Any cinema lover worth their salt has watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho more than once, but it’s doubtful that many are actually aware of the story behind its creation. Based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, director Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock is an engrossing biopic which delves into the professional and personal life of the Master of Suspense with colourful zest. Although it contains a few re-enactments of on-set activities, Gervasi’s flick is predominantly focused on Hitchcock’s relationships with the people around him. It’s not quite the masterpiece it had the potential to be, but Hitchcock is an acutely enjoyable film and a treat for anyone who loves movies.
Riding high on the smashing success of 1959’s North by Northwest, Hitchcock (Hopkins) is at a loss about what project to pursue next. While the studios are clambering for more of the same, Hitch is disillusioned by the critics who believe that he’s on the decline creatively and is too old to be at the top of his game. Seeking to make a picture that breaks modern convention, Hitch picks up a copy of Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, which is based on the murders committed by madman Ed Gein (Wincott). Paramount executives, however, refuse to fund the picture due to its disturbing content, hence Hitchcock makes the bold decision to mortgage his house and finance the movie himself. Working with a talented team including writer Joseph Stefano (Macchio) as well as stars Janet Leigh (Johansson), Anthony Perkins (D’Arcy) and Vera Miles (Biel), Hitch faces immense pressures as he struggles to shoot the audacious film. Complicating the situation is his wife and collaborative partner Alma Reville (Mirren), who begins showing interest in collaborating with writer Whitfield Cook (Huston).
While Hitchcock deals with all production stages throughout the making of Psycho, it’s more focused on the relationship between Alfred and Alma. Screenwriter John J. McLaughlin took tremendous creative license in his depiction of the pair, introducing an infidelity subplot that heightens the dramatics of the picture and reinforces the importance of Alfred’s primary creative consultant who was instrumental in his success. It’s a trite subplot, but it makes the triumph of Psycho feel more earned. Likewise, McLaughlin uses dream sequences and fantasies in which Hitch converses with Ed Gein that don’t entirely work, but are nevertheless an interesting touch. However, those hoping to see more action on the set of Psycho will likely be disappointed, as Hitchcock focuses more on the man’s life rather than his picture. This idea is not inherently bad, but more production detail would have improved the overall experience since a lot of filming is just skimmed over (the shooting of the shower scene is especially underdone, and we never see shooting take place on the exterior Bates Motel/House set).
Despite its script issues, Hitchcock is a quality motion picture from top to bottom. Gorgeously shot by Jeff Cronenweth (The Social Network) and perfectly scored by Danny Elfman (Men in Black 3), Gervasi and his crew clearly used every dollar sparingly. It’s draped in period detail, as well, with lovely costumes, spot-on make-up (which earned an Oscar nomination), and gorgeous production design. Most people would expect a film like Hitchcock to be self-serious Oscar bait, but it’s more in the vein of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood; fun and accessible. It’s purely joyous to watch Mr. Hitchcock waiting outside a screen showing Psycho, his anxiousness about audience reaction turning to giddy elation when the shower scene elicits endless screams that carry into the lobby. The film is bursting with fun historical anecdotes, as well; Hitch indeed purchased every copy of Psycho nationwide to prevent the movie-going public from finding out the ending, and the filmmaker initially refused music for the infamous shower scene. Plus, it’s supremely enjoyable to watch Alfred meet with the censorship board, trying to convince them to approve the shower scene.
Anthony Hopkins is an expectedly delightful Alfred Hitchcock. Under the extensive make-up and fat suit, Hopkins embodies the filmmaker and adopts his mannerisms to fantastic effect, delivering a rich performance that amounts to more than mere imitation. Hopkins makes Hitch a real person with lovable characteristics and a palpable vulnerable side, and it’s a huge shame that he failed to earn an Oscar nomination. Alongside him, Helen Mirren is every bit as brilliant as we have come to expect. She walks away with the movie, portraying Alma as a commanding, sassy and vivacious woman. She also imbues the role with humanity, making her wholly credible. It’s a unique treat to watch acting heavyweights Hopkins and Mirren as a screen couple – they’re dynamite. Admittedly, the actors do not look much like their real-life counterparts, but their performances are so well-rounded, consistent and focused that it’s easy to buy them as Alfred and Alma. Luckily, the two were backed by an enormously talented supporting cast. Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel shine as starlets Janet Leigh and Vera Miles, and look fantastic in vintage clothes. Meanwhile, James D’Arcy perfectly embodies Anthony Perkins’ twitchy discomfort; he was an ideal choice to play the actor. Likewise, the reliably charismatic Michael Stuhlbarg makes a huge impression as Hitch’s agent, while Michael Wincott is a suitably sinister Ed Gein and Kurtwood Smith has a few amusing moments as the head of the censorship board.
Hitchcock is a delightful exploration of the titular man, his creative wife, and their risky gamble to scare the movie-going public with Psycho. Things particularly take off once the film’s release comes into view, and we smile in giddy delight alongside Hitchcock when Psycho develops into a smashing success. It’s not as remarkable as Hitch’s best achievements, but Gervasi’s biopic is wholly fascinating. Plus, the film’s serious moments are tempered with instances of well-judged comic relief, and it’s book-ended with Hitchcock speaking to the camera in the vein of TV’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It’s this buoyant, mischievous tone mixed with the strong storytelling, lush period recreations and magnificent performances which makes Hitchcock such a delight from start to finish.