Film Review by Paul Bowler
Sacha Gervasi’s darkly stylish biopic about the making of Psycho, based on Stephen Rebello’s fascinating book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (1990), opens with the Master of Suspense addressing the camera in the style of his TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents while Ed Gein murders his brother outside their farmhouse in Wisconsin in 1942. It is this singular event that will capture Hitchcock’s imagination years later, when he discovers the horror novel Psycho, by Robert Bloch, who drew on the real life accounts of Gein’s heinous crimes to create his gore soaked – Freudian – transvestite – necrophilia laced horror story.
After a chance remark by a reporter after the tremendous success of North by Northwest, Hitchcock begins searching for his next project in a bid to dispel the critics who believe that his best years are now behind him. Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) barks at his assistant, Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette) as he dismisses Cary Grant in Casino Royale, stating that he’s already made that film – North by Northwest – and that he wants: “A nice, nasty little piece of work.”
When Hitchcock reads Psycho he is instantly captivated by the macabre story. He tries to get his wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), interested in making the film. She is initially unimpressed, but eventually comes around to the idea as they discuss the novel over breakfast. She makes the genre defining suggestion to Alfred that instead of waiting until halfway through the film, he should instead kill off his leading lady after only thirty minutes – perhaps her own little stab at her husband’s tiresome obsession with the blonde actresses in his films.
Not everyone shares Hitchcock’s enthusiasm for Psycho, and when Paramount refuse to back it, Hitchcock is left with no choice but to fund the film himself. With wife’s blessing Alfred puts their house on the line to make Psycho, and with the help of Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) to broker a new deal with Barny Balaban (Richard Portnow) at Paramount, screenwriter Joseph Stephano (Ralph Macchio) is soon appointed, along with Janet Leigh (Scarlet Johansson) and Anthony Perkins (James Darcy), both suggested by Alma, and soon Psycho is ready to begin filming. It is here, while Alfred is enjoying being back on set, that Alma decides to fill in her spare time by helping fellow writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) develop another project at his beach house retreat. The stress of making Psycho ultimately takes its toll on the Hitchcock’s marriage, but their relationship comes under threat when Hitchcock learns of Alma’s collaboration with Whitfield, falling ill on the set of Psycho before misguidedly accusing his wife of having an affair after she steps in to get the film back on schedule.
Anthony Hopkins is superb as Hitchcock, who seamlessly blends the directors dark fixations with his blonde female leads and his determination to make Psycho a resounding success, while his marriage invariably suffers as a result. The facial prosthetics and fake belly transform Hopkins into the Master of Suspense, but it is the uncanny way that Hopkins brings the character to life that really captivates your attention throughout Gervasi’s film. He takes every nuance of John McLaughlin’s fiendishly clever script and relies on just a few simple tics to hit every single beat to perfection, revealing a larger than life character whose dark impulses and reprehensible ways are only just held in check by the tenuous belief in his own immeasurable talents.
Hitchcock’s fascination with Edd Gein squirms uncomfortably into his real life as the serial killer begins to provide him with his own twisted form of therapy. Michael Vincott plays Gein with chilling clarity, allowing Hitchcock to observe the full depravity of his actions: sleeping with the dishevelled corpse of his mother, hauling one of his victims into the bathtub as if she were no more than a slab of meat, and finally crumbling with fear as the Police break down the door and storm the house. Running parallel with the filming of Psycho, these nightmarish glimpses of horror seem to reflect the cracks appearing in the Hitchcock’s marriage, with Gein sowing the seeds of doubt in Alfred’s fevered mind as he scrabbles on the bathroom floor for some clue to Alma’s infidelity.
Helen Mirren gives a stellar performance as Hitchcock’s loyal wife, Alma, the red head who was once Alfred’s boss, who has stood by his side unquestionably as his career has taken over their lives. She is Hitch’s confidant, enabler, and trusted friend, and Mirren’s role is the key to making the Hitchcock’s marriage so engagingly charming before it is tinged by the bittersweet experience of making Psycho together. We witness the Hitchcock’s domestic bliss, with Hitchcock reading his reviews in the Times while taking a soak in the bath, while Alma walks in wearing the same bra and slip that Janet Leigh will later wear in Psycho’s opening moments. As Hitch’s work on Psycho begins to drive a wedge between them, that gulf soon begins to feel like a yawning chasm, one that is even greater than the space between their separate beds as Alma starts to fined solace as she works with Whitfield.
This brief flirtation may cause the film to drag slightly in the middle, consider it a McGuffin of sorts, because when Hitch confronts Alma over her supposed adultery, Mirren’s wrath as the wrongly accused wife is wielded as effectively the butches’ knife in Psycho’s shower scene. The way she berates Alfred, while telling him a few home truths is almost like that aforementioned scene with Leigh, only this time it is Hitchcock who is left breathless and unblinking as Alma slashes the air with a verbal diatribe that finally brings her husband to his senses.
Scarlet Johansson excels as Janet Leigh, breezing into Hitchcock’s life and emerging from the production of Psycho having seen the director shift dramatically from their playful first encounter to experiencing his seething rage as they filmed the infamous shower scene. The moment Hopkins storms into the scene, snatching the knife to flay his demons as Leigh cowers in terror, sees Hitchcock on the precipice of the abyss as his career and marriage converge in one devastating act of wanton violence that leaves him as speechless as his film crew.
Having heeded the cryptic warning by Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), Janet Leigh wisely keeps Hitchcock at arms length, and seems to escape the worst of the director’s mercurial behaviour. She even gives him a lift home at one point in her VW Beetle, a charming little scene, which sets up a nice point of closure later in the film when Leigh thanks Alma after Psycho has wrapped. Although Hitchcock only scratches the surface of Alfred’s deep rooted fixation that he has for the blonde actresses in his films, it skilfully polarises Alma’s growing frustrations as her husband’s uncompromising disposition begins to erode the foundations of their partnership.
When the first cut of Psycho fails to impress Paramount, the Hitchcock’s finally manage to reconcile their differences. They begin work on a new cut of the film, editing ruthlessly, with Hitchcock finally bowing to Alma’s instance that Bernard Herman’s nerve shredding violins should be added to the shower scene. All that remains is for Hitchcock to get the seal of approval of Geoffrey Shurlock (Kirtwood Smith) at the Censors Office and Psycho is ready for release. With the studio still lacking confidence in Psycho, Hitchcock issues precise instructions for the films limited release, with theatres employing extra security and issuing loudspeaker announcements.
At the first screening of Psycho we wait pensively with Hitchcock in the lobby as he listens intently to the audience inside. Moments later the silence is shattered by screams of horror as Bernard Herman’s score rings out. The audience is left squirming in their seats as forty five seconds of cinematic history unfolds before their startled eyes. Although we don’t actually see one single moment of the shower scene, outside Hitchcock is triumphantly mimicking every slash of the blade in perfect time to those slashing violins. It’s a glorious scene, with Hopkins clearly relishing every moment, and it ends with the Hitchcock’s basking in the success of Psycho.
Hitchcock is a fabulous account of the events leading up to the release of Psycho. Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren are resplendent as the filmmaking couple, the supporting roles are excellently cast, and Sacha Gervasi’s assured direction finely balances the witty script with the subliminal darkness of Hitchcock’s compulsions. So, gentle viewers, as the Master of Suspense bids us farewell on the lawn outside his house, this enlightening experience draws to a close with a fortuitous coda as Hitchcock finds inspiration for his next project…