Written by: D.S. Ullery
“The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”
– Alfred Hitchcock.
The above quote does not appear in the film Hitchcock, but it was spoken by the unquestioned master of suspense in his lifetime and perfectly summarizes the tone and pitch of this film. Hitchcock could have taken the standard biopic approach-heaven knows, enough people would be interested to see the life story of one of the greatest directors in cinema history to make the project worth doing- but it wisely chooses not to.
Instead, what we have here is an adaptation of Stephen Rebellos’s non-fiction book: “Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho”. Psycho was, of course, the biggest success of Sir Alfred’s storied career and one of the few movies to literally earn the title “game changer” where the horror genre is concerned.
After an amusing introductory sequence where Hitchcock addresses the audience, acknowledging that – without the murders committed by Ed Gein – none of what we are about to see would have happened, the story opens in the late 1950’s. The film North By Northwest has recently been released and Alfred Hitchcock (splendidly channeled by Anthony Hopkins, who is almost unrecognizable beneath well staged makeup effects) spends the week poring over the notices for the project, much to the annoyance of his wife Alma Reville-Hitchcock (Helen Mirren).
Hitchcock was purportedly insecure and these early scenes do a wonderful, low key job of setting up how important it was for him to stay fresh and in the game as a filmmaker. He sets his sights on finding a new project, an undertaking Alma wholeheartedly agrees with.
Ideas are floated (we discover that Warner Brothers offered Hitchcock the chance to direct an adaptation of the Diary of Anne Frank three times) but none of them agree with him. This time he wants to make a movie that will really be a change of pace and silence critics who claim he’s no longer reaching the cinematic heights he used to achieve .
Hitchcock comes across newspaper clippings explaining that Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho is inspired by the Gein case and he is immediately intrigued. He spends a night reading the novel and is particularly mesmerized by the shower scene . He enlists the aide of an initially reluctant Alma (who always worked with Hitchcock on his films behind the scenes. It turns out that Alma was the one to suggest killing the heroine in the first thirty minutes) and the process of getting Psycho to the silver screen begins.
The rest of the film is an account of the professional and personal trials Hitchcock and his wife went through to make the film, as well as an examination of the filmmaker’s uneasy relationships with his leading ladies. As was the case in real life, he gets on well with Janet Leigh (played with wit and integrity by Scarlett Johansson in one of her better performances), but we discover here that his relationship with Vera Miles ( a wonderfully sharp and steely Jessica Biel) was at best strained , at worst acrimonious, with Miles at one point overheard rejoicing that Psycho will be her last contract film with Hitchcock, leaving her free of him once and for all.
There are a couple of other subplots revolving around this one that add more depth to the film. One is purely speculative fantasy: Hitchcock speaks with an imagined manifestation of Ed Gein throughout the process of putting Psycho together, often seeking advice from his phantom incarnation of the killer. If this were any other movie, this would be ghastly enough to potentially put viewers off, dark comedy or not. But in a film about Alfred Hitchcock, it actually seems appropriate. The man had a playful sense of the macabre surrounding him. It makes sense that when dealing with his own insecurities and self doubts, that same playful, dark nature would come to bear as well.
The other subplot involves Alma engaging in a writing collaboration during the filming of Psycho with Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), a friend of the couple who dotes on her in a way her husband never does, leading Hitchcock to suspect an affair. Huston is charming and likable in the role and there’s a real chemistry going on there. The subplot between these two doesn’t play out like you’d expect and what happens is fresh, probably true to life and all the more heartfelt because of the superb performance by Helen Mirren.
As much as Anthony Hopkins shines- and he does, as does the rest of this frankly amazing cast the filmmakers assembled- it’s Helen Mirren’s sympathetic, warm, recognizably human portrayal of Alma that sells the entire story. This is one of those times that there is a specific ingredient in a recipe that makes the dish come out perfect rather than just great. Yes, Hitchcock would likely have been a very entertaining film with someone else in the role. The writing pops, the production is classy, the pace is brisk but thorough and the rest of the cast – especially Hopkins- are nothing short of phenomenal (even James D’arcy, in his brief appearance as a young Anthony Perkins, manages to embody the late actor with uncanny precision. His physical performance mimicking Perkins’ characteristic tics in the scene where he has his initial interview with Hitchcock is so dead on that my jaw dropped ).
But Mirren’s turn here manages that intangible hat trick that gives cinema the magic we come back to experience time and time again. It reminded me of when Bill Murray inherited the role of Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters from the late John Belushi. Maybe Belushi would have nailed it, but Murray was meant to play that character. That’s what’s going on here. This is the performance of a lifetime, a strong woman who knows both who and what her husband is, loves him and sees him as a genius even more deeply than the public . A woman who is also hurt and angered that he often fails to see her much in the same way the public fails to notice her by his side. It’s a role that brings out the very best in an already outstanding actress.
Director Sascha Gervasi does a terrific job keeping things moving without diluting the impact of the film. For a movie that clocks in at a mere 98 minutes, Hitchcock feels positively epic in scope.
Bottom Line: With snappy writing, exceptional performances- particularly from Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins, who give the film it’s heart and soul – and solid direction, Hitchcock is one of the best biographical movies I’ve seen in a very long time. While I can understand why some people might not take to the film since it isn’t a traditional biopic, I think that’s part of what drew me so far in. Highly original and both respectful and ultimately celebratory toward it’s subject matter ( people expecting some sort of expose about Tippi Hedren can look elsewhere. She isn’t even mentioned), Hitchcock serves as a chronicle of an event that is of extreme importance to us horror fans worldwide, while simultaneously being a sharp, funny, tender, warm and often darkly comic look at a fascinating time in the life of one of the most intriguing filmmakers in cinema history. I highly recommend this movie.