Anthony Hopkins doesn’t look one damn bit like Alfred Hitchcock, but he puts on one helluva show in his most engaging, hilarious and even sympathetic performance years in director Sascha Gervasi’s new film on the famed director. Less a biopic and more a hypothetical look at the master of suspense, Hopkins is smart enough not to try and imitate Hitchcock, but present his own interpretation. Where HBO’s recently aired The Girl, focused on Hitchcock’s obsession and manipulation of his leading lady Tippi Hedren, during the making of The Birds, Gervasi’s film is centered not just around the production of Psycho, but the director crossing back and forth between the line that separates the fantasy of cinema and the realities of success, fame and failure.
Fresh off the success of his biggest hit, 1959′s North by Northwest, Hitch – “Call me ‘Hitch’, hold the ‘cock’”, he tells actress Janet Leigh – is asked by a young reporter at the film’s premiere, if at 60, should he perhaps quit while he’s ahead? With 47 films under his belt, Hitch was not only the most commercially successful filmmaker of his time, but the most recognizable. His personal obsessions, hang-ups and dark thoughts were channeled into the films he made, entertaining millions and permanently becoming a part of pop culture. Hitch believes he’s found his next hit in “Psycho”, a novel by Robert Bloch, based on the horrible crimes of Ed Gein, a Wisconsin farmer, who murdered and skinned several young woman, while keeping the corpse of his dead mother in her bedroom. Gein’s methods would later inspire the grindhouse horror hit, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but Hitch, always ahead of his time, would identify more with the killer’s madness. John J. McLaughlin’s screenplay (based on Stephen Rebello’s book “Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho”) goes as far as to have a physical manifestation of Gein (in the form of actor Michael Wincott) appear to Hitch through the film.
Those around Hitch can’t seem to identify with the mindset of a killer as well as he does. While he is intrigued by Bloch’s novel, others are repulsed, including the ratings board and more importantly, Paramount Pictures chief Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow), who turns down the director and his agent Lew Wasserman’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) request to bankroll the picture. Hitch makes the bold choice to finance the film with his own $800,000, much to the chagrin of his wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), whom he informs to “enjoy the swimming pool, we may not have it much longer”, since they’ve just mortgaged their Bel-Air home.
Hitchcock could very well have just been a picture about the struggles of an artist to make a success of himself, in this case, a filmmaker, whose genius was misunderstood, but the story is strengthened by making Hitch’s relationship with Mirren’s Alma very much a part of it. Often serving as co-screenwriter and editor on Hitch’s films, Alma has grown frustrated with taking a backseat to the glitz and glamour, as well as her husband’s obsessions with his leading ladies. Though it is she that suggest Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) for the role of Marion Crane, the supportive Alma isn’t truly active in the production of Psycho. Her creativity and desire to do something original on her own is sparked by friend and fellow writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who had a hand in the screenplays for Hitch’s Stage Fright and Strangers on a Train. Hitch is so neck deep in the production of Psycho that he initially fails to notice his wife’s blossoming “friendship” with Cook, but when he does, his imagination begins to run wild and even murderous, with good ole Ed Gein egging him on.
Two major surprises in Hitchcock arrive in the forms of Johansson and Jessica Biel who play Psycho stars Janet Leigh and Vera Miles, respectively. James D’Arcy is a dead ringer for mild mannered Anthony Perkins, nervous ticks and all, but Johansson and Biel have been perfectly cast despite the fact that they barely resemble the famous people they are playing. Johansson plays Leigh as a professional, a wife and mother who it seems is able to take Hitch’s nervous energy and channel it into something positive. You can often see her putting him at ease with just her simplicity and charm, making his job as a director obsessed with details all the more easier. Biel’s Miles reveals a dark history with Hitch, concerning his resentment of her after she turned down the lead role in Vertigo to start a family. Biel is able to make Miles appear as wounded as Hitch is in their relationship, but by the film’s conclusion, both are given a sense of closure.
Hitchcock doesn’t attempt to explain what made the famous director tick and though it provides plenty of insight into his character, the story wisely chooses to let him remain an enigma. Though his tyrannical behavior and often unfair treatment of actors has been the subject of many stories in Hollywood history, Gervasi’s film keeps it simple by presenting him as an artist who at the end of the day, was a flawed and very human being, filled with personal image problems, doubts and regrets like the rest of us.
The make-up applied to Hopkins’ face, including a fat suit, draw attention to themselves and yet, he is so charming, commanding and even sympathetic, that in time, it all disappears. This is very much about a performance, one that Hopkins gets us all in tune with. So much so that one can actually grow to understand the creative process of his Hitchcock, or method to his madness, if you will. We wouldn’t be able to identify with his character so well if not for Mirren’s work as Alma. Both actors are amazing to watch as they bicker and argue and the accusations fly. Though the pair shared a rather chaste marriage – it’s even illustrated that they slept side by side in separate beds – Mirren and Hopkins make it clear that it was their creativity that brought out the best in each other.
The film feels like it is very much of the period in which it is based, with some rather natural cinematography from Jeff Cronenweth and impressive production design from Judy Becker, who makes excellent use of the actual Paramount lot where Psycho was shot. Due to legal issues, no actual or re-created footage from Psycho could be presented, but the story is so engaging one doesn’t notice. Danny Elfman provides a very Bernard Herrmann-esque score that doesn’t call attention to itself, which is rather appropriate, since he once re-created the famed composer’s score for Gus Van Sant’s failed remake of Psycho. Gervasi’s picture is a much better love letter to that film and its director.