The master - Page 2

'Hitchcock' goes behind the scenes of Hollywood history

Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) directs Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Anthony Perkins (James D'Arcy) in 'Hitchcock'.

But Hopkins' Hitch offers nothing so extreme, aside from gentle leering at his leading ladies' ample assets — still enough to make Alma Hitchcock ("a smart, shrewd lady who had a lot of influence over him," the book praises, in one of few mentions of her) cringe. Feeling overlooked, she begins spending time with the unctuous Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), a writer who'd worked on Hitchcock's 1951 Strangers on a Train, but whose current project is the shudderingly-titled Taxi to Dubrovnik.

As the film's tagline — "Behind every Psycho is a great woman" — suggests, the relationship between Alma and Hitch is, stubbornly, Hitchcock's main focus. While Mirren is effective (and I'm all for seeing a lady who works hard behind the scenes get recognition), the Whit subplot exists only to shoehorn more conflict into a tale that's got plenty already. We can tell Whit is a sleaze from the moment he appears, but the film insists on having him hang around, lure the attention-starved Alma out to his beach house, etc. If this were a real Hitchcock movie, the ruthless director would've excised this go-nowhere drama from his first-draft storyboards.

Elsewhere, however, Hitchcock director Sacha Gervasi — making his narrative debut after hit 2008 doc Anvil: The Story of Anvil — shows stylistic flair, working Hitchcock references into the mise-en-scène (lots of birds), and echoing Psycho's themes (Hitch as voyeur, peering through window blinds and peepholes) and symbolism (the first time we see Alma, she's wearing white undergarments, much like our initial glimpse of Marion in Psycho). There are comedic moments that spring from Hitchcock's own dry wit and canny grasp of showmanship, as when he invites the Hollywood press over to his house to discuss his new project — then proceeds to solemnly pass around gruesome Ed Gein crime scene photos. (Gein pops up throughout the film as a kind of Hitchcock inner demon; clever, but the device gets old quickly.) Also nice: Hitch's reaction to the audience's reaction at Psycho's first public screening.

Hopkins, all things considered a pretty obvious casting choice, is 74 — nearly 15 years older than Hitchcock was in 1959 — and is helped along to that famous profile with prosthetics. But his portrayal of the Master renders the great man a likable but flawed artist: still determined to improve his craft after decades in the biz (Psycho was his 47th film); anxious for approval (he finally won an honorary Oscar in 1968); and a consummate professional on-set — but fond of studying hot-young-thing headshots a little too closely in his home office. And while Hitchcock may not best the political biopic that's its current box-office competition, Lincoln (nor will Hopkins likely upset Daniel Day-Lewis on any award-show podiums), it's miles better than another Hopkins-starrer in that vein: 1995's Nixon. 

HITCHCOCK opens Fri/23 in Bay Area theaters.

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