Out of the depths of awards season comes the most widely-acclaimed declaration of anti-auteurist sentiments to hit the screen in recent memory, Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock. While the film appears to be a fairly straight-forward biopic, it’s not; it attempts to rewrite the traditionally accepted narrative of Alfred Hitchcock’s career, making his wife the real filmmaker and Hitchcock nothing more than a lusty toddler. Of course, this isn’t to say that she wasn’t an important figure in his life, but the film is essentially a lie, built on a false premise. It claims to tell the story of Hitchcock (the film’s name is even Hitchcock, for crying out loud), but once it moves through the first few minutes the film’s real attention shifts away from Alfred Hitchcock and his perversions and focuses more on his long-suffering wife, Alma.
The film’s plot is fairly simple, attempting to document the making of what is generally considered Hitchock’s masterpiece, Psycho, although I would offer up Vertigo, Strangers On a Train, or Notorious for alternate consideration. But what the film and its makers fail to realize is that any film chronicling the production of a “classic” will appear sub-par, as it is nearly impossible in most cases to duplicate that level of greatness. It’s the same dilemma faced by a film like Lifetime’s recent Liz & Dick, which attempted to tell the story of one of the cinema’s most beloved couples. Lindsay Lohan will probably never be a greater actress than Elizabeth Taylor, and whats-his-name will never be better than Richard Burton, so the film automatically seems weak. Although Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, and Scarlett Johansson are all potentially better actors than the individuals they portray (although the first two weren’t really actors, only individuals involved in the cinematic process), Hitchcock falls flat from the start, as it is not nearly as good as Psycho.
In addition to its Psycho story, the film attempts to engage in a bit of pointless psychoanalysis, trying to make sense of Hitchcock’s various desires by comparing him to the real-life inspiration for Norman Bates, Ed Gein. This is a trick similar to the recent Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, in which France’s Bob Dylan is paired up with a psychological sidekick, but like the Gainsbourg flick, this device fails to really illuminate the inner workings of Hitchcock’s mind. Unlike Gainsbourg, however, the film’s choice of alter-ego clashes with the overall premise and doesn’t match up with the rest of the film’s visual aesthetic. In Hitchcock, this double personality trick sticks out sorely, especially since the film attempts to be more about Alma than Hitchcock. This little alter-ego bit is one of several referential jokes used throughout the film, the kind common in biopics of this sort.
The inherent lie Hitchcock is built on is extended even further in the anti-auteruism I mentioned in the first paragraph. It sells itself as a celebration of one of the screen’s greatest directors, but ends up diminishing his reputation, acting like he was incapable of doing anything without the assistance of his wife. I don’t doubt her importance to his life, and I acknowledge that Hitch wasn’t without his quirks, but an artist of his reputation couldn’t get to the level he reached without some capability and drive of his own. However, I do applaud it for fighting back against the auteur theory. Not that I don’t generally agree with the auteur theory, but I also think it’s a tad over-accepted in our society For those unfamiliar, the auteur theory is a critical theory which basically states that the director is the true author of the film. It seems like a simple and common-place idea now, but when critics like Andrew Sarris and the Cahiers du Cinema crew introduced it in the late 50s and early 60s, it was revolutionary. But in some cases, I just have to disagree. The director is not always the true author of a film; in fact, I consider visual consultant and title designer Saul Bass to be the true artist behind Psycho, and he only appears for an instant in Hitchcock. One of the reasons why I have always felt Hitchock is a tad over-rated is due to the fact that the best scenes in Psycho, the famous shower and stair scenes, were shot by Bass, a fact over-looked by this film’s makers. Hitchcock has never been one of my favorite directors, although I do think he is a great master of the screen and I love a few of the films that I mentioned earlier as well as many of the individual sequences of his movies. However, there’s always an inherent weakness to them, with sequences that don’t fit perfectly right, disappointing endings (most notably in North by Northwest and Rear Window), etc. In many cases, his films are good movies with a few scenes reaching out and grabbing on to greatness. But I hate to soapbox and sound like a crank.
While I don’t agree with its sentiments in many cases, I applaud Hitchcock for confronting the auteur theory. In many cases this theory is the truth, but in others it’s a lazy excuse for criticism. There’s no one-size-fits-all theorem to answer the question of who truly “made” a film; cinema is an industry and all those involved should be acknowledged. Only a few film artists can truly be considered “auteurs.” I commend Sacha Gervasi for confronting generally-accepted critical theory. This film helps to show the role that individuals like the editor, the crew’s family, and even the censorship board play in shaping a film. But it does so in such a weird, false way that it doesn’t work to the effect it could. Hitchcock can’t decide what it wants to be, a conventional biopic, a revisionist critical film, or an intense psychoanalysis. It’s not sure if it wants to be about Alma or Alfred, causing the film’s true intent gets muddled and lost in all this confusion. It’s an enjoyable enough film, and probably a decent introduction to Hitchcock’s life, but he deserves a better biopic than this.
Hitchcock is directed by Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil) and stars Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, and Jessica Biel. Rated PG-13. 98 minutes long.