The splendid thing about HITCHCOCK is that it doesn’t just aspire to tell the story behind the making of PSYCHO. No, this wickedly endearing effort takes on the man, and the mythos behind the man, and then, for good measure, the woman behind both that made them legendary. Based on Stephen Rebello’s book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of PSYCHO, it is a portrait of a marriage of creative equals that finally gives Hitch’s missus, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), her due. And quite a due it is. Hitchcock never made a move without consulting her, and hers was the final draft of all the scripts he shot, no matter who got the final screen credit. So pervasive was her influence that without her, among other things, the iconic music accompanying the infamous shower scene would never have made it to the final cut.
Anthony Hopkins is the titular character and as imagined here, Hitch enjoyed putting a special emphasis on that first syllable, as he did during his first meeting with Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) to discuss that ci-mentioned shower scene. Hopkins is given just enough prosthetic assistance to approximate Hitch. The pendulous jowls, the surprisingly perky if bulbous belly are there, but the performance relies more on the way Hopkins personifies the enormous, and not always wholesome, appetites Hitch entertained and endured.
It is the appetite for creative discovery that is plaguing him the most as the film opens. NORTH BY NORTHWEST has premiered to thunderous acclaim, but the question lingering in the air is whether or not at 60, its time for Hitch to retire. Instead of going quietly into that good night, or repeating his already considerable success, he latches onto the gruesome true story of a transvestite serial killer and determines to not just film it, but to elevate the horror genre in the process. A determination that only grows when his professional circle discourages him, and the smugly officious censor (Kurtwood Smith) objects to having a toilet shown for the first time in an American movie.
There is much inside scuttlebut about and colorful denizens of, the film business circa 1960 to keep cinephiles enthralled. More than enough. But this is no dry rendering of facts. Director Sacha Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin use Hitch’s own tropes and idioms to tell the story behind the story, that of the idiosyncrasies that fueled the partnership between Hitch and Alma. There is the subtext of conversations, the slick camera work that catches the complexity of this relationship and the underlying tensions that come to a head as Alma is courted, professionally, by a middling screenwriter (Danny Huston) to doctor a script. His overt appreciation for her talents is in stark contrast to the petulance of her husband, who can make the observation that she is presentable the most damning of put-downs. Their delicate game of one-upsmanship is a marvel of passive-aggression raised to a fine art, involving a flaming red bathing suit, midnight eating binges, and a deliberately placed earring on a photo of one of Hitch’s cool blonde leading ladies. Hopkins and Mirren catch every nuance of resentment, anger, affection, and emotional interdependence while at the same time creating the sort of wrenching emotional suspense that Hitch put into his films. There is also the macabre humor, but with the insight in the inner torment that fueled it, externalized with fantasy dialogues with Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life inspiration for Norman Bates. Hopkins can go from rage boiling over into fits that terrify those around him, and morph it into a monumental sadness that has no limits. Or the bemusement, also with no limits, when the corpulent director finds himself being driven home in Leighs Volkswagen.
Mirren is no less impressive; exasperation tempered with unshakable commitment when affection is strained to the limit, and when that limit is reached, sounding off with a speech to put Hitch in his place that dazzles with its knife-edge economy. The same economy that speaks volumes when Hitchs chair stops squeaking, for example, when an over-eager Anthony Perkins (James DArcy channeling the late actor with an eerie precision) says exactly the right thing to convince the director that casting him against type will work.
HITCHCOCK celebrates the creative impulse with the wry spirit and mordant wit of its eponymous protagonist. It engenders a whole new appreciation for the stark originality of Hitchs deceptively simple method of storytelling, and a new insight into his instinctive genius for knowing how to pander to the human fascination for terror, its absolute willingness to be provoked and disturbed and then come back for more. And for the hitherto unsung Alma, without whom, none of it would have come to pass.