Based on the book telling the inside story of the making of Psycho, Hitchcock attempts to delve into the mind of the man that scared, and possibly scarred, generations of cinemagoers. The biopic is similar in tone to another film about a short period in the life of one of this country’s greatest talents; a genius that ultimately never quite achieved the universal acclaim that he craved. For Hitchcock, read The Damned United, and for Alfred Hitchcock, read Brian Clough.
Like The Damned United (the film, if not the book), Hitchcock’s strengths lie in the remarkable true story it’s based on, but suffers when trying to guess at the thoughts and motivations of a dead man. The director is to be admired in his attempts to understand what made Hitch tick, and the moment Alfred rhetorically asks his wife Alma “what if somebody made a really good horror film?” sends a shiver down the spine. Anthony Hopkins imbues his role as the Master of Suspense with both arrogance and a surprising vulnerability at times. His struggles to make the kind of film he wants to make are heartbreakingly portrayed, as an industry that made untold riches off of the back of his talent beg him not to make this “nasty little film”.
Sadly, the fascinating story of the making of one of the great works of art of the twentieth century soon takes a back seat to a plot straight out of a soap opera, as Hitchcock’s loyal and supportive wife finds herself drawn to a hack writer who shows her the attention that Alfred is withholding, as he becomes more and more obsessed with the young female stars of his film. Although Helen Mirren does sterling work with this role, the film really drags during the second act. That this narrative is largely fictitious makes its inclusion doubly disappointing.
Thankfully the film rediscovers itself in the third act, and the audience is rewarded with a strong and satisfying finale. Excellent support is provided by Scarlett Johansson in an uncanny portrayal of Janet Leigh, as well as a mature turn by Jessica Biel as Hitchcock’s former obsession Vera Miles. Film geeks will be overjoyed to see Ralph ‘Karate Kid’ Macchio make a cameo, not to mention Michael Winslow’s turn as Ed Gein; the real-life serial killer that the character of Norman Bates is based on. Danny Elfman’s score also provides some playful echoes of the famous Bernard Herrmann Psycho violins.
Hitchcock is a very enjoyable film, and it has a lot of things going for it. Sadly its ambition to be both realistic biopic and playful character study hold it back from being truly great. More Topaz than Vertigo.
Hitchcock is released in UK cinemas on Friday 8th February.