Alfred Hitchcock is noted as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and rightfully so — his body of work comprised of over 60 films is skillfully composed highly dramatic and eclectic from beginning to end. So pulling back the curtain on the legend in his own medium was only a matter of time a how'd-he-do-it biopic that could pay respects to the collected works while revealing the master's process. Hitchcock directed by Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil) pays its respects but also reveals another unexpected quality of the auteur's behind-the-scenes life: it wasn't all that dramatic.
Anthony Hopkins slides into the silhouette of the recognizable director and does a reasonable job nailing his cadence and posture. Side by side with his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) who as the movie reveals was the director's close collaborator Hitchcock strides confidently into the world of independent cinema for the first time balking at studio heads who demand something more audience-friendly than the gruesome Psycho. Investing his own money into the film Hitchcock risks everything to turn the story of murderer Ed Gein into a high art horror picture. He finds a leading lady in Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) a script in a screenwriter with mommy problems and a closeted actor to portray the sexually exploratory Gein.
And that's about it. Hitchcock disguises the usual stresses of moviemaking as major hurdles even representing Gein as a specter who haunts Hitchcock's every decision. Aside from the brief suspicion that Alma abandons him mid-production for charming writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) which feels stuffed in and meandering rather than intrinsic to the making of Psycho there's little explanation for Hitchcock's anxiety and downward spiral. The film even dabbles in Hitch's well-known infatuation with his leading ladies — explored to a terrifying degree in last month's The Girl — but places the director on too high a pedestal to ever dig deep.
The real star of the show — and perhaps one who would have made a better subject for feature film — is Alma a complex second fiddle overshadowed by the greatness of Hitchcock. Mirren once again delivers a lively performance as a woman desperate to live her own life; the scene when she lets loose on Hitchcock is easily the high point of the movie. But like the audience who unknowingly appreciated her work behind-the-camera Hitchcock is too obsessed with the man at the center of it all to open up and give the character or Mirren the spotlight.
Hitchcock's time period flourishes and camera work are presented simply (Gervasi keeps hat tipping to the auteur's oeuvre to a minimum) while Danny Elfman whips up a score that riffs appropriately on longtime Hitchcock collaborator Bernhard Hermann's works. But there's no hook to elevate the film from a puff piece and even the biggest Alfred Hitchcock fan will be grasping for something more.
There should be a rule stating if a movie has already won the Academy Award for Best Picture it should never EVER be remade at a later time no matter who is involved. Why mess with a good thing? The 1949 All the King's Men based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren starred Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark a 1950s Louisiana politician who uses fiery rhetoric to get the poor folk to elect him as governor but who becomes corrupt in the process and is eventually assassinated. The story is loosely based on the real-life legendary 1930s Louisiana governor Huey P. Long and the original film adaptation was equally brazen and subtle wonderfully executed and won three Oscars including the top prize. But apparently the original wasn’t as authentic as this current incarnation. This time Sean Penn stars as our prime filibuster who tries to keep things lively but gets bogged down by the muddled subplots especially the one involving Stark’s PR guy Jack Burden (Jude Law) and his relationships with his very Southern godfather (Anthony Hopkins) and childhood friends (Kate Winslet and Mark Ruffalo). Yawn. With a cast like this it’s no wonder King's Men got remade. Penn clearly stands out of course. How could he not? His Willie Stark is the only thing sparking anything close to life in the film. But with the part such as it is Penn also tends to unnecessarily chew up scenery while everyone stands around him in a wilting repose. Law—once again narrating the proceedings (must he do this in ALL his films?)—tries to embody a character who really doesn’t seem to give a rat’s ass about anything except being Stark’s beck and call boy even after all the horrible things Stark makes him do to the people he supposedly loves. Winslet as Jack’s unrequited childhood love Ruffalo as her put-upon brother and Hopkins as a former judge who stands in Stark’s way to success are all just completely wasted. As is Patricia Clarkson as Stark’s campaign manager and mistress Sadie Burke who was so brilliantly played by the Oscar-winning Mercedes McCambridge in the 1949 original. Whatever happened in translation is surely not Clarkson fault. Come on guys you’ve got a powerhouse crew here. Why fritter them away? Apparently redoing All the King's Men has been a dream project of political pundit James Carville one of the film’s producers for some time. He has dabbled here and there in the entertainment industry especially in the riveting documentary The War Room so periodically through the years Carville would mention to filmmakers in passing how he had a passion for Robert Penn Warren’s novel and how deeply he wanted to see it filmed authentically. Lo and behold someone finally listened and a new King's Men was underway helmed by writer/director Steven Zaillian (Searching for Bobby Fischer) with an all-star cast. Filming on location in New Orleans and the outlying areas of Louisiana just before Hurricane Katrina hit Zaillian provides the faithfulness Carville was looking for. But did anyone at any time ask the question “Why are we doing this movie again when it was already done so well?” I repeat it was a Best Picture winner for chrissakes. And now remaking it into a giant snore-fest just ruins the mystique. Sometimes they just don’t get it.