Hitchcock is not quite as good a film as it could have been. Granted, Lincoln may have set quite a high bar for November releases, but some parts ring cheesy in a way that Alfred Hitchcock would never have signed off on. The way Hitch directly addresses the camera, the surreal bits where he imagines he’s talking to Ed Gein, the winking reference to The Birds at the end, and the literal way the film shows, rather than tells you about Hitch’s mental state when he’s taking out his frustrations on Janet Leigh, all come from a different, more kitsch-y cinematic language than Hitch’s masterworks indulged in. By the end, the answers feel a little too easy, and the stakes feel low all along. (Oh no, they might have to move to a house without a pool!) That said, the great performances therein serve to distract from this problem a great deal, making what might have been merely a fun popcorn flick into a very good fun popcorn flick. Specifically: the performances of the women.
Don’t get me wrong; Anthony Hopkins makes a great Alfred Hitchcock. I haven’t actually seen that many of his films, and I wasn’t sure I could ever shake the creepiness of his Hannibal Lecter character from my mind (I’m not the only one; Martha Stewart stopped dating him because she couldn’t, either), but he inhabits the role so well that nary a thought of Lecter occurred to me while watching. But one great performance alone cannot redeem an imperfect film, plus his character is kind of an unsympathetic dick at times, so non-dickish viewers are likely to look elsewhere for a protagonist. (More on that later.)
Although cast in supporting roles, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, and yes, even Jessica Biel deliver pitch perfect performances. Biel’s aura of dislikability even works in her favor, as she plays Vera Miles, who was very much on the outs with Hitch at the time Psycho was filmed. But by the end, we’re made to understand her side of the story—not everyone wants to give up a family life for their career—and we soften to her, much like EIC Jenni will soften to Biel herself someday when she meets her and realizes she’s more than a beautiful robot.
Toni Collette’s role as Hitch’s secretary is about as small as Biel’s, but she still conveys Hitch’s childish relationships with the women in his life very well as she frets over his health and tries fruitlessly to prevent him from drinking. We don’t get to see any of Janet Leigh‘s private life, as this is not her movie, but ScarJo still manages to imbue her with enough sweetness and professionalism to keep us from totally hating her for attracting Hitch’s amorous affections. (It’s a testament to Alma’s maturity that she doesn’t hate her either, but keeps the exasperation focused on her husband.) And I continue to be amazed that a famous person with such an unmistakable face in her own right can look so much like Janet Leigh, but that might be more of a compliment for the hair, makeup, and wardrobe departments.
And then there’s Helen Mirren. The film might be called “Hitchcock,” but it really belongs to her, and by extension, the real Alma Reville. Maybe it’s just because I’m a woman too, but I viewed Alma as the protagonist much more so than Hitch, as the desire to be loved, appreciated and respected is something I can identify with. And, as a casual Hitchcock fan, I had no idea his wife had played such a big part in the making of his movies. From the very beginning, she’s quick with the quips and the simmering resentment of her husband, and by the time she finally gives it to him good, you are thoroughly on her side.
The day-to-day realities of living with a celebrated “genius” are often less than glamorous; factor in the added indignity that Alma was arguably just as talented as the man she loved but got little recognition for it, and you have a recipe for real internal conflict which we see written on her face in every scene: the scenes she shares with Hopkins, as well as the scenes she shares with Whitfield Cook, her handsome if less talented writing partner who credits her equally with himself and obviously has a huge crush on her. (Will she or won’t she?) Plus, Mirren is a sexy enough lady for age 67 (or any age, really) that it doesn’t ring hollow in the end when Hitch tells her none of his blonde actresses are as beautiful to him as she is, the saccharine sweetness of that line notwithstanding.
After the screening, I was so aghast at the major, yet uncredited, role Alma played in every step of the making of Psycho—from the screenplay (“kill her off sooner!”) to the final editing process (that famous music over the shower scene) that I took to the Internet to see if it was true, and as far as I can tell, much of it is. If we lived in a just world, her list of projects on IMDB would be twice as long as it is now. But, things being as they are, this film may finally give her the posthumous credit she deserves.
Hitchcock comes out in US theaters today, November 23