"Behind every great man there's a great woman" goes the dated and patronizing cliche, but those words suit both the era and the biographical details of the great Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville. The couple met in the early 1920s at a London film studio where Reville had begun work at the age of 16, and they would remain married for 53 years until Hitchcock's death in 1980. Over the course of the director's storied career and 50-plus feature films, Reville served as a silent partner to the Master of Suspense, providing crucial support as a script editor and sounding board. The times didn't allow Reville the fame and glory she likely deserved and would have enjoyed today. Sounds like a great subject for a movie, doesn't it?
As directed by British filmmaker Sacha Gervasi from a script based on the nonfiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, Hitchcock dwells on the couple's personal and professional relationship at the expense of other, richer aspects of their artistic lives. It's satisfying to see Reville get her due, and the film has enough film-related detail to keep fans and movie-history buffs engaged. But for those of us who regard the director as one of the great artists of his time — a cinematic trailblazer, a keen observer of human nature and a social satirist of rare substance — Hitchcock feels like a missed opportunity.
Many remember the master's darkly comic persona from his onscreen introductions on the late-1950s TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Hitchcock might have shed much more light on the artist behind the self-imposed caricature.
Even so, the Hitchcock scenes that fully address the director's creative life are worth the price of admission. Instead of trying to tackle the whole of Hitchcock's epic career, Gervasi focuses on the brief but pivotal period of 1959-60. Hitchcock has just made two of the greatest films of all time — Vertigo and North By Northwest — but felt the need to break the rules and innovate as he had in the early days. The result was Psycho, a film so daring for its time that no one would agree to finance it. Hitchcock had to do that himself despite the risk of personal bankruptcy. These real-life events allow Hitchcock to frame the master as an unlikely but authentic underdog, despite his tremendous overall success, tangling with studio execs and, later, censors who hoped to ban the film.
Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren throw themselves into the lead roles with everything they've got, but the lightweight script sometimes undermines otherwise strong performances. Layered with prosthetics and silicone, Hopkins still doesn't look much like Hitchcock, which takes some time to accept. A climactic sequence in which the director suddenly becomes the baton-wielding conductor of his own trademark mayhem constitutes one of the year's most inspired moments on film. But it's not hard to imagine what the endlessly droll and deadpan Hitchcock might have said about his own biopic: "It's not a bad story, but it could have used a little suspense and a more dashing lead." — KEN KORMAN