Film Review: Hitchcock

This entertaining, highly speculative portrait of Alfred Hitchcock during the making of 'Psycho' is best when it sticks to the facts, but its tribute to Hitch’s longtime collaborator Alma Reville is long overdue.

The man who chronicled all manner of cruel human behavior over a six-decade film career is getting a taste of his own arsenic this year with the appearance of two unflattering film portraits, HBO’s The Girl and Fox Searchlight’s Hitchcock. The former, detailing Alfred Hitchcock’s abuse of his inexperienced blonde protégé Tippi Hedren during the making of The Birds and Marnie, is by far the more damning, but Hitchcock too is anything but a hagiography. Based on Stephen Rebello’s book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, this 1959-60 account presents a portrait of a movie genius who is also neurotic, alcoholic, sexist, predatory and possessive. But here the overall tone is more mischievous than accusatory, allowing audiences to overlook the director’s many peccadilloes and still relish this larger-than-life figure (rotund silhouette and all).

John J. McLaughlin’s script enters Hitchcock’s story with the glamorous Hollywood premiere of one of his biggest, glossiest box-office successes, North by Northwest, where the director’s euphoria is spoiled by a rude reporter’s comment that perhaps, at age 60, he should quit while he’s ahead. The doldrums depicted here may be exaggerated, but Rebello’s book makes clear that at the time, two potential Hitchcock projects had fallen through and he was eager to find something unexpected to “charge the battery.” That something was Psycho, Robert Bloch’s novel inspired by notorious Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein, a blunt shocker of the sort the usually discreet Master of Suspense had never tackled before. Hitchcock owed one more picture to Paramount, but this sordid tale wasn’t what they were expecting, and the director wound up financing the production himself.

Along with its behind-the-scenes look at the making of a horror classic, Hitchcock is a love letter to the director’s wife and often-uncredited creative collaborator, Alma Reville. McLaughlin departs from Rebello’s book by focusing on Alma’s friendship with the dashing writer Whitfield Cook, who worked on the Hitchcock movies Stage Fright and Strangers on the Train. As the film would have it, Alma is restless for some artistic fulfillment apart from her husband, and her writing sessions with Cook drive Hitch into a jealous frenzy. That particular episode likely has no basis in fact, but Hitchcock uses it as the dramatic engine for its portrait of a Hollywood marriage.

If you can accept its artistic license and swipes at a movie icon, Hitchcock is great fun. Abetted by veteran makeup artists Howard Berger and Gregory Nicotero, star Anthony Hopkins still doesn’t look much like Hitchcock, but his delivery of provocative one-liners and droll aphorisms like “Style is self-plagiarism” evokes the impish figure so familiar from movie trailers and those wry introductions to his TV series. But if Hitchcock were alive, he would scorn the movie’s device of having him haunted by the specter of the sociopathic Gein as the kind of cheesy conceit that would never survive one of his own script sessions.

The movie is most successful when it sticks to the details recounted in Rebello’s book: the resistance of Paramount brass to Hitchcock’s pet project (“What if it’s another Vertigo?” an exec shudders); the wrangling with the censors over the shower murder scene’s apparent (but non-existent) nudity and Hitchcock’s gleeful inclusion of a close-up of a flushing toilet; the director’s ingenious promotional schemes for the film. This biopic’s inability to include clips from Psycho actually results in a high point: Hitch standing just outside the auditorium at the premiere and “conducting” the symphony of audience gasps and screams as that landmark shower sequence unspools.

Even if the movie fabricates a production crisis to emphasize the essential role of his wife in Hitchcock’s achievements, the spotlight on Alma is justified. Helen Mirren, much more attractive than the real-life Alma, is given a wonderful aria late in the film in which she outlines just how much she’s contributed to the Hitchcock legend, and she and Hopkins (working together for the first time) have an engaging, astringent rapport.

Scarlett Johansson is poised and appealing as Psycho star Janet Leigh, who seems genuinely fond of her portly director (though, oddly, her apparent brutalization during filming of the shower scene, as depicted here, is never again remarked upon). British actor James D’Arcy (Cloud Atlas) is an uncanny ringer for Anthony Perkins, the onetime matinee idol whose career was forever stymied by his indelible work as crazed mama’s boy Norman Bates. And Jessica Biel brings poignancy to the role of supporting player Vera Miles, once groomed for stardom by Hitchcock in Vertigo and never forgiven after she became pregnant and withdrew from the film.

Sacha Gervasi, who directed the acclaimed rock documentary Anvil!, makes a smooth transition to feature films, creating a diverting movie nostalgia trip full of Hollywood period atmosphere. It’s not a portrait the Master of Suspense would welcome, but at least his devoted Alma is getting some of the credit she’s long deserved.