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‘Hitchcock’: A slash-and-yearn mentality

ANN HORNADAY, The Washington Post

Publication: The Day

Published November 23. 2012 4:00AM
Fox Searchlight, Suzanne Tenner/AP Photo
Helen Mirren as Alma Reville, left, and Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock in "Hitchcock."

Alfred Hitchcock is enjoying something of a comeback these days, with his 1958 film "Vertigo" recently supplanting "Citizen Kane" on Sight & Sound's list of all-time best films and his 1963 chiller "The Birds" getting the biopic treatment on HBO's "The Girl."

In that film, Sienna Miller played Tippi Hedren, whose life as the object of Hitch's unhealthy obsession became a living hell, her presumably promising career stunted forever because she refused his lecherous supplications. In "Hitchcock," Sacha Gervasi's lively but uneven chronicle of the production of "Psycho," the director's preoccupation with unattainable blondes hasn't yet reached its most florid expression, being contained within the peepholes and window-blind slats he uses to spy on the shapely starlets who populate his movie sets and the Paramount lot.

For all his creepy tendencies, Hitchcock is portrayed mostly sympathetically in "Hitchcock," in which Sir Anthony Hopkins plays the corpulent British auteur with a combination of hauteur and playfulness.

The insouciant tone is set right off the bat, when the camera captures a ghastly 1944 murder occurring in rural Wisconsin, only to pan to Hitchcock primly holding a teacup and intoning his familiar "Good evening." The crime we've just witnessed is the very episode that inspired the novel "Psycho," which had been given a pass by every studio reader in Hollywood by the time Hitchcock saw it; the story's lurid combination of sex, violence, compulsion and amorality was just the thing to recharge a career he feared was on the decline.

Like "My Week With Marilyn," Gervasi's "Hitchcock" - which is loosely based on Stephen Rebello's definitive book "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of 'Psycho'" - makes a fascinating primer in cinematic process, whereby happy accident and sheer will combine, with occasionally brilliant results.

Movie mavens will no doubt delight in seeing such characters as super-agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg), Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow) and especially Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), Hitchcock's wife and chief collaborator, provide zest to what might have been a tiresome Great Man myth.

Reville especially gets her due in "Hitchcock," in which Mirren lends her both steely resolve and sad-eyed pathos, as she watches her husband gaze longingly at younger, leggier girls and sublimate his thwarted desires by eating vats of foie gras.

Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin didn't need to add a questionable plotline involving Reville and writer Whitfield Cook to raise her personal stakes, but few viewers will quibble at Danny Huston's characterization of a man whose expansiveness might be well-camouflaged manipulation.

Less successful, casting-wise, are the actors who play the "Psycho" ensemble: James D'Arcy credibly channels a gangly, high-strung Anthony Perkins, but Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel never disappear entirely into Janet Leigh and Vera Miles. A conceit wherein Hitchcock periodically communes with the real-life murderer who inspired "Psycho" is nothing more than a showy, misguided distraction.

As for Hitch himself, Hopkins throws himself into the performance with his characteristic commitment (only once or twice does he let the wheezy Hitchcockian dialect slip). If a scene set in a theater lobby, when he pantomimes conducting Bernard Herrmann's slashing musical score while an audience gasps and groans at the movie playing inside, feels on-the-nose, it still conveys the very verve and thrill of discovery that Hitch himself sought to re-create by tackling "Psycho" in the first place.

Still, Gervasi has made a strangely staid and dutiful film about a movie that changed cinema forever - from the way violence could be depicted on screen to how films would be shot and financed thereafter.

Rather than take risks of its own, "Hitchcock" is content to be a safe backstage drama and ultimately reassuring portrait of a marriage. There's something tonally off about the master of anxiety, neurosis and disquiet being depicted in a story this cozy.

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