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HOLLYWOOD – There have been many movies about the history of the movie industry, but it’s surprising it took this long for someone to bring the life of Alfred Hitchcock to the big screen. The legendary filmmaker captained an impressive list of classic films including “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” “The 39 Steps,” “The Lady Vanishes” and “Dial M for Murder” among others. And with his TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents…” he became one of the most recognizable directors and celebrities of the 1950’s. His biggest hit, however, was one of his latter films, 1960’s “Psycho.” Hitchcock’s obsession with making that “horror” film sets the stage for Sacha Gervasi’s “Hitchcock,” which opened the 2012 AFI Film Fest Thursday night.
Coming off the success of “Northwest,” the picture finds Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) seemingly bored and uninterested in the numerous projects Hollywood is throwing his way. That all changes, however, when he learns about Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein (an almost unrecognizable Michael Wincott) who has stunned authorities by digging his mother up from the grave and murdering and then mutilating a number of young women. The crimes inspired Robert Bloch to write the fiction novel “Psycho,” although at the time he claimed he didn’t realize how close his book about the off-kilter Norman Bates was to Gein’s own story. Unfortunately for the famous filmmaker, Paramount Pictures – a studio that he owes one more film to – has no interest in funding “Psycho.” So, Hitchcock decides in order to feel creative again he'll mortgage his house and use his own savings to fund the $800,000 picture.
Hitchcock makes this decision without consulting his wife and longtime creative partner, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). Of course, as she has for three decades, Reville stands by her husband and re-writes the film’s screenplay including it’s infamous secret ending. Meanwhile, Whitfield Cook (a fine Danny Huston) asks Reville to co-author a new screenplay with him. Cook is an old friend who was one of the screenwriters on Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train,” but we immediately realize that the filmmaker is suspicious of the writer’s intentions regarding his wife. At this point, the making of “Psycho” fades into the background and a game of chess between Reville and Hitchcock ensues. Even though she makes it clear their relationship is professional and platonic, Reville is obviously moved by Cook’s flirtatious nature. Hitchcock, on the other hand, continues to obsess over yet another blonde leading lady – Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) – much to Reville’s chagrin. Each believes the other is having an affair – whether real or imaginary – and it becomes an emotional war of put downs and scheming to find out who will break first. Happily, this middle section of the picture also allows Hopkins and Mirren to put their considerable acting talents on full display.
Unlike his unfortunate turn as the 37th president of the United States in Oliver Stone’s “Nixon,” Hopkins completely transforms into the rotund and deadpan filmmaker. He’s assisted by some excellent makeup, but within a few minutes you forget what the real Hitchcock looked like and accept Hopkins in the role. John J. McLoughlin’s screenplay shows Hitchcock for all his faults and they are considerable. It’s an impressive achievement that Hopkins is able to generate sympathy for a man who is well aware of his notorious reputation (At one point he asks Leigh, “I wasn’t that much of a monster, was I?”).
On the other hand, Mirren brings a festering and hidden passion to Leville. Insisting she’s been happy to let her husband take all the accolades and remain the secret weapon behind the scenes, Mirren conveys the enthusiasm Alma feels at the thought of getting public credit with Cook. And while she has a strong monologue during a heated moment that will surely put in her in awards consideration, it’s her subtle moments of pain as she witnesses Hitchcock’s blonde obsessions and compulsive eating that you remember the most.
Like two heavyweight veterans, Hopkins and Mirren carry much of the 98-minute “Hitchcock” through its awkward first act. Their performances dominate the second when Hitchcock and Leville’s relationship is in jeopardy. Then the film takes a left turn in the final stanza as it shifts focus back to "Psycho's" production and Hitchcock and Leville's attempts at saving it in the editing room.
Director Sacha Gervasi is best known for helming the documentary “Anvil: The Story of Anvil” and while he has story credits on Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal” and “Henry’s Crime,” “Hitchcock” truly feels like a first film. Gervasi and McCloughlin seem intent on tying Hitchcock’s creative process and belief in his wife’s affair into a number of scenes where Hitchcock and the killer Gein interact together (the two never met in real life). Sometimes they converse in Gein’s Wisconsin farmhouse, sometimes Gein appears in Hitchock’s dreams and at one point he randomly is in the director’s office. It’s a device that just doesn’t work and was probably unnecessary from the beginning.
More disappointing, Gervasi doesn’t have a cinematic enough eye to tell a tale about one of the medium's great masters. Gervasi and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (“The Social Network”) attempt to bring a 60’s Technicolor feel to “Hitchcock,” but instead the film looks cheap and bizarrely conventional at times. It might actually be one of the most disappointing efforts of Cronenweth’s impressive career.
Among the supporting actors, Johansson is fine as the pro’s pro in Janet Leigh, but there isn’t much of an arc to her character. Sadly, Toni Collette also doesn’t have much to do as Hitchcock’s longtime assistant Peggy Robertson and that makes you wonder if much of her performance is on the cutting room floor. Ralph Macchio is memorable in one short scene as screenwriter Joe Stefano, but he’s on screen for less than three minutes pretty much making the entire moment pointless. Jessica Biel has one of the few legitimate arcs among the supporting cast as Vera Miles, a onetime protégé of Hitchcock’s who has decided to take her life in another direction. Michael Stuhlbarg gives the film some energy as a young Len Wasserman and Kurtwood Smith has a plum role as an MPAA censor. Most strange though is James D’Arcy’s portrayal of “Psycho” star Anthony Perkins. D’Arcy is simply miscast. He doesn’t resemble Perkins and can’t pull off his mannerisms or come close to his distinct voice. Something suggests Ben Whishaw, D’Arcy’s “Cloud Atlas” co-star, would have been a much better choice.
Industry audiences and cinephiles will find much of the inside jokes about moviemaking entertaining, but it’s the performances of Hopkins and Mirren which will drive “Hitchcock” to successful returns on the art house circuit.
“Hitchcock” opens in limited release on Nov. 23.