Hitchcock should really be called Reville, since its real hero is Alfred Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville, whose guidance and creative nudges were invaluable to the great director. In 1959, Hitch (Anthony Hopkins) is casting about for a follow-up to North by Northwest. He is perturbed by charges that his work has become formulaic, or at least predictably “Hitchcockian”; he is bothered by new pretenders to the throne, like Diabolique’s H.G. Clouzot. When Hitchcock hears about Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, he sees an opportunity to make something quick and dirty, a conscious break from his usual elaborate and lavish thrillers. Alma (Helen Mirren) thinks the story is ghastly, but once Hitchcock commits to it, so does she.
Entire books have been written not just about Psycho but about the movie’s notorious shower scene by itself. One of those books, Stephen Rebello’s 1990 standard Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, is the basis for Hitchcock, though this film really only lightly touches on Rebello’s subject. It’s more about Hitchcock’s troubles with women — with his wife, who he suspects is carrying on with writing collaborator Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston); with the actresses he hires and obsesses about, including Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel). He hires screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) and star Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) after learning of their mother issues, and he is often visited by visions of Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the Wisconsin mama’s boy and general sicko whose story inspired Psycho.
The Ed Gein bits seem like pretentious filler, and a lot of Hitchcock feels padded, though it’s only 98 minutes. Scene after scene reiterates the “point” that Hitchcock doesn’t understand women and would be lost without Alma. For all the directing we see him do here, you’d think all he did on the set was channel whatever was bothering him that day, something that fits a hot-blooded master like Martin Scorsese far better than it does one of the coolest formalists in cinema. Hitchcock seems devoted to outing Hitch the diabolical puppetmaster as a big softy at heart. Heaven help us if director Sacha Gervasi and writer John J. McLaughlin ever get their hands on Stanley Kubrick.
Anthony Hopkins has obvious fun camping it up in his Hitchcock drag, but that’s all it is; the make-up is rarely persuasive, and since we’re talking about the most recognizable film director in history, a man identifiable by his silhouette, we’re always aware of Hopkins trying to be Hitchcock. (Oddly, Hopkins looked nothing like Richard Nixon yet was more convincing in Nixon.) He and Helen Mirren have an enjoyable, spiky rapport, and Mirren snaps into focus when Alma takes over on the set of Psycho temporarily or shows her knack for editing. Indeed, she seems more creative than Hitchcock, which is why I said the movie should be called Reville. James D’Arcy does a pretty note-perfect Tony Perkins, though Johansson and Biel ring no bells as Leigh and Miles. Why does the movie slather pounds of latex on Hopkins in a gallant but fruitless attempt to Hitchcockize him and then seemingly not bother to look for anyone who looks remotely like Psycho’s female leads?
About halfway through Hitchcock, I began to wish it were called Van Sant and it were about Gus Van Sant’s ill-fated stab at remaking Psycho. At least it wouldn’t have felt as familiar, and Van Sant’s motives for making the movie wouldn’t have been boiled down to the director wanting to control and kill blonde women, or whatever. Hitchcock gestures now and then towards making Hitch out to be a creep — spying on Vera Miles through a peephole in her dressing room — but then backs off from that. A lot of attention is given to Psycho’s pre-production headaches, almost none to its actual making, much less its transgressive qualities. The censors are scandalized by Hitchcock’s decision to show a flushing toilet, so Psycho is retroactively gentled into something only prudes of an innocent era could be shocked by, when in fact it was and still is best understood as a proto-punk middle finger in the face of good taste. (It came out before MPAA ratings, but pick up the DVD or the Blu-ray and you’ll notice it wound up with an R rating — which it got upon its 1984 re-release — despite the nudity and violence being only suggested.) In the end, though, Hitch and Alma live happily ever after, so I suppose that’s all that matters.