It's called “Hitchcock,” but director Sasha Gervasi's droll and surprisingly cheerful insider Hollywood biopic might just as well have been titled “Alma Reville.”
Of course, every moviegoer worth his popcorn salt instantly recognizes the name of the great “Master of Suspense,” maker of such landmark pictures as “Rear Window,” “North By Northwest,” “The Birds,” “Psycho,” “Vertigo” (which recently replaced “Citizen Kane” in the top spot of “Sight and Sound's” prestigious poll of greatest movies) and so many others.
But beyond a savvy circle of film buffs, the name Alma Reville might be synonymous with anonymous. (For the record, she was Alfred Hitchcock's wife of more than 50 years and on his every film his muse, unerring script editor and most trusted — though unaccredited — confidante.)
Yet, in constructing this all-over-the-map biopic — ostensibly focusing on a slice of Hitchcock's career in 1959-60, during the tumultuous making of his most controversial and groundbreaking picture, “Psycho” — Gervasi (making his narrative feature debut after the success of his spiky rock-doc “Anvil! The Story of Anvil”) smartly keeps the strong-willed and largely unheralded Alma front and center.
More than anything, the story (scripted by “Black Swan” scribe John J. McLaughlin, drawing on Stephen Rebello's informative book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho”) casts its key focus on the tribulations of Alfred and Alma's long, sturdy marriage and their symbiotic working relationship. Hitch (played by a virtually unrecognizable Anthony Hopkins beneath layers of latex) clearly couldn't function without her, but Alma (Helen Mirren, cool and knowing) seemed content to stay behind the curtains while the great man took the bows.
One problem with Gervasi's movie is that it also tries with uneven results to be so many other things, too: an insider Hollywood expose of Hitch's battles with stingy Paramount honchos and pinched Production Code censors; a pop-psych peek into Hitch's Svengali obsession with his icy blonde stars (Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Vera Miles and Tippi Hedren, among them); a highly speculative musing on Hitchcock's deepest, darkest demons; a nuts-and-bolts tutorial on the making of “Psycho” (but, oddly, without too much visual reference to the real film — due to legal restrictions).
Perhaps the most outlandish of these scenarios comes during a fiendishly clever opening sequence featuring a gruesome murder by ghoulish Wisconsin sicko Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), real-life inspiration for Robert Bloch's sordid novel, “Psycho.” Into this hellish setting steps a supremely arch Hitch, delivering a juicy “Goood Eevening” intro reminiscent of his “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV show. Thereafter, Gein's ghost reappears periodically in the director's fantasies to deliver some creepy psychological asides.
Along with creating a rich tableaux of period Hollywood, Gervasi populates the film with credible doppelgangers for the real players — glossy Scarlett Johansson as “Psycho” star Janet Leigh; mild-mannered James D'Arcy as Anthony Perkins/Norman Bates; brunette Jessica Biel as Vera Miles, one of Hitch's failed blonde conquests, and sturdy Toni Collette as the director's long-suffering assistant Peggy Robertson.
Naturally, much of the attention will fall to Hopkins' sly performance, replete with the master's portly profile, his black undertaker's garb and his plummy, elongated accent with its Cockney undertones. It may be a cartoonish bit of mimicry, but it's hugely entertaining to watch. Mirren, who is physically the opposite of the plain-faced, birdlike woman she portrays, nevertheless delivers a potent performance of quiet frustrations and unassuming competence.
“Hitchcock” is the latest event in a recent resurgence of interest in the great director — along with the tawdry portrait of him in HBO's “The Girl” and a restoration of his grand silent-era films by The British Film Institute. While it may be too fanciful and not definitive enough for purists, it's undeniably pleasant and engaging and serves to remind us what great fun this maestro of the macabre had in scaring us.
— Dennis King
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, James D'Arcy. (Some violent images, sexual content and thematic material)