Dir. Sacha Gervasi
(2012, PG-13, 98 minutes)

Hitchcock opens with a scene that sets the right tone: Ed Gein, the man who inspired the novel and eventually the film Psycho, is shown walloping his brother to death with a shovel, after which Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) dryly addresses the audience as he would have on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The director made films that were dark and often playful, and the film is at its best when, like in this opening scene, it reflects that wicked mischief.

It’s less effective when it turns into a more routine domestic drama about Hitchcock the irascible genius and his long-suffering wife Alma (Helen Mirren). The strife between them feels contrived, both her jealousy of his obsession with his leading ladies and his jealousy of her friendship with a charming fellow writer (Danny Huston). At one point Alma comments about how maudlin they’ve become and I’m forced to agree.

It’s hard to make a great film about the making of a great film. It feels self-conscious to watch characters casually discuss creative decisions that will eventually go down in history. While gardening in once scene, discussing leading ladies, Alma says casually, “What about Janet Leigh?” and the effect is silly. Ditto the editorializing moments in John J. McLaughlin‘s screenplay, as when a character complains that, gosh darn it, Alma really should have gotten a writing credit on that screenplay. Meanwhile, Production Code censors and studio execs are written and acted like the usual one-dimensional naysayers getting in the way of a great artist.

But there are interesting creative touches: Hitchcock has nightmares and fantasies in which he develops a kinship with Ed Gein. But director Sacha Gervasi (who previously made the excellent and very different Anvil! The Story of Anvil) never really decides what he wants to do with them. Does Hitchcock really identify so much with Gein that it keeps him up nights? The film doesn’t adequately explore it, so those dreams and fantasies remain disconnected from the rest of the film, which focuses on more banal dilemmas like whether Alma was developing feelings for her writer friend or whether Hitchcock is flirting too much with buxom starlets.

Hitchcock’s films were great for their dark psychology and their sly wit, sometimes at the same time (murder stories like Strangers on a Train and Rope were as much about playing games as committing crimes). Hitchcock the film sometimes plays up those good qualities, and Hopkins’s performance gives him an impish twinkle in the eyes, a macabre deadpan. But too much of the film is stuck in the middle, routine in showing how Hitchcock made a film that was anything but.