Of course, “Hitchcock” is a movie about the late director and the making of his most famous and profitable film, “Psycho,” in 1959/1960.
The film, directed by Sacha Gervasi from a script by “Black Swan” co-writer John J. McLaughlin, playfully imagines Hitchcock-like elements involving jealousy, suspicion and suspense in the air between Hitch and his wife, Alma Reville, while he is making that film.
Under heavy prosthetics, makeup, considerable padding and a hair piece, Anthony Hopkins imitates a man who was the most famous director in the world during his lifetime.
In a jocular opening scene that riffs off a Hitchcock introduction to his TV show, he is seen on camera witnessing a “murder” that sets up another hour-long episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” During this opening, Hopkins does a reasonably good Hitchcock impression.
Following this, he does a reasonably good Hopkins impression. The actor’s speech patterns and vocal tics are by now so ingrained that it apparently is impossible for him to sustain a mimicked voice beyond a scene or two. His own voice simply takes over.
As for Alma Reville, the filmmakers evoke considerable artistic license. Alma was a formidable scriptwriter, editor, mother and chef for her husband but she wasn’t a looker. Casting the beauteous Helen Mirrren as the tiny birdlike woman may help motivate Hitch’s suspicions of marital infidelity but certainly distorts the facts.
Well, as Hitch would say, it’s only a movie.
It will also be a revelation to casual moviegoers, although certainly not to anyone who is the least bit familiar with Hitch’s life and career, that “Psycho” like all of his films represented a collaboration between him and his wife.
Indeed this film probably should have a title such as “Hitch and Alma” since so much of it focuses on their complicated and at times painful relationship.
The bits with Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins and Jessica Biel as Vera Miles acting in that landmark film are simply dressing on the cake.
Of all of his films, “Psycho” is the most famous. Its shower scene changed the course of Hollywood history, and although few filmmakers can match its technical virtuosity, many try to imitate its aestheticized violence.
Not having read the book the screenplay is based on, “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” by Stephen Rebello, I can’t tell what in the movie is invention and what is based on that meticulously researched history of a storied production.
Clearly, the filmmakers are in the mood for fun, however, and not worrying how accurate anything is. They certainly invent an unlikely potential playmate for Alma in Danny Huston’s Whitfield Cook, who in real life wrote a Broadway play in which the Hitchcocks’ daughter Pat (never mentioned here) acted and helped Hitch to shape his hit film, “Strangers on a Train.”
As a figment of Hitch’s imagination, Ed Gein materializes from time to time as a symbol of the dark forces known to lurk within the great suspense director’s psyche.
So “Hitchcock” keeps veering here and there, from a bit of Hollywood history and a biopic to out-and-out comedy. It’s a rather good mixture though, served up in a tongue-in-cheek manner not unlike Hitchcock’s own macabre sense of humor.
What the movie also capture well was how sensational “Psycho” was when it premiered in 1960. The movie quite accurately has Hitch, once “North by Northwest,” a romantic thriller in a comic mode, has opened to rave reviews, searching for a project that would stir his creative juices.
He wants something dark and sinister, far from the romanticized world of “North by Northwest.” Then he reads “Psycho.”
The project is “so unlike you,” complains longtime assistant Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette). That, he remarks dryly, is the point.
“What if someone really good did a horror picture?” he asks the nay-sayers that include Alma and Paramount Studio head Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow). He is thinking back to his early days in England when he and his wife had such a good time making all sorts of movies.
“Psycho” will take him back to that excitement and might even re-spark their marriage. But Alma keeps sneaking away to work on another script with this Whitfield character.
Paramount refuses to finance the unseemly horror film so Hitch self-finances the film and his agent, Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg), negotiates a 60% ownership in the movie with the studio taking a distribution fee.
Along with re-inventing the horror genre, where the real monster is a meek-looking human being rather than a beast or zombie or vampire, Hitch brought another unusual wrinkle to “Psycho,” which kept the production budget at only $800,000.
To keep costs down, he shot most of the film quickly using his TV crew at the Revue Studios, the TV branch at Universal that Paramount rented for him. (In the movie you get the mistaken impression the whole thing was shot at Paramount.)
Then for a few sequences he took his time. The shower scene, for instance, features 77 different camera angles and about 50 cuts within its three-minute running time.
The movie tries its best to psychoanalyze its title character while thoroughly scrutinizing his marriage and collaboration with Alma. Little is new here for any student of Hitchcock.
Hitch’s obsession with his blonde stars including Grace Kelly, Vera Miles and Tippi Hedren is well known but Janet Leigh, married with children, was another matter and seemed to escape his overenthusiastic interest in her career — and personal life.
I seriously doubt though that he had a Norman Bates-like peep hole for gazing into Leigh’s dressing room as this movie insists.
What the movie, which is almost too cheerful for a Hitchcock film, doesn’t really explore is his anger toward women. It’s more concerned with seeing what makes the unusual marriage work while keeping the repartee between Hitch and Alma bright and witty.
Hopkins’ Hitch is a prickly man, whose pride can be easily wounded but finds solace in overindulgence in food and drink. His gourmet-like appetite for ghastly murder and suspense stems from too many childhood sources for this light movie. For those interested, Donald Spoto’s biography, “The Dark Side of Genius” The Life of Alfred Hitchcock,” is a good place to start.
Mirren’s Alma is like so many women she plays — smart, even-tempered (for the most part) and self-confident. As Alma played a behind-the-scenes role in her husband’s life and films only those who knew her can assess the accuracy of this performance.
Johansson doesn’t really attempt a caricature of Janet Leigh. But as Hollywood’s current blonde star with an abundance of acting and physical gifts she fits the part well. Hers is a playful performance, brightening every scene she is in and more or less buffering Hitch from the forces that lay siege to his soul.
D’Arcy and Biel are on screen too briefly to make much of an impression but what there is is favorable. Ditto that for Stuhlbarg and Portnow although these two play such major Hollywood figures that it’s amusing to think of them as supporting players in anyone’s life.
There was only one Hitchcock and no one has come close to his particular genius despite attempts early in his career by Brian De Palma. The time seems ripe for a new retrospective of his films especially his more obscure ones from his English and early American career. Also perhaps for a new biography.
So if “Hitchcock” inspires such an endeavor we should be all the more grateful for this new Hitchcock picture.
Opens: November 23, 2012 (20th Searchlight)
Production companies: Fox Searchlight in association with Cold Spring Pictures a Montecito Picture Company & Barnette/Thayer production
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Colette, Danny Huston, Jessica Biel, Michael Stuhlbarg, James D’Arcy, Michael Wincott, Kurtwood Smith, Richard Portnow
Director: Sacha Gervasi
Screenwriter: John J. McLaughlin
Based on the book by: Stephen Rebello
Producers: Ivan Reitman, Tom Pollock, Joe Medjuck, Tom Thayer, Alan Barnette
Executive producers: Ali Bell, Richard Middleton
Director of photography: Jeff Cronenweth
Production designer: Judy Becker
Music: Danny Elfman
Costume designer: Julie Weiss
Editor: Pamela Martin
PG-13 rating, 98 minutes