By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — “What if someone really good made a horror picture?”
So asks world-class director Alfred Hitchcock of his wife, Alma, in Hitchcock, as he contemplates taking on an uncharacteristic horror oddity called Psycho.
The rest, as they say, is Hitchery.
Call this one a film buff’s dream. Hitchcock chronicles the gamble taken on by the Master of Suspense as he embarks on the production of a seemingly tasteless 1960 chiller that would appear on the surface to be beneath his artistic station.
Although Hitchcock is a speculative biographical comedy-drama about the legendary production of that self-financed film, it’s even more clearly focused on the relationship between the portly director, played by Anthony Hopkins, and his long-suffering wife and collaborator, Alma Reville, played by Helen Mirren, and the effect of the film on their relationship.
It could just as easily have been titled “The Hitchcocks” or “Hitch and Alma.” Or even “Alma.”
They’re supported by, among others, Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, the star of Psycho; Danny Huston as screenwriter Whitfield Cook, collaborating with Alma to the point of Hitchcock’s jealousy and distraction; Toni Collette as Peggy Robertson, Hitch’s assistant; Michael Stuhlbarg as Lew Wasserman, Hitch’s agent; Jessica Biel as Vera Miles, an actress in Psycho; Michael Wincott as Ed Gein, the real-life nightmarish inspiration for Psycho’s villain; and James d’Arcy, uncanny as Psycho actor Anthony Perkins.
This is director Sacha Gervasi’s second film and first narrative feature (he debuted with the well-received 2008 heavy-metal documentary, Anvil! The Story of Anvil), and it features a screenplay by John J. McLaughlin that’s loosely based on the 1990 Stephen Rebello book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of ‘Psycho.’
There is a treasure trove of interesting details, even if none of them are revelatory, a bit too much of the dialogue is on-the-nose, and several of Gervasi’s stylistic flourishes -– for example, Hitchcock’s paranoid visions –- distract rather than embellish.
Neither is Hitchcock helped by the curious lack of any footage from the finished film (due to legal restrictions, apparently, although that didn’t seem to stop director Gus Van Sant in his shot-by-shot remake).
That shots and scenes are familiar would not reduce their appropriateness, and we long and expect to see them and miss them when they never arrive.
All that said, however, this is a highly watchable docudrama about an endlessly fascinating moviemaker, a highly influential movie, and a finally acknowledged creative partner.
Hopkins offers a witty and telling impersonation of the iconic Hitch, with his unmistakable diction and posture, while Mirren contributes a tremendously sympathetic and understated portrait of the softspoken but tart-tongued Alma, a patient and supportive but obviously frustrated and underappreciated (and absolutely essential) screenwriting partner.
That neither performer resembles his or her real-life counterpart does little if any harm.
Hitchcock’s repression and perversity, as well as his capacity for cruelty, register here alongside his prodigious talent, just as they did in the recent HBO telefilm, The Girl, about his making of The Birds.
But this portrait of the troubled director does not paint him to be quite so one-dimensionally villainous. And, to no one’s surprise, as he emerges yet again, he remains enigmatic.
So we’ll direct 3 stars out of 4 for Hitchcock. It doesn’t exactly go off without a hitch, but it’s an entertaining, behind-the-scenes, scenes-from-a-marriage exploration -– admittedly superficial but nonetheless entertaining — that no admirer of the director’s storied works will want to miss.