Psycho is arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Granted, there are numerous other classics that he created over his almost six-decade career as a filmmaker, such as The 39 Steps, Rebecca, Notorious, Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest, or The Birds, just to name a few. Psycho and its famous shower scene, however, are probably the first things that come to mind when talking about the English ‘Master of Suspense.’ He has never wavered in popularity, and the making of the fabled thriller has always been somewhat shrouded in legend. So why not tackle it as the subject of a feature film?
After the lukewarm reception of his latest thriller North By Northwest, star director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) wants to prove to the public that he’s still on top of his game. He is desperately looking for intriguing material for his next film. By chance, he stumbles upon a pulp thriller called Psycho by Robert Bloch and immediately feels drawn to the book. Alfred Hitchcock believes the novel would make a fantastic movie, even though no studio wants to take on the project. He nonetheless decides to adapt it for the big screen and finance the whole production out of his own pocket.
What follows is the rather turbulent making-of history of Psycho. Impatient studio heads attempt to turn Alfred Hitchcock’s life into a living hell. During the shooting process, the filmmaker must face his own demons, such as his obsession with blonde leading ladies Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel). The mad real-life protagonist from the book haunts the seasoned director not only behind the scenes, but even at his own home. Then Alfred Hitchcock collapses on the set. Meanwhile, his wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) gets involved with Strangers On A Train screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston).
Sacha Gervasi is a curious choice in the director’s chair for the biopic, given that he had never been at the helm of a feature film until Hitchcock. He is probably best known for his script for the tragicomedy The Terminal starring Tom Hanks. His directorial debut boasts an impressive cast led by British Oscar-winning icons Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren. Even the supporting roles are filled with fine actors. Indie darling Toni Collette appears as Alfred Hitchcock’s secretary Peggy Robertson. Boardwalk Empire mafioso Michael Stuhlbarg plays his agent Lew Wasserman. James D’Arcy of Cloud Atlas fame slips into the role of legendary thesp Anthony Perkins, while grumpy That ‘70s Show dad Kurtwood Smith and erstwhile Karate Kid Ralph Macchio also leave short impressions.
The cast and its performances in Hitchcock are mostly fine. As great an actor as he normally is, however, Anthony Hopkins looks nothing like the English ‘Master of Suspense,’ even in full makeup. Neither does he resemble the real Alfred Hitchcock in his mannerisms and overall behavior. That’s one of the problems of Sacha Gervasi’s movie. It’s hard to be convinced that what we see unfold before our eyes is what actually transpired behind the scenes during the making of Psycho. Granted, there have always been numerous rumors about Alfred Hitchcock, his quirks, and his general tendency to swoon over his blonde leading ladies while mistreating them on set.
Interest in these stories has never vanished over the years, as can be seen from not only one but two recent films having been devoted to the director. The Girl, a TV production by HBO about Alfred Hitchcock’s curious relationship to The Birds and Marnie star Tippi Hedren, suffers from some of the same problems. The filmmaking genius is depicted as a tormented, insecure, perverse, morbid, and utterly unlikable chap. Maybe he was some of that, and maybe there’s also some truth to Alma catering to his very whims. His fixation on blonde bombshells, for instance, is well-documented.
Yet it’s hard to take him any seriously or to regard him as an actual person in either of those two movies. He seems to be more of a caricature in both cases, as if the producers had been hell-bent on having everything in their stories conform to the (negative) legend of Alfred Hitchcock. Likewise, the famous director appears to play second fiddle to his wife Alma Reville here. There’s no debate that she was his most significant collaborator and the most important person in his life in general, but it’s as if the heavyweight filmmaker has to take a backseat so his missus is allowed to shine.
The same goes for the Psycho angle, which is arguably the most interesting part of Hitchcock. It’s almost squeezed out by the marital affairs of Alfred and Alma, by his crush on blonde actresses like Grace Kelly, Vera Miles, or Janet Leigh and her flirting with philandering screenwriter Whitfield Cook. There are some odd scenes on the Psycho lot that are really convincing, such as filming the shower scene when ‘Hitch’ turns into the creepy old man most of us have always imagined him to be and scares the living hell out of Janet Leigh. Similarly, one of the film’s strongest moments is when the director is haunted by the real madman, Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), who whispers in his ear that Alma betrays him the average screenwriting playboy Cook.
It’s fair to assume that real ‘Hitch’ would have been utterly disappointed by that biopic. Not that Sacha Gervasi’s debut as a director is generally bad filmmaking; it isn’t. It’s an average picture. Average, however, just doesn’t cut it when it could have been so much more. On a Hitchcockian scale, it would probably rank among the English master’s more flawed affairs, such as The Paradine Case or Under Capricorn. Maybe in the hands of the right director it would have done justice to the legendary man at the helm of so many classics. Perhaps Anthony Hopkins has been the wrong choice to portray him all along – who knows.
All in all, Hitchcock has a fantastic premise, but ultimately fails to deliver because it can’t decide whether it wants to be about the making of Psycho or about the aging director’s marriage. For most people’s lives, such a biopic would probably be sufficient. Alfred Hitchcock, however, operated on totally different level for most of his career, so his vita should be subject to different, higher standards. The man likely would have appreciated it, even with all the controversies. After all, the ‘Master of Suspense’ was never a stranger to disputes; he actually tended to immerse himself in them. The general idea behind Hitchcock deserves applaud, the execution – not so much.