What It's About
Who doesn't remember the first time he saw "Psycho"? It's one of those terrifying cinematic experiences that made a lasting impression. Today, the thriller is a revered classic, a still-gripping look into the sordid psyche of a serial killer. But back in 1960, it was a risky undertaking, even for the Master of Macabre. "Hitchcock" goes behind-the-scenes of one of the most groundbreaking horror films of all-time, and the result is a fascinating glimpse into old-school moviemaking.
The film not only depicts director Alfred Hitchcock at a professional crossroads, but also his personal relationship with his wife, Alma Reville, whom he married in 1926. She was a story editor, script doctor, confidante, and partner in his creative process, as well as the mother of his only child, Patricia (not mentioned in the movie at all).
Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren excel in their roles and are believable as a longtime married couple, but he is hampered by pounds of latex to portray the corpulent director -- shades of Leonardo di Caprio in "J. Edgar"! At times, the attempt to get the physical appearance right overshadows the efforts to copy Hitchcock's distinctive voice. And Mirren looks nothing like the real Alma. So if you expect reality, it's not exactly a bull's-eye. But how many people know what Alma Reville was really like? Mirren is such a good actress that she can play nearly any role -- except dowdy. She can't suppress that fiesty in-control nature of hers either. Some guys consider Mirren the poster girl for older babes aging gracefully, so mousy she isn't.
Beyond the main couple, a fine array of talent portrays the Hollywood glitterati. Scarlett Johansson ("The Avengers") easily conveys old-fashioned glamour as a vibrant Janet Leigh, a sweetheart to work with and able to handle Hitchcock's peculiarities. While he's only in a few scenes, James D'Arcy ("Cloud Atlas") makes his mark as an uncanny Anthony Perkins, nailing his ticks and shy demeanor. Jessica Biel ("Valentine's Day") captures Vera Miles' essence and a nearly unrecognizable Toni Collette is an efficient gal Friday as Peggy Robertson, Hitch's indispensable assistant. Michael Stuhlbarg ("A Serious Man") is well-suited to play his agent Lew Wasserman.
Don't blink or you will miss Ralph Macchio ("The Karate Kid") as "Psycho" screenwriter Joseph Stefano. Danny Huston ("Clash of the Titans") capably plays Whitfield Cook, an unctuous friend of Alma, but his character lingers too long in the film.
To use real serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the demented source for Robert Bloch's original novel "Psycho," as a character tormenting Hitchcock's nightmares, is inspired. The opening is a delightful jolt. When the film chronicles the process from page to screen, it percolates with wit, insight and brisk dialogue. The film is far funnier than you can imagine -- particularly its sarcastic remarks about Jerry Lewis movies.
Alma and Alfred's collaborations are noteworthy, because she had nearly as much to do with the success of "Psycho" as he did. But the subplot making much ado about her writing sessions with sycophant Cook muddies the waters. Yet, it's interesting to see her as the food police around her gourmand husband.
Highlights include the filming of the infamous shower scene, and then Hitchcock, in the lobby during the premiere, conducting the sound of the audience's screams during that unforgettable scene as Bernard Hermann's memorable score plays.
What Doesn't Work
Spending more time on the perceived fissures in the Hitchcocks' marriage instead of concentrating solely on the moviemaking results in an uneven film. It's smooth during the movie conflicts and slow in the trouble-at-home patch.
The film is based on a 1990 book, "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho," by Steve Rebello. It's really not a biopic as the last-name title suggests. Director Sacha Gervasi ("Anvil! The Story of Anvil") and screenwriter John McLaughlin ("Black Swan") allude to Hitchcock's peculiar fascination with his blond actresses --bordering on obsessive. But they don't go beyond the surface to find out whether the director was a dirty old man, as some have implied, or just a control-freak genius with weird inclinations.
The proper Englishman in Hollywood aspect of the story is riveting, and the filmmaker was indeed a shrewd artist. But the film barely scratches the enigmatic facade. Still, to watch "Psycho" be recreated is pure joy. The creepiness remains after all these years.
Director: Sasha Gervasi
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, Jessica Biel, James D'Arcy, Michael Stuhlbarg
Rated: PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content and thematic material