Behind the scenes story aims to please
turning water into wine as Hitchcock transforms a tawdry story inspired by murderer Ed Gein into high art — and one of the scariest movies ever made.
Fresh ofi a big success with 1959’s “North by Northwest,” Hopkins’ Hitchcock lapses into the sort of funk that repeated itself throughout his career as he ffoundered about in search of his next fllm. He defles the expectations of Paramount executives and his own colleagues, Alma included, when he settles on Robert Bloch’s novel “Psycho,” the Gein-inffuenced story of Norman Bates, a soft-spoken mama’s boy whose creepy double life leads to multiple murders.
Alma thinks it’s a cheap story that’s beneath her husband. Hitchcock thinks the spare tale — its savage violence told with subtle suggestiveness to mollify Hollywood’s puritanical censors — could leave fans screaming in their seats.
“Hitchcock” strains to play up marital strife between the two as Alma feels tempted by a writing colleague (Danny Huston), while Alfred’s frustrated fancies continue over his long string of Hitchcock blondes — in this case, “Psycho” costars Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Vera Miles ( Jessica Biel) — the latter standing with Grace Kelly among his greatest flxations.
The fllm also strays into Freudian fantasies as the specter of Gein himself (Michael Wincott) pops up to help Hitchcock work through his issues. These moments are clunky devices that ofier no understanding of Hitchcock and his demons; at best, they’re good for a chuckle here and there.
And while the fllmmaker-at-work moments are similarly frivolous, it’s wicked fun watching Hopkins’ Hitchcock as cruel taskmaster, using whatever flgurative cattle prods he can flnd to trick or cajole what he wants out of his actors.
Hopkins is padded to match Hitchcock’s portly silhouette, yet the jowly prosthetics applied to his face are a bit distracting and unrealistic. They don’t make Hopkins look much more like Hitchcock; they just make him look like Anthony Hopkins with prosthetics on his face.
Still, the spirit of Hitchcock comes through in Hopkins’ sly performance, and he captures the measured cadence of the fllmmaker’s speech even though he doesn’t sound much like Hitchcock, either.
Mirren has the easier task in inhabiting Alma, bringing flerce intelligence to Hitchcock’s wife without the handicap of playing someone whose image, voice and mannerisms the audience knows.
The supporting players are there just for the joy of it, though Johansson turns out to be surprisingly good casting as Leigh, physically resembling the actress whose “Psycho” character gets snufied in the famous shower scene and also doing a nice impersonation of Leigh’s speaking style and demeanor. Likewise, James D’Arcy is an eerie dead ringer as jittery Anthony Perkins, who played the killer Norman.
Behind horn-rimmed glasses and a stifi hairdo, Toni Collette is a delight as Hitchcock’s assistant, putting great heart and humor into her handful of scenes.
If “Hitchcock” ultimately feels inconsequential, it always aims to please, and for the most part, it does. As Alma says at one point, even “Psycho,” after all, was just a movie.
(Left) Helen Mirren plays wife Alma Reville to Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock. Scarlett Johansson (top) is Janet Leigh, who is killed in the infamous shower scene in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”