Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Director: Sacha Gervasi
Screenwriter: John J. McLaughlin from Stephen Rebello’s book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho”
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Biel, Michael Wincott, James D’Arcy, Toni Collette, Danny Huston. Screened at: Crosby Hotel, NYC, 11/8/12.
Opens: November 23, 2012
Ask film-goers who are younger than thirty what they think of Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart or Claudette Colbert, and be prepared for a blank expression. Ask them how they feel about Alfred Hitchcock and you might get a few to nod their heads and call the director “cool,” since there have been retrospectives of his output. Still, I’d not expect a large percentage of that age group to line up for Sacha Gervasi’s biopic of Hitch, as he and his buddies called him, any more than they’d queue for “Lincoln,” though some school groups are likely to see the latter picture if their teachers and principals get away from the miserable policy of teaching to the test.
But I would expect quite a number of middle-aged and older people to take in this biopic, particularly since Anthony Hopkins is as much a favorite of these generations as Hitchcock himself, though once Mr. Hopkins gets nominated for an Academy award, the audience should build. Decked in a fat suit and a prosthetic makeover that renders Sir Anthony unrecognizable, the great actor looks reasonably like Hitch and talks in the same slow, pronounced and stylized way, as though to cue his audience in that he’s being ironic or witty or some combination thereof. Yet he is not the only actor with a performance to savor: as his wife, Helen Mirren does a stand-up job reinforcing the notion that behind every successful man is a strong woman.
Is this true? Were Hitchcock’s movies so successful largely because of his wife’s input? That is so according to Stephen Rebello whose book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of ‘Psycho’.” The movie itself, while based on that biography, is at least as interested in Hitchcock’s relationship with his wife as with the quality of his most successful pic, one which might not have come to the screen at all if the board of censors in 1960 denied it a seal. And the seal would be threatened even if a bathroom were shown, since no American film had so much as exhibiting a flushing toilet. “Maybe we should make the movie in France and use a bidet,” suggests Hitchcock in one of his many witty comebacks, though director Gervasi, using John J. McLaughlin’s script adapted from Rebello’s book ,finds the man as petulant as an adolescent when he believed his caring wife Alma was having an affair with Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), a younger man whom she was helping to develop a script.
The idea of portraying a film director as a man whose artistic choices are largely products of his private life is not new; in fact Hitchcock’s dealings with the star of Hitchcock’s “”The Birds” was featured on HBO as “The Girl.” But for most of us, we want to see narrative movies and maybe less concerned with the private lives of stars made available on websites as TMZ and magazines like People.
Alfred Hitchcock becomes motivated to direct a slasher story after reading Robert Bloch’s novel “Psycho,” inspired by the antics of Ed Bein, a brutal serial killer. In fact Gervasi opens the movie with a surprise killing that will have audience gasping. Hitch is disappointed to discover that Paramount will not finance what producer Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow) considers a schlock horror film replete with transvestism, incest and matricide, but agrees to distribute the film if Hitch would finance it with his own money—which the director does by mortgaging his gorgeous house and swimming pool. Using James D’Arcy, who looks so much like Anthony Perkins that the audience might gasp for a second time, he goes to work with Scarlett Johansson in the Janet Leigh victim role. If Hitch is upset by his wife’s visits with the younger writer, similarly his wife Alma worries that her man is becoming too lovey-dovey with Janet Leigh.
Several scenes show Hitchcock on the set, obsessed with putting across the scene of the shower murder, one of the scariest ever shown on celluloid. When Hitch becomes ill and confined to the bed, his wife takes over assertively, giving the impression that “Psycho” would not have been under anywhere near its $800,000 budget and within anticipated time limits without her help.
“Hitchcock” may delve only superficially into the ways the title figure’s home life affects the movie, but it does so in a fascinating manner particularly by showing us the director’s private fantasies of meetings with the late Ed Bein (Michael Wincott), who in effect counsels him, albeit on a different aspect than does Alma. We come away appreciating that private lives can be almost as interesting as the narratives that the directors put upon the screen, and note that as good a performer as Anthony Hopkins may be, in this case Helen Mirren takes primary honors. I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel, showing how elements of Hitch’s home life affected two movies that for me are superior to “Psycho,” namely “Rear Window” and “Vertigo”—the last having been voted by the American Film Institute the best film of all time beating “Citizen Kane.”
Rated PG-13. 98 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Acting – B+
Story – B
Technical – B
Overall – B