Stephen Rebello’s book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho was a gripping, fascinating read — the story of a legendary but embattled director out to shock the world, turning out what became one of the best-known and most influential movies of all time. The book was rife with potential as a study of Hollywood politics, a crafty filmmaker inventing a brand-new genre and the sheer mechanics of moviemaking (Psycho, among other things, was released in 1960 and marked the start of America’s loss of innocence, a harbinger of the tumult that was about to replace the happy-go-lucky nature of the 1950s).
But what director Sacha Gervasi has made with Hitchcock is a wan study of a marriage in crisis, with the director (played with charming insouciance by Anthony Hopkins) worrying that his wife and collaborator Alma (Helen Mirren) was having an affair.
The making of the movie is almost an afterthought (Ralph Macchio pops up in one scene as screenwriter Joseph Stefano and is never seen again). The filming of the shower murder — arguably one of the most seminal scenes in all of cinema — is tossed off with a couple of quick shots. James D’Arcy, as Anthony Perkins, gets so little screen time he feels shoehorned into the movie. Hitchcock’s craft — his decisions on how to shoot certain things, such as the staircase murder — goes shockingly unexplored.
Scarlett Johansson fares better as Janet Leigh, one of Hitchcock’s famous blonds, and the director’s obvious interest in her is what leads Alma to consider infidelity. Hitchcock doesn’t go into detail as to why the movie was made on the cheap, in black-and-white, on the Universal Pictures back lot, an element that accidentally contributed to its greatness.
The movie imagines Hitchcock having conversations with Ed Gein, the mass murderer whose crimes inspired Robert Bloch’s source novel: Gervasi gives us fantasy instead of reality. There’s a shot of Hitchcock peeping into Leigh’s dressing room through a hole in the wall, just like Norman Bates would later do to Marion Crane, which I had never read about in any of the filmmaker’s biographies.
That’s one of the few times in Hitchcock in which the director’s famed sexual obsessions with his leading ladies are explored. The movie is never as mean as The Girl, the recent HBO movie about the filming of The Birds, which portrayed Hitchcock as a manipulative misogynist. But at least that movie tried to get inside the artist’s head. Hitchcock is too tame and polite and mannered, and the amount of screen time devoted to Alma (who was known for her involvement in every aspect of her husband’s movies, from casting to script writing) feels misguided. We know she’s not going to leave him, so why make us sit through all her consternation? Hitchcock spends too much time off the set of Psycho, where the real story was, and focuses instead on incidental matters that feel like outtakes. Mother would not have been pleased.
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Danny Huston, Toni Collette, Michael Stuhlbarg, James D’Arcy.
Director: Sacha Gervasi.
Screenwriter: John J. McLaughlin. Based on the book by Stephen Rebello.
Producers: Alan Barnette, Joe Medjuck, Tom Pollock, Ivan Reitman.
A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Running time: 98 minutes. Brief violent images. In Miami-Dade: Aventura, Sunset Place, Coral Gables Art Cinema, South Beach; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Palace, Shadowood, Delray Beach.