Among reputable movie critics, by which I do not mean the New York Observer’s unkillable Rex Reed (“Hitchcock grabs you by the lapels like a suspense classic by Hitch himself—a knockout from start to finish.” Yes, that’s a real quote), Sacha Gervasi’s atrocious Hitchcock has its defenders. They notably include The New Yorker’s stimulatingly unpredictable Richard Brody, who certainly can’t be accused of being a blurb whore by any stretch. Yet it’s worth noting that Brody made the case in favor of Gervasi’s crude fantasia about Hitchcock’s inner life during the filming of Psycho almost entirely on conceptual grounds—i.e., by praising the “audacity” of conceits like Sir Alfred’s imaginary dialogues with real-life serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the original inspiration for Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates. He didn’t have a lot to say about Hitchcock’s, ahem, cinematic qualities, no doubt because finding them would require Sherlock Holmes’s indefatigability and even Brody knows life’s too short.
The simple case against Hitchcock, on the other hand, is that it’s been made by a man with no discernible talents except a dubious one for parasitic prurience, combined with a notion of debonair movie-movie wit that would shame any halfway clever tenth-grader. If we’re talking basic competence, Gervasi cuts film the way ninth-graders cut farts, and he can’t manage actors worth a damn. When one as gifted as Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire’s superbly silky Arnold Rothstein) keeps getting caught looking shaky about the gist of playing Hitchcock’s agent, Lew Wasserman, you know it’s the director’s fault. Only those still impressed by any movie featuring Sir Anthony Hopkins in heavy makeup as somebody they’ve sort-of-kind-of heard of—which is, by now, like being wowed by a department-store Santa’s skill at evoking the real one—will think the performances are any good. The exception, oddly enough, is Wincott’s Gein; he’s got a real 1940s look and manner, plus enough John Cassavetes-ish neurotic magnetism to make me wish he’d played Ed Gein in a movie about Ed Gein.
Yet Hitchcock’s ineptitude is a pity. A lousy movie is a lousy occasion for what ought to be an interesting debate—one about what’s legit and what’s not when real-life people are used in this fashion. (Time obviously has something to do with it; only a fool would complain that, for instance, Josef von Sternberg’s marvelous, crazy The Scarlet Empress isn’t too reliable a biopic of Catherine the Great. But plenty of people who knew the real Hitchcock are still alive, after all, and so are millions more who first saw Psycho when it came out.) And just for the record, I’m one compromised arbiter, having shoved fantasies about folks ranging from LBJ to Sammy Davis, Jr., into my fiction. Yet I doubt anyone in the tiny—if, so I hope, highly entertained—audience I’ve got when I put on that hat would mistake my jokes for “the truth” about them. By contrast, if only because the validity of biopics as shortcuts to secondary and even college education is one myth that dies hard with lazy teachers, anyone who loves movies has a right to fret that innocents watching Hitchcock will think they’re learning something about the real Alfred Hitchcock.
So will they? In the crassest, most reductive way, yes. A raft of biographies and critical studies down the road, it’s in no real dispute that Hitchcock had a thwarted, perverse relationship to the blonde actresses he fetishized—although Scarlett Johansson, who turns up perkily pretending to be Janet Leigh as if she’s one of the plants on TV’s old To Tell The Truth, looks like she’d qualify as a hobby at best, not an obsession. Nor is there much argument that Hitchcock’s longtime wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren, here), was a vital and too long neglected creative collaborator, providing the infuriatingly saccharine ending to this squalid movie when he finally acknowledges her as such.
Yet what Gervasi is incapable of conveying, because he’s no artist—and indeed doesn’t seem to know, because he’s a shmuck—was that Hitchcock was one of the dozen or so decisive geniuses in the history of movies, which after all is the one thing worth telling otherwise uninformed 21st-century audiences about him. How can anyone who knows that stomach the bit when Sir Alfred takes over the knife himself while directing Psycho’s shower scene—and in flash cuts, imagines himself stabbing Paramount Studios head Barney Balaban, the smarmy writer (Danny Huston) he’s convinced Alma is having an affair with, and so on? If that’s psychological insight, all I can say is that I can’t wait for Gervasi’s vision of Picasso painting Guernica, filled with interesting conversations between Pablo and Mr. Ed.
Because I’m one of the last people to be knee-jerk about this stuff, I could wish Hitchcock had been good enough to make me quarrel with my own preconceptions about whether it was worth doing. But it’s rubbish, and that’s all there is to it. Back in the Seventies, Brit director Ken Russell used to stir up similar controversies with his gaga biopics of artists—for instance, The Music Lovers (Richard Chamberlain as Tchaikovsky) or Lisztomania (Who singer Roger Daltrey, so help me, as Franz Liszt). But whatever his sins, Ken Russell knew how to shoot and cut film.