In the last couple of months we have been both blessed and burdened by a pair of movies depicting the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. The first was an HBO original film called "The Girl," which dealt with the filmmaker (played by Toby Jones in heavy prosthetics) and his obsession with Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller) during the filming of his classic chiller "The Birds." That film was kind of a wet noodle, but we've got another shot with this week's "Hitchcock," a far more playful portrait of the director, this time played by Anthony Hopkins (masked by similarly heavy prosthetics) and focused instead on his relationship with his wife (Helen Mirren) and the making of the controversial horror masterpiece "Psycho."

Of course, the question remains -- does "Hitchcock" do justice to his namesake or is it a bunch of empty thrills?

PRO: It's A Great Deal More Fun Than "Lincoln" The tone of "Hitchcock," directed by Sacha Gervasi ("Anvil!"), is established in the opening moments through a flashback to the Ed Gein murders that inspired "Psycho." That is, of course, until the familiar theme music of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" starts to play, as Hitchcock (Hopkins) addresses the audience in a cheerful manner. From the outset, this movie isn't interested in stiff biographical detail, instead insisting on a kind of cursory survey of the personal and professional details that surrounded "Psycho" (it is based, in part, on the far more academic "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of 'Psycho,'" one of the better books on the subject, by Stephen Rebello). As such, it's got a buoyant, bubbly vibe, flitting between various subplots and shout-outs to the master himself; for a chronicle of such a dark film, it's almost effervescently good-natured. Quite frankly, it makes Steven Spielberg's bone-dry historical biopic "Lincoln" seem stodgy and old-fashioned by comparison.

CON: It Could Have Been More Hitchcock-y There are moments where you feel like Gervasi is trying to emulate -- or at the very least, roughly approximate -- the sensation of watching one of Hitch's movies, both in terms of the make-up of the frame and his use of the camera (it was shot beautifully by frequent David Fincher collaborator Jeff Cronenweth). But at other times, the intent goes slack and the film loses its sense of heightened stylization. The point is made that the material and the director were starting to uncomfortably blur (more on that in a minute) and, had "Hitchcock" been more chockablock with outright references, the tone could have shifted from winningly winking to annoyingly jokey, which would have been deathly. That said, had a more sustained visual consistency been reached, it could have taken this movie from a sugary-sweet confection to something profoundly amazing.

PRO: It's Got One Of The Weirdest, Most Amazing Subplots Ever After the opening sequence, featuring Gein (played by underutilized character actor Michael Wincott), it seems like that bit of nastiness has been dealt with. But instead, Gein keeps popping up again and again, as Hitchcock's evil Jiminy Crickett. Sometimes Hitch inserts himself into true crime details of the Gein case and other times Gein appears to help Hitchcock investigate the supposed affair that his wife is having with a hacky novelist (Danny Huston). After the first couple of times, it stops being jarring and becomes some kind of super-weird embroidery. And I loved every second of it.

PRO: The Cast Is Superb Of course, Anthony Hopkins totally nails his performance as Hitchcock, capturing the impish devilishness that most who were close to the director describe, repeatedly. (This compared to Jones' morose malevolence.) But the movie pretty much belongs to the women, whether it's Mirren as the put-upon collaborator, who was every bit as important to the Hitchcock machine as the man himself; Scarlett Johansson as the voluptuous and saucer-eyed Janet Leigh; Jessica Biel as Vera Miles, who served as a kind of cautionary tale to other actors who slighted Hitchcock (she famously backed out of starring in "Vertigo" because she was pregnant, earning Hitchcock's scorn); or Toni Collette, barely recognizable as Hitchcock's secretary. Elsewhere, James D'Arcy (from "Cloud Atlas") plays Anthony Perkins as a jittery, repressed ball of nerves, Michael Stuhlbarg is Hitchcock's lawyer and Kurtwood Smith, years after playing the baddie in "RoboCop," is just as villainous as the censor who threatens "Psycho" at every turn.

CON: The "Survey" Approach Doesn't Always Work Coming out of the screening, a fellow critic (who I actually watched "The Girl" with, too), groaned that the movie played more like a behind-the-scenes documentary that you would find on a DVD than an actual narrative. I disagree, especially since the movie has such a big heart in the relationship between Hitchcock and his wife Alma. However, the film's anxiously unfocused nature will probably bug a lot of people. Sometimes you feel like it's hinting at another movie altogether, one that is more meditative and bizarre and way longer, but ends up getting pulled back to its wacky antics. I'm comfortable with that. But, in terms of missed opportunities, there are moments that stick out like a sore thumb. Part of this could have to do with the thorny legal issues surrounding what iconography they could or could not use (there isn't a decent moment set inside the Bates house, for one), but with other instances you feel like they just didn't have the time or energy (why not address the movie being shot in black-and-white, which lent itself to more low budget affairs? And where was Saul Bass?). The nerds' will sometimes be miffed, but if you're a casual filmgoer or have no knowledge of the protracted battle behind the scenes of "Psycho," chances are, you'll be thoroughly entertained.

PRO: The Score Danny Elfman has provided some of the more memorable scores of the year (particularly for "Frankenweenie" and "Dark Shadows"), but with "Hitchcock" he knocks it out of the park. The composer has approximated the Bernard Herrmann score of "Psycho" once before, for Gus Van Sant's ambitious (if ill-conceived) "Psycho" remake, but here he does more than just mimic the famous piece. He creates an often rollicking, sometimes melancholy backbone for the madness of "Hitchcock." Like most of the movie, Eflman's work is an absolute delight.
categories Movies