The legacy of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies is their generosity. There’s so much beneath the usual considerations of plot, pace, and performance that each encounter erases the ones before. All my repeat viewings have accumulated into a rich familiarity but never complete or complacent knowledge. Hitchcock allows for dozens of interpretations and a diversity of devotion: Lots of people adore these movies but not always in the same way or for the same reasons. The richest of them – “Suspicion,” “Notorious,” “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” “The Birds,” “Marnie” – are like cities: There’s always some side street, some building, some statue you’ve never noticed or you’ve noticed but have never appreciated. They’re like planets, too: The centers are as complex as what’s on the surface.
This is all a long way of saying that the best way to better understand the man who made those and dozens of other movies is simply to see them. There’s no case to be made for a mangy shortcut like “Hitchcock.” It’s all surface and formula. The movie takes Stephen Rebello’s invaluable 1990 account of the making of Hitchcock’s biggest hit, 1960’s “Psycho,” and implodes by trying to turn the book into camp. Anthony Hopkins plays the director as a creepy parade float, obsessed with his female leads and handy with a double entendre. (“You may call me ‘Hitch,’” he says, “hold the ’cock.’”)
Rebello explicated the stakes involved with “Psycho.” Hitchcock worried that doing “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” for television had cheapened his reputation. He was struck by the Robert Bloch novel that would become the movie and which Bloch based on the real serial-killing spree of Ed Gein. Hitchcock paid the production costs himself and struck a deal with a skeptical Paramount to distribute it. The Hollywood censors were keen to rid the film of anything the movies hadn’t previously shown and a lot of the film’s cast and crew were nervous about their uncharted territory. Well, in “Hitchcock,” the actor Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) is nervous that the whole affair – a movie whose second half belongs to a murderous motel clerk dominated by his dead mother – is too close to home.
The director Sacha Gervasi and the screenwriter John J. McLaughlin smother the movie in allusions to the director’s films and in the sort of misbegotten literalness that leaves Hitchcock obsessed with and haunted by Gein (Michael Wincott), who engages poor Alfred in addled therapy sessions that clarify only that these conversations were a bad idea. It’s no fun living in a world that once gave “Psycho” grief but lets Alfred Hitchcock imagine he’s talking to a pseudo-Freudian ghost. Gein has inspired other writers to inhabit the mind of killers, but this movie hasn’t found inspiration in Gein, per se. It’s found a gimmick.
“Hitchcock” might find a happy audience in those who want to know exactly what was on the director’s mind during the filming of the shower sequence in “Psycho”: a randy screenwriter (stab!), the head of Paramount (stab!), the pesky censors (double stab!). Had I a knife, I might have turned it on myself. As for the victim in that sequence – Scarlett Johansson playing Janet Leigh playing Marion Crane – she’s an afterthought. That’s a shame since the film’s best moments dabble in exploring the confusion and frustration of being the star of a Hitchcock production, putting up with the director’s cruelty, meticulousness, and harassment. This was the gist of “The Girl,” a much smarter, much eerier recent HBO movie about Hitchcock and the actress Tippi Hedren.
As it turns out, the movie actually tells a version of the story of Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) — how, throughout their very long marriage, she was the secret of his success, how she kept him out of creative, sexual, and dietary trouble, how she almost succumbed to the flattery of the manly screenwriter (Danny Huston) who begs for her help with a script. But even that clever shift in point of view becomes something pre-chewed. This is now the story of a middle-age woman — an intelligent, determined one — desperate for her famous husband’s attention. That is such a conventional, taming dynamic that it can be passably applied to a dirty old man who’s fashioned a peephole that lets him ogle the actresses in their dressing room.
“Hitchcock” suggests that Leigh forged a kind of office friendship with her “Psycho” costar and discarded Hitchcock muse, Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), mostly over how best to survive life on the set of a movie in which they don’t share any scenes. This is interesting stuff, hearing from the people in and around the films, since the director’s point of view — particularly one as strong as Hitchcock’s — is self-evident. What Miles has to say to Leigh, and the girlfriendly way it’s put, is more novel than what anyone else has to say to each other. Some of that novelty extends to the fact that Biel is saying it. It would be wrong to imply that she’s the best thing in a movie in which Mirren, Huston, and Toni Collette are also good and Anthony Hopkins is admirably terrible (if his Nixon amounted to audacious cubism, this Hitchcock hails from the Sears portrait studio). But we’ve seen this from them before. Miles’s breezy confidence and sense of self-protection is new for Biel. She’s not much of an actor, but that might be because the movies haven’t given her anything to do. Her lightness here is the most natural thing in a movie devoid of all nature.
This is an interesting period for biographical moviemaking, with last year’s “My Week With Marilyn,” the current “Lincoln,” and the upcoming FDR film “Hyde Park on the Hudson.” The films are zeroing in on decisive, resonant moments and periods as opposed to life arcs. That’s a smart approach to this sort of storytelling. But Gus Van Sant’s underrated 1998 shot-for-shot remake of “Pyscho” provides the most illuminating approach to Hitchcock: as karaoke. The trouble with the movie Gervasi and McLaughlin have made is that it’s taken the wrong lessons from its subject. At some point early on, “Hitchcock” cuts from a rotting corpse to a sleeping Mirren. It’s just about the only sequence with any real love in it. Hitchcock might have found it funny, but he at least would have known it was cruel.
When, at last, Alfred tells Alma that he’ll never be able to find a Hitchcock blonde as beautiful as she, Alma says she’s waited 30 years to hear that and he quips, “That’s why they call me the master of suspense.” An exchange like that brings the master into depressing alignment with the tendency of American sitcoms to cast a fat man opposite the fit, tolerant beauty who holds the conjugal enterprise together as his shtick threatens to ruin everything. To that end, “Hitchcock” might appeal to anyone backhandedly subversive enough to wonder how the maker of “Strangers on a Train” and “Topaz” would have done with “The King of Queens.”Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.