Of all the great film directors, Alfred Hitchcock has been perhaps the most elusive.
Unlike Orson Welles, he was never larger than life, nor did he have the colorful backstory of a John Ford or a John Huston. That said, he certainly created a public persona. But in a Hollywood defined by the glare of the publicity spotlight, Hitchcock was a private man completely consumed by his work.
As a result, books trying to get at the real Hitchcock largely have tried to define the man by his movies, resorting to some serious psychobabble. It was probably only a matter of time, but in the space of a few months, two movies have tried to paint a portrait of the filmmaker who gave us "Vertigo," "North by Northwest," "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "The Birds" and -- of course -- "Psycho."
The first effort, HBO's "The Girl," focused on the making of "The Birds" and Hitchcock's relationship with its star, Tippi Hedren. As seen largely through the lens of Hedren's memories, this Hitchcock was a psycho letch and voyeur who abused his star as, it is suggested, he abused all his golden-haired leading ladies before. It came off more tawdry than insightful.
Now, along comes "Hitchcock," which picks the making of a different film ("Psycho") and a different relationship (Hitchcock's wife of more than 50 years, Alma Reville) to try and find the essence of the man. It fails just as badly as "The Girl," although in a much more stylish manner and with considerably better actors on hand to divert our attention from the lame storytelling and lack of insight.
The sad thing is that there is a good movie buried somewhere in "Hitchcock." The book on which it's based, Stephen Rebello's "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of 'Psycho,' " is a lively, entertaining read about the way films were made in the late 1950s and early 1960s and about the problems the director had -- despite coming off a big success with "North by Northwest" -- getting the movie made.
Throughout "Hitchcock," there are fascinating peeks into the filmmaking machinery as Hitchcock (played by Anthony Hopkins under a ton of makeup, prosthetics and a fat suit) and Reville (Helen Mirren) struggle to get "Psycho" past the studio bosses and censors.
Of course, the issue was that "Psycho" is essentially a horror film based on the real-life and very macabre murders of Ed Gein. His crimes were so compelling in their way that Gein would later inspire films ranging from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" to "Silence of the Lambs."
Hollywood was just horrified that a prominent director would take on such a bloody project. At one point, Hitchcock's longtime assistant Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette) says to him, "This is so unlike you."
"That, my dear, is precisely the point," the director replies.
But to director Sacha Gervasi and script writer John J. McLaughlin ("Black Swan"), the process of making "Psycho" isn't enough. So they have layered onto his obsession with the film (Gein, played by Michael Wincott, pops up in Hitch's imagination throughout the movie), his obsession with cool, blonde actresses (see "The Girl") and a budding affair between Reville and "Strangers On a Train" writer Whitfield Cook. It's a melodramatic stew thrown together with precious little finesse and zero insight.
You have to feel sorry for Hopkins, who struggles mightily but, with nothing solid to work from, can't come close to creating a fully realized character. Mirren looks absolutely nothing like the unglamorous real-life Reville, who did play a critical role in the director's career, but at least she escapes with her dignity somewhat intact.
It's actually the supporting cast that fares better. Michael Stuhlbarg (Arnold Rothstein in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire") has some nice moments as Lew Wasserman, Hitchcock's agent and later a big studio boss. James D'Arcy ("Cloud Atlas") has one convincing scene as "Psycho" star Anthony Perkins; Collette manages to bring some life to Peggy Robertson.
In addition, Scarlett Johansson gives a snappy performance as Janet Leigh, bringing a sense of reality and Hollywood glamour to the part. When she's on the screen, the film almost comes alive.
However, the bad in this film far outweighs the good. Hitchcock once famously said that a good filmmaker should always "always make the audience suffer as much as possible." Unfortunately, I don't think he meant the kind of suffering "Hitchcock" inflicts on its audience.
Follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.
Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and adult themes)
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson and Toni Collette
Director: Sacha Gervasi
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes