Alfred Hitchcock would probably be happy that he’s finally getting his close-up, but I don’t think he’d be thrilled about the way it’s being framed. In the recent HBO film The Girl, Hitch is depicted as a sadistic tormentor of Tippi Hedren, the blonde model who rebuffed his sexual advances after he cast her in his 1963 movie, The Birds. Hedren, who first related this story to Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto 30 years ago, continues to affirm its accuracy.
On the other hand, the director we meet in the new Hitchcock is a cuddlier version, a droll joker. The movie is essentially a light comedy with odd fantasy trappings. Although it’s based on Stephen Rebello’s carefully researched 1990 book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, it doesn’t have the instructional sinew of a bio-pic; it’s a sketch, an extended anecdote about the great man and his great movie, and it’s worth seeing for its two stars.
Anthony Hopkins doesn’t much resemble Hitchcock, even under a heavy rigging of prosthetic enhancements (chief among them the imposing belly with which he navigates every scene, like a cruise ship on a portable sea). But he exudes an unlikely, elfin charm. He’s not exactly the Hitchcock we can still see entombed in the great YouTube mausoleum, but he obliquely suggests that jowly gentleman. And Helen Mirren brings a bracing resilience to the role of Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s longtime wife and collaborator. Mirren’s Alma is a full partner in her husband’s creative undertakings—at one point even stepping in to direct a part of Psycho. The real-life Reville was a writer, editor, and sometime director who began working with Hitchcock on his first feature, in 1925, and Mirren shows us flickers of the frustration she must have felt at having to live in Hitchcock’s shadow with little acknowledgement of her substantial contributions to his work.
The movie is set in 1959. Hitch is basking in praise for his latest movie, North by Northwest, but is already casting about for a new property. He thinks he’s found it in Psycho, a sensational horror novel by Robert Bloch. Nobody’s very happy about this choice, least of all Paramount, the studio where Hitch is trying to set the new movie up. Horror is so low-rent, he’s told—and he’s been misguided before. (North by Northwest may be a hit, but his previous film, Vertigo, was a box-office dud.) Hitchcock, however, is determined: “What if someone really good made a horror movie?” he says.
Director Sacha Gervasi establishes the movie’s peculiar tone right at the outset: We see two hayseeds digging in a nighttime backyard, and then we see one of them slam the other on the head with his shovel. Then, in the manner of the old Hitchcock TV show, the camera pans over to the tubby auteur himself, in his black suit and tie, poised to deliver a gruesome bon mot.
The homicidal hayseed is Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the celebrated ghoul who had been arrested only two years earlier at his Wisconsin farmhouse, which was found to be crammed with bones and organs, a head in a bag, and much epidermal upholstery. Gein had been the inspiration for Bloch’s book, and he keeps putting in appearances here, dragging around corpses and whatnot, as Hitch goes about mortgaging his home in order to get Psycho made the way he wants. (Shooting in black and white was an audacious move, as was the narrative impudence of killing off his leading lady, Janet Leigh, 30 minutes into the film.)
Meanwhile, Alma is getting restless. She’s fed up with her husband’s obsession with the cool blondes he casts in his pictures (Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint), and she has been quietly rendezvousing with Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), a suave screenwriter who needs her help with his latest script. When Hitch gets wind of these meetings, the movie takes on a familiar Hitchcockian vibe of swelling paranoia. Director Gervasi also mixes in a number of visual allusions to the master’s oeuvre, the most obvious being an overhead shot of a staircase in the Hitchcock home—so like the one in Psycho, at the top of which the nosy investigator Arbogast has his first and last encounter with Bernard Herrmann’s famous skree-skree-skree slasher theme
The movie is distinctively eccentric and often quite witty, and it tells us a lot about how Psycho got made. But aside from a passage about shooting the bloody shower scene (to which Hitchcock personally applies himself) and some resonant rear projection in the picture’s early driving sequence, it doesn’t really show us much. (Legal constraints, possibly.) And while James D’Arcy has a funny moment as Anthony Perkins—who brings an icky regard for his own mother to the role of nail-biting Norman Bates—Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh and Jessica Biel as Vera Miles (who played the sister of Leigh’s character in the film) aren’t given a lot to work with, script-wise, and they register only blandly in the proceedings.
Hitchcock may be too grand a presence in the filmmaking pantheon to be treated in the whimsical manner that he is here. Surely there’ll be many admirers who feel that way, and given the movie’s very un-Hitchcockian conclusion, one can imagine the master himself being among them.