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By Philip Martin

This article was published January 11, 2013 at 2:06 a.m.


The master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins, beneath the padding) risks his fortune on a new kind of horror film in the bio-pic Hitchcock.

— Hitchcock is one of those movies that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing, even though I can’t really muster an argument for it being a good film. It misses in so many ways - it buries a sublime performance under silly and ineffective prosthetics, it looks the wrong way at the behind-the-scenes production of Psycho, it turns a fascinating (and potentially frightening) figure into a cute and cuddly cartoon crank - that the temptation is to view the entire enterprise as a missed opportunity.

But a wise man once told me that we ought to try to review the movie that got made, rather than the one the filmmakers chose not to make and, at least for the movie-wise watcher, Hitchcock is not without its pleasures and it may be worth the ticket price just to see Scarlett Johansson and James D’Arcy manage, respectively, quite reasonable facsimiles of Janet Leigh and Tony Perkins. Helen Mirren is always watchable, even - or perhaps especially - when she appears in fluff. And, even acting through pounds of distracting makeup, Hopkins is sufficiently droll as Hitch.

Yet, though the making of Psycho might seem an especially rich period on which to focus - Hitchcock was in transition, and apparently bothered by the popular perception of him as crowd pleasing sellout who’d lost his edge and relied too heavily on formula. Hitchcock’s self-promotion - his famous cameos and his role in hosting his own television series - had celebritized the would-be auteur. So after the box-office triumph of North by Northwest (1959) he decided to take on a much darker project, based on a novel inspired by the real-life serial killer Ed Gein.

In short, Hitchcock proposed a film about a gruesome murder with no real hero, in which his putative star would be killed off unconscionably early. Naturally his agent Lew Wasserman (an underutilized Michael Stuhlbarg) and Paramount studio head Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow) opposed such an outre project. Yet Hitchcock would not be dissuaded. He wanted to make Psycho so much that he decided to finance it himself, risking his fortune and his home.

Yet this potentially rich scenario is undermined by a speculative detour into the state of mind of Hitchcock’s famously competent wife, Alma Reville (Mirren). Always Hitchock’s editor and chief adviser, she’s distracted from the important work at hand by a false-ringing infatuation with the screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who’s portrayed here as a mediocre talent (and anyone who has ever tried to read his weird 1981 novel Taxi to Dubrovnik might agree with the assessment) and a seriously insubstantial man.

Meanwhile, Hitch’s well documented peccadilloes are more alluded to than touched on, and the make-or-break project that is Psycho seems dangerously close to floundering. (“What if it turns out to be another Vertigo?” Hitch dithers.)

Hitchcock was no doubt hampered by its failure to secure permission to use - or re-create - any footage from Psycho, which might account for the film’s focus on the relationship between Hitch and Alma instead of the making of the film. Did Hitch really suspect his wife of having an affair with the dandy Cook? I can’t imagine that he did, but it’s possible.

At least I can’t prove it didn’t happen.

OK, there is a lot of talent sparingly used here - not only the aforementioned Stuhlbarg, but Toni Collette has the thankless job of impersonating Hitchcock’s devoted secretary Peggy Robertson, about whom almost nothing is known. And Jessica Biel as Vera Miles? Well, why not?

It’s probably impossible to make a movie that will reveal the real Hitchcock, and this speculative fiction is breezy and ends happily enough. (No spoiler there - you thought Psycho would flop?) But I doubt it provides any insight on the relationship between Hitch and his wife. It’s a slight, forgettable movie. Sometimes that’s enough.

Hitchcock 83 Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Biel, Danny Huston, Toni Collette, Michael Stuhlbarg, James D’Arcy, Michael Wincott Director: Sacha Gervasi Rating: PG-13, for violent images, sexual content and thematic material Running time: 98 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 01/11/2013

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