Imagine, if you will, the story of a director told in the style of the director's films. Hitchcock takes a big stab at doing just that. John J. McLaughlin adapts Stephen Rebello's non-fiction book about the making of Psycho into an old-fashioned Hitchcock suspense film.
All the players are there. You have the dark, sarcastic leading man with a strong wit and great intelligence in Hitchcock himself. You have the level-headed female lead with the gorgeous figure in his wife, Alma Reville--a Hitchcock blonde with fading red hair. You have the male challenger in novelist turned screenwriter Whitfield Cook, the sage young woman reflecting everything the leading man wants to hear in Janet Leigh, and the antagonist who sets the story in motion in Hitchcock's obsession with Ed Gein.
The problem is that director Sacha Gervasi just doesn't take it far enough to work. The opening sequence shows Ed Gein kill his brother with a shovel as Alfred Hitchcock addresses the audience ala Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The attack looks like the violence in a Hitchcock film, but lacks the shock or edge of his deft editing. It's almost like every step is taken to pull back the concept so as to not alienate the audience.
It's a big mistake. Hitchcock soars when mistrust gives way to full blown paranoia and obsession. A big throughline for the film is that Hitch and Alma both suspect that their spouse is cheating on them with their new working companions. Alma is convinced that Hitch is once again pursuing his fantasy Blonde and Hitch fears his wife is chasing after the novelist she's pushing onto Hitch. With the undulating string cues of Danny Elfman's score and a whole lot of lingering shots of worried looks and evidence discovery, genuine Hitchcock suspense begins to build. This isn't the tepid suggestion of a modern suspense film; this is full blown "build suspense by showing the audience that the bomb is under the table but the cast doesn't know" Hitchcock suspense.
It's a shame that the film pulls so many punches as the actors are clearly in on the main gag. Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren trade acidic barbs at each for 98 while playing into the exaggerated melodrama of early Hitchcock films. Mirren, especially, sells the Hitchcock Blonde archetype, acting the crap out of a role that starts as eye candy and moves into something much deeper and psychological.
Scarlett Johannsson plays Janet Leigh as the unexpected equal of Hitchcock. You might want her to go over the top and be foolish while pursuing the doomed leading lady of Psycho, but Johannson takes a much more rewarding, level-headed approach to the character. This is a bright woman who knows all about Hitchcock's reputation and refuses to play into his tricks. She's smart enough to read his every move in real life and on the sound stage before he gets a chance to throw it in her face.
Hitchcock has all the pieces in place to be a stunning piece of meta-suspense. The devices set up to turn Hitch's own life into a Hitchcock film are strong. The volume is just turned down too much. You can see where the concept could have been great at one point. What shows up onscreen is watered down into a tepid brew that won't leave much of an impression at all.
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