Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Going Off With a Hitch

The movie Hitchcock is probably best characterized as a biopic at its core, but it doesn't completely slip into that mold. For one thing, despite the title, the film is actually concerned with two subjects: famous director Alfred Hitchcock, and his wife Alma Reville. For another, it's confined to a quite narrow band of time, as much concerned with an "event" as it is with the people involved.

That event is the making of Hitchcock's masterpiece, Psycho. It's 1959, and Alfred Hitchcock has just had considerable success with North by Northwest. Yet despite this success, he feels a need to do something daring to reassert his creativity, and quickly sets his heart on adapting a new novel called Psycho. When no studios will back the plan, Hitchcock slashes his budget to make the film with his own money, straining his relationship with his wife in the process. And when the first cut fails to come together, it is she who must come to the rescue to save the picture.

This movie is based on a non-fiction book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, an excellent book by all critical accounts that's said to be one of the best examinations ever of the creation of an individual movie. Unfortunately, the film adaptation is less inspired. It rides the line ineffectively and awkwardly between comedy and drama, trying all kinds of narrative models in succession. It's "man against the world," it's romance, it's "the woman behind the man," it's expose, and it's many more things. It's so many things, in fact, that it fails to do any of them particularly well, and thus feels like a disservice to one of the truly good classic movies.

What does redeem the movie, though -- and indeed makes it rather watchable -- is the solid work from the cast. Anthony Hopkins is wonderful as Alfred Hitchcock, turning in an oddly compelling performance that transcends impersonation. Even better is Helen Mirren as Alma Reville. She's the truly sympathetic hero of the piece, and stands out wonderfully despite having the less overtly showy lead role. The supporting cast includes Toni Collette, Scarlett Johannson (as Janet Leigh), Kurtwood Smith, Danny Huston, and Jessica Biel, each of them making a lot of a little screen time.

Still, this muddled telling of How Psycho Was Made was more intriguing than enjoyable. It made me think about hunting down the book to read the real story, where this two-hour condensation couldn't quite satisfy. I give Hitchcock a C+. It may be of interest to film buffs, or to fans of either of the two leads. Everyone else should probably pass.

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