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Hitchcock (2012)

Anthony Hopkins, Alfred Hitchcock: Making of Psycho | PEOPLE.com

DIRECTOR: Sacha Gervasi

CAST: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, James D’Arcy, Danny Huston, Jessica Biel, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Wincott

REVIEW:

The simply-titled Hitchcock would probably have been more accurately-titled The Making of Psycho, as it centers on the famous director during a short period of his life, the leading up to, making of, and release of possibly his most iconic film. As such, it’s an entertaining and engaging—for those with an interest in the subject matter—peek behind the curtain of an iconic film, along with a peek into the personal side of “The Master of Suspense”.

In 1959, celebrated director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) has just debuted his latest hit North by Northwest but, stung by a reporter’s dig at his age and insinuation that he should quit while he’s ahead, and worrying that he’s losing his edge, he sets his sights on a new project to prove his doubters wrong (and reassure himself). To this end, he becomes determined to adapt the horror novel Psycho, loosely inspired by real-life serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), although some consider it too grotesque for the screen. Hitchcock’s agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) disapproves, as does the president of Paramount Pictures Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow), but Hitchcock is a man obsessed, butting heads with studio executives, censors, and actors to get his way, and placing himself in a precarious financial situation when he is unable to secure studio funding and gambles his own money to get the movie made. Meanwhile, Hitchcock’s obsessions and his infatuations with young blonde starlets, including his latest leading lady Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), strain his marriage with his long-suffering wife and artistic collaborator Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), whom he begins to suspect of having an affair with two-bit writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston).

As previously indicated, Hitchcock is not a biopic of Alfred Hitchcock. Rather, we drop in on a few months of his life and career centering on the turbulent journey of Psycho from page to screen, with a healthy helping of focus on his marital problems along the way. Hitchcock is a bit of a cinematic cousin to last year’s My Week With Marilyn following a stage assistant’s fleeting friendship with Marilyn Monroe during the troubled production of 1957’s The Prince and the Showgirl; like the prior film, it drops in on a film icon during one specific period of their life rather than attempting a biopic of them, and pulls back the curtain for a behind-the-scenes docudrama about the making of a film during the bygone era of “Classic Hollywood”. There are some interesting tidbits of “inside intel”, such as the tricky ways in which Hitchcock shot the infamous—and controversial—shower scene to imply nudity while skirting the censors, and the fact that such was his obsession with stopping audiences from discovering the surprise twists ahead of time—such as the shock of killing off the movie’s supposed “star” Janet Leigh early on—that he dispatched his minions to buy every copy of the book they could find to stop anyone from getting their hands on it, and forced his cast and crew to swear an oath of secrecy. There are also low-key bits of humor; we open and immediately establish a sense of verisimilitude with Anthony Hopkins doing a tongue-in-cheek reenactment of the opening of an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and the movie has a little dry fun with some of Hitchcock’s eccentric decision-making processes (he decides screenwriter Joseph Stefano is the man for the job after Stefano confesses to therapy sessions involving issues with rage and his mother, and he casts Anthony Perkins partly because of Perkin’s own admitted Mommy issues, partly because he believes Perkins is qualified to play the “duality” of Norman Bates from personal experience hiding secrets of his own after hearing gossip that he is a closeted homosexual).

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When it comes to Hitchcock himself, it’s a warts-and-all portrayal. He’s stubborn, obsessive, difficult to work with, and a voyeur with a lecherous wandering eye for pretty blondes and a peephole hidden behind a mirror in his office through which he spies on Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) changing her wardrobe (it’s implied part of his love of directing is that it lets him indulge his voyeuristic tendencies), and an undeniable psychological dark side with some macabre fascinations. He is notoriously domineering and sometimes cruel toward his actors, and even his long-suffering but steadfastly loyal wife Alma is not always spared, as illustrated when he delivers a scathing criticism of the script she’s co-written with Whitfield Cook out of spite over their suspected affair. Alma tolerates all his foibles, but occasionally hits her limit, such as when she endures an uncomfortable dinner and Hitchcock’s attempts to flirt with the much younger and married Leigh. Speaking of this particular foible, Hitchcock makes an interesting companion piece to the recent HBO movie The Girl, focusing on Hitchcock’s (Toby Jones) fixation with Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller) during filming of The Birds.

