Release Date: December 14, 2012
Runtime: 98 minutes
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Director: Sacha Gervasi
Cast: Anthony Hopkins; Helen Mirren; Danny Huston; Scarlett Johansson; Jessica Biel
A behind-the-scenes look at the making of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Psycho,” set against the backdrop of Hitch’s relationship with wife Alma…..and therein lays the problem.
This movie, I proffer, wants to be a study of a relationship between a high-profile movie director and his collaborator-wife, who mainly stays in the background. The problem is the execution is backwards.
The film begins with Hitch (Anthony Hopkins) coming off the critical and commercial success of “North by Northwest,” and having a bit of a difficult time finding inspiration for his next project. He is presented with author Robert Bloch’s book “Psycho,” based upon the (then) recent grisly crimes of Wisconsin killer, Ed Gein. Hitch thinks this book would make the perfect next film, as he wants to do something shocking and titillating that will shake up the American public. Of course, we all know that he will make the film version of “Psycho” and it will become a classic of horror and suspense, turning people off of taking showers for decades to come.
The first third of the movie chronicles the pre-production of “Psycho”: seeking financing after Paramount Pictures refuses to provide funding, battles with the censors over the content of the picture, casting the leads. This part of the film is interesting…it offers a bit of an insight into movie making in the studio era. It’s nice to see Hitch walking around the Paramount lot, scoping out pretty women through the slats of his office blinds, talking with his agent. Some nice atmosphere is established and the period detail is wonderful. Movie buffs should get a kick out of these scenes and the name-dropping of famous actors and studio execs and some behind-the-scenes lingo.
However, once the movie moves into production, the focus of “Hitchcock” shifts to the marital relations between Alfred and his wife, Alma (Helen Mirren). Alma is clearly Hitch’s sounding board, as well as apparent script doctor…the brains behind the operation, as it were. She nags Hitch about his eating habits, gives him candid advice, and even takes over the production of “Psycho” for a few days while Hitch is ill. She is clearly a woman to be reckoned with. She has a plutonic relationship with fellow screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), which is presented as a sort of romance-in-the-making, naturally raising the eyebrows of Hitchcock. His barely concealed jealousy begins to affect his work and health, culminating with the played-out “Are you having an affair?” conversation. She isn’t, but it isn’t an unreasonable question, given how Alma and Whit behave like googly-eyed teenagers. Finally, of course, Alma and Whit’s “relationship” ends and the picture shifts back to “Psycho.”
The last third of the film details the end of production on “Psycho.” We see the filming of the infamous shower scene, the final confrontation with the censors, and the premiere, which, of course, is a screaming success. There’s even a cheeky reference to Hitch’s subsequent classic, “The Birds,” near the end of the film.
The issue I have with “Hitchcock” is that the film wants to be a marital drama set against the backdrop of the making of a classic film. Unfortunately, the making of the film too often takes center stage, moving the relationship angle to the background, so it becomes the making of a movie, set against the backdrop of a relationship drama. Don’t get me wrong, as a movie buff, I love ‘making-of’ movies. The scenes where Hitch is casting “Psycho” and scenes that take place on the Paramount lot are nice to watch from a film lover perspective, but then we get into the relationship aspect of the movie and I was left thinking, ‘get back to the making-of parts!’ It seemed as though the movie was trying to be two movies at once, giving each equal time, but that just made the film feel disjointed. I wish it had focused more strongly on the relationship OR the making of “Psycho,” rather than trying to focus on both with equal measure.
Another problem is Anthony Hopkins. He is a fine actor, a legend, dare I say it. But he is miscast here. He doesn’t resemble Hitchcock, no matter how he tries to emulate the Master of Suspense’s mannerisms, gait, or vocal inflection. It is a very studied performance…we are watching an imitation, not an inhabitation. He does not make the role his own, but merely tries to imitate Hitchcock. Portraying real-life famous people is one of the hardest things for an actor to do since the original character comes with so much well-known baggage, but it isn’t impossible (Charlize Theron in “Monster”; Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln”). But Hopkins doesn’t make it work here. Perhaps a lesser-known actor might have worked better? Maybe someone like Paul Giamatti? I’m thinking out loud now.
Other performances are fine. Helen Mirren as Alma is good, not great. The role doesn’t require much from the extraordinarily talented Mirren, so she does what is required with a shade more class that what a lesser actress might have brought to the role. Toni Collette is adequate as Hitch’s secretary, though I’m not sure why she’s in this, as her role could’ve been played by anyone. Maybe she wanted the chance to work with Hopkins. I can understand that. I thought Scarlett Johansson was quite good as Janet Leigh, all smiles and sex appeal. Jessica Biel was dutiful as Vera Miles, although she’s in the movie for a total of, like, ten minutes.
Other than the performances, the sets, costumes, make-up and below-the-line contributions were stellar. Everyone looked great in period outfits and with perfect make-up and hair. Cinematography and art direction were tops.
Listen, if you’re a movie buff, you will enjoy the behind-the-scenes parts of the film: scenes on the studio lot, movie talk, etc. Other than that, it’s just OK. Not a great piece of filmmaking or a particularly engaging piece of storytelling.
*2013 Academy Award Nominations
Best Make-Up & Hair…..Howard Berger, Peter Montagna, Martin Samuel