Director : Sacha Gervasi
Screenplay : John J. McLaughlin (based on the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Anthony Hopkins (Alfred Hitchcock), Helen Mirren (Alma Reville), Scarlett Johansson (Janet Leigh), Danny Huston (Whitfield Cook), Toni Collette (Peggy Robertson), Michael Stuhlbarg (Lew Wasserman), Michael Wincott (Ed Gein), Jessica Biel (Vera Miles), James D’Arcy (Anthony Perkins), Richard Portnow (Barney Balaban), Kurtwood Smith (Geoffrey Shurlock), Ralph Macchio (Joseph Stefano), Kai Lennox (Hilton Green), Tara Summers (Rita Riggs), Wallace Langham (Saul Bass), Paul Schackman (Bernard Herrmann)
Hitchcock is a droll, self-congratulatory recreation of the events leading up to the production of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, one of the most important of modern films and still one of the Master of Suspense’s most famous (and infamous) works. Psycho is so familiar to us now and its plot mechanics and shock tactics have been recycled so vociferously for so long that we are in danger of forgetting just how daring it was when it was released in 1960. Especially since it was following on the heels of Hitch’s greatest commercial success, the slick, Technicolor comic spy caper North by Northwest (1959), his decision to independently produce a low-budget, black-and-white horror film with plot elements involving transvestitism, incest, and a brutally graphic shower murder (partially inspired by the real-life serial killer Ed Gein) should not be underappreciated.
The narrative in Hitchcock, which was written by John J. McLaughlin (Black Swan) from Stephen Rebello’s indispensible production history Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, is divided between the details of the audacious production and the strained relationship between Hitch and his longtime wife and creative partner Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), who may have stood back from the spotlights on the red carpet and fallen beneath the shadow of his world-famous husband, but was every bit his intellectual and artistic equal. Alma was Hitch’s sounding board and behind-the-scenes collaborator, and Hitchcock suggests that not only did some of the best ideas in Psycho come from her (such as killing off Marion Crane in the first half hour), but that she literally directed several scenes when Hitchcock was sick. Mirren plays her as a fiercely intelligent, but increasingly frustrated woman on edge. She has begun to tire of her husband’s obsessions with his blonde leading ladies and finds herself spending increasing amounts of time with a writer named Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wants her to collaborate on the adaptation of a novel he has written, hoping that Hitchcock will direct it.
Hitch, meanwhile, is consumed with production on Psycho, which meets with immediate resistance from Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow), an executive at Paramount Pictures, where he is contractually obligated to produce one more film, and Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith), the head of the Production Code Administration who is, not surprisingly, quite bothered by a lot of the material Hitchcock intents to film (Shurlock amusingly tells Hitch that he can get away with the shower scene as long as he shoots it only from the shoulders up and through a pane of frosted glass). All of this delights Hitchcock to no end; although he maintains a straight face at all times, he is clearly pleased that his “little movie” is ruffling feathers and upending conventions, never so much as when he invites the press to his house to announce his intentions to produce Psycho by handing out actual crime scene photos and reveling in the reporters’ discomfort. “I need a nice, clean, nasty little piece of work,” he says early in the film, which is exactly what Robert Bloch’s source novel provides him, much to the initial disgust of Alma (he wakes her up in the middle of the night and asks her to read the shower scene) and Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette), his long-time secretary.
Hitch’s working methods suggest a deep-seated, possibly monstrous, perversity that informs many of his best films, Psycho included. He shows little interest in Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) until the actor confesses that he has mother issues; similarly, he piques when screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) notes that he is in psychoanalysis. His relationships with his actresses is even more complex, as he dismisses Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) because she had the audacity to get pregnant a few years earlier when he was trying to make her a star while lavishing attention on Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johanson), his latest in a string of striking Grace Kelly replacements. Although she looks nothing like Leigh, Johanson does an admirable job of portraying the actress as a sensible woman of strong values and backbone who stands up to Hitch’s barely disguised attraction with both dignity and delicacy. Their relationship is perhaps the film’s most compelling, which comes at the expense of Hitch’s marital tensions with Alma and his jealousy of her time spent with Whitfield.
Playing Alfred Hitchcock is no small feat, as he was as much of a persona as he was a person, especially after his successful 1950s television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents fully established his unforgettable mixture of the droll and the macabre and made him perhaps the first (and, to my knowledge, last) filmmaker to have both his own theme music and his own iconic symbol. Anthony Hopkins, who has already played a laundry list of 20th-century historical figures—Adolf Hitler in The Bunker (1981), C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands (1993), Richard Nixon in Nixon (1995), Pablo Picasso in Picasso (1996)—only partially disappears behind a veil of carefully constructed latex that adds weight and heft to his face, which now disappears into his neck in a very Hitchcockian manner. Hopkins certainly and looks and sounds the part—he nails Hitchcock’s immediately memorable voice—but he is hampered by Hitch’s pop culture familiarity. We’re so used to the Hitchcock look and sound that Hopkins is never quite able to convey the character; he always seems like Hitchcock in front of a TV camera, rather than the private Hitchcock behind closed doors.
It doesn’t help that director Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil) opens and closes the film with Hitchcock directly addressing the camera ala Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which only reinforces the notion that we are dealing with a constructed image, rather than a human being. The decision to include Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) in the story as a kind of ghostly muse for Hitchcock is also distracting, rather than illuminating; it feels too much like a writer’s trick, rather than a stab at serious insight. It’s all very clever and at times amusing, especially for those who know about Hitchcock and his various obsessions, but Hitchcock the film remains frustratingly surface level in its aspirations, taking us through familiar Psycho-related trivia (Hitchcock initially wanting the shower scene played without music, the development of the deeply influential release strategy in which no one could enter the theater after the film had begun, etc.) without ever making it truly come alive. It is a recreation that feels too much like a recreation.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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