Alfred Hitchcock is a director who is disputed over constantly. Those disputes aren’t about whether or not he was talented—all agree he was—but rather on which of his movies stands head and shoulders above the rest. With so many great ones to choose from, opinions inevitably vary. Some argue Vertigo was his finest work. Others point to North by Northwest. I personally hold Psycho up as his greatest achievement. That was a film that pushed the boundaries of the time with a subject matter that many deemed vile and unworthy. Its road to the big screen was a bumpy one, but the results were magnificent. Creepy low angle shots and brilliant use of shadows and props created what is still to this day one of the scariest films ever made. This week’s film, succinctly titled Hitchcock, takes place during its filming and the results are a mixed bag. Despite an Oscar worthy turn by Anthony Hopkins in the title role and endless material to borrow from, the film itself feels substanceless, neither an in-depth biopic of the man nor a particularly involving “making of” look at Psycho. It’s definitely a good movie, but it needed more meat to truly stand out.
Being an avid Hitchcock fan, both of the person and of his films, will bring simultaneous feelings of disappointment and appreciation to Hitchcock. Numerous film references abound, some subtle, some blatant, but they’re all something that will give viewers of his work pleasure, like the numerous shots of Hitchcock’s famous silhouette from his television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. However, if you’re aware of his personal demons, those that extend from what he captured onscreen, you’ll find surprising and unwelcome restraint.
Hitchcock had a weight problem, one that haunted him his entire life, like when he was rejected from the military during World War I for his weight. His weight fluctuated his entire life. He could never seem to truly keep control of it. In the film, little is said about this subject, which is explored only through a nagging wife, played by Helen Mirren, who tries to get him to eat fruits instead of junk. When he passes out at one point in the movie, it seems to be more a byproduct of his constant stress from filming Psycho rather than from his unhealthy physical condition. Similarly, Hitchcock was famous for obsessing over his female stars, which is mentioned only in passing dialogue rather than shown as an attribute of the man as portrayed in the film. In these ways, the writing lacks focus. Its title implies a biopic, one that will reveal who Alfred Hitchcock truly was behind the camera and elsewhere, yet it’s as shallow an exploration of a larger than life person as I’ve ever seen.
Nevertheless, the film somehow remains fascinating. Not once was I bored, nor was I angry that it wasn’t living up to its potential, even if that feeling of disappointment was lingering in the back of my mind. This is in large part due to a brilliant performance from Anthony Hopkins, who perfectly nails Hitchcock’s mannerisms, right down to the way he would slightly upturn his head when staring head on and cross his arms over his protruding belly. The only thing preventing a full transformation is Hopkins’ recognizable voice, which he seemingly doesn’t even try to hide. That in no way diminishes the care he put into who he was playing; everything else is so perfect, the voice hardly seems a distraction. He pulls off some truly great scenes, including a late one as he stands outside the theater doors on Psycho’s opening night, orchestrating the screams of viewers inside who have just reached the famous shower scene.
Some of its more intriguing moments come when the film explores Hitchcock’s inherent interest in the macabre or when they show off his cunning, like when he argues his way past the infamously strict censors who enforced Hollywood’s Production Code (which was then abandoned a mere eight years later in favor of the current MPAA ratings system). It concludes on a high note as well, with an ingenious ending where Hitchcock addresses the audience regarding how he will be on the lookout for inspiration to lead him to his next movie, just as a bird lands on his shoulder. But these moments are fleeting and don’t encompass the film as a whole. Hitchcock is such an interesting man and Psycho such an amazing movie that led a troubled production that there’s a wealth of content to explore, yet nearly all of it is brushed over. Frankly, a documentary would have suited this subject better. It’s difficult not to criticize the movie for what it isn’t rather than what it is, but I suppose that’s not such a bad problem to have. It may not be what one might hope, but at least what it is, is good.
Hitchcock receives 3.5/5