By Chaz Lipp
Films based on true events are always tricky. What level of artistic license is acceptable when condensing the sprawl of real life into a two hour movie? Composite characters are often created, the sequence of events gets restructured, and sometimes things are invented wholesale. Occasionally filmmakers try to remain as true as possible to reality. In the case of Hitchcock, director Sacha Gervasi’s dramatic reimagining of the making of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho, the former route was taken to very mixed effect.
It’s an oddly schizo approach that didn’t really wind up tripping anyone’s trigger, with a domestic gross of about $6 million (to be fair, its widest opening was only 561 screens). We do see a little of the nuts-and-bolts of Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) deciding upon adapting the novel Psycho as his next film, studio resistance to greenlighting such a lurid project, the casting process, and eventually the innovative marketing strategy employed to sell the controversial finished film. While I’m no expert on the subject, much of this material seems to check out relatively well with real accounts. But there are fantasy and invented domestic elements thrown in. Some work, some don’t.
The source novel for Hitchcock’s Psycho was loosely inspired by real-life murder Ed Gein. Gervasi makes Gein a character in the film (played by Michael Wincott), haunting Hitchcock and even acting as his therapist at one point. The film might’ve benefited from more of this speculative loopiness. It’s certainly more interesting than the soapy subplot involving Hithcock’s wife Alma (Helen Mirren). While it’s widely acknowledged that Alma did indeed assist Hitch throughout his career, this film wildly elevates her contributions (including having her literally step in to direct a scene of Psycho when her husband is sick). The “is she cheating on me” paranoia that Hitch develops is never entirely believable (especially since she so clearly is not), feeling tacked on as a cheap way of eliciting sympathy.
Mirren is the standout, digging in to make Alma a forthright, smart, and ultimately incredibly supportive woman. I never really forgot I was watching Anthony Hopkins, but he does do a good Hitchcock impersonation. The problem is that the real Hitchcock had such a recognizable face and well-established public persona, it would be difficult for anyone to truly disappear into the character. As for the supporting cast, Scarlett Johansson is given precious little to work with as Psycho star Janet Leigh. Jessica Biel, as Psycho co-star Vera Miles, and Toni Collette, as Hitchcock’s secretary Peggy, have even less.
Blu-ray technical specs are on par with the best recent release I’ve seen. Jeff Cronenweth’s digital cinematography has film-like warmth and vivid colors. Danny Elman’s score sounds great in the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix. The best supplement is the audio commentary by director Gervasi and author Stephen Rebello (who wrote Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho upon which Hitchcock is based). Be forewarned there’s a LOT of EPK short featurettes included here, but the half-hour “Obsessed with Hitchcock” (behind-the-scenes featurette) and 12-minute “Becoming the Master” (about Hopkins’ transformation) are worth the time.
Unfortunately, Hitchcock missed a great opportunity to join the ranks of Tim Burton’s masterpiece Ed Wood as one of the most deliriously joyful celebrations of storytelling (and the creative process in general) ever captured. That film, with Johnny Depp delivering one of his most underrated performances as grade-Z filmmaker Ed Wood, is a perfect example of how to effectively adapt a true story while taking justified liberties. Perhaps Sacha Gervasi, having only helmed one film previously (the documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil), was simply too unseasoned to tackle such a project.