Director: Sacha Gervasi; Screenwriter: John J. McLaughlin, Stephen Rebello; Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Biel, James D'Arcy; Certificate: 12A; Running time: 98 mins
"You may call me Hitch. Hold the Cock."
The trouble with Hitchcock is that the screenwriters have also dropped the Ball. Despite superb casting and a premise that should leave the audience spellbound, this attempt to explore the fraught production of 1960 classic Psycho and its portly director's psyche lacks the sufficient focus to reach the gripping, vertiginous heights it should have.
Sacha Gervasi's movie tries to encompass many elements but, unlike the blade of knife-wielding maniac Norman Bates, fails to delve deep beneath the skin of its characters despite compelling performances from Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren as Alfred Hitchcock and his beleaguered wife Alma Reville. It tries to be a dual study of them both - and only intermittently succeeds - although 'Alfred & Alma' may not have been a wiser title in terms of marketing purposes.
As the British auteur, Hopkins conveys the self-doubt, obsessive creepiness and childlike enthusiasm with relish, transcending often trite dialogue that veers between soundbites and unsubtle exposition. The actor's visual transformation - bolstered by prosthetics but built upon mannerism, mimicry and posture - is also impressive, if bearing an uncanny resemblance to former Labour leader Neil Kinnock. The fault with the characterisation lies in its willingness to show us the effects of his past (the drinking, the 'peephole' voyeurism that echoes some of his protagonists), without ever addressing the causes for such behaviour.
This failure to fully harness and explore the central characters or their relationships to a satisfying level is also evident in the other function of Hitchcock, which seeks to deal with the making of Psycho.
Too often, the movie introduces and homes in on an interesting character (such as James D'Arcy's edgy actor Anthony Perkins or Ralph Macchio's screenwriter Joseph Stefano) or an intriguing interaction, only to abruptly veer off in another direction and not capitalise on the build up. It's akin to Norman Bates never pulling back that shower curtain and tiptoeing off to chop some onions instead.
Nonetheless, there is plenty of nostalgic fun and intrigue for fans of cinema to devour, such as the joy of a maverick successfully rallying against the creatively restrictive censorship and studio systems to make his movie and bask in its success. One triumphant sequence depicts Hitchcock 'conducting' the screams of terrified Psycho viewers in a cinema corridor. It's a magical moment.
The same cannot be said of the ill-conceived framing device that involves serial killer Ed Gein, the inspiration for Psycho character Norman Bates, frequently appearing to the director and conversing with him in fantasy sequences. The intentions are clear - to externalise and verbalise the internal world of Hitchcock's mind. Yet, much like the movie's overly expositionary dialogue, this only succeeds in betraying the very mantra Hitchcock himself adopted as a storyteller - "show, don't tell".
Far more faithful to the moviemaking maestro are the recreations of two pivotal sequences from Psycho and Hitchcock's concurrent off-camera antics, featuring the oppressive treatment of his leading lady Janet Leigh (an excellent Scarlett Johansson).
The first involves Leigh's character Marion Crane driving away after her theft, in front of a rear projection backdrop, while the second is the spinetingling shower scene - one of cinema's most iconic moments. Gervasi's camerawork and cutting manages to generate a heightened level of suspense and terror that echoes the master himself during these scenes. You can't help but experience Marion's emotions alongside that of the actress portraying her, as the director bombards her with shouted instructions designed to induce fear.
As a result, you want to know more about the titular figure's fractious relationships with his leading ladies, which is also briefly touched upon through the presence of Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), whose career as a star was arguably ruined by the director. Alas, as with most of its other elements, the very watchable but uneven Hitchcock happily displays its skeleton, but is lacking in the way of flesh. Not unlike Norman Bates's mother.