In addition to the behind-the-scenes peek behind the curtain at Psycho, much emphasis is also placed on Hitchcock’s sometimes strained marriage with his longtime—and long-suffering—wife Alma. Like many men, he takes her for granted and is alarmed to realize that she might not be as content in their marriage as he assumes. For her part, she pursues the side hobby of editing and fine-tuning the script of her writer friend Whitfield Cook as her own creative outlet, and is frustrated when the amount of time she spends with Cook leads to her husband accusing her of having an affair. When Hitchcock and Alma make amends and she becomes fully involved in Psycho, she shows how indispensable she was to her husband’s career as far more than a supportive wife; it is Alma who suggests making Janet Leigh’s unexpected demise even more shocking by not waiting until the halfway point, but killing her off thirty minutes into the movie, and during the editing process, it is the sharp-eyed Alma who spots a minor flub that even the perfectionist Hitchcock had missed (a fleeting shot in which Janet Leigh is caught blinking after her “murder”). In fact, when Hitchcock collapses from exhaustion and is briefly incapacitated, Alma even takes over the reins and directs a scene of the movie herself (the murder of Detective Arbogast).

Hitchcock is more fascinating when it’s focusing on the behind-the-scenes of a movie studio than when it strays offset into the title character’s marriage problems and perceived love triangle drama. While more screentime for Helen Mirren is never a bad thing, the subplot involving Alma’s possible dalliance with Whitfield Cook feels like soap opera, well-acted soap opera to be sure, but still a bit extraneous to beef up the still-slim hour and a half runtime. Also unnecessary are the occasional fantasy sequences in which Hitchcock interacts with the specter of real-life serial killer and Norman Bates’ inspiration Ed Gein. He’s intended to be a manifestation of the dark morbid corners of Hitchcock’s psyche, but this approach feels like a ham-handed attempt at psychological insights; Michael Wincott is suitably creepy, but his scenes are superfluous.

Hitchcock': Women steal the master's spotlight

Anthony Hopkins, once again flirting with material involving serial killers (not a subject he’s a stranger to), does a credible recreation of Alfred Hitchcock with the help of fake jowls and a fat suit and approximations of Hitchcock’s mannerisms, posture, and speaking style (though his voice remains leaning further in the direction of “Anthony Hopkins” than “Alfred Hitchcock”), and captures his droll, deadpan, sometimes acerbic humor and stoic, inscrutable demeanor, although the title character remains something of an impenetrable enigma (not unlike the man himself). Helen Mirren is playing a more straightforward and accessible character, and as good as Hopkins is, in some ways she delivers the strongest performance, playing Alma as a long-suffering but steadfastly loyal wife who is more of an equal partner and a shrewd artistic collaborator than a mere happy housewife. She says a lot with a little—her fleeting uncomfortable reaction shots during Hitchcock’s attempted flirtations with Janet Leigh, her quiet resigned disappointment at the small ways in which he takes her for granted—culminating in her standout scene, a cathartic frustrated outburst where she finally calls her husband out on all the ways she’s thanklessly supported him and in which he takes her for granted. If anyone here has a scene that sticks out as tailor made “for your consideration” Oscar nomination clip material, it’s Mirren’s outburst more than any individual moment from Hopkins.

Apart from Hopkins and Mirren, no one else gets nearly as much to do, but they’re backed up by a capable supporting cast doing sterling jobs in smallish roles. Of the other famous figures portrayed onscreen, easily the most spot-on is James D’Arcy, who is eerily uncanny as the twitchy, edgy Anthony Perkins (whose real-life demeanor is creepily not much different from the way he plays Norman Bates). Scarlett Johansson doesn’t resemble Janet Leigh as much, but makes her a warm and appealing presence. Jessica Biel’s Vera Miles is adequate but not especially memorable. Danny Huston, as is often the case, exudes an oily charm. Rounding out the supporting cast we have an almost unrecognizable Toni Collette as Hitchcock’s personal secretary/assistant Peggy Robertson, Michael Stuhlbarg as his agent Lew Wasserman, Kurtwood Smith as the censors representative Hitchcock tries to outmaneuver, Richard Portnow as Paramount Pictures president Barney Balaban, and Ralph Macchio as screenwriter Joseph Stefano.

It’s doubtful how much appeal Hitchcock will have for a mainstream audience, and it doesn’t escape feeling a teensy bit slight, but for those with an interest in these kinds of docudramas peeking behind the curtain of 1950s moviemaking, and especially for those with an interest in Alfred Hitchcock and/or Psycho, it’s sufficiently entertaining and engaging to be worth viewing as both a companion piece to an iconic thriller, and a glimpse into the personal side of a famed director that lives up to the saying that behind every great man there lurks a great woman.

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