‘It’s only a bloody movie.’
We’ll avoid the natural urge to pun in suggesting that it would be a cock up if this review went without a hitch, but any name based humour is not lost on its central character, who was as partial to a bit of double entendre as he was to being the master of suspense and horror. ‘Call me Hitch, hold the cock,’ may not be the most ingratiating way to introduce yourself to a leading lady, even if Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) does declare that ‘compared to Orson Welles he’s a sweetheart.’
Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins), having just completed North by Northwest (1959), is at the peak of his success. Public awareness of him as a director, a rarity in the film world, is also at a high as he is well known for his amusingly grotesque narrator role in the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. However his new film is of some concern to his producers – ‘nothing but low budget horror movie claptrap’ – even if Hitchcock’s musing, ‘What if someone really good made a horror picture?’ could result in a film that would have a significant impact on box office takings around the world? Hitch’s premise is simple: take Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho and turn it into a film. Better than that: make it a cheap film. What could possibly go wrong? The project faces multiple issues from funding (by mortgaging his rather nice home) to distribution to shooting. Most important is that he maintains an amicable relationship with his wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) who, once again, suspects that his relationships with his actresses are more lecherous even than those that his nefarious characters engage in on-screen. But, like many of his characters, proof can be all too difficult to find…
Hitchcock goes to great lengths to ensure that its subject is enjoyable entertainment as well as interesting and referential. It uses a direct-to-camera cameo/narrator style introduction which, in some respects, presents the proposition that if we were not being addressed by the master, ‘we wouldn’t have our little movie would we?’ More interesting are the behind-the-scenes issues involved with the making of Psycho and the relationship between Hitch and Alma. Anthony Hopkins puts in a convincing enough performance as Hackney’s auteur son; indeed the acting throughout really helps place the story in context, whether through the familiar role of Scarlett Johansson’s Janet Leigh to the often sidelined but hugely important Alma Reville. The film emphasises the knowledge, talent and support of the spouse who had been married to Hitchcock since cinema’s silent era and is acknowledged as the driving force behind much of his success. These elements all work in the film’s favour but there a few issues, most notably that it tries too hard to maintain a balance between historical recollection and knowledgeable in-jokes for those familiar with the subject matter. Additionally, Robert Bloch’s Psycho was based upon the serial killer Ed Gein and the film goes some way to reinforce this connection by showing aspects of Gein’s (Michael Wincott) crimes which led to his conviction. That Hitchcock seems to channel Gein as inspiration feels incongruous.
Packed with the multiple relationships and deliberately placed humour, Hitchcock is an enjoyably produced and well acted slice of filmmaking drama which also shows us aspects of the way modern horror films developed, including the strategies in plotting and characterisation as well as negotiating the occasionally bizarre moral sensibilities of the censors. Whatever its titular character’s desire to scare his viewers, Hitchcock is very audience friendly in its portrayal.