lfred Hitchcock was the first celebrity director, a status he drolly expected, accepted and nourished as a macabre prankster bent on teasing screams from audiences. Deadpan corpulence and a cadence so slow that sentences became cliffhangers were his signatures, now forged by Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock, a movie as fun as it is flawed.
Hitchcock is set in the late 1950s, on the heels of North by Northwest and the debut of the television anthology Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Director Sacha Gervasi frames his movie like one of those episodes, bookended by Hopkins directly addressing the camera under heavy makeup looking more dead than ringer. His is a performance of reverent parody, never missing a chance to display his fat-suited and latex-jowled profile.
Somehow, Hopkins' caricature fits what much of Hitchcock becomes. Rather than a detailed examination of the creation of Psycho — which serious film scholars expect — Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin are more diabolical. This is a Hitchcock with serial killer Ed Gein, an inspiration of Psycho's Norman Bates, as a confidant and creative adviser. A filmmaker amusing himself by living out the creepy public image he created.
Where Gervasi goes askew is choosing to give Hitch's private life too much attention. The filmmaker was married for 53 years to Alma Reville, whose creative instincts he implicitly trusted. Indeed, she's shown making critical decisions during Psycho's production, even taking over the director's chair when Hitchcock was sick. Helen Mirren plays Alma, and willful women are her specialty.
At work, Hitch and Alma make a fine pair. At home, they're saddled with a subplot concerning Alma's potential affair with writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) and Hitch's ensuing insecurity. These scenes drag down Hitchcock to the level of a Lifetime movie, and we can't wait to return to the studio lot.
That's where the movie's liveliest performances are found, in Scarlett Johansson's capturing of Janet Leigh's spirited essence, and the uncanny mimicry of Anthony Perkins' nervous tics by James D'Arcy. Because of Universal's refusal, Gervasi can't use or re-create any footage from Psycho, but the famous shower sequence gets its due.
Even more interesting are the trivia nuggets McLaughlin cribs from Stephen Rebello's book on the subject: Hitch ordering his staff to buy every copy of Robert Bloch's Psycho from bookstores so audiences wouldn't know the ending, the extensive struggle to get the movie financed and approved by censors, and the industry's puzzlement over a genius stooping to make a horror movie.
Hitchcock is at its best when not taking its subject seriously, when you can detect Hopkins' tongue firmly jabbed into his phony cheeks. The Alma-Whitfield distraction is regrettable, though. The rest of this cheeky movie begs for Hitch to solve the issue in a fashion borrowed from one of his TV episodes, with a well-placed frozen leg of lamb.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.