REVIEW: Switching between comedy and drama, this film surveys the master of suspense as he directed "Psycho."
Alfred Hitchcock was fond of casting icy blondes as his films' heroines and subjecting them to dreadful perils. "Blondes make the best victims," he used to say. But in the backstage comedy-drama "Hitchcock," the most troubled relationship is between the legendary director (Anthony Hopkins) and his dark-haired wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren).
Peeking at the private man behind Hitchcock's carefully cultivated public image seems fair, given his voyeuristic tendencies. Shifting perspective from his authoritarian façade to the needy, repressed man within is one of the few neat twists in this affectionate, forgettable misfire. They could have subtitled it "Dial M for Muddle."
Granted, it's difficult to make a film about a dazzling entertainer without courting comparison. Director Sacha Gervasi ("Anvil: The Story of Anvil") and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin stake no claim to the mordant wit and nail-biting story lines of Hitchcock's classics. This is two films, shuttling between Hitch's strained domestic life and his battles with studio execs and defenders of morality during the 1959 filming of "Psycho." Kurtwood Smith is a hoot as a fuddy-duddy censor, but since we know Hitch will have the last laugh, there's little tension on that count.
The filmmakers take at face value the ghoulish uncle image he affected for publicity purposes, never probing the dark emotional issues motivating a merchant of menace. "The Birds" star Tippi Hedren has long accused the director of sexually harassing her, calling him "evil and deviant," while another Hitchcock blonde, "Vertigo's" Kim Novak, defends him saying, "I did not find him to be weird at all."
"Hitchcock" ignores that tantalizing controversy, lowering the stakes hugely. The film aims to generate suspense from the reticent Englishman's reluctance to tell his wife he loves her, while wolfish writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) circles Alma for purposes combining business and pleasure. There are walk-ons from Anthony Perkins (James D'Arcy, fey), Vera Miles (Jessica Biel, spunky) and Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson, double spunky). Only taxidermy fan Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) connects, as a lively figment of Hitch's imagination.
Hopkins has a wonderful moment when he stands in the theater lobby for the first public screening of "Psycho," acting out the shower-scene assault with waving arms in time to the screams rocking the theater. But his makeup recalls Mussolini, and his acting is superficial impersonation.
The scenes of life with Alfred and Alma are tepid soap opera. An important but overlooked creative contributor to Hitch's films, Alma is troubled with doubts about the eccentric genius across the breakfast table. Mirren is pleasant as Alma, but the film is unable to convey why she felt such loyalty to a charming but coldblooded control freak. That's Hitchcock's greatest mystery, sadly unsolved.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186