I’ve never kept it a secret that Alfred Hitchcock is my favorite director. No other auteur has such a large number of great films. He has a knack for creating captivating situations and characters, then drawing you into a web of intrigue. I’ve seen roughly 28 of his works. Yet “The Master of Suspense” remains a bit of a mystery (no pun intended) to me. And so I approached Hitchcock with anticipation. The verdict? It’s well worth your time. However I don’t really know much more concerning the man himself than I did before.
Hitchcock is for people who love movies about making movies. John J. McLaughlin’s script is a lively (and uncomplicated) adaptation of Stephen Rebello’s acclaimed nonfiction book: Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. The year is 1959 and he’s just coming off the unbridled success of North by Northwest. It’s a turning point in his career. Realizing his age and still wanting to remain innovative, he starts looking for his next project. He finds inspiration in Psycho – Robert Bloch’s fictionalized suspense novel based on the life of Ed Gein, the notorious serial killer. In fact Hitchcock has fantasy sequences woven throughtout the narrative, in which he has imaginary discussions with the murderer. The device is apparently designed to give insight into the filmmaker’s enigmatic psyche. Unfortunately that tool is woefully unsuccessful. It makes Hitchcock seem almost schizophrenic which I don’t believe was the intention. However the production more importantly addresses the director’s move from elegantly subtle suspense to more overt horror. That is a relevant discussion.
Hitchcock is bolstered by some marvelous performances. Let’s start with the supporting cast. Scarlett Johansson beautifully suggests old Hollywood glamour as Janet Leigh. James D’Arcy resemblance to
Anthony Perkins is uncanny. He displays a sort of nervous energy that is quite effective in a brief appearance. Toni Collette exudes sensible efficiency behind horn-rimmed glasses as Hitchcock’s personal assistant and Michael Stuhlbarg, so appropriately pathetic in A Serious Man, is surprisingly believable as Hitchcock’s pragmatic agent. Helen Mirren is engaging as Alma Reville, his wife, a talented screenwriter in her own right. Her importance in establishing her husband’s vision might be something of a surprise for some. There’s considerable marital tension between the two which occupies a significant portion of the plot. As Alma, Helen Mirren gets to let loose and really gives him a severe critique at one point. We’ve come to expect those scenes in every movie Mirren does now and she doesn’t disappoint.
Anthony Hopkins portrays the director as a genius undeterred. He also demonstrates the man’s behavioral eccentricities – he’s got a peephole in his office that looks into his leading lady’s dressing room. He’s constantly drinking wine and gorging on food. But these details feel like a lighthearted gloss on more troubling personality traits that aren’t fully addressed. Anthony Hopkins is adequate as titular character but I never truly felt as though I was watching anything more than a really good imitation. The makeup is peculiar. The foundation Hopkins wears has a mummifying effect on his face that leaves it somewhat expressionless. Hitchcock wasn’t known for smiling a lot anyways so I suppose the issue isn’t cataclysmic.
Hitchcock is a simple but satisfying watch. Its window inside creating one of the cinema’s greatest horror flicks, is well crafted. When the narrative focuses on moviemaking, it’s transcendent. As an observation of his creative process, its value is immeasurable. The scorn he received for choosing this subject, his decision to self-finance, fighting with the censors, and the marketing of a difficult film, are all fascinating scenes depicted. The relationship with his wife detailing the rough spots in their marriage, provides a fuller, though not deeper, portrait. As a biography of the man, it’s less successful. It never seems to delve deeply into what truly made this man tick. I could have done without the distracting facial prosthetics. The makeup is obvious. His features look fake. Nevertheless, the assemblage of acting talents, including the superior supporting cast, is first rate. These actors make the material enjoyable. Parts of Hitchcock had me spellbound. I confess I had a nagging suspicion it would fall short as biography. However, as a movie about the making of Psycho, it’s notoriously entertaining beyond a shadow of a doubt.