One of the best things about ”Hitchcock” – despite it being a good film by any measure – is the pleasure of seeing Anthony Hopkins act again.
Sure, he’s been in projects almost continually for the last decade or more, but look at the characters; Odin in ”Thor”, Father Lucas in ”The Rite”, John Talbot in ”The Wolfman”, Hrothgar in ”Beowulf”, Ptolemy in ”Alexander”. Aside from blink and you missed them projects like ”Fracture” and ”The World’s Fastest Indian” he’s played slight variations on the same wise British elder statesman in pulp, comic book and adventure movies that are often downright silly.
Not since his breakout role as Hannibal Lecter in 1991’s ”The Silence of the Lambs” has Hopkins so fully inhabited a character rather than just sat in make-up, roared some profound lines at a camera and gone home with his cheque.
He doesn’t look exactly like Alfred Hitchcock, but neither does Meryl Streep look like Margaret Thatcher or Michael Sheen like Tony Blair, neither of which stopped those actors giving stellar performances.
Hopkins presumably wears fat padding under Hitch’s signature black suit, and he has the bald pate, the slow, deliberate and sneery voice and that peculiar stance – head back, chin up – as if he’s always addressing the gentility from a podium. Want a criticism? Fine, the eyes are different, but Hopkins channels the spirit of the late auteur beautifully and with relish. It seems that like Hitchcock himself, Hopkins is delighted to shock us.
It’s the late 50s and as he tells his longtime wife Alma (Helen Mirren, as heartfelt as always), his association with TV has cheapened him. Frustrated that nobody at adopted home studio Paramount Pictures can see his genius, he snarls at studio president Barney Balaban at one point about all the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedies they keep churning out.
All he needs is the right project, and when Robert Bloch’s account of midwestern serial killer Ed Gein drops in his lap, Hitchcock is hooked. When the studio passes he finances it himself, Alma agreeing to remortgage their Hollywood home to pay for Psycho themselves, a move that will bankrupt them if it fails.
What follows is the battle to get the movie made – against time, money, his wife and himself. As Hitchcock takes her more for granted, Alma starts to find herself drawn to a writer friend (Danny Huston) for attention, a flirtation that threatens to turn into something more. Despite his jealousy when he finds out, it doesn’t stop Hitchcock conducting an imaginary affair with his winsome leading lady Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) as he does on every project and which Alma knows she just has to wait out.
Hitchcock isn’t a particularly heavy or dark film – it’s there mostly for the fun of letting you peek behind the scenes of Hollywood as seen by writer Stephen Rebello, on whose book the movie is based. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some prescient moments. When Hitchcock explodes with frustration at the body double half-heartedly filming the shower scene with Janet, he leaps out of his chair and starts slashing angrily at the terrified actress himself, glimpses of everything and everybody torturing his conscience and self-image flashing before his eyes.
There are themes to be found if you want them – from the nature of the artistic muse to a spoiled man who could never understand why his peers didn’t treat him with the reverence he thought he deserved. In one way it’s a classic underdog story of a determined but talented outsider willing to risk everything for what he/she believes – history of course remembers Hitchcock being completely right about his belief in ”Psycho”. There’s even a throughline that might be saying creative genius needs the same kind of psychosis as serial killing, as Gein himself (Michael Wincott) occasionally accompanies Hitchcock in his more reflective moments to dispense homilies on maternal issues and murder.
”Hitchcock” has a light tone and there are plenty of laughs courtesy of the director’s many sardonic comments (made all the more cutting from the formality of his voice), but it feels pleasantly like an insider’s glimpse of history too. And yes, that is the Karate Kid himself, Ralph Macchio, as the screenwriter Joseph Stefano, whom Hitchcock hires because of his mummy problems.