Hitchcock's script grazes the surface


Directed by Sacha Gervasi

Opens at the Charles Theatre Dec. 7

Alfred Hitchcock was the first filmmaker to turn himself into a well-recognized brand, carefully cultivating a persona of macabre tastes and droll humor, producing an oeuvre with lasting films like Rear Window, North by Northwest, Charade, and To Catch a Thief, among others. But a distillation of the icon's directorial genius has eluded his biographers. Even the great François Truffaut-who, with the help of a translator, interviewed Hitchcock for over 12 hours and later published the transcripts in Alfred Hitchcock: A Definitive Study-was unable to discover what made the famed director tick.

By picking someone as revered and complex as Hitchcock, first-time feature director Sacha Gervasi (who used to play drums for the band Bush, and directed the documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil) has set the bar rather high for himself. Using Stephen Rebello's book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, screenwriter John J. McLaughlin has shaped a comedic drama out of Hitchcock's decision to personally finance the seminal 1960 horror film by mortgaging his home. As a biopic, Hitchcock offers even less insight into the man than Truffaut's book did, despite the domestic bent of the drama.

The movie, nonetheless, is a breezy and cheeky way to kill 98 minutes, mostly because its leads-the entire cast for that matter-are so damn engaging. Buried under pounds of prosthetics, Anthony Hopkins brilliantly channels the watchful stillness, mordant charm, and impish wit we've come to expect from the "Master of Suspense." Despite the surface-level script, the actor manages to provide a few glimpses of the human being hidden behind the icon. Most of these come thanks to Helen Mirren, who plays Hitch's wife, Alma Reville, as a no-nonsense spitfire. The two actors clearly enjoy one another's company and the chemistry goes a long way toward communicating the couple's lifelong partnership, one built on respect and companionship, though probably not physical affection.

Riding high on the success of North by Northwest, Hitchcock had grown itchy to try his hand at something new, something that would revitalize his creative spirit. But Hollywood was convinced that Psycho would be career (and box-office) suicide. So, for the first half of Gervasi's film, we watch as Hitch struggles to get his movie off the ground, recruiting Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and finding Anthony Perkins (James D'Arcy). But if you're expecting an insider's perspective on the master's process or some delicious film-fan tidbits, you're bound to be disappointed. Hitchcock's behind-the-scenes peeks are pretty standard stuff, unless you find the portly director's outsize appetites or delight in candy corn revelatory.

The second half of the film promises more but ultimately delivers less. Alma has begun collaborating with flirtatious screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who, though you wouldn't know it from the film, worked with Hitchcock in the past, on Strangers on a Train-testing Hitch's trust in his marriage and revealing how important Alma was to his creative and emotional well-being.

This two-pronged approach to portraiture ends up failing because Gervasi never seriously attempts to delve into Hitchcock as a person or an artist, preferring to keep the director a colorful cipher with only occasional lapses into generic human insecurity. While McLaughlin's script erects the scaffolding of a psychodrama, his conflicts are formulaic and oversimplified, never enriching our understanding of the filmmaker or his process. Even Hitchcock's imaginary conversations with serial killer Ed Gein end up being little more than a tease, a labored affectation that never earns its right to be in the film.

Despite all this, Hitchcock, much like last year's My Week with Marilyn, makes for some lively, if forgettable entertainment. Gervasi keeps things light and piquant, finding just the right tone for both the drama and the humor, and he attracted such superb actors as Michael Stuhlbarg, Kurtwood Smith, and Toni Collette to minor parts. D'Arcy is disturbingly spot-on as the sexually guarded Perkins, and Johansson is downright charming as Janet Leigh, capturing her unique mix of girlish vixen and no-nonsense movie star. The big surprise, however, is Jessica Biel as the cool-as-a-cucumber Vera Miles, the sister of Leigh's character in Psycho. Hers is the least developed and most intriguing role, hinting at Hitchcock's complicated relationship with his female stars. Watching their brief scenes together, one wonders what kind of film Hitchcock might have been if it had chosen to throw caution to the wind and excavate the hidden recesses of the director's expectations and disappointments.

There is a brief moment in the movie, when Hitch holes up in his study to thumb through a stack of headshots featuring blond starlets, and we're left to wonder how sexualized his infatuations actually were. Is he using them as masturbation material? There would be something sad and adolescent about that. But the scene never commits, and even if it did, it never feeds into anything deeper. When you consider that the high-water marks in Hitchcock's canon were films like Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho, a reoccurring theme of voyeurism becomes clear. And yet, even here, Hitchcock fails to make a connection that goes any deeper than portraying the director as a naughty peeping tom. McLaughlin prefers tidy explanations and a playful tone over examination or provocation. Given Hitchcock's obvious pleasure in the discomfort of others, it hardly seems a fitting treatment of the master or his work.

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