After having huge success with North by Northwest, 60-year-old filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock (Sir Anthony Hopkins) reads Robert Bloch’s novel “Psycho,” based on the serial murders by Ed Gein, and becomes obsessed with making it his next film, to the point of funding it with his own money. Meanwhile, his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) is having her own issues as she feels she’s losing her husband to the film’s nubile starlets, so she decides to work on her own project with a good-looking younger writer (Danny Huston).
Movielovers’ endless fascination with the stars and filmmakers of yesteryear has led to many decent films like last year’s My Week with Marilyn and Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles.
Directed by Sacha Gervasi of Anvil! fame, Hitchcock offers a similar thrill of getting inside the head of the famously eclectic filmmaker during one of his most creative phases. Despite being based on the novel “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho,” this isn’t just about the making of the filmmaker’s most successful thriller as much as it’s about the stress put on his marriage by his decision to make said movie.
From the very first time we see Anthony Hopkins on screen wearing the fat suit and make-up that helps him transform into the distinctive-looking filmmaker, we’re eating out of his hand and that’s probably as it should be, because there’s no way this movie would work at all at all without believing that we’re watching the man most will know well from his presence on television. This is an interesting time for Hitchcock since he’s already had great success, but he’s also reached an age where the industry are ready to put him out to pasture. This has driven him to the point of wanting to shake things up after North by Northwest and when he finds Bloch’s book “Psycho,” he decides to take all the risk and fund it himself.
Hopkins’ Hitchcock is as eccentric as we might imagine from the myths, pulling pranks on those around him and pouting like a petulant child when things aren’t going his way. So obsessed is “Hitch” with the brutal murders by Ed Gein that inspired Bloch’s book, he starts seeing the serial killer in his dreams. We’ve seen plenty of movies about creative types who are haunted by demons, and the movie may go to that Ed Gein well just a few too many times.
Much of the movie’s first act involves Hitchcock’s time spent with his wife Alma, played by Helen Mirren, who lovingly nags him about his drinking and his weight, but we immediately see how important she is, even to the point of rewriting much of Psycho uncredited. Granted, we’ve seen many movies that glorify the unsung women behind the great men and Gervasi never attempts to skirt the formula too much. Alma starts to feel neglected seeing her husband spending so much time with his nubile leading lady Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson). At the same time, she starts collaborating with another screenwriter (Danny Huston) who she thinks may have romantic interest in her as jealousy starts to arise on both sides.
As much as this is about their relationship, cinephiles are more likely to enjoy the parts of the movie where we’re with Hitchcock on set, watching his unconventional techniques for getting performances out of his actors. When it cuts away to show his wife’s personal journey it’s not nearly as interesting, which is a shame since Mirren does such a fine job getting us to understand what Alma’s going through as she tries to find her own identity separate from her husband’s work.
Part of me wished I had a chance to see HBO’s The Girl with Toby Jones playing Hitchcock during the period directly following this movie while making The Birds before watching Gervasi’s film, just for comparison. But let’s face it, when you have two fine actors like Hopkins and Mirren, it’s hard to go wrong. Not a lot of heavy lifting is required from Gervasi as a director since he’s working with such a decent screenplay and cast, so all he has to do is create a believable setting for them. He’s greatly helped by Danny Elfman’s score, which does a fine job creating the proper Hitchcockian mood.
After things are worked out in the Hitchcock’s troubled marriage, the last 20 minutes gets back to why this movie is so interesting, which is the making of Psycho, as we see the couple coming together to put the final touches leading up to the first audience reaction to Hitchcock’s work and everything he went through to make it.
While not a particularly groundbreaking film, Anthony Hopkins’ thoroughly entertaining take on Hitchcock and his great scenes with Helen Mirren drive the movie enough that you should be able to enjoy it for that alone.