of them feels so heavy handed one wishes the whole thing could be cut altogether. Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) is almost left completely unexplored as Gervasi opts to gives us Hitchcock’s hallucinatory conversations with Ed Gein instead, but those scenes are the films most problematic. They’re there to put us in Hitch’s head space and materialize his doubts about the character he’s studying, but instead they truncate the narrative. The film is at its best when Gervasi doesn’t direct with a Capital D – which is particularly noticeable next to Alfred Hitchcock’s authoritatively controlled but ultimately subtle direction in Psycho – but lets his camera capture moments of genuine chemistry between Mirren and Hopkins.
Both actors are dependably great in their roles, though one expects no less. It remains far from their best work. It’s clear that they’re having fun with their roles but they’re also strong in the more emotional moments where the differences have become intolerable between Alfred and Alma but their dependence and love for each other remains in tact. Hopkins, in particular, handles the character with grace even during his lowest hours as he leers away at pictures of famous actresses or peeks at Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) changing in her dressing room. Strangely, I found myself put off by the make-up work on Hopkins. As hard as he tried to mimic Hitchcock’s demeanour, it is impossible to suspend disbelief. Hopkins is never Hitchcock; he’s Hopkins playing Hitchcock. And the same can be said of Biel and Johansson, unfortunately. But like the rest of the film, Hitchcock isn’t concerned so much about giving us a history lesson as it is about letting the actors have fun with their parts and entertain the audience. It succeeds in doing that, if it also manages to let us down with the story time and time again.